Battles beneath the ocean
Emily Eight Publications Ltd.
Paperback edition first
published in 2005 by
Copyright © Mark Ellyatt 2005
The right of Mark Ellyatt to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in a retrieval system, in any form or by any means, without permission in writing from Emily Eight Publications Ltd.
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All at Sea
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Chapter 1: All At Sea
I thought scuba would be exciting, but drifting in the choppy seas midway between Cancun and Cozumel was more seasick and sunburn than adrenaline packed adventure. I started my diving course just one day earlier and already I was going to end up as a shark snack. Yesterday was spent mostly filling out forms and trying on equipment to fill time while we waited for the instructor to arrive. There were six others in the group - five from the States or Canada, I guessed from the accents, plus myself. When she did turn up, Instructor Karen introduced herself and made some excuses for the delay. By way of apology she offered us the chance to complete the course in two days instead of three, getting us back on schedule. Adding there would be no need for practice sessions in a swimming pool, or time wasted in classrooms, this was going to be a fast track scuba course for quick learners. We all agreed that this sounded like us. Karen said that despite being so quick, it was perfectly safe - this was in fact the way the whole world learned to dive, apparently. Our first session began straight from the shore, with underwater skills such as clearing water from our masks and sharing our air supplies discussed via frantic shouting as we bobbed up and down in the heavy surf.
The looks on my fellow novice divers faces as we slipped beneath the ocean for the first time were mostly of agony. Karen the instructor kept touching her nose and squealing loudly through her breathing regulator as everybody headed for the bottom. Some of the group mimicked the nose pointing, I could not see how this would help. Feeling no pain, I just dropped down to the seabed and watched. I think the rest of the group were having problems clearing their ears from the effects of the pressure. The Instructor was gesturing to me frantically from above. She seemed to be actually pulling the daisy chain of divers down with her. All these grown men were even holding hands with each other. Most of the group were kicking their flippers like they were riding bicycles and using their free arm in a breast stroke swimming style. Some clearly looked as if they would rather go back up than down.
I looked up at this gaggle being dragged down towards me with amazement. It looked like some of the guys were experiencing their first day at school, they definitely didn’t want to let go of mum’s hand now. I remember thinking scuba diving must be like learning to use contact lenses or giving birth - it can be quite messy at the beginning and potentially embarrassing, but hopefully worth persevering with. After about ten minutes of kneeling on the sand watching the antics above me, Instructor Karen started giving me the thumbs up sign, I felt fine and returned the same signal. This thumb’s up signal was repeated many times, and I did it back as often as I could. She let the other divers go and they bobbed straight back up to the surface. Karen started to swim down towards me. Thinking it would just be the two of us going diving, I started to swim down the nearby slope.
The others in the group seemed happier floundering at the surface, some looked like they were treading grapes. I kicked my flippers up and down as fast as I could. I was creating quite a dust storm behind me, clearly startling some kind of grey flat fish. Suddenly something grabbed me from behind, stopping me in my tracks. I recognised Instructor Karen’s arm as it jabbed out from behind my head and quickly started to inflate my buoyancy jacket. All the extra air affected my buoyancy and within seconds I shot to the surface resembling a swollen puffer fish. Elated that my first dive was such a success, I thanked the instructor for the experience. She seemed lost for words and just shook her head. I imagine that these special moments were just the reward she sought, seeing land lubbers like me taking their first deep breaths underwater. I mentioned that the experience left me quite speechless, Karen looked around at some of my fellow aquanauts in the group, some of which were bleeding from the nose, she just muttered in agreement "truly amazing" continuing to shake her head.
Dive two of the course would be less threatening for me than the rest, as I was the only one in our group that dived properly the day before. I prepared for the next dive with excitement and apprehension, my girlfriend Clare lent me her diving book and I studied it all that night. In the morning two of the group decided that scuba diving was not for them, the instructor heartily agreed with their wise decision. Our group of six had dwindled to four now, plus Karen, our patient mentor. The waves from yesterday had abated and we all swam out into the blue azure of the Caribbean Sea.
We swam over a reef in 20 feet of water. Everybody saw the turtle and the Barracuda reef shark. We learned that the thumbs up from the instructor meant that it was time to go back to the surface and not “I’m fine too, thanks”. After 20 minutes or so we all agreed to ascend, as now two of the group were sharing air as one had run out. I had the surfacing skill practiced now and could ascend effortlessly by pressing the 'up button' on my buoyancy vest. Although I had actually left the seabed last, I quickly caught up and ended up on the surface even BEFORE my instructor. I was grinning from ear to ear as now this was all too easy. Karen reminded me to go the surface slower as this kept the group closer together. I hoped that Dive three would as good as number two.
That afternoon, we boarded a boat with at least 30 other divers. Many divers were talking about dive tables and their duels with the deep. I sat and listened to a knowledgeable looking chap who explained that this would be a drift dive and that the currents today would be very strong and exciting. This sounded excellent to me, though my Instructor Karen said that this guy was full of crap and that the current would, in fact, be quite mild. The sea was choppy and the wind was making the tops of some of the waves quite white. The two hour boat ride took its toll on many and some faces were looking as green as the sea…mine included.
About 15 minutes from the dive site I started to be sick. I was sick as secretly as possible, but after two mouthfuls of sick swallowed back down, the next one erupted like a geyser from hell. It ended up in the equipment bag of the loudmouth man, who now looked as nauseous as me. I looked up through my streaming eyes and offered a nod of reparation to the stranger. He just swallowed and closed his eyes quickly. A second later his eyes were wide like saucers and he was sick. I was getting the stare of the seasick brethren from all corners of the boat. This look is one of total abandonment and acceptance of any situation. Many would have given anything to get off this boat now. Someone upwind was sick. Luckily the sea spray in the air concealed most of it, but it was best to keep your mouth shut just in case. Nausea is the worst feeling, it’s a wonder why people get on boats at all. When you get seasick it can be enough to never visit water deeper than a bathtub again. For the worst afflicted, even a trip on an escalator can trigger the telltale yawning and salivating feeling. Such people would never contemplate a trip to Venice much less a Nile cruise. Today I was one of these retching wretched, hurling up my lunch everywhere.
The captain rang a bell to tell us it was dive time. I was being sick properly now, two or three times a minute at least. Karen the consummate dive professional asked me to get ready to dive. She added that as soon as I got under the water I would feel brand new, and that the boat was the last place I needed to be. Quite compassionately Karen intimated that those who didn’t dive would have to pay again to complete the diving course, as it was our own faults we were sick - she did tell us to look at the horizon after all, and the seasick tablets she was selling were only a dollar each. These soothing words were all I needed to put my equipment on.
Dropping down the seventy to eighty feet to the bottom was fairly eventful. I learnt how to puke underwater many times. All around me, yellow tailed snapper fish snapped at my breakfast. I saw my fellow adventurers’ cart-wheeling along the seabed, and watching my somersaulting buddies turned my stomach even faster until it felt like the spinning drum of a washing machine. I heard a pinging noise and it sounded pretty frantic. Instructor Karen was using her tank banger (a large metal nut on a loop of elastic) to signal everyone. She used this a lot yesterday to get people’s attention. It was her signal for us to look at a fish, or just to wake up!
