How a Florida Keys diver in peril saved his own life while everyone was looking for him

Courtesy of Priscilla Gartenmayer

Dylan Gartenmayer has lived in Key West for all of his 22 years. He’s a multi-generation Conch, the nickname native Key Westers wear proudly.

Like many brought up in the Keys, Gartenmayer also lives much of his life in and on the water. He’s an avid spearfisherman and freediver, able to spend minutes below the surface, diving as deep as 100 feet at a time.

Last Thursday, he and two friends were diving near western Sambo Reef, about five miles off Key West. They were drift diving, meaning someone on a boat follows as the people in the water drift in the channel.

He explained on his Instagram page that the “dive was a little longer than the ones I’ve been doing.”

As Gartenmayer went down on one dive, he could feel the current was particularly strong. When he surfaced, he was pulled far from the boat.

“I got to the point where the boat had disappeared,” he said.

His friends on the boat scanned the horizon, but the water was moving too fast. They had lost sight of him.

“He could see them but they couldn’t see him,” Priscilla Gartenmayer, Dylan’s cousin, told the Miami Herald/FLKeysNews.com.

Meanwhile, one of the friends he was with, Joel Cruz, marked the coordinates of where he was last seen and called the U.S. Coast Guard to report Gartenmayer missing at sea. The agency launched a search, said Petty Officer Nicole Groll, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

Although he was in danger, Dylan Gartenmayer took charge of his own rescue. At first, he used a bamboo stick that drifted by for some flotation support. Rather than get sucked out farther into the ocean, he decided to swim for the reef.

He then saw three mooring balls meant for boats to tie up to, cut three of them loose and used them “to make myself a little raft,” Gartenmayer said.

As the sun started to go down and the water became cooler, he said he started to shiver. He could see Coast Guard planes overhead, but crews could not see him.

While he drifted on the buoys, conditions began to change.

First, he saw a reef shark swim by. Then, a flurry of baitfish began to make the water appear to boil, a tell-tale sign larger fish were chasing smaller fish just beneath the surface. Early evening is feeding time in the ocean.

“I just knew there was a bunch of action going on,” Gartenmayer said.

Then, about 6:30 p.m., around 3 1/2 hours after he got in the water, he saw a boat’s navigational lights approach and heard the hum of engines. Turned out his friends were wise to record the coordinates. He was exactly .3 miles from where he was last seen, Priscilla Gartenmayer said.

“I could hear the engines, and I knew it was my grandfather’s boat,” Dylan said.

Priscilla was on board the boat, along with Dylan’s dad Edward Gartenmayer Jr., his grandfather Edward Gartenmayer Sr., his mom Tabitha Peralta and friends Joel Cruz, Sean Caggiano and Jamie Cooke.

When they got him aboard the boat, Dylan said his mother “hugged me, and her friend did, to give me body warmth.”

The Coast Guard took him to shore. Other than being cold, he was safe and healthy.

Lt. Cmdr. Elizabeth Tatum, a search and rescue coordinator at Coast Guard Sector Key West, praised Gartenmayer for his survival skills and knowledge of the ocean, and said both saved his life.

“Too often missing diver cases don’t have positive outcomes, and the circumstances of this case didn’t forecast for one,” Tatum said in a statement. “Sunset, weather conditions and Dylan’s outfit were playing against us in this case, but his foresight to lash the mooring balls together to make him a bigger target in the water was smart.”