I was browsing nature videos on Youtube the other night, and I stumbled on the below video. I watched the entire thing, and was simultaneously fascinated and horrified. The footage of this 22 year old diving instructor (who should have known better than to scuba dive in one of the most dangerous diving locations on the planet without the proper equipment or with a diving partner) falling to his death on the ocean floor is incredibly scary and heartbreaking. TRIGGER WARNING: If you are bothered by footage of actual deaths in progress, I don’t recommend watching this video.
On April 28, 2000, Yuri Lipski, a 22 year old Russian diving instructor, decided to dive in the (in)famous (but very popular) Blue Hole off the coast of Egypt, in the Red Sea. It was his last dive. Because the entire dive, including his death, was recorded on camera, he became the most well known casualty of what has become dubbed by many “The Divers’ Graveyard.”
One of the basic rules for scuba divers is to never dive without a buddy, and to make sure you have the proper equipment appropriate for the depth you plan to dive. Only the most experienced divers who are equipped with special tanks containing an oxygen/helium/nitrogen mix (oxygen alone becomes toxic at great depths) should ever attempt to dive to depths greater than 130 feet (40 meters).
Yuri apparently dove alone to depths exceeding the recommended 40 meters, in order to pass under the much desired “arch” which is a deceptively deep underwater cavelike structure (and to a diver appears much closer than it actually is), to get the best views. Or at least that’s the theory, since Yuri never lived to tell his story. Whatever really happened, he soon lost control and began hurtling toward the ocean floor once the water pressure became too great for him to be able to achieve buoyancy and rise to the surface. He was carrying too much camera equipment and only one standard oxygen tank, a grave mistake. There was no way he would have been able to return to the surface once he got much below the “safe zone.” Not only because there was too much water pressure for him to be able to achieve enough buoyancy to return to the surface at that depth, but also because he would have died anyway from a condition called the “bends” (decompression sickness) even if he had been able to rise before his limited oxygen ran out. If he had tried to go through the “arch,” he also would have ran out of oxygen long before he could make it back to the surface and drowned. Yuri’s fate was sealed from the get go.
You can hear Yuri wheezing and struggling to get enough air into his lungs as he hurtles toward his death. He seemed to be aware of his fate though one cannot be sure. It seemed like he may have been suffering a seizure as he hit bottom but was still aware of his surroundings because he checked his diver’s computer and finally ripped off his oxygen mask. It must have been absolutely terrifying . He was suffering from a serious medical condition known to divers called narcosis, caused by the intake of too much oxygen. Narcosis causes a diver to enter an altered state similar to drunkenness but which may also include hallucinations like a psychedelic drug. It seriously impairs a diver’s judgment and can itself be fatal.
This excellent documentary explains the science of why narcosis happens and speculates about what actually happened to Yuri Lipski before he died and what he must have experienced in those final moments. It also explains why the Blue Hole in the Dahab region of Egypt, which is easy to access (it’s right off the beach), having calm waters and usually good weather, is deceptive in its “easiness” but is actually one of the most dangerous diving spots on earth.
On the vastness of “short” distances in ocean waters.
I love the beach and the ocean, but there is something incredibly creepy about deep ocean water. The weird thing is, Yuri sank only 330 feet. Yes, I said only. When you stop and think about it, 330 feet really isn’t that much — except in a body of water like the ocean. Here’s a thought experiment. Think about something that is 330 feet away from you. That’s just a little bit longer than the length of a football field. It’s not even a tenth of a mile. Most highway exits exceed this length. If someone was standing 330 feet away from you, you would probably think they were fairly close, within shouting distance. You would definitely see what they were wearing and be able to recognize who they were (if you have decent vision).
Most of the ocean is much, much deeper than this. The deepest part of the ocean, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is more than 37,000 feet, which is much deeper than Mt. Everest is tall! There are other trenches and abyssal plains that are also incredibly deep, miles deep, not just feet. So, 330 feet is a tiny fraction of the deepest waters in most oceans; it wouldn’t even be a decent sized hill on land! And yet, when we are talking about the ocean, it seems to make little difference if the depth you fall is 330 feet or 33,000.
Yuri’s fall seems to take an eternity, and the blackness descends fast, since sunlight rarely penetrates much deeper than 200 to 300 feet of water or so. If the water is murky, it can become black at even shallower deaths. The pressure above you is insurmountable at the kind of depths Yuri descended to. 330 feet is over twice the maximum depth that even the diving experts recommend without special equipment. It was not survivable, and yet…330 is almost nothing when compared to most of the ocean. At the bottom of the Mariana Trench it is just as black as the bottom of this Blue Hole whose bottom is only 330 feet. The only difference is Yuri would have been long dead before reaching the bottom of the Challenger Deep , which is a SEVEN MILE DESCENT! It would have taken a couple of hours, at least. Yuri’s fall took just over five minutes, yet must have seemed like an eternity. By my calculations, he must have been falling at just over 60 feet per minute, or one foot per second (that’s pretty fast).
The surrounding waters were already very dark when he passed the last visible diver in the background. We can’t tell if that other diver had descended deeper than the recommended 130 feet but chances are good that if he did, he had the proper equipment to handle it, which Yuri did not.
I cannot tell which moment was “the point of no return”– that is, the point at which Yuri would not have been able to rise to the surface again. But watching this and realizing he almost certainly was aware of his fate and there was nothing that could be done chills me to the bone.
It’s incredible to me that you can be merely 330 feet from the surface of the ocean, and perhaps only yards away from other people, and yet when you are enveloped in the dark waters of the ocean at this depth you might as well be alone in the universe. Other than floating alone in space, I can think of nothing more existentially lonely and terrifying than sinking in total blackness to the bottom of the ocean, even if that bottom is a mere 330 feet down and mere yards away from safety. In the ocean, such distances might as well be light years.
Yuri Lipski may have died too young and in a horrifying way, but at least he died doing something he loved more than anything else in the world. Diving was his entire life. I hope he is resting in peace.