The current underwater was moving along at breakneck speed. The rocks and reefs below skipped past me like a set of rapids. I wanted to stop, but as I planted my flippers in the boulders I was flung over and over again. My vomiting had turned into a predictable routine, and now the potentially jamming lumps had turned into a nasty green liquid. This meant I didn’t have to take my breathing regulator out in time to the retching. This skill would prove to be very useful in twelve years time. I got a handhold eventually, and managed to stop my gymnastic twirls. I waited on the bottom watching other divers being whisked off by the current. A minute later I was alone, the distant tank banging now a memory as distracting as a watch ticking. I waited for some time, my nausea slowly lifted just as Karen had said it would. I guess Instructors had to know all this stuff.
Scuba diving was proving very challenging to say the least. I decided that I could take it or leave it really. If I wanted to feel this sick and helpless, I would rather not have to pay for the privilege. My first two training dives were lucky escapes, culminating in this very unpleasant regurgatory purgatory experience. Could it get any worse? I only wanted to learn to scuba dive properly because of my girlfriend Clare. She had got certified a couple of weeks prior to me - throughout the course I got a running commentary as she raved about the turtles and dolphins in crystal clear Caribbean seas. I had only seen rough seas, no dolphins, and my life flash before me several times. The only fish life I saw were the yellow snappers that voraciously pecked at my breakfast, freshly ejected from the pit of my stomach.
Prior to Mexico, we sought tuition at our local diving club in North London. We eagerly endured all the marathon swimming bouts, and the constant insults from our megaphone-touting instructor who dripped with clipboards and binoculars. We mastered the club’s scuba equipment, most of it clearly used during hull inspections of Noah’s Ark. We relished our evenings of paddling through balls of hair and soggy sticking plasters, duelling with ravenous cracked pool tiles. Without notice, the local council ended our dream. The sports centre was closed down by health inspectors, as virtually every scuba session ended in a bout of gastroenteritis for all concerned. We decided to wait to get some training in sunnier climes from a more professional outfit. My current perilous underwater situation was the fruit spawned from that naïve decision. During the next fourteen years, and 3000 dives later, I’m reminded virtually every day that ‘professional’ and ‘scuba instructor’ are mutually exclusive terms.
Remember…I’m still underwater at this point, alone and getting low on my air supply. It was time to return to the sunlight 80 feet above me. Less than a minute later I threw my mask off and gasped some fresh air. I was expecting to see the bucking bronco dive boat nearby. To my disbelief, the boat was nowhere to be seen and I could not see a soul anywhere. I span around a few times to see what was on the horizon. In the distance was the Cozumel coastline, I couldn’t see where we had come from. But I did notice, a few hundred yards away, an orange tube floating and decided to swim towards it. I remembered the orange tube from a picture in the diving manual, it looked like a divers signalling sausage. This orange balloon seemed to be moving away from me, but twenty minutes later I caught up with it. Thankfully I’d met up with two others that had also missed the bus home. Karen, my instructor, was one of them and the other was an inconsolable lady from Hawaii. As the hours passed, our spirits dropped. The rawness of sunburn on our faces overtook the feeling of nausea. We twisted around at every shark sighting, but it was always a false alarm. This diving course was pretty much atrocious, and now I was going to be lost at sea, this icing on the cake tasted very bitter.
I don’t know how many hours we waited, but being lost at sea does teach you to be patient. The first 30 minutes are hardest; the next 2 hours seem to fly by really, it’s important not to look at the time. Without a time frame, it’s easy to lose track of the hours and this kept the wolf of panic further from our doors. We didn’t say too much at all to each other. Karen asked if we were okay on the hour, every hour, and the other woman just whimpered a lot. The dive boat did eventually come back. Apparently they noticed the equipment missing from the rental stock firstly, and then noticed that instructor Karen was on the earlier boat roster. Thankfully her name was not added in pencil. It was a tense three hours back to the dive centre. Again, nothing was said the whole time. It was all a bit surreal, the staff at the dive shop laughed and joked like it was just an everyday occurrence. It did occur to me that perhaps this was, just an everyday occurrence at this dive centre. We were supposed to do another dive that afternoon, to complete our training. I didn’t really fancy another round and was relieved when Karen said we should postpone it as it had been a long day. The instructor never showed for work the next day. I signed some paperwork and was refunded a few dollars for the course not being finished properly. My diver’s certification card was sent to me in the post, but I didn’t use it again for 12 months.
A holiday in Barbados was my next chance to match my poorly applied diving instruction against the might of the ocean. I walked into a dive centre, imaginatively called The Dive Shop. I showed them my valid-for-life diving card. This piece of laminated cardboard allowed me to dive at any open water dive site without supervision, as long as I was accompanied by a buddy with at least similar experience - I hoped that this would not be the case today. I mentioned that my last dive was to eighty feet and that I was a bit rusty. I added that seized was a better description. Within an hour we were off, wedged in a small open speed boat bouncing along at 30 knots towards the wreck Stavronikita. The dive guide was also the boat captain. He shouted some instructions but his voice was no match for the din of the outboard motor. The wreck sat upright in one hundred and thirty feet of water. It was still intact and was apparently safe for all divers. The driver muttered that we had arrived at the position, and without another word, slipped over the side. I introduced myself to my apparent dive partner for today. She had a look resembling a rabbit caught in the headlights. It turned out that Anna hailed from Norway, and had just completed her diving course the day before. This was her first dive without an instructor. It reassured her to learn that I had finished my course the previous year. If she found that piece of information comforting, we were indeed in trouble! What reassured me was our proximity to shore and that the sea was calm. I neither felt seasick nor anxious, and if the dive boat mysteriously sank or was impounded by the authorities for its un-seaworthy appearance, I could easily manage the swim back to terra-firma. We helped each other on with our equipment and Anna reminded me of the equipment checks. She rolled over the side backwards. I thought that technique was a little advanced, so attempted to stand up and just leap over the side. After my ungainly entrance we were ready for action.
Dropping back down under water after so long felt very strange. But the visibility underwater went on forever and I was overwhelmed by the electrifying blue and tranquillity of it all. The grey hull of the shipwreck came into view just below the surface. The huge Greek freighter teemed with fish of all shapes and sizes. I felt weightless and without a care. The dive guide reappeared now and gestured that we should drop inside one of the holds of the ship. I swam over to this black rectangular area and the three of us dropped inside. I signalled to my buddy, she seemed to be enjoying things as much as myself. As we descended into the vast hold, it got quite dark. Our dive guide swam ahead to point out a hole in the side of the ship that led outside. The swim through was fantastic and for the first time I felt like a proper diver. Our underwater sheep dog then turned downwards to the seabed and we both followed without question. I checked my depth gauge and was amazed to see we had reached one hundred and twenty feet. I saw a shoal of big silver fish and turned around to Anna to point them out. She looked in the right direction, but at the same moment a look of horror spread across her face as the breathing regulator fell from her mouth. The soft rubber mouthpiece that you bite on to keep the equipment in your mouth was still between her teeth but the regulator and hose piece were missing. The cable tie that secured the two pieces had obviously fallen off, it was just a matter of time until a drama ensued.
Anna pounced on me like a cat on a mouse, grabbing the breathing regulator from my own mouth. I reached down and unclipped the spare regulator that dangled from my buoyancy jacket. I put the regulator in my mouth and felt relieved and pleased that we had fixed the problem ourselves. Scuba diving is apparently as dangerous as ten-pin bowling, a fact I had read several times. This little gem probably helps the insurance underwriters sleep soundly at night, but it was no consolation when a split second later my buddy and I ran out of air, one hundred feet below the surface. I learned afterwards from the comical dive guide that the diving equipment used for customer rental goes through a schedule of maintenance that should attract anyone considering suicide.
Indeed ‘routine’ and ‘servicing’ are dirty words throughout much of the dive industry. Since this day I’ve noticed that many scuba shops simply follow the mantra ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it’.
