The family of award-winning “Sharkwater” filmmaker and marine biologist, Rob Stewart, has filed a lawsuit claiming damages and blaming Stewart’s dive instructor and boat crew for his death.
Stewart went missing off the coast of the Florida Keys in January. His body was recovered after a three-day search by the Coast Guard.
Now, two months after Stewart’s death, the Canadian filmmaker’s grieving parents, Brian and Sandy Stewart, sat down with ABC News, along with their attorney Michael Haggard, to discuss the tragic incident.
“The is no way anyone should ever die the way Rob died and it’s the responsibility of the people involved that caused it,” said Brian Stewart. “Had somebody had their eyes on the water,” he continued, “you keep your eyes on the people in the water and of all things the student comes out first, not the diver.”
The complaint says that Stewart and his instructor, Peter Sotis, were diving the Queen of Nassau wreck to remove a grappling hook that had been attached to the underwater wreckage for navigational purposes to mark the wreck and assist in maintaining its location while divers were in the water. The hook was located 230-feet below the surface of the water off the coast of Islamorada, Florida.
Sotis and Stewart used new rebreathers — a piece of scuba diving equipment that controls the mix of oxygen supplied to the diver by recycling exhaled breath– for their dive. When Sotis reportedly resurfaced to board the boat due to issues breathing, he received “emergency aid,” while supervisors failed to “monitor, keep eyes on, and/or rescue” Stewart, according to the complaint.
“So many things went wrong,” said Sandy Stewart. “So many careless mistakes were made and [Rob] would want to make sure this didn’t happen to anyone else again.”
The family’s attorney told ABC News that those allegedly negligent actions are what led to the disappearance and death of their son. “The only reason Peter Sotis is alive today is he left his student in the water —- which is a cardinal sin in the diving industry,” Haggard said.
“He didn’t protect the student, he got on the boat and left his student in the water,” Haggard continued. “It’s so preventable that it’s scary.”
Sotis and the boat crew did not reply to ABC News’ request for comment.
Lifeguards in Maui have begun tracking equipment worn by snorkelers who drown in their jurisdiction and other counties appear poised to do the same.
A state water safety committee on Wednesday heard poignant testimony from the husband of a California woman who drowned off the Big Island last year while wearing a new type of snorkel mask that he thinks may have contributed to her death.
On Wednesday, in a boardroom at the Hawaii Convention Center, Guy Cooper took a deep breath and regained his composure before continuing the story of how his wife drowned in September while snorkeling off the Big Island.
The Hawaii Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee, a group of ocean safety experts, state and county officials, tourism industry leaders and others, put Cooper on its agenda after he raised concerns about the role of the full-face snorkeling mask his wife had been wearing. The committee is now co-chaired by Gerald Kosaki, a Hawaii County Fire Department battalion chief who oversees ocean safety, and Ralph Goto, retired administrator of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division.
“On one hand you have an activity rife with significant physical demands, then you exacerbate the situation by adding a new piece of inadequately vetted equipment with inherent design flaws,” Cooper said. “A perfect storm.”
Guy Cooper displays a full-face snorkeling mask like the one his wife was wearing when she drowned.
The 68-year-old retired nurse from Martinez, California, has also complained about significant gaps in data collection by government agencies.
He’s calling for a database that logs information about the equipment worn in each drowning so authorities can analyze it for dangerous trends, much the same way that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration collects data to determine if a particular type of airbag is faulty in fatal car crashes.
He isn’t sure the Azorro mask his wife, Nancy Peacock, 70, bought on Amazon is the culprit. But he isn’t sure it’s not either.
And that’s why Cooper, and now a growing list of health and ocean safety officials in Hawaii, are looking at collecting the data necessary to better evaluate the product and possibly even conduct controlled scientific studies on it.
Some people who have tried the full-face masks, a next-era design in snorkeling, have complained that they leak and are difficult to remove quickly because of the heavier straps. Some have cited the potential for carbon dioxide to build up and cause fainting.
Cooper said a surfer found his wife floating on her back in Pohoiki Bay with the mask partially pulled up over her nose.
“That tells me she was in trouble and tried to get the damn thing off — too late,” he said.
