In Too Deep

How did a popular Seattle dive master find himself 200 feet underwater off the coast of Florida with no way to survive?

The day that beloved Seattle diving instructor Zak Jones died, a westerly breeze was picking up off the coast of Florida and sun glittered on the deck of the 60-foot double- decker dive vessel, Pro Diver II. It was the early morning of Thanksgiving Day 2005, and the boat was headed for Tenneco Towers, one of Florida’s most popular sites with both divers and fish, an underwater oasis that resulted after several decommissioned oil platforms were sunk off Hallandale Beach, near Fort Lauderdale, in 1985. The skeletal steel structures became a magnet not only for coral and the fish normally attracted to reefs but also for sharks, turtles, and other deep-sea creatures that swim through the towers.

The plan that day was to dive to as much as 200 feet—not an outing for beginners. But Jones and the six other dive instructors with him who worked for Pro Dive International, owners of the Pro Diver II, were no rookies. Jones had been teaching dive techniques for over a decade, to Port of Seattle cops and even more demanding customers.

Capt. Stuart Dye steered the vessel over the eastern part of the site, where the deepest diving is done. Jones and the other instructors wriggled into wet suits, checked their gear, and, one by one, plunged into the lapping sea. With the grace that comes from years of diving, they slowly descended toward the man-made reef.

Seven minutes later, Jones and his designated dive buddy, Richard Hartley, were down 194 feet. They exchanged “OK” hand signals and separated to explore. Some time later, another diver, Catherine Baldwin, saw that Jones had speared what looked like a 50-pound grouper. Removing the fish from the shaft of his speargun, Jones looked satisfied with his catch.

But a few minutes later, something was wrong. Hartley spotted Jones hovering at about 160 feet, the fish gone and Jones looking listless, like he was staring at the coral. Hartley banged his knife against his tank, trying to get Jones’ attention, but there was no response. Then Jones began to sink.

According to a computer dive profile, Jones spent eight minutes sinking, then sitting at the bottom of the sea with no connection to his breathing gas. After about four minutes in that condition, brain damage begins to set in. It’s commonly accepted in the dive community that trying to rescue a companion who may be brain-dead already is a bad idea. It’s likely to end in a double fatality, as a rescuer risks his own life hurrying to the surface.

Hartley had little choice. He inflated Jones’ buoyancy-compensator vest, which helps a diver control his depth, and sent him on an explosive 200-foot ascent, one certain to induce an instantaneous and fatal case of decompression sickness. The gases expanding in Jones’ lungs likely caused them to rupture, and the nitrogen bubbles in his blood probably produced arterial embolisms. If Jones wasn’t dead at the bottom of the sea, he likely was by the time he got to the surface. The fellow divers who performed CPR stood no chance. Jones was dead at age 30.

In the year since, the death of Zak Jones has been particularly troubling for the Northwest dive community, where Jones was a popular fixture before moving South last year. He had made hundreds of dives that were at least as difficult and many that were much more treacherous. Conditions that day were good. Jones held more than 25 certifications and was diving with experienced, responsible instructors.

In March of 2006, however, Miami-Dade’s deputy chief medical examiner, Emma Lew, found that Jones had died of “human error.”

That finding shocked the people who knew Jones. Divers refused to believe it. Writing on Internet forums, diving experts from around the globe expressed skepticism. There had to be more to it. Jones was just too competent to get himself killed. Walt Amidon, who was Jones’ first diving instructor and now manages an Underwater Sports store in Federal Way, says he can’t believe that assessment. “When they say personal error, that’s not Zak,” Amidon says. “He didn’t make a mistake.”

After reviewing official reports of the incident and interviewing experts familiar with the gear Jones was using, however, it becomes clear that Jones, the careful, charismatic professional, was indeed taking chances that day, including violating the law by firing a speargun. But his death is troubling not only for the risks Jones took. His affinity for a newer kind of equipment—growing in popularity with the most hard-core divers and marketed by a former Fort Lewis soldier from his Centralia shed— has an entire industry nervous about the scrutiny his death may bring.

It’s not at all surprising that Jones was out diving on a holiday. It was his livelihood, but it was also his obsession.

As a child, Jones was fascinated with the idea of breathing underwater. When Zak was 5, his father, David Jones, found him at the bottom of the family pool in Scottsdale, Ariz., with a hose in his mouth and a bucket on his head. When Zak came to the surface, he said, “Dad, do you know how hard it is to suck through a garden hose?”