When you cannot breathe underwater, it’s natural to think the worst. I’m fairly pragmatic, but my buddy fell into the role of headless chicken almost immediately. We started swimming up - quickly. As we got closer to the surface, we were delivered a reprieve. My diving regulator started to supply air again, although at an asthmatic rate. It was similar to sucking a cat through a drinking straw, not so noisy but with all the difficulty. However, by the time we reached 20 feet, we were back on easy street and breathing normally. We slowed down and took a minute to hit the surface. Anna looked like she had seen a ghost, but calmed down quickly once back in the boat. We had arranged for two dives, Anna said that one was enough for today. I still fancied it, and Julian our guide said he would take me in again alone. We drove some way towards home to an underwater reef called ‘Pieces of Eight” in sixty feet of water. Anna asked how long we would wait before diving again. I hoped not long as the sun was scorching, I wanted to go straight away. We exchanged our empty scuba tanks for fresh ones. Julian slipped over the side again without warning. I tried the backward roll entry technique, which I had seen earlier. Doing a little somersault, although fun, was slightly disorientating. I got my bearings and headed down. Julian was there, near the bottom. There was a giant fishing net stretched right out in front of him. My dive buddy was pulling fish from the net and letting them go. This was fun and we spent the next thirty minutes liberating small reef fish. We did struggle for a while as we tried to break the netting - I had to rest to get my breath back several times. This dive lasted close to forty minutes, we saw everything. Lion fish, turtles and a myriad of colourful reef dwellers. With all the distractions, it would be easy to miss monitoring my air pressure. Julian kept a watch out and he signalled that we should ascend when it was time. On the way up, his wrist computer started beeping. He wanted to stop for a bit just below the surface. I tried to stop too but the air in my buoyancy jacket had expanded too much and I sped past him. Julian beckoned me back down. I couldn’t get the air from my jacket and was stuck at the surface floundering. Anna shouted over, asking if we had a good dive, I headed over to the boat to tell her everything.
Ten minutes later, Julian surfaced also. It had been a great day. In no time we were back to the dive centre and booked another dive trip for tomorrow. We explained about the running out of air episode to the boss. The shop manager explained that we should take more responsibility for our own safety and to check the equipment before use. He pointed to some little filter embedded inside my rental regulator. It was as green as the grass outside. He advised that it should be grey or silver and my instructor should have told me how to check this. Green meant it was almost completely blocked and would only give enough air for one person. He continued that there were many sets of regulators and that he alone could not be accountable for ensuring that they all worked. He blamed people like us for rinsing the regulators in the fresh water without the dust cap in place. I felt very tired all of a sudden and headed back to the hotel. I started to feel a pain in my legs about half an hour later.
Stopping at a fried chicken vendor, I sipped a juice and took a painkiller washed down with a side of B-B-Q ribs. My head started to throb and my legs were becoming weaker. I phoned the dive centre for advice, they suggested that I was experiencing heat exhaustion and was obviously dehydrated. I returned to the hotel for a lie down. A few minutes later I must have dozed off, but I woke with a start to the feeling of ants running all over my chest. Turning the light on and stumbling to the shower, I turned the water on. There were no ants, but instead a purple rash had covered my chest and arms. Maybe it was ants, but if so they had strangely gone now leaving no trace. I rubbed some E45 anti-aging cream into my chest and lay down again. That was two in the afternoon.
The next day at seven in the evening, I woke up to knocking on my door. I had forgotten I’d arranged to go to a cabaret show at a plantation museum with friends. I could just about summon the energy to shout a response to the caller. My knees were very painful and I struggled to put my legs on the floor. It felt like I had run a marathon in my sleep and then fought in a bar fight. I focussed and got up, all the recent excitement and my fast approaching twenty four years old must be catching up with me, I thought. Jenny my niece came into my room, she mentioned that a dive centre had come calling for me earlier in the day, but I didn’t hear them banging. I felt very weak and very rough. I needed food and drink and some distraction. Several rum punches and some sustenance later, I felt myself a little more. At eleven thirty in the evening, I had been entered into a limbo dancing competition. I stood swaying before the waist height bar, which was now doused with Sambuca and burning merrily. My knees were on fire also - if I made it under this bar it would be a flaming miracle indeed! Moving forward under the bar meant arching my back and bending my knees. I had as much flexibility as the Leaning Tower of Pisa now. I collapsed on the floor to drunken applause and was helped from the stage. The pain stayed in my legs for ages after.
Flying home, I went to the doctors for relief. The doc asked what I had been doing before the pain started. I told him “nothing really, except for some scuba diving”. When I told him more about the diving drama, he consulted a dusty medical journal about Caisson’s disease. The symptoms I presented were those of residual decompression sickness, otherwise known as the bends. I had heard of the bends from the movies, you got them if you wore the big brass helmets and came to the surface too fast. My whirlwind diver training made no mention of decompression illness. The rapid ascent with Anna had probably caused bubbles in my body. This explained a lot. I should have gone directly to a diver’s recompression chamber in Barbados and got treated immediately. The dive shop guy had said I was just hungry and thirsty. The pain in my legs slowly resolved over the weeks but was quickly replaced with a more throbbing pain in the arse, my job.
I wanted a change from my current career of ducking and diving in the second hand car trade to something a bit less cut throat. I considered all manner of adventurous careers, including helicopter pilot and even North Sea commercial diver. I went out and bought a glossy diving magazine for more ideas. The glamorous and seemingly amorous lifestyle of the diving professional drew me like a fly to a windscreen. Within a fortnight I had enrolled in a zero-to-hero dive training special. Looking at my certification card, the dive shop guy noticed I had already been diving three years - that apparently made me an experienced diver! My new diving Instructor had been diving only six months himself, and he added (worryingly) that I could probably teach him a thing or two. These next few weeks would see me enrolled in the largest diver training school in England. It was February or March so it made for a winter training discount. I moved from my townhouse in a salubrious north London suburb, to a dilapidated caravan adjacent to the opaquely turquoise waters of a gravel pit.
How the on-site accommodation was advertised would stretch the most elastic imagination. The interior photographs had faded a lot in the sunshine, or came from an era before coloured ink. I endured a week staying in this damp freezing poverty, sharing with one guy whose snoring could keep a deaf person awake. My other ‘cellmate’ was the instructor, who had a serious night time teeth-grinding habit. I was surprised every morning that he had any teeth left. The bottled gas fire that smoked like burning car tyres had to be extinguished on entry due to carbon monoxide scares. Homeless tramps with mangy dogs would never rest their heads on these mouldy damp mattresses. These quaint diver’s chalets resembled cardboard slums on wheels. Although costing just five quid a night, this was still daylight robbery. The adverts said that each caravan boasted a rustic, waters edge convenience. In no time, I realised that convenience was meant in the urinal sense of the word. The diving company was proud to offer its sub-aqua adventures from two locations. I did my Advanced Diver course in a swamp near Birmingham, followed by Rescue training back at the murky brick quarry near Cambridgeshire
During my training, I sampled daily money-wasting and pointless antics at the hands of would-be dive professionals. On the very first day, we learnt how to deep dive safely within the strict guidelines of the training agency. However, this version of deep diving was never actually deeper than 19 metres at any time, and swimming at this depth was strictly prohibited. We simply held onto a length of chain that hung from the edge of the quarry. Our next high-octane-adventure would be boat diving. The dive centre boasted about its very own boat. The promotional materials showed a boat being used for rescue and safety demonstrations. The boat photos contained someone resembling Jack Cousteau wearing very vintage equipment, so was clearly taken a few years back. The boat had definitely seen better days, as now it was a dilapidated inflatable dinghy that had been nailed to some planks of wood. Its floorboards were screwed to these planks, and thus it was fixed permanently to the edge of the quarry. Only half of the boat was capable of inflation, but this allowed for easy access when wearing fins. We were to simulate (pretend) that we had travelled to the dive site by boat. On the instructors command, we were to roll over backwards into the muddy water. We could then explore some dumped cars and shopping trolleys and then return to the dive boat. I couldn’t wait for the Drift dive experience in the quarry. I thought we would just simulate ocean currents by jumping into the water without our flippers on. The instructor scoffed at my contemptuous remarks, quoting how good he was and that he had never ever dived outside this quarry. “The sea is over-rated” he would repeat, “Everything you need is in this inland oasis”. It was hard to detect sarcasm or irony in his profundity, his Birmingham accent was just too concealing. After all this in-depth training, I felt truly an advanced diver capable of rescuing any distressed damsels that swam my way.