Colin Yamamoto, Maui County’s Ocean Safety battalion chief, met with Cooper in January.
“What was intriguing to me is we have no data on these,” Yamamoto said. “It’s something we never thought about.”
Yamamoto has directed Maui County lifeguards to start documenting what type of snorkeling equipment was used in drownings.
Fire officials from the other counties are also moving in that direction.
“Maybe we can start individually with each jurisdiction keeping track of that,” Kosaki told the advisory committee. “We can’t make a policy saying, ‘yeah, we’re all going to keep track of it now,’ but I think each individual jurisdiction can make their own policy or procedures or try to keep a database.”
Hawaii County Battalion Chief Gerald Kosaki and officials from other counties have been receptive to Guy Cooper’s concerns about the policies for drowning incidents.
Kauai Ocean Safety Supervisor Kalani Vierra said the type of snorkeling equipment worn in a drowning is something county lifeguards on the Garden Island can include in their incident reports. He added that he will bring it up at a national conference for lifeguards later this year.
Honolulu Ocean Safety Chief of Operations Kevin Allen noted that in some drownings, the mask sinks to the ocean floor during the rescue and may not be recovered. But he was also open to the idea of tracking such information when it’s available.
Dan Galanis, state epidemiologist, told the committee there were at least 149 snorkeling-related deaths in Hawaii’s waters from 2006 to 2015. Of those, 137 were visitors.
“The reality is we really don’t have the data to say snorkeling is more risky,” he said. “Right now, all we can say is a lot of our visitors die doing it.”
Guy Cooper’s wife, Nancy Peacock, drowned in September at Pohoiki Bay on the Big Island.
Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat
A Civil Beat special project, “Dying For Vacation,” published in January 2016, found Hawaii’s visitor-drowning rate is 13 times the national average and 10 times the rate of Hawaii residents. Local water safety experts have cited Hawaii’s unique ocean conditions, insufficient messaging to caution the public and the health of the individual as contributing factors.
Cooper brought a full-face mask like the one his wife had to the meeting. Advisory committee members passed it around, some some of them seeing this type of mask for the first time and reacting with comments like, “I’d be claustrophobic” and “that’s weird.”
“All I ask is that you give serious consideration to the role of these new masks,” Cooper said. “Devote the resources to collect the data. Incorporate the data in incident reports and databases. Look for trends. Make the coroner aware of their use. Secure the gear as evidence. Only then will you truly be able to assess the risk.”
Close to four decades before that final dive of her life, Charlene Burch was spending the last few days of the 1970s in a small village on the coast of the Honduran island of Roatan.
At night she would write letters to her parents back home in Plantation under the light of a lantern, while by day she and her future husband, Mark Weston, would ride out from the beach aboard a carved-out tree trunk, the tipsiest boat they’d ever been on, to fish and dive in the Caribbean Sea.
Her whole life was ahead of her.
Then came the dive off Jupiter on Jan. 21, 2017. She was surfacing with friends when she said she didn’t feel well.
Unbeknownst to her sister, Elaine Love-Stewart, of Plantation, Charlene had been diagnosed with a heart condition, AFib, or atrial fibrillation — essentially an irregular heartbeat that can lead to complications including heart failure and stroke. Her heart stopped multiple times after the dive. She was revived, but the resulting brain damage was significant, Love-Stewart said.
The end would come several days later in a hospital room surrounded by her family. She was 65.
Her death highlights the challenges arising in what experts say is the increasingly aging pursuit of scuba diving. These issues are especially relevant in the retiree-rich ocean playground of South Florida.
“There will be people who will say, ‘Well, if she had Afib, what was she doing diving, you know?’” said her sister Elaine Love-Stewart, of Plantation. “But this was her life. This was her love.”
By the early 1980s, the baby boomers were out of college, working decent jobs and embracing the good life. Interest in scuba diving surged, and the industry enjoyed a popularity that hasn’t been matched before or since, said Tec Clark, associate director for Aquatics and Scuba Diving at Nova Southeastern University.
“This is the generation that grew up watching Lloyd Bridges in ‘Sea Hunt,’” Clark said.
