Filmmaker Rob Stewart’s death wasn’t an anomaly: the real risks of scuba diving

The bottom line is that regardless of what many in the diving industry like to say, scuba diving is a risky venture. Robert Osborne, producer The Third Dive

When I first heard about Sharkwater director Rob Stewart’s death during a scuba diving accident in the Florida Keys in 2017, my first thought was what a terrible loss to his family and the environmental movement. 

Stewart was an experienced diver. By some accounts, he had thousands of dives in his log books. So why would he and his partners do five dives to below 200 feet in just two days? I checked with two of the world’s deep diving experts, Jill Heinerth and Steve Lewis.  Both explained that they would only do one dive to that depth per day. Two dives, if there was a pressing reason, but never three. 

I have a lifelong interest in scuba diving, have been certified since 1971 and been technical diving for the past eight years in some of the most dangerous places in the world, underwater caves. I take risks when I’m diving, but they’re calculated and based on the odds which favour my team. That’s what inspired me to start investigating Stewart’s death. 

Had Rob Stewart been led astray by an overly aggressive instructor? Or had he just decided to push the envelope to make the dives he needed to get exceptional footage for his film? CBC Docs POV film The Third Dive: The Death of Rob Stewart is the result of an 18-month journey to find answers.

“You are risking your life.”

Scientist and diver Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark says: “You are risking your life. Every time you go in the water, that's a possibility, whether you're on a re-breather in 200 feet of water or whether you're on scuba in 30 feet of water.”

Clark is right. I’ve been witness to many dives that turned into life-threatening situations over the last few decades. Last summer, while swimming placidly through the wreck of the Niagara II in Tobermory Ontario, at about 80 feet of depth, I felt a tug on my shoulder and turned to see my dive buddy engulfed in a mass of bubbles.  He’d had a failure with his scuba regulator, and his air was draining out of his tank.  Divers are trained to deal with these kinds of situations, but they need to stay calm. I gave him my spare regulator, turned off his air supply, and we slowly made our way back to the surface. Crisis averted.

It doesn’t always work out that way. A few years ago, I was diving with a young man who’d just received his certification to dive deep. We were in Lake Ontario at about 110 feet. I turned to him and asked him if he was okay. He signalled yes so I started to swim towards the shipwreck.  Seconds later, he pulled on my leg telling me that he was out of air. I offered him my spare regulator, but he didn’t take it. His eyes told me that he was in full blown panic and he bolted for the surface. I tried to grab him to stop him from surfacing too quickly, but he kicked me away and disappeared.

As I ascended slowly, I expected to see his body floating back to the bottom. When I got to the surface, he was still alive, flailing and screaming like a wounded animal. I inflated his buoyancy vest and signalled the dive boat. Twenty minutes later he was on a Coast Guard boat heading toward the hospital. He was lucky to survive; he should have blown his lungs out by surfacing that quickly. Things can change fast underwater and sometimes, there isn’t always a happy ending.

The diving industry doesn’t like to talk about scuba accidents

The diving industry doesn’t like to talk about accidents like this. They portray scuba diving as a family-safe activity that even young children can enjoy. When accidents do occur, you’ll rarely see the organizations that certify divers talking about it.

But statistics that I gathered from the Divers Alert Network (DAN) tell a different story. DAN is a not for profit agency dedicated to improving diver safety and the only diving group that gathers information on deaths published in a yearly report. According to their data, more than 700 divers have died in the last ten years in Canada and the United States. Sixty of those deaths occurred in Canada, mostly in Ontario and British Columbia. 

And while it’s tough to crunch out a per-capita number that compares those deaths to the number of actual dives, a recent report by DAN showed that diving was three times more likely to be fatal than working in mining or construction. The more extreme the form of diving, the higher the risk. Petar Denoble, Vice President of the Divers Alert Network, said: “We estimate that rebreather diving has a ten times higher rate of accidents than diving on open circuit.” The deeper you go, the higher the risk.

While much of the reporting in the aftermath of Stewart’s death painted a picture of a neophyte diver led to his demise by a Svengali-like diving instructor, those reports don’t acknowledge that Stewart was a certified diving instructor.  Surely he must have known how quickly a dive could go wrong. In his book Save the Humans, he describes several near-death experiences while diving.

That apparent contradiction was at the heart of my journey in the documentary The Third Dive:  To try and find out what happened on the dive that led to the death of Rob Stewart.