Litigation for pecuniary reasons and a culture of apportioning blame stands in the way of getting to the truth and drawing valuable conclusions related to safety.
When the environmentalist and filmmaker Rob Steward died following a dive during the filming of scenes for Sharkwater Extinction, it came as a big shock, which reverberated across his huge diverse following and fanbase across the world, including the dive community.
How could a dive go so tragically wrong and who was to blame for his untimely demise?
The finger almost immediately pointed to Peter Sotis, his dive buddy on that fatal dive and former instructor who had relatively recently trained Stewart on the rEVO closed circuit rebreathers the pair used on dives to obtain footage of elusive sharks off the coast of Florida.
Stewart was this handsome eco-warrior, award-winning documentary filmmaker and a role model, if not a hero, to many. Meanwhile, Sotis had a checkered past, was a convicted felon, was reportedly involved in some questionable business deals, and rubbed many the wrong way; even I had been made aware of various conflicts with other members of the dive industry and cautioned about him—and that was years prior to this incident. Whether there was truly any substance to these earlier allegations, I do not know, but apparently, there was at least a pattern of personality clashes and conflicts. I never had any dealings with him myself and only met him once, in his dive store at the time, and he was nice enough to me.
In any case, he was certainly the near-perfect scapegoat and fall guy, and soon enough vox populi, and everyone with an axe to grind or a score to settle, descended upon him with fury and outrage.
But impressions and stereotypes can deceive, and prejudiced opinions and subjectivity can cloud our sound judgement and lead us astray to form premature and incorrect conclusions. Reality is not like a Hollywood movie and certainly messier.
So what really happened?
The unfolding events are described at great length and detail elsewhere—i.e. on our website, but in particular, in Robert Osborne's book The Third Dive, and in various official reports—so here is the ultra-condensed version:
Stewart and Sotis surfaced after their third deep dive of the day. Sotis climbed aboard the dive boat while Stewart was waiting in the water. Once Sotis had climbed aboard, he became unwell, fainted or was about to, and had to be tended to. During the resulting commotion and the providing of medical attention to Sotis, the crew lost sight of Stewart for a short while, during which time he disappeared from view. His body was recovered days later from the seabed under the dive boat.
Did he also faint, like Sotis, and by being in the water and not on a boat deck, did he subsequently sink and drown? And even if he did pass out too, why didn’t he stay afloat? Did he forget to inflate his flotation device and/or to keep the rebreather loop closed? Was he already incapacitated to some degree before he surfaced? There were surely a lot of questions to be asked and answered.
As a matter of standard procedure following such incidences, an investigation was conducted, and forensic and technical analyses were performed. The equipment was reported to be in order and functioning as intended and was given the clear. I did not suspect an equipment malfunction had been at play either but suspected the cause to be physiological, as both divers were affected simultaneously.
I do find it highly suspect, however, that one of the divers who was involved with the recovery of Stewart’s body had a not insignificant vested interest in the case, and thus was in a position to perhaps tamper with evidence on site. I also find it quite contentious that protocol was not followed and the recovery was not documented by continuous video recording, which I understand is standard procedure. Furthermore, the medical examiner, who has the sole authority to handle human remains, was deliberately being held away, or so it could easily be interpreted, and thus prevented from supervising the recovery, which took place against his direct order.
Did something untoward happen during the recovery such as the venting of gases from Stewart’s tanks that should have been analysed by forensic investigators? As the chain of evidence has clearly been compromised, we will probably never know. I am surely no fan of conspiracy theories, but this sequence of events is troubling.
That said, I am still mostly inclined to second Osborne’s conclusion, and that of Dr Neal Pollock, the leading hyperbaric researcher who has been an occasional contributor to this publication (and my own primary go-to resource in this field): that a special case of decompression sickness, with a very short-lived manifestation, had been at play and was the real underlying cause of both divers becoming unwell and suffering some degree of loss of consciousness. There are more details in Osborne’s book (right).
So why the cover up, if there was any? Why isn’t a finding like Dr Pollock's the final verdict or probable cause?
It seems that Stewart’s incident was a near-classical case of an accident happening, not because of a particular singular incident or failure in isolation, but rather as the result of a cascade of events, which in sequence, ultimately led to his death. Sotis, I theorise, went through most of the same sequence of events, only he made it onto the boat before he collapsed, and shortly came around.
In this sequence, I see both some questionable choices and some pushing of the envelope or cutting of corners, procedures that fell short, and probably some unknown factors too.
What prevents us from getting to the bottom of it?
The ongoing lawsuit, above all. Sotis, the dive operator, and a wide range of other parties, currently stand accused of various degrees of responsibility for Stewart’s death. I have seen court documents with the list of defendants, and it is preposterous in its breadth and scope. Everybody even remotely associated with the case, save perhaps the cat, appears to be in the process of being sued.
In any case, what happens in such a climate and circumstance is that anyone who might have valuable information to contribute, or is otherwise in a position to cast some further light on the matter, will instead end up clamming up, lawyering up or both—as one might predict.
Stewart’s family has repeatedly stated in the past that the lawsuit is not about money—this is also mentioned in past posts on our website. So what is it about? Getting to the truth?
Really? If so, if the truth is truly sacred, surely a lawsuit is not the way to go about it. Lawsuits often have a way of making sure that the truth gets obfuscated, for the sake of apportioning blame and seeking monetary compensation.
To me, it is the litigiousness itself, which should stand accused. It is nothing but poison for the objective quest to get to the bottom of things, and prevents us and the general public from drawing valuable lessons and conclusions, which could lead to improved safety and benefit all divers, and perhaps others.
In this context, I would also like to stress a salient point, which seems to be completely absent from this sad case:
Acceptance of risk
We are all ultimately responsible for our own choices, actions and safety, and others are not to blame if we get it wrong. Diving is an elective activity, which we choose to engage in, knowing and accepting that it comes with some risk—like most other activities. This risk may be quite low, so we find it acceptable to take our kids on a shallow dive on a coral reef, knowing that, say, a ruptured eardrum could result from a knee-jerk reaction underwater.
Technical diving, such as the activities Stewart was engaged in, obviously comes with much higher risks, which can be mitigated by training, adherence to protocol and applying a safety-oriented mindset. Stewart was a trained, qualified, mature adult. At the end of the day, it was his choice to conduct that third dive, and his choice only.
I rest my case.