August 25, 2012
I've often read about bad air, but had never experienced it myself. What does bad air mean? Simply that the air in your tank is somehow contaminated. At worst, it contains carbon monoxide from the exhaust of a compressor. That can be deadly and you can't even taste carbon monoxide. Jacques Cousteau described one such incident at a dive at the Fontaine des Vaucluses that nearly turned fatal. Most of the time, bad air isn't as serious, but it can still affect your dive majorly.
We were on a dive boat in fairly calm weather, did a nice shallow dive where we saw rays, morays, large schools of grunts, thousands of them, a couple of lion fish, very large sponges, and even a reef shark. But on the way back up I began feeling nauseous, which very rarely happens to me. The nausea continued on the boat, and the diesel fumes there and rocking in fairly choppy water didn't help. I also felt cold in my 3-mil wetsuit, though the water had been a nice 82 degrees and the air was warm as well. I wondered if I should do the second dive, still having a funny taste in my mouth and feeling nauseous. We had already paid for the two dives, though, and it seemed a waste not to go.
So I went. It was another nice, shallow dive with plenty to see. Coral heads, lots of color, the swarms of grunts, some nice swim-throughs, very pleasant all, and still 82 degree water. Problem was, I couldn't enjoy anything because of increasing nausea. Instead of looking, enjoying the scenery, exploring and using my camera, the dive became an exercise in not getting more nauseous and keeping things under control. I did not panic, but the thought occurred to me that throwing up would be unpleasant under water and I had never done it. They say to do it right through the regulator and you'd be fine, but I didn't want to find out. So it was all quite frustrating. I had looked forward to diving so much, to the wonderful weightless experience of floating through clear, warm water, and now this.
Eventually I got back up, and up onto the boat without losing it, but it'd been miserable. Then I found out that everyone else also complained of the funny taste of the air, the after taste it left in the mouth, and feeling off. It apparently affected me most, but even the dive master agreed it felt off. The boat captain said he'd relate it to the dive boat operator. I have no idea if he was actually going to, but I would not want another dive like that.
What caused the bad air? I don't know. Most likely some oil or other substance getting into the compressor.
Unfortunately, the next day the air wasn't any better. Three breaths out of a regulator and we felt like inhaling oil-laden fumes from some old garage. Even the dive master agreed that this wasn't good. But the boat was already underway and we had paid for the dives, so it was grin and bar it.
Which sort of worked out for me insofar as I didn't get sick, just slightly nauseated. Carol, however, looked grim and out of it throughout the dive, went up early and was in a truly foul mood when I got back to the boat. She's had almost 3,000 dives and swore she'd never encountered air this bad. She seemed ready to stop diving during that trip altogether, and she felt sick for hours. And the next day.
I took it up again with the dive master who very much agreed but said that, regretfully, it was out of his hands and he could only do so much, but could we please take it up with his boss. Which we did. The boss was a nice and very friendly man who also very much agreed that this was unacceptable, but could we please submit something in writing so that he could take it up with the shop which actually did the air fills. Which I did. And we said that, regretfully, we could not come back until this was resolved. To my way of thinking, to have or have not two well-paying customers ought to be somewhat of an incentive.
But what could they really do? If the compressor system was this fouled up, even changing whatever part caused it would still not solve the problem because by now all their tanks would be coated with the noxious stuff inside. So short of cleaning all of them, which we didn't think they would (or could) do overnight, nothing will fix the bad air.
Not a good situation.
We never did hear back from the dive operator, and so we didn't go back. As coincidence would have it, though, a couple of days later we attended a presentation of a photographer friend of ours at the local convention center. And, low and behold, he introduced us to the owner of the dive operation that actually filled the tanks. He was friendly and forthcoming, acknowledged that they probably had a problem with a filter, that they needed to clean all the tanks, and he thanked us for bringing this to his attention. And it would be fixed soon. Good, but that didn't help us gain enough confidence to go back to them.
And we never heard back for him or our dive operator either, though they knew how to reach us. So perhaps they fixed the bad air, and perhaps they didn’t. We took our business elsewhere.
If you're ever on a dive trip and you're questioning the quality of the air while already underwater, one way of testing is clearing your mask and you'll sense the odor through your nose. Also note that the filter in the first stage of your regulator is designed to capture contaminants. Check for discoloration or smells after the dive.