Moving to the cold currents of Puget Sound in 1988 was, by all accounts, the best thing that ever happened to him. Puget Sound has the fourth- or fifth-largest diving scene in the country, thanks to the “endless amount of protected shore,” says Dan Keffler, whose family owns the chain of Underwater Sports shops in the area. Favorite local dives include Seacrest Beach in West Seattle and the Underwater Park by the Kingston ferry in Edmonds. Winter is prime diving time as the algae dies off and visibility clears.

Zak would spend hours in Amidon’s Federal Way shop, browsing gadgets. At 14, he gave up his catcher’s mitt against the wishes of his father and spent his life savings—$100—on his diver’s certification. (Like driving a car, renting dive equipment requires testing and state- sanctioned approval.)

He flipped pizzas at Papa John’s and spent the earnings on dive gear—but only the best. The latest technology and the highest-quality equipment were essential to Zak, and it didn’t hurt if it all matched.

“Everything was black: black mask, black fins. He looked like Darth Vader,” David Jones says.

Amidon hired Zak as a salesman, taught him to dive, and eventually made him an instructor. “I have never certified anyone as an instructor at the age of 18,” says Amidon. “He was a star. He showed such a grasp for the sport. Whatever Zak did, he never did it halfway. He perfected whatever he did, to the point where he became an expert.”

Jones’ father also got certified to dive.

“It was either that or I wouldn’t see him,” he says. And his son was the kind of guy everybody wanted to see.

“Zak was the most charismatic person you’ll ever know,” says Keffler of Underwater Sports. “When he walked into a room, the whole room would change. And before he left, he’d know everyone in that room. There was always a smile on his face. I never saw him stressed. He was just one of those guys you couldn’t help but like.”

Jones had the answer to every question and was willing to spend hours with dive shop customers. But he also earned the nickname “Sea Biscuit,” because he was always raring to go.

“My passion is exposing the mysteries and the wonders of our underwater world to the masses,” he wrote on his professional résumé, posted online.

The life of a professional diving instructor and guide can be brutal—lugging heavy gear, catering to the client’s every whim, working as a kind of indentured servant to resorts and dive shops, and making barely enough money to support the deep-water habit. This was not a problem for Jones, however.

“He was a great salesman,” Amidon says. Jones had the kind of friendly manner that allowed him to draw extra lessons and pupils, building a loyal client base. “Zak was always willing to go the extra mile. Because of that, he could demand a lot.”

Yet his Seattle life had its limits. “He was bored,” says Amidon. Jones “was so capable that it was driving him nuts. He didn’t want to get locked in one rut.”

It was logical for him to entertain offers from the warm waters and sunny climes where the bulk of the diving industry is located. “He was very goal-oriented,” Amidon says. “He knew his value. He had a lot of opportunities. In order for Zak to achieve the top, he had to move around.” So it’s no surprise that when Pro Dive came looking for a training director last year, Jones was ready to go.

By the time of his fatal Thanksgiving Day accident, Jones had indisputably made it in his field. Among his long list of credentials was the title of “dive master,” meaning he could be hired anywhere from Maui to Goa.

Part of Jones’ reputation lay in the diving traditions of Puget Sound, with its cold water and deep glacier-carved features. “If you’re a good diver here in the Northwest and you go to the Caribbean, you’ll be able to dive circles around anyone,” says Mike Racine of the Washington Scuba Association. He contrasts our region’s “challenging” conditions with the gentler shallows of the tropics, where the reefs are closer, the fish more colorful, the gear less onerous, and the attitude can be somewhat misleadingly “mellow.”

Jones was certainly a risk taker. During his career, he had dived subterranean caves, deep wrecks, and other challenging sites all over the world—the South Pacific, the Yucatán Peninsula, Alaska’s Kodiak Island, the Mediterranean Sea, Belize, the Sea of Cortez, and more. He was part of a dive team that recovered a Boeing B-17 in Labrador, Canada, and had been on 500-foot dives—far more challenging than Tenneco Towers.

Like other hard-core types, he was particularly fond of a piece of equipment that allows divers to stay down longer and makes the bubbling undersea adventures of traditional scuba divers like Jacques Cousteau look like swimming in the kiddie pool. Jones, in other words, was a rebreather man.