But as the 1980s wore on, those same boomers were getting married and having families and progressing in their careers. With less time for leisure, interest in scuba diving, while still there, began to drop from its peak.
Now, fast forward almost 40 years, and there’s been something of a baby boomerang. The same people behind scuba’s surge in the early to mid 1980s are once again putting their masks and fins back on. The reasons: Retirement. Empty-nest syndrome. Mid-life crises. Major life changes. Discretionary income. An improving economy.
“The downside of them returning is that now they’re returning with some baggage that they didn’t have in the 1980s when they were just getting into scuba diving,” Clark said. “Usually, that baggage is health issues.”
The number one cause of medical-related dive fatalities, Clark noted, are cardiac events.
Statistically, scuba deaths are rare. According to the Divers Alert Network, a leading research and dive-safety organization, there are about 33 million scuba dives in the United States each year, with the fatality rate somewhere around two per 1 million dives. Because there are about 3 million scuba divers in the U.S., with each diver doing about 10 dives a year, the fatality rate works out to about two deaths per 100,000 recreational divers a year.
Experts say that given the inherent risks of diving, these are incredibly encouraging figures. By and large, divers are careful and deliberate. Precautions like diving with a buddy and not panicking no matter what are so baked into the diving culture that they’re not even questioned.
But still, as with all pursuits in life, things can go wrong.
“Diving in general is thought to be an aging sport,” said Peter Buzzacott, director of injury monitoring and prevention at the Divers Alert Network. “The age of the average diving fatality each year has been steadily climbing.”
Young people also scuba dive, but not as much as older divers, experts say. People under 40 don’t have as much time. There is also the cost factor.
Between 2010 and 2013, the Divers Alert Network tallied 561 deaths pertaining to recreational scuba diving. Of those, the organization, which relies on autopsy reports and other public records, was able to investigate 334 deaths.
In 82 percent of the fatalities, the deceased were men. Seventy-eight percent of the men and 90 percent of the women were 40 years old or older. Fifty-eight percent of the male victims and 59 percent of the female fatalities were 50 years or older.
“Drowning remains the most common cause of death but falls to second place behind cardiovascular disease as the leading disabling injury,” according to the DAN Annual Diving Report 2012-2015 Edition.
The network’s most recent annual report, which covers 2014, counted 68 dive fatalities in the U.S. and Canada. Eighty-four percent of the men and 69 percent of the women were 40 years or older. While drowning was the leading known cause of death, cardiac events were the second most-common known cause.
The Villages Scuba Club
At the Jupiter Dive Center, a 40-foot burpee named Republic IV is being loaded with scuba tanks and gear. It’s a perfect February morning in South Florida, with clear-blue skies and a nice breeze.
The divers on board, members of The Villages Scuba Club, are all over 50. (The Villages is a retirement community northwest of Orlando with a population of over 150,000.)
Don Nelson, 73, one of the members on board, has been diving since 1974, when he was in his early 30s. He then had a “big gap” from 1978 until about 2005 while career and family obligations took over. He’s glad to be back and is co-president of the scuba club.
“When you go into an office and you see an aquarium, you look at it, it calms you,” Nelson said. “It’s even better if you’re in it and part of the aquarium.”
Madeline Helbock, 72, the other co-president of the scuba club, has been diving for 17 years. She said that when the club started in 2001, it had four members. Now they number about 150. On this day trip, there are 11 divers from the club.
“We all work out, we all go to the gym, we all go the doctor’s every six months to make sure that we’re OK,” Helbock said.
After the dive, when the Republic IV is back at the dock and the members of the club are loading their cars for the three-hour drive back to The Villages, the members talk about being divers in their golden years.
“I would say being retired is a big giant part of that,” said Grace Steck, 54, who dives along with husband Gary, 58, both members of the dive club. “In our working day, we wouldn’t have the time to do this, other than a vacation, but now every day is a Saturday for us.”
The Stecks said they work out regularly at the gym and fortunately don’t have any serious health concerns. “That being said, our doctors are definitely aware that we dive,” said Gary, 58.