Before diving, like I said I sold cars in London, both new and used. During this time I had business dealings with gentlemen from Yakuza families, Al-Qaeda pilots, and several members of “semi-organised” crime families. At no time however, did these men or women stoop as low with their business ethics as the staff from my ‘five star’ diving centre. During my dive master training course, one of my fellow dive instructor lemmings developed a burst lung, I think it was technically called a mediastinal emphysema, it still sounded nasty. This guy had apparently worked previously as a commercial diver but lost his medical clearance to dive professionally due to, strangely enough, bursting his lung. When I started on this leadership level training, this chap joked to everyone that he had burst his lung at work, and was forced to leave. His new plan was to continue working under the water as a ‘mere’ scuba instructor instead, this sounded reasonable to me, and it sounded reasonable to our instructor.
A couple of days later, when he was carted away in an ambulance, the owner of the dive centre came up to me minutes before the police arrived and asked if I would forget the conversation about yes’s and no’s that we had discussed during the completion of our diving self-medicals. Apparently life and death decisions are worth only £300 in diving, when I sold cars this level of injury usually involved much more money. Still, I was not put off my path of joining the ranks of the diving professional. I completed my dive master course, and applied for my diving Instructor training. Within a couple of weeks I was sitting on my instructor development course, albeit at a competitors dive centre. I was going to give the first dive centre another thousand pounds for this tuition, but after a near drowning (my own) due to a leaking rental drysuit compounded by hired-free flowing regulators, I decided that enough was enough.
The course you undertake to become a dive instructor is quite enjoyable, both highly sociable and fun. It involves learning to teach a contrived and minimised teaching system. But this system is quite alien to common sense. It’s a bit like learning a foreign language, but with a big difference - what you say is not important, only the grammar is key. Usually when you thread a few new foreign words together, the listener overlooks improper grammar, focussing purely on the important part. Often, new instructors still do not understand the important parts themselves as they have only been diving a short time. During the instructor training, the candidate gives presentations that are graded. The instructor could tell you all sorts of potentially dangerous information, but score enough points to pass by hiding the rubbish within the guidelines of the teaching system. Foreign language instructors are often provided with non-diving translators, this complements the lottery of the grading process nicely.
Imagine saying something like “In the United Kingdom we drive on the right side of the road”.
You could also say that “In the United States we drive on the right side of the road”.
Both sentences are grammatically correct, but explain nothing. Unless you actually know which side of the road to drive on beforehand, you will have a head on collision in England despite driving on the right side - the left…confused? You will be. My point was that new diving instructors leaving training have only learned a framework in which to teach. If the underpinning facts are misunderstood or downright dangerous, that’s the way they will stay, sadly. While underwater, the details and facts keep you alive, not the way they were presented. I don’t want to go on about just how shoddy diving instructors can be, but if training agencies want to endanger lives proportionally to increasing profits, then it won’t be long until major government intervention and much needed regulation.
My Instructors course started smoothly, the group numbered about seventeen and we all had a good laugh. An unexpected bonus was that if you pretended to be unemployed and did a few nights additional paperwork, you could have the course for free. This special offer came courtesy of the U.K government, as part of another new initiative to waste tax payer’s money. I thought this was a good deal, so I took up the challenge, as did more than half the class. They even supplied a bus to take us down to the unemployment benefit office - we went from Social-Climbers to Social-Claimers in the same afternoon.
The next nine days were gruelling with all this additional free-course paperwork but great fun. My grasp of diving theory was as good as it needed to be and probably better than anyone else’s in the room though this hardly helped at all. Other candidates - who were barely coherent without alcohol and had clearly been studying for a completely different vocation - took on board the teaching system like kids to water, or more aptly, stoners to a bong. My brain seeks explanation rather than memory games. I sat alone in the evenings adding the contrived phrases to my vocabulary and trying to integrate them into my own diving knowledge database. The courses training director made the mistake of explaining the value of these techniques at the beginning of class. He said that nobody uses these methods during real diver training, ever. You simply had to remember the patter for the exam at the end and learn to high five when appropriate. As every Englishman knows, there is never an appropriate time to high five! I realised early on that becoming a diving instructor was as challenging as filling out credit card details, by the end of the course I was a fully certified diving instructor professional guru. I graduated with about fourteen of the others. We all spoke naively about lengthy careers as diving instructors. One year later, two or three were still working in the industry. One was cleaning the glass inside a large aquarium in the Midlands, another had graduated to the dizzying heights of leading snorkellers on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean.
Predictably, my fellow virtually-unemployed course-mates were caught red handed cheating with the government paperwork. Most had borrowed my coursework and had foolishly copied it verbatim. The myopic, but clearly eagle-eyed government verifier, sorted the wheat from the chaff quickly and mercilessly. He offered the choice of court room appearances or course payments in full. Credit card details appeared instantly on his table the same day, along with some muffled apologies. My own work was accepted fortunately, and I collected my winnings in the form of a free instructor course. Because of my total disregard for academic qualifications, I have had to endure the pitfalls of being a diving instructor for the past thirteen years now. Maybe I will collect the resulting sainthood for this when I parole from debtors prison…many years from now. A couple of weeks staggering around intoxicated from joining the ranks of the scuba-guru had to end. I got my first job in the industry, and a rude awakening…
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Chapter 2. First Break In The Business
A diving centre in Barbados, called Shades of Blue, had agreed to employ me at exorbitant cost. For seven days work, with each day near sixteen hours duration, I could relax in the knowledge I would receive the princely sum of seventy U.S dollars. Still, my rent was cheap and we got free lunch when memory served the owners. My first day at work was my first chance to experience being underwater while unconscious. A tropical storm had lashed the west coast for a week or more. Virtually every dive boat resting at its mooring was now sleeping with the fishes. Monster winds meant biblical seas. Most of the vessels had simply filled with rain water and capsized into the abyss. The dive centre I worked at had a glass-bottom boat they used for dive trips. The boat had an automatic pump that drained the water from the sieve-like hull. After 5 days of terrible wind and rain, the battery that powered the bilge pump had failed, causing the boat to list badly. I arrived at work at 7.30 am. We looked out to the stricken dive boat through damp and misty binoculars. If we didn’t get over to the boat and drain it soon, it would become a permanent fixture on local maritime charts.
The waves were angry, they crashed with a promise of pain and suffering for anyone stupid enough to try and launch a rowing boat from the shore. The constant barrage of surf and its insidious undertow had already removed the sun-bleached sand from the beach, exposing the sharp coral rocks that give Barbados its coral island status. Desperate measures were needed, the situation shouted for them. Myself and Adam, the dive shop owner, dragged a little rowing boat called “Li’l Hero” from its rack and ventured closer to the rabid, snarling jaws of the ocean.
