Today, myself and 2 other members of the Top Island Econauts Dive Club, may have saved a life – a human life.

We were in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing, and were able to save a woman who had become very disoriented while mushroom picking. Had she continued in the direction she thought she needed to go, she would have moved further and further away from where her partner was. When we found her, there was only about another 1.5 hours of daylight left and it is unlikely that any other boats would have been in the area, let alone that they would have heard or seen her.

I am compelled to write about this because I learned a thing or two about enhancing one’s chances for rescue and survival today and it may be of value to share that here. But also, candidly, writing about this helps me reflect on the many “what ifs” around this experience. (Note that I will not share the name of the individual nor the location as I feel this would be a violation of her privacy.)

Of course no one plans to get lost in the woods nor to have an accident but what was shocking to me was how easily we could have missed her.

This individual was quite outdoor savvy and had a system for checking in with her partner; they had radios (they failed); and she had a dog with her (who decided to go home).

She was lost and managed to make her way out of the dense and isolated forest to the edge of the ocean, bettering her chances of someone seeing her . . . but only if a boat went by.

We did go by on our way to the dive site but heard and saw nothing. The engine was on, we were about 1.3 km away, and she was dressed in dark blue and green.

Photo taken today, long before the rescue. Snow on the mountain tops.  © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Photo taken today, long before the rescue. Snow on the mountain tops. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

The dive was not even supposed to happen today! It was planned for yesterday but the weather was predicted to be poor so it was rescheduled for this afternoon.

But then, we only had two divers available meaning there was no one to drive the boat. Had Club member and fellow diver Gord Jenkins not selflessly offered to drive that boat so that Andy Hanke and I could dive, we would never have been on the water today.

But THEN .  .  . we had trouble with the Dive Club boat’s engines whereby we decided it would not be safe enough to take out that boat. We were just going to dive from shore.

But then, I suggested that we could take out my little 17′ vessel named “Fluke” (this is poetic – you’ll see). If we had we had more than 3 people, there is no way we would have had the option to do this. My boat is too small.

And then, there was the decision of which dive to do. Randomly (?) . . . .we chose for the site that ended up being closest to where the lost woman would emerge from the forest.

AND THEN, while Andy and I were diving, Gord heard something far away – some strange bird, a seal, a bear cub? It was a one syllable “blaring like” sound. She would not even have been able to see the boat from where she was, and yet she called.

When we surfaced (the tender boat cannot leave divers), Gord slowly idled the boat toward where he thought he had heard the sound. He was a bit apologetic, not sure if he had really heard something from so far away. We stopped the engine, then Andy and I heard it too – a one syllable sound. A bird?! I made the comment that it sounded like such a “plaintive” call. I got out my binoculars, I could see nothing. We proceeded and then shut off the engine again to make sure we were still heading in the right direction. We heard the one syllable call again. Still, even with binoculars I saw nothing.

Not until we were about 30 m away did we see her – the source of the sound, the woman whose story you have now already heard. Gord saved her life.

I don’t know how he could have heard her, initially from so far away. This dear woman has very powerful lungs and was calling to save her life but still, the acoustics of the area proved to be very favourable allowing Gord to hear her from such a distance.

What if that had not been the case? What if Gord had dismissed the sound he thought he heard?  What if we had dived yesterday (we saw no other boats the whole time we were out today)? What if we had more than 3 people and had not been able to take my boat out? Fluke? I don’t know. This is when my science brain gets all dizzy. I just don’t know.

Oh yeah, and then when we had her in my boat and were heading out to take her back to her partner . . . about 50 Pacific white-sided dolphins happened to storm the boat, leaping in front and alongside it. Despite the stress of what we had just experienced, it made me laugh out in glee. Really, that happened. I can’t make this stuff up. As if my brain wasn’t dizzy enough already.

There is so much I can’t explain here, about synchronicity, chance, “what ifs”, and the feelings for which I cannot even find words.

But what I can clearly express is what I learned today, which is that the easiest way to save a life is – to save your own.

I strongly abide by the guidelines for safety and survival on the water. But, in learning from this experience, the importance of the following is so very clear:

  • Also when in the woods it is best to wear (or having something with you that has) bright, shout-out, non-camouflage colours;
  • Always carry a whistle;
  • Carry a light, mirror and/or small flares, and matches;
  • Always have a waterproof layer of clothing with you;
  • Take a compass or have access to GPS;
  • If needing to cry out – use more than one syllable; and
  • Like the woman from today who is now warm and dry, no matter how distant or how small the chance of rescue, never give up.