Jim Taylor, 65, started diving in 1990. “It was just something in me,” he said, explaining how he got interested in scuba diving while living in Ohio. “The ocean spoke to me.”
Charlene Burch Weston, the diver who died off Jupiter, also heard the ocean’s call, and on a recent Saturday she would return there.
A boat stopped near a reef where she liked to dive, and Charlene’s son John poured her ashes into the water while other family members threw flowers and said their farewells, according to Love-Stewart.
For about 15 minutes, the boat circled the site slowly as Charlene Weston’s remains became one with the water she loved so much.
An American tourist died of a heart attack after snorkeling in freezing waters at Iceland’s most popular diving site on Sunday.
The 65-year-old collapsed at the side of the Silfra fissure, where his tour guide performed CPR as other horrified tourists looked on.
The tourist, who has not been named, was flown to the National University Hospital in the nearby capital city of Reykjavik but died soon after.
The death is the eighth serious accident to occur at Silfra since 2010 and the fourth fatal one, according to local reports. The spectacular 90ft deep, 1,500ft long fissure has water so clear that divers can see up to 40ft away from them.
Park officials have raised concerns about the 50,000 people diving there each year as tourists find it hard to adjust to the cold water.
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An American tourist died of a heart attack after snorkeling in freezing waters at Iceland’s most popular diving site, the Silfra fissure, on Sunday. This photo was taken on the day of the fatal dive by Scot Hacker, who witnessed the scene and spoke with DailyMail.com about what he saw
The unidentified tourist was part of a tour of eight people who went for a lunchtime snorkel in water that hovers around 30 degrees Fahrenheit all year
Large crowds mean they have to wait for some time for their turn in dry suits, which constrict their blood flow, making an accident more likely.
The tourist was part of a tour of eight people who went for a lunchtime snorkel in water that hovers around 30 degrees Fahrenheit year round.
Scot Hacker, 51, who was diving with a different tour company, wrote on Facebook that he ‘watched a person die today, and am feeling shaken’.
Scot Hacker, 51, who was diving with a different tour company, wrote on Facebook that he ‘watched a person die today, and am feeling shaken’
Hacker told DailyMail.com that as he was getting out of the water he looked to his right to see a the man, who had a stocky build, having clear difficulties.
Hacker said: ‘The person was on the ground on their back. There was one person kneeling over them doing CPR and a group of five people standing close by.
‘A helicopter came in and we were asked to move back. Our guide shooed us out of the area. It was shocking and such a dark thing to happen after such an incredible experience.’
Hacker, an app developer from El Cerrito, California, added that there were a lot of tour groups at the fissure that day, meaning each group had to wait on a bench for their go.
The Silfra fissure is considered a bucket list activity by many. Reviews on Tripadvisor say that ‘words cannot begin to describe’ the beauty and say it’s ‘all worth it’.
The site is where the European and American tectonic plates meet, and the water that fills the fissure bubbles up from the center of the Earth.
‘Our guide shooed us out of the area. It was shocking and such a dark thing to happen after such an incredible experience,’ Hacker, pictured on the left at Silfra, said
The tourist was flown by helicopter from Thingvellir National Park to the National University Hospital in Reykjavik, 30 miles to the east, but died soon after
Safety has been a concern for some tourists at the site and one review on Tripadvisor said: ‘The dry suit is kinda scary and when they put the hood over your head you may have a panic attack as you feel tense with sense of suffocation’
Divers at the site, located in Thingvellir National Park, 30 miles east of the Reykjavík, must obtain a permit from park authorities. Most tour groups charge between $250 and $350 for the three hour trip, of which 30 minutes is spent underwater.
Safety has been a concern for some tourists and one review on Tripadvisor said: ‘The dry suit is kinda scary and when they put the hood over your head you may have a panic attack as you feel tense with sense of suffocation.’
An official at the Icelandic Coast Guard, which flew the tourist to the hospital on its helicopter, told DailyMail.com that first responders were nervous about some tour groups being too ‘gung ho’.
The official said: ‘There are so many tourists diving there and there is no infrastructure at Silfra.
‘If you are snorkeling you at least need to be able to swim – they will basically let anybody in.’