Pushing the boat quickly into the big waves was ridiculous and foolhardy, so that was what we did. The boat was spat up into the air over ten feet, it somersaulted over our heads before returning to earth upside-down between the two of us. Uninjured and not put off, with a liberal sprinkling of stupidity we tried again and again to launch the eleven foot wooden boat. Each time, the waves easily flipped the boat and sent it crashing down, miraculously missing us (mostly). I had the inspired idea to enter the water with my flippers on while dragging a tow-rope tied to the bow of the boat. I would swim out with the rope and attempt to pull the boat, which we filled a little with water to weigh it down in an effort to prevent more gymnastics.
Theoretically brilliant, but practically flawed. The waves overturned the boat in seconds, this time the undertow sucked the boat down with it still tied to my wrist. I slipped the knot luckily, and watched the boat disappear to become another days problem, or maybe some barbecue driftwood in a week or so. We resorted to swimming out in the huge seas. The tumultuous conditions made it a struggle, but thirty minutes later we were alongside to see the dive boat almost completely at one with the ocean. We lamely dipped plastic buckets into the boat in an attempt to bail it out. For a while it looked promising but the waves would sometimes set us back minutes in a second. We watched with dejected disbelief as the sea took its prisoner. With a burp of foul air from some compartment, the final oily groan sent our dive boat to the bottom. Bugger!
The owners had brought a bottle of the local Mount Gay Barbados Rum, and after a horrible swim back we imbibed a little of the hard stuff as a consolation prize. I earned less in a week here than sometimes an hour in my previous job. But the feeling of life that now coursed through my veins alongside the searing heat of the refined cane sugar was worth more than any used-car sale, except selling jalopies to unlicensed taxi drivers, obviously.
It was still before 9 am. We arranged a sport fishing boat to take us to our new wreck site. To recover the boat the same day meant saving thousands of dollars in repairs to the engine and hull timbers. We drove to the Careenage, the main port in Bridgetown. The town marina, used for glitzy catamarans and Marlin sport fishers, was desolate of people but full of boats shivering in the rain with their glossy canvas sails lashed tightly down, bracing the storm.
Our captain was a diminutive but very stocky Barbados coastguard member with one foot missing! I introduced myself and learned that his name was Shorty…perfect. The life jacket he donned was enormous, he joked that he couldn’t swim and usually never wore a life vest, as they only delayed the inevitable, many local fishermen shared this view, “let de sea take what she want…mon”.
The hour of knock-down seas was hard to endure, but we made it over to the hopefully temporary grave site of our dive boat in one piece. We planned to drop down atop of the wreck and fill lifting bags with air to raise it up. I asked the boat captain for a calculator and the specifications of the submerged engine with which I would work out just how much air we should take down to complete the lift. I was keen to show the other guys my academic prowess, honed to perfection during my recent diving-instructor training. Surprisingly the skipper produced the calculator but of course not the engine’s instruction book. I wedged myself in a corner of the boats’ heaving and spray soaked deck, tapping away on the keys but not being able to get an answer without the displacement details for the outboard. The local divers laughed out loud when they asked what I was doing,
Shorty shouted “Just fill de bag until she rise…mon - we be here all day else-ways”.
I had to acquiesce to Shorty’s practical logic really, it made perfect sense. We had the idea to raise the outboard engine first, and then the boat itself second. Getting the two-stroke engine to the repair shop today would increase the chances of the outboard polluting the ocean another day. Putting on our diving equipment while slipping around the bucking deck would be the first challenge though. I picked up the spare scuba tanks for the lift bags and dropped backwards into the boiling white spray that became the sea. The drop to the sea was further than ideal, the sport fisher had a very high free board and meant almost a 2metre drop on a calm day. I timed the waves as best as possible, but hit the water disastrously.
Scuba air tanks feel almost weightless when worn underwater. The large aluminium tank weighs almost 15 kilograms at the surface, but it felt more than this as it hit me in the jaw, knocking me into unconsciousness as I hit the water. I slipped beneath the surface upside-down, the clip that secured the tank allowed it to dangle in my now mask-less face. The tanks weight and the other equipment dragged me down towards the seabed and its waiting diners. The pain in my ears, caused by the gradually increasing water pressure as I drifted downwards, threw me a lucky reprieve. My eyes opened as disorientation filled every crevice of my brain. I realised soon enough that I was dropping upside-down without a mask but also with a definite throbbing in my jaw. I noticed that my breathing regulator was out of my mouth next, I quickly recovered my air supply and held my nose. If I took a breath without my mask on, while upside down, I might inhale water through my nose, adding a proper drama to my predicament.
Frantically trying to ‘pop’ my ears, I managed to equalise the discomfort and stop water entering at the same time. I turned the right way up and headed back to the surface. My diver’s wrist computer was beeping a warning, I was ascending too quickly. I slowed down to avoid getting decompression sickness, a condition many divers call the bends…I had this malady some years before in these very waters - it was enormously painful then, so best avoided today.
Reaching the safety of the surface, I felt like I had recovered my senses enough to head down again. The boat captain threw me another mask. Down I went, swimming down to seventy feet or so, I could see the others gathering around the sunken dive boat. She looked to be quite relaxed in the tranquil blue, the hull resting serenely in the sand. The angry waves above did not reach far below the surface, at these depths only calm prevailed. I’m sure that if a boat could feel seasick, then this one had every reason to be, after riding the rodeo waves for the best part of a week. My dive buddies had undone the bolts that held the outboard engine to the transom plate. I handed them one of the smaller lift bags. Inflating the PVC bag with air allowed the 150 kg engine to become as weightless as a cloud for a second before rapidly ascending to the sunlight above. We tied a rope to help locate the engine should the bag leak its buoyant contents. Open-ended lift bags like ours would let the engine get an unexpected second dive at an unknown location if they emptied or leaked on arrival at the surface.
So far so good. In no time we had attached the bigger lift bags to the boats hull and inflated them, but the boat wouldn’t budge. If an object is partially submerged in a soft surface like mud or sand, then it will be much heavier than if it simply rested on top. Our dive boat was stuck by a vacuum to the seabed, and refused to give up its watery resting spot. Our solution to this problem should be avoided by any readers thinking of a successful maritime salvage career.
As the boat was sitting upright, we decided to run a tow line to a metal ring in the bow and attach the other end to the fishing boat at the surface. Using the tow rope to pull the boat free, we imaginatively surmised that the boat would simply float through the water and return to the surface, using the hydrodynamics of its own hull to climb upwards. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but as soon as the boat broke free of the seabed’s vice-like grip, it surged forward with all the control of a newly darted elephant. The large roof area of the boat acted like an underwater sail. With all this forward motion, the roof-turned-sail made our boat start to climb upwards to the surface. We all felt pretty cool, until the roof peeled away like the lid of a sardine can. Without the roof in place, the lift bags rushed to the surface like champagne bubbles. The hull turned over immediately and headed straight back down to be smashed to pieces on some rocks.
The dive centre rented another glass-bottom boat the following week after the weather improved. I put this one on the seabed within a fortnight. During a frolic with my girlfriend, I slipped and fell into the glass bottom viewing area and knocked the glass panels out. We both shook our heads as my career dissipation light started blinking faster than the water gushing in through the new opening in the floor. Frantically I started the engine and raced towards the shore – it became ‘too late’ just an anvil throw from the beach. We did however successfully raise this one after a few days. The tow and disintegrate method we perfected a week or so earlier was not used.
