Scuba divers have expressed grave concern over their welfare and that of the diving industry in the future after a diver was found guilty of the involuntary homicide of his dive buddy on Friday.

Professional divers told Times of Malta yesterday that the “absurd” court judgment was now prompting some to consider diving on their own, rather than with a partner for safety. Nobody wanted to be held responsible for the accidental death of their dive buddy, they said.

“This sentence is a horrible precedent,” said Mark Busuttil, vice chair of the Professional Diving Schools Association. “All the divers I spoke to after the news of the conviction said they were seriously considering going solo, which would be even more dangerous. The magistrate’s decision goes against the premise of buddy diving – which is a golden rule in our sport – to always dive in groups to look out for each other.”

Divers are also seriously concerned that the judgment will impact the tourist diving industry, an important niche for Malta.

“News travels fast within diving communities and tourist divers will soon realise that Malta may not be the diving haven they thought it was,” explained underwater archaeologist at the University of Malta Timmy Gambin. “They will realise that they could be trapped in Malta and charged and found guilty over an accident that happened through no fault of their own. If this decision is not reversed on appeal, there could be serious ramifications for the diving industry.”

If this decision is not reversed on appeal, there could be serious ramifications- Underwater archaeologist Timmy Gambin

On Friday, diver Arthur Castillo, 60, was found guilty of the involuntary homicide of his long-time dive buddy Christine Gauci. He was handed a two-year jail term suspended for four years. Castillo yesterday told Times of Malta he will be appealing the judgment but declined further comment.

Gauci, a 35-year-old AFM soldier and diving instructor, died at Mġarr ix-Xini in January 2020 while diving with Castillo. Before they descended, Gauci seemed tired but insisted on going ahead with the dive anyway. Castillo helped her several times and suggested they turn back, according to his testimony.

As she was losing buoyancy underwater, he gave her some of his own weights. But at one point she shot upwards and he could not keep up, he testified.

Castillo made an emergency ascent and shortly afterwards two other divers found Gauci face down in the water. She was certified as having died of natural causes, namely seawater drowning and coronary artery atheroma.

The magistrate ruled that although Castillo did assist her as he was duty-bound to do most of the time, he failed in the final stage. The court said he made too many assumptions when it was clear that the dive was difficult for her. His negligence, the court ruled, was an involuntary cause of her death. However, it also pointed to contributory negligence on Gauci’s part, who insisted on going ahead with the dive despite being tired after a long work shift.

Busuttil said that while divers are indeed responsible to check on their dive buddies and help them in whatever way they can, every diver has their own responsibility as well. The buddy cannot be held responsible for negligence or equipment fault on the part of the victim.

“In this case, Castillo was not acting as her instructor. They were both experienced divers and they were responsible for their own dive,” Busuttil said. “The buddy system is a check system, not a responsibility system.”

In 2015, British scuba instructor Stephen Martin was charged with the involuntary homicide of his girlfriend and one of his friends after they died in a diving accident during a diving trip in Malta in 2014. The circumstances surrounding the accident were similar to those in Gauci and Castillo’s case. However, a year later, the authorities dropped all charges against Martin. An inquest had ruled the deaths were accidental.

Gambin believes that case should have been enough to lead to Castillo’s acquittal.

Busuttil said this in no way diminished the tragic and unfortunate death of Gauci but neither should her dive buddy be held responsible for her death.

“Just like diving, many types of sport have a dangerous element that could lead to death. Take climbing and motorcycle racing, for example,” he said. “If someone dies accidentally doing that sport, we cannot just blame another athlete who was practising that sport with the victim.”

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