Einar Ásgeir Sæmundsson, the spokesman for Thingvellir National Park, said that the tourist became ‘dizzy’ as he was about to come out of the water.
He said: ‘What it seems like is that man suffered from a heart attack in the water.
‘He was snorkeling with his group and he was getting out of the water when he became ill.’
South Iceland police chief superintendent Oddur Árnason said that he was still waiting for the autopsy results to reveal the exact cause of death.
He said: ‘There appear to be indications that the person did not drown but there was an illness, a heart attack or something.
‘Police in Iceland have the duty to investigate accidental deaths whatever the reason. I find it unlikely it will turn into a criminal investigation but we have a duty to investigate.’
A spokesman for the State Department said: ‘We can confirm the death of a US citizen in Iceland on February 12, 2017.
‘We offer our sincerest condolences to their friends and family. We stand ready to provide all appropriate consular services.’
“It’s a very primal, primal fear,” Dr. Andrew Pitkin says. “Being in a small space filled with water. It absolutely horrifies people.”
It’s a fear that Pitkin understands, but does not share. He’s grown comfortable in some of earth’s most inhospitable places: Underwater caves that are more than 300 feet deep and several miles from any surface opening.
Pitkin is part of a small fraternity of explorer-level cave divers. He and his colleague Brett Hemphill, with the nonprofit Karst Underwater Research group, have mapped miles of previously unexplored caves, scouting the Swiss-cheese architecture of Florida’s underground springs, all while pushing the boundaries of endurance and human imagination.
“It’s a deep dark place,” Pitkin observes. “The typical reaction is, ‘You would never catch me doing that.’”
FLORIDA’S MOST NOTORIOUS CAVE
On a warm winter morning, Pitkin and Hemphill sit on a wooden platform near the entrance to one of Florida’s most notorious and lethal caves: Eagle’s Nest. Its entrance – a placid pond – looks as benign as a Florida swimming hole.
Located deep in the woods of Hernando County, Eagle’s Nest claimed the lives of two experienced divers last October. Last month – just days after the men spoke to First Coast News – another diver was killed, marking the 11th known death at Eagle’s Nest.
“Whenever there’s a cave diving fatality, the general public will go, ‘Oooh, I would never do that! So close it,’” Hemphill notes.
The state did close the site between 1999 to 2003. It was reopened at the urging of divers. However, calls to close it again surfaced after the Christmas 2013 deaths of Darrin Spivey, 35, and his 15-year-old son. The October 2016 deaths of Patrick Peacock and Chris Rittenmeyer, both experienced divers, prompted an online petition urging Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to close or regulate it. And on Jan. 8, Charles Odom died while surfacing from a dive.
“How many more lives need to be lost for this place to be closed?” asks the Change.org petition.
“It’s natural to want to blame something – ‘the evil cave’ – for what happened,” Pitkin says. “But it’s not appropriate, any more than it’s appropriate to blame a mountain someone falls off.”
Pitkin notes that nearly 300 people have died trying to summit Mount Everest, but nobody is pushing to close that natural wonder.
“They say ‘It’s a mountain, what do you expect?” Pitkin says.
EXPERIENCED DIVERS: THE CAVE IS SAFE WITH PROPER TRAINING
Deadly to some, Eagle’s Nest isn’t even all that challenging to the most experienced divers like Pitkin and Hemphill.
“It’s like a stroll in the park for us, really,” Pitkin says. “If you know what you’re doing, it’s as safe as any other cave.”
The problem, they say, is few divers really do know what they’re doing. Caves are not simply “next level” dives for the scuba-certified. The overhead environment of a cave like Eagle’s Nest means there is only one way out. That exit can be hard to find, even with a guide wire.
The caves are pitch black. And while some portions are so narrow divers must squeeze through, other sections are large enough to drive a tractor-trailer through. They are also full of rushing water, with currents strong enough that that divers use underwater scooters to pull them along. Every finstroke can kick up silt, turning the crystal-clear caves into blind alleys.