This dive centre was where I nurtured my interest in deep diving. At the end of every day, three or four of the staff would head out and dive deep into the ocean’s belly. The feeling of descending into the electric blue of the Caribbean is truly magic. We always breathed just regular compressed air. Air is not the ideal breathing gas much below two hundred feet depth, as it takes on anaesthetic properties. Many divers compare the effects to drinking alcohol. But instead of turning to drink, every day I would dive a couple of times to two hundred feet, or only once below three hundred, breathing normal air. As a group we would decide our maximum depth before rolling over into the sea. I generally led the dives, as I always seemed to be still in the driving seat at maximum depth. My buddies were almost always rendered paralytic, overcome by the intoxicating effects of the nitrogen in the air we breathed.
Slowly the group size dwindled, as divers reached the point where they were unable to function and would rely solely on me or luck to return them to the surface. Divers, I believe, must have some kind of natural ability in this area. It requires certain skills that can be learnt, but ultimately you need to be able to function in an automated response mode that ensures a return to the surface, also an extremely strong will to tolerate the nitrogen’s anaesthetic properties. My personal metabolism seems to break down hospital or dentists anaesthetic at an unusually fast rate. But I think my personal success while duelling with depth comes down to never having touched a recreational drug and even avoiding alcohol for many years. My brain seems fairly active, even now after honing a wary relationship with gin and tonic. I have noticed a definite link with stoners (pot smokers) being very poor deep divers, what with their easy-to-subdue nature, general lack of spatial awareness and tireless excuses.
The draw of deep air diving is quite addictive. To overcome the insidious side effects of breathing oxygen and nitrogen at immense depth, and return to the surface in control is very rewarding, and often leaves ardent deep divers in a euphoric state. Descending into the oceans womb in clear warm water is extremely relaxing. My breathing rate falls to 5-6 breaths per minute, my body behaving like a fine Swiss watch mechanism, totally functional while completely at rest. Dropping down quickly, I take a long blink, exhale fully and enter a state of utter calm. My left index finger is poised to hit the inflator button of my buoyancy jacket when needed. I have trained my finger to respond automatically if necessary, should unconsciousness strike. An index finger muscle and the slow rise and fall of my diaphragm will be the only activity in my body. My fins act like rudders to keep my position stable and steer me almost like a driverless ghost train. With time trained responses all working in unison, my brain slows down and my eyes become cameras only. Images in front of me cannot be processed until the nitrogen-hit subsides during the ascent. The scenes ahead will bypass my short-term memory and skip straight into old memory limbo. I will re-live the dive afterwards, during the decompression stops.
The nitrogen content of the air I breathe is acting on my central nervous system like a powerful morphine. It slows my thoughts to a virtual standstill. The oxygen part of air that I need to fuel my body and simply stay alive on the surface is far more insidious underwater though. As the nitrogen tries hard to cause a mental traffic jam, the oxygen starts to cause massive chemical changes in my blood and brain. These changes will cause epileptic convulsions if I pass the point of no return. Unfortunately this point is variable, I’m sure its not coming soon, but wonder if I will recognise it, if I’m indeed lucky enough to get an advert of its impending arrival. Oxygen toxicity is my only real concern. My deep air mantra is “Nitrogen Narcosis is for Christmas, Oxygen Toxicity is for Life”
Dropping to extreme depth breathing air has some interesting effects. As I approach three hundred feet my hearing becomes super enhanced. I can hear my own heart beat clearly and my cycle of breathing becomes as loud as barking dogs. My eyesight seems to have improved contrast, the most subtle difference in sand contours standing out like a mountain range relief. Descending further, the water gets colder and denser. Noises of ships engines are apparent, these ships are not visible on the horizon yet, but the dulcet throb of their engines projects for many miles in the deepest parts of the ocean.
Some days, I would descend towards a sandy bottom over three hundred feet down and stay for up to fifteen minutes. My brain would enter a tranquil state devoid of all back-scatter. A place for advanced thinking, math problems solved with ease, ideas to work with later, all conjured up from the brains back waters. Deep air diving is similar to Free Diving in that higher mental processes only reveal themselves when the humdrum thoughts of modern day life are sedated by water pressure. Pure Magic.
I look at my scuba tank contents gauge and it registers two thirds full as I pass three hundred and fifty feet deep today. The nitrogen has another interesting effect that now has my full attention. Something in my brain is short circuiting in the hearing department. I hear a short verse repeating in my head, getting louder and louder. The tune is quite familiar to me. I’ve done this dive many times before. A sort of requiem funeral beat done on a drum machine at break neck speed. The speed of the tune and its loudness always increase with depth. Sounding like the distant memory of a heart beat at two hundred and fifty feet, it progresses to a thrash rock concert with an audience of one as I approach four hundred feet.
Other deep air divers have labelled this aural phenomenon the Wah-Wah effect. The call of the Wah-Wah is to deep air divers, what the call to prayer promises the devout Christian. It was my reason for visiting today, I’ve heard it and now I must leave. I have dived today with a single tank of air, its eighty cubic feet volume and single breathing regulator leave little room for problem solving or equipment dramas. Like my body and its blood chemistry, the equipment must behave flawlessly. Dives to these depths done formally would require at least four diving cylinders containing exotic trimix gas mixtures, each tailored to remove each of the excesses I seek today. Oxygen toxicity has left me alone so far, to over-stay my welcome could mean becoming a permanent fixture at the Davy Jones Bed and Breakfast.
My finger draws inwards to depress the up-button, and air rushes from my tank into the buoyancy jacket, arresting my fall. To use my legs and kick my fins would require energy that swaps oxygen for carbon dioxide. Any exercise causes a rise in carbon dioxide levels in my blood. If carbon dioxide rises, a diver will become extra vulnerable to oxygen toxicity either at depth or during the return to the surface. Ten seconds of air rushing into my buoyancy jacket is enough to arrest my free fall. I become neutrally buoyant for a few seconds, then positive. I start floating up towards the sunlight, faster and faster as my buoyancy jacket grows with the decreasing pressure of the water around me. I travel upwards faster than my own exhaled bubbles. God only knows what bubbles are forming in my bloodstream. I continue upwards until I hit the safety of two hundred feet. Seeing my depth gauge flick back to the required depth, I hit the brakes by dumping the air from my buoyancy vest.
Hanging motionless in the void, looking downwards, I feel safe again. I see the cloud of bubbles that I had exhaled a minute before. In a second I will be enveloped in a Jacuzzi effect of my own breath. The tiny balls of air tickle my face as they tumble upwards away to the surface. They bump into each other and merge, growing into larger bubbles. The diminishing pressure will make sure that every breath I exhaled at three hundred and fifty feet will have grown at least eleven times bigger as it races to join the surface atmosphere above.
Believe or not, all this is actually highly pleasurable and rewarding, albeit very dangerous and apparently hugely irresponsible. Deep air diving is probably as addictive and damaging as heroin abuse with similar catastrophic consequences if you overdose. Unlike heroin it doesn’t rot your teeth. Anyway that was the entertainment available most days of the week, and it was cheaper than the cinema.
My first year in Barbados allowed me unlimited diving to the depths that interested me. I had brought over from my instructor training in England, an understanding of enriched air nitrox diving and how to blend it. I set three dive centres up with enriched air back in 1994, a first in the eastern Caribbean. My thirst for advanced diver training and information was unquenched back then. Very few facilities had sought to offer training in the emerging discipline of technical diving. I had to travel to Egypt to further my knowledge and complete training in extended range diving and Trimix diving. In 1994 and 1995 Trimix diving was still in its infancy, the only available course instructor was known to me and despite that, I flew five thousand miles to receive further tuition.