There are claims that the rebreather was invented earlier, but the first person who clearly understood what he was doing—breathing and rebreathing the same air underwater—died after using his device for only 20 minutes.

What French inventor Sieur Freminet apparently didn’t understand in 1772 is that the air we breathe out and the air we take in have different compositions. Within just a few minutes underwater, Freminet was poisoning himself with his own exhalations. The culprit: carbon dioxide.

On land, the carbon dioxide we exhale is harmless; it dissipates into the air around us and is absorbed by plant life. But in a confined space, without proper ventilation, the carbon dioxide we produce can quickly build up and become toxic.

For Cousteau and his partner Emile Gagnan, who developed the Aqua-Lung during World War II, there was an easy solution to this problem: Don’t rebreathe. Earlier inventors had designed self-contained diving units, and others had developed the crucial on- demand regulator that allowed air to be taken from tanks only when a diver needed it. But Cousteau and Gagnan were the first to combine all the best features in an apparatus that allowed for the kind of unfettered underwater exploration that became associated with the Cousteau name.

To this day, the most popular way of exploring the sea is based on Cousteau’s model: compressed air in tanks worn on the back of the diver, delivered with the use of a regulator that expels exhalations in a cloud of bubbles. How long a diver stays down depends on how long the supply of air lasts.

Careful dives, however, require slow transitions to deeper water and slow ascents. That time eats into the supply of air. And the bubbles that divers exhale, while useful for expelling carbon dioxide and other unwelcome gases, can scare away undersea life.

Not to mention the precious oxygen those bubbles waste. Nearly all of the oxygen we breathe in goes right back out again. And for divers, that means most of the oxygen they need underwater gets wasted in the bubbles they send to the surface.

For those reasons and more, the concept of rebreathing—of reusing the air that comes from the lungs—never went away. As early as the 19th century, inventors were aware that they could reuse the precious oxygen in a diver’s apparatus only if they came up with a way to absorb the carbon dioxide in a closed system.

In the 1930s, Italian spearfishermen were having luck with a system that filtered exhalations through soda lime, a caustic, white, powdery substance made from quicklime that had been treated with lye. That technology became popular in World War II with frogmen who wanted to dive without releasing telltale bubbles to betray their location.

Soda lime filters and scrubbers made from a similar compound have been standard equipment in closed breathing systems ever since—such scrubbers keep air breathable in submarines and spaceships, for example, and the military is still the rebreather’s best customer. In the past decade, however, commercial rebreathers have grown in popularity with serious recreational divers.

A diver using a rebreather looks like any other but with more tanks on his or her back. Carbon dioxide and other toxic gases exhaled in rebreather systems go through a large scrubber canister containing soda lime. After filtration, automatic sensors test the amount of oxygen in the system and add more according to a level the diver sets to match his depth. Pure oxygen is added from one tank, and oxygen combined with other gases is added from another canister.

In other words, rebreather users today carry a virtual chemical laboratory on their backs and must be mindful of the gases passing through the closed apparatus of tanks and hoses. As a diver adjusts his depth, it’s crucial that he monitor his oxygen level. Too much oxygen and he can go into convulsions. Too little and he will lose consciousness. In either case, he’s likely to die.

In the 1990s, four to six people using rebreathers were dying each year, according to Richard Vann, research director of the Diver’s Alert Network (DAN), based in Durham, N.C. Those numbers were not enough to warrant an industry safety overhaul. But in the past few years, the number of deaths has approximately doubled, Vann says. Then again, there are more people using the equipment, so the increase is not necessarily significant.

For serious divers, already the most gear-conscious people on earth, rebreathers may be the ultimate splurge. Only 5,000 of the units exist; new ones can cost $20,000.

And no rebreather has quite the cachet of the one Zak Jones was wearing on his final dive: a gleaming, hulking unit called the Megalodon, built in Centralia by a former combat diver with the unlikely name of Leon Scamahorn.

“It resembles my personality: pretty tough and rugged,” says the burly and goateed Scamahorn, who’s driving an orange H2 and wearing a fleece vest with his company’s black and gold amphibian logo stitched on it. “Like a military Humvee; that’s what I like.”

Tucked behind a couple similarly appointed prefab structures that look like outsized versions of John Travolta’s trailer home in Urban Cowboy is the 2,100-square-foot Centralia base of Scamahorn’s business, InnerSpace Systems. It’s discreet and utilitarian, with a handful of military and kickboxing posters adorning the walls.