Take a timelapse tour through a portion of Eagle’s Nest, described as “the Mount Everest” of underwater caves. Video: Andrew Pitkin
HOURS OF DECOMPRESSION
Divers can also get out of their depth easily, and those using ordinary dive gear (open-circuit scuba) are at risk of nitrogen narcosis, which causes severe mental impairment. Even rising to the surface can be dangerous, so divers must decompress. If not, a quick ascent can cause air bubbles to bloom in the bloodstream, leading to paralysis or even death.
“The best way to explain it is if you have a two-liter bottle of pop,” Hemphill explains. “You shake it up, you never see the bubbles because it’s under pressure. But the moment you open the top, you see those bubbles form. We become those vessels underwater.”
To help with decompression, Pitkin and Hemphill use rebreathers, which recycle unused oxygen and add in helium. The so-called closed circuit scuba allows them to stay under for as long as 20 hours. Long dives come with their own hazards – particularly fatigue – and require extended decompression times. Every 15 minutes the divers spend underwater can require a full hour of decompression.
“A dive may only be two to three hours, but because it was two to three hours at 300 feet, we have to do another 10 to 12 hours or so of decompression,” Pitkin explains. “That’s a lot of sitting around not doing much, but it’s simple physics. We can’t change that.”
None of these tangible hazards even factor in panic, which some people begin to experience just hearing about these dives. Pitkin says a gradual and reasoned approach to diving helps them prepare for the unexpected.
“We have a healthy fear of the environment,” he says. “Fear may be a strong word, but profound respect.”
Experienced divers, Brett Hemphill and Andrew Pitkin explain why divers need to decompress
Do they have cave diving nightmares? Both men insist they do not, but some real life moments are close enough.
Because cave diving is so specialized and potentially hazardous, it’s beyond the skill-set of ordinary law enforcement dive teams. Both Pitkin and Hemphill are trained recovery divers. They are able to document a scene and bring bodies to the surface, according to law enforcement guidelines.
Hemphill has had to use that grim skill set several times, including at Eagle’s Nest.
“It doesn’t really affect you until you get home, and you go to bed and wake up and see your kids the next day,” Hemphill says. “For me, it’s helped me. I don’t want to be that person.”
The divers recover bodies at their own expense, which can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the length and intensity of the dive. Given the difficulty of navigating some cave passages, the work of bringing up a body can be both physically and emotionally taxing.
“You’ve also got to be a very competent diver to get to the place where those people are and sometimes that’s not a very straightforward place,” Pitkin says. “It may be very deep. It may be very far back. It may be in a very difficult part of the cave.”
Such was the case with the October deaths of Patrick Peacock and Chris Rittenmeyer, who explored a section of cave first discovered by Pitkin. According to the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, the divers made it 1,300 feet into the cave before running into trouble. They say Peacock shed his tanks – presumably because he got stuck – and the two men attempted to exit while ‘buddy breathing.”
“He had left his rebreather, his open-circuit scuba, and his buoyancy compensation, literally left it laying in the dirt completely intact, completely functioning,” Hemphill says. “At that point, they made an attempt to exit, with one diver 100 percent impaired.”
Their bodies were found 550 feet from the entrance, just shy of where they’d staged a spare tank of oxygen.
“They very nearly made it, which was one of the saddest things about the whole episode,” Pitkin says. “His buddy stayed with him, and tried to help him the whole way. And finally, they both ran out [of air].”
“IT WOULD BE TRAGIC IF IT WAS CLOSED”
The reputation of Eagle’s Nest can make it a target for those who would like to close it. Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis says he’s familiar with the Change.org petition, but doesn’t favor it.
“I think it would be tragic if it was closed,” he says. “It’s alluring, much like mountain climbing, to be one of very few people who’ve ever seen that.”
For Hemphill and Pitkin, the beauty of the caves is certainly a draw, as is the thrill of exploration. But they are also at work. Karst Underwater Research maps caves and measures water flow, data they then provide to the state’s Water Management Districts. It’s information they hope helps protect the state’s fragile underwater caves, which are home to the state’s primary drinking water supply, the Floridan Aquifer.
“Everything we do – exploration, survey, documentation, photography, whatever it happens to be – that’s important information,” Hemphill says. “In the world we live in, truly the best way to protect something is to document it.”