We met at a dive facility in Sharm El Sheik on the edge of the Sinai desert in Egypt. The centre was full to the brim with shiny chrome things and loaded with people knowing little of how to operate any of it properly. We were here to train as deep as seventy five metres using mixtures of helium, oxygen and nitrogen called Trimix. Each mixture was specially blended to avoid any nitrogen narcosis and oxygen toxicity problems for the chosen dive depth. When I came to Egypt, I had more dives below seventy-five metres than many of the group had dives in their entire log books. My technical dive buddy was an ex military diver with the claim to fame of being attacked by a conger eel in a loch in Scotland. He had been drinking heavily apparently, and decided to offer a night dive experience to his pub pals in a freezing seawater lake. As you’d imagine, the whole experience capsized badly, with tales of giant angry conger eels attacking the diver and dragging him to the bottom of the loch by a loop of fishing line that was hanging from the slimy leviathan’s mouth.
A sprinkling of decompression sickness and a tabloid head line titled ‘one eel of a story’ set back diver training in Scotland some months. I remember reading the headline in the News of the World paper one Sunday morning. Recognising the culprit straight away, I gave him a phone call to get the whole story. He was sticking with the newspaper version however unlikely it sounded.
Three years later, I taught a group to dive on the tiny island of Herm. After one of the class sessions we retired to the only pub on this diminutive rock in the English Channel. We swapped diving stories until my ferry boat home arrived. One guy said he was the recompression chamber tender on a Scottish military base some years earlier. This chap told of a dive instructor who was bought in with suspected decompression sickness. The story in the news told of duels with giant eels. The diver was apparently found hiding in undergrowth the morning after, trying to nurse a hangover and a bout of debilitating embarrassment. The diver divulged his tail of woe to the attending doctors, who were not overly sympathetic, especially when they smelled the alcohol oozing from their charge.
This patient was asking for anonymity as he was currently absent without leave from a nearby special forces training camp. The mystery diver showed his special boat squadron sweatshirt that he was wearing under his black Avon rubber drysuit. The story was almost plausible until the shirts clothing label revealed the Top Man brand. Top Man clothing is more synonymous with teenagers with customised Ford Mondeo’s than trained elite underwater demolition experts. Definitely more Special Farces than Special Forces.
Still, he was a comfortable and experienced deep diver and easily outclassed the rest of the gaggle in the class. Pre-requisites for the Trimix class included having eight hundred dives logged. I noticed that several of the group had less than fifty dives total. Technical diver ‘training standards’ should be a registered Oxymoron. It easily equals my favourite contradiction in terms…’Mature Student’. This lack of ethics has tarnished the technical dive industry for the last ten years and gets steadily worse. Nowadays, one training agency requires little more than two dives to 71 metres during instructor training to allow the new instructor to take 4 students to 100 metres!
After some highly lacklustre academic performances by the course instructors, we did some fun dives ending at seventy-five metres for eight minutes, including the five minutes it took to get down there. The quality of the compressor filters at the dive centre was a good reason not to dive deeper or longer. Forty minute dives breathing a cocktail of carbon monoxide and entrained engine oil was more than many could endure. A respite and recovery period during our decompression stops was thankfully supplied during the shallower portion. Just below the surface, we breathed 100% oxygen to speed up the off-gassing process. Pure oxygen came in separate bottles rented from a local gas supplier. As such it didn’t need to be supplemented from the dive shop compressors toxic exhaust pipe and was therefore safe to breathe.
Egypt is a popular destination. The Red Sea is both warm and clear with some fantastic reefs and walls. However, the more easily accessed dive sites would see on average ten to fifteen boats all tied to a single mooring buoy. The boats taut bow lines resembled children’s balloon vendors, with many boats sharing one buoy line. If the single mooring line broke then a dozen boats would be cast adrift like pin balls, crashing into surfacing divers and, more often than not, each other. The purpose of this was to allow the boat captains to sleep in the sun while the deck hands swapped horror stories about the latest group of customers. Shoals of novice divers from dozens of boats were thrown overboard to gaze at the often featureless and over-dived moonscapes that also lured our group of deep explorers. The large groups of novices herded about by a clueless, gap-year dive instructor, intent on getting home long before happy hour finished. During our technical deep excursions, we would swim around in a dark and gloomy area close to the wall, trying to avoid the shower of lead-filled weight belts that often fell from panicking beginner divers above. After completing the course we were told not to dive deeper than our training depth until we had built up considerable experience…unless we simply paid two hundred dollars more each and dived with the chief instructor to one hundred metres in groups of eight at a time! That sounded fantastic; to save money I dived on air. The madness could not have been more complete
Life as a diving instructor has allowed me an insight into what the public get up to when they are on holiday. When people are not delivering milk or examining tax returns, they often develop a whole new persona. The more interesting ones live on in these pages. I hope that if this book does get to print, people recognise themselves and mutter the words “Bastard…he knew all along…must have been the Special Air Service speedo’s I was wearing”.
If my customers are to be believed, in the last ten years of recreational diver training I have apparently trained more Special Forces soldiers and spies than normal members of the public to dive. If scuba diving attracts such an odd bunch, technical diving must be the Promised Land for ex secret agents and Walter Mittys everywhere. The Special Forces must be the largest regiment in the world and easily out number the regular army if this many of their number seek scuba diver training!
This book is not trying to focus purely on the negative side of scuba diving with all its bull-shitters. It’s just painting an alternative picture of diving to contrast the smiling faces and pristine reefs that fill travel brochures. If even a handful of readers learn that all is not happy beneath the waves, both with the quality of the diver trainers and the aqua-scapes you train to visit, then, I will be happy. Divers should be able to make informed decisions and recognise nonsense, rather than naively support the industry cowboys that are ruining everything. Diving is very rewarding even if it has a dark side; to recognise it and shun it will be more beneficial to everybody. All I’m trying to do is shine some light onto the dark…(long sigh)
Returning to Barbados was a relief, as I had grown quite familiar with the daily script there. Teaching diving in the day and then touring bars with the customers at night was very congenial. The dive centre had taken on a new staff member while I was in Egypt, Kevin from the UK. What he lacked in diving qualifications he made up for in humorous stories. We got him up to speed with the diving certifications and in exchange he told us funny tales of his brushes with various authorities while pursuing his career as small time drugs dealer. One morning we had picked up a large group of ladies from a visiting cruise ship. What had promised to be a possibly interesting flirtatious few days of dive guiding went aground as soon as we saw the cruise ship was chartered by a gay’s-only tour operator.
Kevin and I sauntered over to the meeting area facing a barrage of cat calls from moustached men and village people look-a-likes. I gave the dive shop sign that read “Go down with the experts” to Kevin to deflect most of the verbal shrapnel towards him. Some ladies with short hair and serious expressions came over and we made our introductions. The mini-bus journey took 45 minutes and we all chatted about what we could see underwater over the next few days. Some of the group had bought waterproof cameras and they dictated to the others that fish and coral were what they sought as opposed to shipwrecks. It was my turn to lead this group today as we headed for an area called Dottins reef. Kevin the dive guide was not actually certified for leading anyone except for his friends, but he came along to assist me as the group was nearly 14 people.