“We’re a pretty sought-after little company,” says Scamahorn. “We get all our customers by word of mouth.”

On a table just past the workspace of Scamahorn’s business partner, Steve Stolen, sits a black mannequin torso with a Megalodon strapped on.

“A rebreather is an electromechanical extension of your body,” says Scamahorn of his apparatus. “If you have a cold, the rebreather has a cold—and it will give it back to you.”

Just as Jones was one of Washington state’s youngest-ever dive instructors, Scamahorn became one of the state’s youngest Special Forces combat divers when he dropped out of high school in Olympia and joined the Army. He began diving with a rebreather on covert ops around the world in 1986.

Seeing the potential for a commercial version of the technology, Scamahorn purchased InnerSpace Systems in 1998 after he left the service. At the time, InnerSpace manufactured what Scamahorn considered to be a pretty average rebreathing apparatus. Determined to leave his mark on the field, he dramatically upgraded the company’s stock-in-trade by designing the most rugged and militaristic unit on the market. Named after a giant prehistoric shark, the Megalodon weighs 45 to 85 pounds and costs between $8,000 and $15,000. Because of its supposed indestructibility, “the Meg” has developed something of a cult following.

One of the problems with traditional open systems, Scamahorn contends, is that if a diver gets an adrenaline rush, he sucks down his air supply far quicker than normal. By contrast, the Megalodon recycles air right along with you, whatever the speed.

“It’s a safer apparatus,” he claims, “for people who treat it with respect.”

All told, eight divers, including Zak Jones, have died using Megalodons, and Scamahorn himself says people should think twice before using them. “The rebreather is like a parachute,” he says. “If you don’t pack it right, you die.” The record dive on Scamahorn’s apparatus is 660 feet, achieved off the coast of Thailand.

Jones was not only a customer of Scamahorn’s but an occasional companion. The two would dive along a popular stretch of water that extends from Tacoma’s Commencement Bay up to the Canadian San Juans, which Scamahorn calls “a mecca for wreck diving.”

(Scamahorn argues that Washington could achieve similar stature, if only state bureaucracy would allow intentionally sinking mothballed battleships, as is commonplace in Canada. “They feel it contradicts marine life,” Scamahorn says. “But it benefits everybody, including the marine life. You’ve got some phenomenal diving around here, but all our money goes up to Canada.” Scamahorn also considers Lake Washington’s depths, which he says are “just full of airplanes,” to be well worth the plunge.)

While Scamahorn eschews direct comment on Jones’ death, it seems clear he is not convinced of the young man’s infallible skills.

“Complacency kills in the rebreather business,” says Scamahorn. “One of the things I tell everybody is that you’re dealing with a species—that’s us—that’s inherently noncompliant. That can lead to death by misadventure.

“When you jump out of an airplane, psychologically you know that you’re going to die if you don’t pull that [parachute] cord,” says Scamahorn. By contrast, he says, a very different mind-set—one of deep serenity—tends to prevail on the ocean floor, despite the fact that the situation there can be similarly perilous.

“When you have a fear of dying, you have a greater respect for life,” he says. “Soldiers know that. Policemen and firemen know that. And when you’re a recreational diver below 250 feet, you’re in a battlefield. You’re not supposed to be down there.”

Divers say that while descending into the depths of Tenneco Towers, it’s hard to remember to breathe. The site is that fascinating. The coral-bound oil rigs attract mola molas, giant sunfish that weave in and out of the derricks alongside schools of jacks and the occasional shark.

With its abundant sea life, it’s an ideal place to spearfish, but Zak Jones no doubt knew that he was breaking the law when he plunged into the water wearing a Megalodon system and carrying a speargun. Spearfishing while diving on a rebreather can be punished with jail time and hefty fines. It’s just too easy to prey on underwater creatures when you aren’t bubbling, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

But Jones, the only diver using a rebreather that day, was willing to take a few risks.

On the bottom of the sea, Jones and buddy Richard Hartley—vice president of the Pro Dive training department—parted ways in a common but unsafe move. Hartley told the medical examiner’s office that they split off so Jones could spearfish without risk of skewering his friend.

Sometime later, Jones caught the biggest grouper of his life. His father, David, says that the two had speared 10- and 20-pounders on their fishing trips but not a 50-pounder. Jones’ adrenaline probably went through the roof as he wrestled with the monster and subdued it.

