Diver drowned 20m from shore

Last updated 07:10 23/01/2014

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A diver drowned in front of his wife and daughter just 20 metres from shore on Christmas Day 2011.

Brian James Watts, 53, of Christchurch, was swimming to shore after a two-hour dive in the Marlborough Sounds when he got into difficulty.

He ingested water, which led to a laryngeal spasm and his subsequent drowning, coroner Carla na Nagara found.

A laryngeal spasm causes the larynx to form a seal to prevent more water from entering airways, but also restricts any air from getting in.

After reading the coroner's report yesterday, Watts' wife Diane Watts said in a statement: "The family accepts the Coroner's findings and mourns the tragic loss of a most wonderful husband and father, taken from us far too soon."

The coroner's report says Watts had Christmas lunch at the family bach with wife Diane and daughter Kylie before heading out for a dive in Te Awaiti Bay.

Diane Watts went for a nap and after a couple of hours went with Kylie to check on her husband.

She found him sitting on a small island 80 metres to 100m from the shore.

He told them he would swim back.

When he was about 20m from the shore, Diane Watts heard "strange noises, choking or gurgling" coming from her husband, who raised an arm and called for help.

She waded out to him but by the time she reached him he had turned blue.

A neighbour arrived and they managed to get Watts to the shore.

Emergency services arrived a short time later but Watts was pronounced dead at the scene.

Diane Watts told the inquest that she believed her husband had died from the phenomenon known as shallow-water blackout. This occurs when divers hold their breath for long periods, depleting their oxygen stores, which results in an increase in carbon dioxide levels and a loss of consciousness.

Diving expert Joy Keene told the inquest that Watts had more likely died from ingesting water on the swim back in, leading to the laryngeal spasm.

The coroner considered this to be the likely cause of death.

She said the police national dive squad investigation found Watts had not released his dive belt before returning to shore, which would have assisted greatly in his swimming back and his rescue.

She noted he was diving alone, which meant no-one was immediately available to help.

The dive squad recommended free divers consider diving in pairs. The observations by the dive squad were relevant and if brought to public attention may help reduce the chance of deaths in similar circumstances, the coroner said. Fairfax NZ

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- The Marlborough Express

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