The following information has been drafted on behalf of Diane Huff, Ryan’s dive partners, and the OC Spearos Dive Club. The goal of this information is to bring awareness to the dive community, prevent future accidents, and honor the memory of Ryan Huff. The comments made in this article are not an official statement by any regulating body within the dive community. The narrative is my personal understanding of what transpired or may have transpired on September 28, 2019. Please take these words to heart as they could save your life, or the life of someone you love dearly.
Every lobster season opener I receive dozens of phone calls and messages from previous students and club members, informing me of their recent “personal best” or notable lobster catches. On September 28, 2019 I received a different type of voicemail from Billy, a previous student of mine. The voicemail stated that there had been an accident at 1000 Steps Laguna Beach, and that we had “lost Ryan.” My heart instantly dropped as I realized my worst fear. One of my students had lost his life while diving the California lobster opener. I took a deep breath and let it sink in, and then returned Billy’s call to get his take on the incident.
What we know about the event:
Ryan typically dove with Billy and two other dive partners. On this lobster opener, Billy was unable to make the dive, so Ryan and the other two divers decided to go as a three-man team. The conditions were poor, extremely poor. A short-period swell was in the four- to six-foot range, and visibility was estimated to be six to ten feet at best.
The group met in the parking lot near 1000 Steps in the early morning and prepped before the 6:00 a.m. “start time.” While prepping their gear, one of the divers had a gear malfunction (broken or missing knife strap) and the outcome was that only two of the three divers entered the water with a dive knife. Ryan entered the water with a knife, but the knife was positioned on his arm (bicep), which is not a recommended location as it is not accessible by both hands. Ryan also entered the water with a speargun, as he planned to catch his limit of lobsters, and then focus on shooting some local reef fish. Ryan’s speargun was rigged with a reel and had a floatline attached to the gun. The three divers entered the water at 6:00 a.m. and started searching the area for lobsters.
All three divers stuck together for the first portion of the morning in a typical three-man rotation. One diver on the surface acted as the safety, one diver underwater, and one diver breathing up on the surface while acting as a second safety. Ryan, being one of the more accomplished divers, was the first to reach his limit of lobsters. It was at this time that Ryan decided to break from the other two divers and start spearfishing nearby. Ryan let the two divers know his intention was to swim roughly 20 feet away and shoot a sheepshead that they had spotted earlier.
The following information is my best account of what may have happened based off of Ryan’s dive computer and dive profiles:
- Ryan spent eight minutes and 18 seconds on the surface before he started spearfishing. Our best guess is that this extended surface interval happened while Ryan was talking to his dive partners and explaining his intentions to spearfish nearby.
- Ryan then proceeded to make a 50 second dive with a max depth of 25 feet and followed the dive up with a 1:10 surface interval.
- Ryan’s second dive (while spearfishing) to the same depth was 49 seconds and followed up by a one minute, 51 second surface interval.
- Ryan’s third and final dive started out just like the previous two dives. He descended and ascended at a similar rate, but on the ascent, Ryan never reached the surface.
- According to Ryan’s dive data, Ryan descended to a depth of 25 feet, and then started his ascent around the 46-second mark.
- Ryan’s ascent was a total of 19 seconds, but his ascent stopped roughly three feet from the surface.
- At this time, Ryan’s dive profile shows that he hovered at a depth of three feet for an additional 19 seconds before descending again to 25 feet. We are not sure if Ryan was unconscious at the time of the second descent, or if he descended intentionally. Both possibilities can produce a similar descent rate as Ryan was over-weighted, due to the limit of seven lobsters in his dive bag.
- After descending the second time, Ryan remained on the sea floor until his dive partner found him unconscious.
Comments from Ryan’s dive partners:
One of Ryan’s partners heard his gun go off nearby, but he did not see Ryan surface immediately after the shot. The partner then initiated a search near Ryan’s float line with visibility in the six- to ten-foot range. Ryan’s dive partner found him on the sea floor only three minutes and six seconds after Ryan had initially started his dive! The partner located Ryan, grabbed him, removed Ryan’s weight belt, and inflated his own Freedive Recovery Vest (FRV) in order to ascend to the surface.
During the ascent, Ryan became trapped roughly three feet under the surface of the water. Ryan’s partner was barely able to reach the surface himself while keeping hold of Ryan’s wetsuit just above his shoulders. At this time, Ryan’s dive computer shows that he reached the surface, though we know he did not. The remaining dive profile shows Ryan rising to the surface and then dropping down to three feet repeatedly. Unfortunately, this makes the timeline from this point on impossible to decipher.
While keeping Ryan from sinking out, the partner with the FRV tried to assess the situation and called for help, and the third dive partner swam over immediately to assist. The third partner proceeded to make a few short dives to see what was keeping Ryan pinned under the surface. He found that Ryan’s lobster bag was hung up, but with poor visibility and strong surge, he did not immediately realize that Ryan’s gun reel was entangled with the bag.
The third dive partner then attempted to release the “quick release clasp” (cam buckle), but was unsuccessful due to difficulty locating the small clasp, extreme tension on Ryan’s bag, and lack of dexterity due to his thick lobster gloves. The third partner was not carrying a knife and attempted to slide Ryan’s bag off his hips unsuccessfully. At this time, Ryan’s partner with the FRV was able to pull his knife out and hand it to the third partner (it should be noted that he initially had difficulty reaching the knife due to the inflated FRV and the knife’s location on the back of his hip). The partner then attempted to cut Ryan’s belt bag while a man on a PWC (personal watercraft) raced over to help. The man on the PWC called 911, pulled a knife out, and dove in to cut Ryan’s shooting line below the three divers. The man successfully cut the line and the group then swam Ryan to shore while attempting to keep his airway clear. The men were met at the shoreline by local lifeguards, and Ryan was then rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced deceased.