Then, for some reason, nearly 200 feet down, Jones became so concerned about the gases in his rebreather that he decided on a radical action—to bail out of his loop.

Why did Jones reject his own equipment? That’s what the experts struggled to understand as they examined his gear.

One investigator found a powder caked on the interior surfaces that could have been soda lime, residual cleaning solution, or possibly salt. The powder may have produced a taste in Jones’ mouth and led him to think he was about to get a “caustic cocktail,” the common diver’s term for the chemical burns in the mouth and lungs that occur when water gets into the loop and soda lime leaks out of its canister. It’s a terrifying prospect, and may have led Jones to bail out before he got burned.

Whatever happened, it was time to go to the backup systems. In parachuting terms, Jones’ primary had failed, and with the ground rapidly approaching, he needed to pull the emergency chute. Trouble was, he didn’t have one.

Rebreather users usually bring along a couple of “bailout bottles” with breathable gases for different levels on their dive. If a diver gets into trouble near the surface, he has a bottle with the appropriate oxygen levels for that depth. And if he gets into trouble farther down, he has another bottle with gases for the deeper water. But Jones didn’t bring a bottle appropriate for the nearly 200-foot depth he dived to. And the bottle he brought didn’t have a regulator—a device, including a mouthpiece, that allows divers to suck out the bottle’s contents as needed.

It’s a stunningly simple mistake for a diver of Jones’ experience and safety record. While he was making preparations on the boat and while he was descending, he would have had a difficult time not noticing that his lifesaving device had no regulator. Perhaps, in his typical raring desire to get into the water, Jones had inadvertently picked up the wrong bottle at some point and, when he prepared for the dive, recognized the error but wanted to dive anyway. Divers say this kind of mistake does happen sometimes, but it’s practically suicide.

While it’s tempting to conclude that Zak Jones was just another rebreather fanatic who was killed by his own bravado, there’s a troubling fact that clouds that picture. Before his gear was transferred to the Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office, it was sent to the Pro Dive International shop, according to a police report.

Experts consulted in the case are concerned that if Pro Dive had access to Jones’ gear, the gross mishandling of the chain of possession in a death investigation seems plain. In a small and close-knit industry, concern over bad press for expensive equipment presents a temptation that police should never have made a possibility.

However, police spokesperson Bobby Williams later stated the report was in error and Pro Dive never had possession of the equipment.

Putting down recent rebreather deaths to human error overlooks problems with the technology itself, says Robert Mester, a Seattle-area marine consultant who dived with Jones on the team that recovered the Boeing B-17 in Canada.

“I have buried three friends who died while using rebreathers,” he says. Rebreathers provide such a small margin of error that divers may lose consciousness before they are even aware there’s a problem.

“The [rebreather] industry as a whole seems ill-financed and very fragmented,” says Mester, “with not enough research and development to ensure that rebreathers meet all diving needs under a wide variety of situations and circumstances.”

Indeed, the industry may not be waiting around for outsiders, such as government agencies, to force them to take a harder look at safety. Richard Vann of the Diver’s Alert Network made a presentation to rebreather manufacturers, training agencies, and other industry experts on Nov. 7 at an annual conference not open to the public or the media. He says he focused on the increase in the number of deaths and what standards could be introduced to ensure that after an accident, equipment examinations are made by qualified, impartial investigators.

Zak’s widow, Robyn Jones, who has since moved back to Seattle, isn’t settling for the answers experts have given. Her Fort Lauderdale attorney, Joseph Slama, says she is preparing a lawsuit but refuses to disclose anything about it. Robyn Jones declined to comment for this article but told police she referred to Zak’s rebreather as “the Black Death” and was uneasy whenever her husband used it.

Pro Dive’s chief executive officer, Frank Gernert, turned down multiple requests for an interview, citing legal concerns. He has also banned diving with rebreathers from any of his vessels.

In honor of his son, David Jones is diving more than ever now, he says—and doing it for free, courtesy of Pro Dive. “They’re just being nice,” Jones says. “I’m part of the family.”

The elder Jones says he doesn’t blame Pro Dive or anyone else for Zak’s death. “I’d like to think it was equipment failure. But it was the first time he spearfished in Florida. He got a large fish. He could have gotten excited. I don’t think anybody else was responsible.”

A version of this story first appeared in the New Times Broward–Palm Beach. Additional reporting by Mike Seely, Brian Miller and Mark D. Fefer