A University of North Carolina Wilmington research diver has died at the school-run Aquarius underwater laboratory in the Florida Keys while on a mission with Navy divers.
Dewey Smith, 36, was found unconscious Tuesday afternoon on the sea floor while assisting the military divers on a saturation mission, where divers spend multiple days living underwater to acclimate themselves to operating in deep water.
The cause of death isn’t known, although school officials said they are focusing on Smith’s diving equipment and health at the time of the incident.
Smith, who lived in Florida, had been with Aquarius since 2007 and was considered an experienced diver.
Andy Shepard, director of the underwater facility, said this is the first time something like this has happened at Aquarius.
“We have bumps and bruises, stubbed toes and occasionally some decompression sickness, but that’s to be expected when you’re having thousands of dives a year,” he said. “But no one has ever got near something like this before.”
Shepard said the Navy mission, which was in its second day, and all future missions have been suspended until further notice while officials – including UNCW and the local coroner’s office – conduct a review of Tuesday’s death.
Aquarius, which is bolted 63 feet down on the ocean floor 3½ miles off Key Largo, is the world’s only permanently based underwater laboratory.
Owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 43-foot-long capsule is managed by the University of North Carolina Wilmington and used by a variety of agencies and scientists for training and research projects.
Among the users is NASA, which uses Aquarius to simulate living conditions aboard an isolated spacecraft.
Shepard said Tuesday’s dive was going as planned when Smith signaled to his two fellow divers, dubbed aquanauts, that he was headed back to Aquarius.
A few minutes later he was found unconscious on the ocean bottom.
Shepard said divers, who are all trained as first responders, carried him to Aquarius and began performing basic first aid and CPR.
A Navy doctor soon dove down from the surface to assist, but it was too late.
Smith was pronounced dead at 3:25 p.m.
Shepard said most diving fatalities can be traced to one of three problems – a deviation in the dive mission, an equipment problem or a medical issue with the diver.
“We just don’t know which one it is right now,” he said. “But we don’t think it was something that went wrong with the mission because he was basically just there to observe.”
Smith is survived by his mother and sister.
Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA and undersecretary of commerce, offered her condolences to Smith’s family, friends and colleagues.
“His many friends at NOAA miss him and we share in the grief that follows his loss,” Lubchenco said in a statement issued Wednesday evening.