“One last dive.” 

That was Dylan Gartenmayer’s plan on Jan. 19, when he dove 35 feet to the ocean floor with a deep breath and a loaded speargun.

He never imagined the last dive of the day could be his last one, ever.

Video of Gartenmayer’s family finding him at sea, hours later, clinging to three rubber mooring balls in near-darkness, has gone viral since the incident. The video, shot by a cousin from the family’s boat, has appeared on CNN and countless other media outlets. The “Today” show interviewed Gartenmayer, 22, with his mother, Tabitha, who’s seen in the video clinging to her son in relief once he’s found and pulled on board.

While he was underwater,  the powerful Gulf Stream current swept Gartenmayer, 22 and an experienced freediver, away from his 20-foot boat, where two other divers were watching for him to surface.

“I don’t know the guys, Justin and Chris, well,” Gartenmayer told the Keys Weekly on Jan. 30. “I had been diving with Justin once before, and we follow each other on Facebook and Instagram. But I just met Chris that day. They had been doing a good job following me at first.”

On his last dive of the day, “I was down and saw, by looking at the ocean floor, that the current had started pushing hard to the east. I started moving really quickly,” he said.

“The guys said they didn’t see me surface,” Gartenmayer said. 

Gartenmayer did surface, minutes after descending, but he could no longer see the boat, and the other divers couldn’t see him.

Night was falling and conditions on the water — already less than ideal — were deteriorating.

Gartenmayer swam over a mile, with the help of a piece of bamboo he found floating, to the shallow part of the reef that’s marked with floating mooring balls. He cut three of them free, lashed them together and used them as a flotation device. He also hoped their light color would make him easier to see, as Gartenmayer eventually heard a helicopter and boat in the distance.

Throughout the hours-long ordeal, Gartenmayer kept his speargun with him, knowing that dusk was prime dinner hour for bull sharks and other predators. 

“If it were me, I would have stayed out looking for someone until I ran out of fuel,” Gartenmayer said “But after the guys searched for me, it was getting dark and they weren’t comfortable navigating at night. They called the Coast Guard with my last coordinates. Then they took my boat back to Murray’s Marina, even though I haven’t kept my boat there since October. We had left from behind the house on Riviera Canal that day. They also called a buddy of mine, who dropped everything he was doing and went to let my family know I was missing. They instantly got on another boat to come find me.”

Gartenmayer said on the morning of Jan. 30 that his two fellow divers hadn’t called to check on him since the incident occurred. 

“That seems messed up,” he said. “But I called Justin today (Jan. 30) and we spoke. I’m a very understanding person.”

Gartenmayer said the two men have been portrayed as reckless and negligent villains in online comments. 

“They’re not villains,” he said. “They did call the Coast Guard. They weren’t comfortable being out at night. I think they just panicked.”

Coast Guard Lt. Paul Benyovszky, who was the command duty officer at Sector Key West on Jan. 19, said it’s not uncommon for a diver to drift far from the vessel, given the surface wind and currents that can move in different directions at the surface versus the bottom. 

“Additionally, in that area of Western Sambo, the depth changes dramatically, which also contributes to shifting currents,” Benyovszky said.

“We got a missing diver distress call from someone aboard Dylan’s boat at 4:19 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 19,” Benyovszky said. “They had searched the area for Dylan for about an hour before calling us.”

The Coast Guard immediately launched a search vessel, based on Gartenmayer’s last known coordinates, and received assistance from a Coast Guard helicopter out of Miami, Benyovszky said.

“We were about a half-nautical mile away from the family’s own search boat, when we got a call at 6:35 p.m., saying they had found him,” Benyovszky said, adding that Coast Guard personnel examined Gartenmayer, ensured that his body’s core temperature was on the rise and released him to his family.

Benyovszky emphasized that “search and rescue operations are there for a reason. No one should ever hesitate to call us as soon as something doesn’t feel right. We have someone constantly manning Channel 16 on the VHF radio and are always available by phone.”

He also reminded boaters to file a float plan and let someone on land know where they’re headed when they go out on the water.

“At least then we have a place to start the search,” Benyovszky said. “But as for this incident, we are just very, very thankful that this turned out as it did, because not all of those calls end as well as this one.”

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.