My best guess as to what transpired – note that this is my best guess with the current information at hand:
Ryan descended to a depth of 25 feet and shot a fish inside of a small cave where his shaft became stuck. He started an ascent to the surface and his MutinyDiveCo lobster bag became entangled with this gun reel and shooting line. The shooting line then pinned Ryan roughly 3 feet under the surface at which point he attempted to untangle the reel and lobster bag. Ryan then blacked out and started descending, or possibly descended to the sea floor via kicking. We do know that Ryan’s knife was still on his bicep when he reached the shore, which leads me to believe that he may have had a shallow water blackout soon after stopping his ascent. Ryan may have had his hand wrapped up in the shooting line, keeping him from grabbing the knife off of his opposite bicep. Alternatively, Ryan may have decided to dive down to his stuck shaft in order to free it where he blacked out. Ryan’s partner then found him on the sea floor and attempted to bring him to the surface where they realized he was wrapped up in his reel and shooting line. It is unknown when Ryan took a terminal gasp, but this most likely happened 4-6 minutes AFTER his blackout. I believe that Ryan was an exceptional diver, and that his personality was one that thrived under pressure. I have a gut feeling that Ryan’s blackout came on quickly and suddenly, as the September 28th dives were well within his typical bottom times and surface intervals.
Possible contributing factors and takeaways:
- Buoyancy and buoyancy changes were a factor in Ryan’s death. The additional weight of seven lobsters in Ryan’s bag made him negatively buoyant at three feet of depth. Ryan’s neutral buoyancy should have been a minimum of 20 feet of depth with the additional lobsters taken into account.
- Swell, poor viz, and poor conditions made for a difficult search and rescue. I would like to note again, that Ryan’s dive partner was able to find him and start the ascent relatively quickly – roughly three minutes and six seconds after Ryan started his dive.
- Ryan’s dive bag was a simple net-style bag which he carried around his waist. The bag has large holes in the netting in which the lobster’s legs often protrude outside of the bag, creating potential entanglement scenarios. Ryan’s handle on his gun reel became entangled with the bag and later had to be cut free (on land). Ryan’s bag had a “quick release clasp” (cam lock) that can be difficult to release while diving with thick lobster gloves. Ryan’s partners had difficulty locating the release clip, and upon reaching the shore, Ryan’s bag had to be cut from his waist in order to remove it.
- Ryan’s knife was located on his left arm. If he was conscious when entangled, I believe Ryan would have cut himself loose, if able to do so. It is possible that Ryan’s right arm became entangled, making it impossible to reach his knife. I highly recommend placing a knife on a diver’s belt, or the inside of a diver’s calf, so that both hands can access the knife with ease.
- Lobster diving with a gun is not recommended. Adding additional gear to a lobster dive is not recommended by any organization within the dive community!
- Direct supervision is a must. Divers should never dive without direct supervision. One up, one down. If you are diving in a three-man team, the additional diver acts as a second safety (while breathing up to dive next in the rotation). When a diver surfaces, he or she takes their recovery breaths, waits 30 seconds, and then rotates to become the primary safety. Direct supervision can be difficult in Southern California due to our poor visibility and surge. Floatlines and floats can be a great addition and help partners or boats to identify a diver’s location.
What I would like the community to take away from this event is that this can happen to anyone. I have had hundreds of students take my freediving and spearfishing courses. Ryan was one of the most gifted Level 1 students I have had to date. I tend to remind my gifted students that their ability is a potential liability. Our sport tends to lose divers at four to five years of experience. This is when most divers get enough dives logged to start pushing the bounds of their ability. Ryan blacked out with his dive partners roughly 20 feet away, and all contributing factors had to coincide during his last dive in order to create the deadly event.
Ryan’s dive partner made a statement to me shortly after Ryan’s death. He related the event to “Texting while driving”, and I feel this is an excellent analogy. Many people push the boundaries and often get away with it. When an event like this transpires, it should be a stark reminder of how quickly a diver can get into trouble. I hope this article hits home with the dive community and helps bring awareness to the public at large. Thank you for taking the time to learn about Ryan’s event, and please, dive safely as your life may depend on it.
– Jeremy Caulkins
The OC Spearos have three institutional goals – safety, education, and conservation. Ryan’s accident underscores the necessity of the first two goals and was the driving force behind the club’s creation of the OC Spearos’ Ryan Huff Memorial Scholarship Fund. The Scholarship is being organized and managed by a committee of spearos including Ryan’s widow, his dive partners from the day of his accident, a local FII instructor, and a club director. This fund intends to remove the financial barrier to safety education for those in our membership that may not be able to afford to take a freedive certification course. In the first three weeks of its inception, the OC Spearos have raised enough funds to support 32 members’ certification efforts. We could not have done this without the support of our community, or the generous donations of our sponsors. Most importantly, the OC Spearos are proud of our relationship with our local FII instructors who each have committed to doing everything possible to lower the cost of certification of scholarship awardees. This will, in turn, allow the OC Spearos to maximize the number of certified divers in our community. It is the club’s goal to reach a level of 100% certification within our ranks. As we are the largest club of its kind in the world, this will make a massive difference in the freediving community from a safety and education standpoint.