I brought my new girlfriend Avril, as she had just finished her diving course, and Kevin carried along his trusty spear gun. I told him to keep it well hidden as most of the group sounded a bit environmentalist, the last thing they wanted to see was someone shooting small reef fish in the name of target practice. Kevin would have to dive with Jesus (alone) and stay well away from the group. The group put on their diving equipment after I had given them the usual briefing as to what to expect and how to behave. They all could set up their own equipment themselves, which was highly unusual, most of the time we had to remind the customers which way around their own wetsuits went. Over the side of the boat we went, as a group, dropping down the 30 feet or so to the reef top below. I’d been to this reef many times before, so started to lead the group around the rocks and coral to look for the reef dwellers that the dive shop had promised would be in plentiful supply. Looking behind me I could see some of the group impaled in the reef much like usual. I headed into deeper water to where the seabed is mostly sand so as to give the reef mattress a well deserved rest. Divers who haven’t been underwater since their last holiday tend to virtually walk across the bottom for the first twenty minutes, until they get some practise with their buoyancy control.
Most dive centres dream up very misleading names for the reefs that often included highly exotic marine life varieties. We had dive sites called ‘Stingray Landing’, ‘Shark Alley’, and ‘Manta Station’ plus scores of other destinations where you could virtually guarantee not seeing any of the species in the name. But you could get to look at a fish book after the dive to get the Latin names of what you didn’t see. My favourite “semi exotic” was the Blue Spotted Manta Ray because we could often guarantee seeing at least one, even in areas where the dynamite fishing was epidemic. I looked in all the various nooks and crannies as my gaggle of divers snapped away with their cameras, the underwater strobes leaving all manner of fish life dazed and confused, swimming away quickly like they had just been through a crazy X-ray machine. Things were going swimmingly and I’d virtually crossed off all the usual suspects from my mental ‘to find’ list.
Photographers are the worst offenders when it comes to smashing delicate corals, as they think that lying prone on the reef for long periods taking crap photos is the only way to interact with the shy marine life. The air supply was coming to an end for the heaviest breather of the group, so we headed for shallower water where the air lasts longer. Sometimes a customer could drain his scuba tank completely of air even before we had reached the bottom, but these ‘big breathers’ were ideal customers really because it meant the dives were shorter. As we travelled up across the reef I saw two large green Moray eels sticking their heads out of a hole, this would make a cool photo opportunity so I pointed the scene out to the dozen diving paparazzi spread out behind me. I felt a little sorry for the Eels as they were in for a strobe light extravaganza, and no doubt be prodded and posed endless times until every last diver had taken every last frame of film on the rolls. The depth was about 15 feet from the surface and everybody looked like they were enjoying themselves clicking away at the stunned and dazzled marine life. In amongst the background noise of divers bubbles I heard the unmistakable twang of a spear gun being fired. Being underwater means you cannot tell where a sound comes from - as sound travels so much faster in water, you lose sense of direction. I span around looking for who was firing the spear gun and saw in the distance a diver holding a discharged gun with spear dangling several feet below on the shock cord, hopefully he was just going to the surface as its customary to unload a gun before surfacing.
I quickly swam around the dive group to check everybody’s air supply again. Photographers could sometimes get so focused on their prey that they would forget to monitor their air gauge and simply run out of the breathable stuff. Some of them were getting low and I signalled them to surface. All agreed and turned back for one last click of the shutter. Suddenly, I heard an almighty crack of a spear gun firing very close to me. I turned around and saw a grinning buffoon holding the smokeless gun. I looked back to see a 2 metre Moray eel which had just been skewered through the head by the harpoon and was going absolutely bloody ballistic. Photographers sometimes take on a Nirvanic stoned look as they snap away totally relaxed and oblivious to their surroundings. This look of relaxation had permeated through my group just seconds before, but they now had looks of someone who had just had a drunk throw up on their birthday cake. The poor Moray Eel still had enormous strength and was spinning around like a whirling dervish on Ecstasy. The spear gun was easily pulled from the hands of my soon-to-be-sacked colleague. As the big fish twisted and turned with the four foot spear sticking out both side of its head, the scene just exploded. Divers were having their breathing regulators pulled from their mouths as the spear and gun caught and wrapped itself around anything nearby.
I had to swim quickly and cut the spear guns shock cord, before things went further downhill. My career dissipation light was blinking so fast and bright now, I feared an epileptic seizure. I had my knife out in a blink and swam directly into the affray. Divers were panicking but had swapped to their spare regulators as they kicked the last few feet to the fresh air with the huge Eel in tow. On breaking the surface, the air tuned blue from the swearing and the water went pink from the leaking Eel. I had to cut the spear free to release the mortally wounded animal, but one of the ladies started screaming that they wanted it on the boat for the evidence photographs! Threats of law suits faded into obscurity as US law firms came up against the impenetrable brick wall that is the Caribbean legal system.
Living in a developing country can be pretty exciting; it would be great to write more about daily life on an island with some of the most colourful characters imaginable. One day you are in shop were they are literally hanging shoplifters by their necks as a message to other would-be discount shoppers, a few days later there is a live sword fight in a crowded shopping centre with arms and other bits flying around like mosquitoes. During one government election, the opposition party tried to increase their fund raising coffers by dropping huge bundles of cocaine from an aeroplane into the sea, just off shore, near to where I stayed. Unfortunately most of the consignment fell into a fish farm and the curious tuna attacked the packages thinking it was food. As the fish floated belly up, the owners of the drugs turned up at the same time as the coast guard. A small gunfight completed the scene and some of the key players were handed 100 year prison sentences. The main presidential candidate was offered a 50 year reduction if he offered some evidence as to who might have provided the Trinidadian marching powder, plus pay a million dollar fine. He would have been 90 years old by the time he got ‘early’ parole.
A memorable dive trip some weeks later had me escorting a customer into deeper water. This English guy was a fairly experienced diver with fifty or so trips already under his belt. He had been diving deep with the company dive guides for a few days who remarked that although he was very quiet he was a capable diver. The idea today was to dive to fifty or sixty metres to see some black coral. The boat ride was only twenty minutes but the lack of conversation should have rung some alarm bells with me. It didn’t seem like nerves but more a preoccupation of some kind. I offered my buddy du jour a spare breathing tank but he declined it, I clipped a spare bottle to my jacket before we both went over the side of the boat. This guy never looked over at me once during the descent, I had to resort to using a tank banger to break him from his trance and return hand signals. A lot of older European divers like to solo dive in this way, if he had taken the spare breathing equipment I wouldn’t have minded so much him flying solo, but now he didn’t even carry a spare parachute. We hovered above the top of the finger reef in forty-five metres looking into the darker waters below. Slowly we dropped another ten metres deeper in search of the black coral trees that are ironically coloured orange. My buddy was swimming slower and slower and stopping all the time. I waited for him to catch up with me and then pointed to the big bush of coral below us that resembled a Christmas tree with orange branches. He looked okay so we swam towards the target. The weight of my spare tank clipped to my chest kept me in a face down position. If I looked up I could see the guy’s fins just above me. Getting to sixty-three metres, I stopped by the rare coral bush. I looked upwards to see a weight belt falling past me into the abyss. The owner had also managed to remove his buoyancy jacket and mask and fins. Incredibly, he was also swimming away from me using a comically fast doggy-paddle stroke. I was a little surprised as you could imagine. Using my flippers at full speed, I quickly caught up with him and tried to push a breathing regulator in his mouth.
Chummy was having none of it, but was quickly finding out that drowning was not the relaxing way to go, as suggested often by Hollywood movies. I dragged him back by the arm to his equipment and clipped it back around him. I picked one of his own breathing regulators up and forced it into his mouth. His eyes remained clamped shut as he pulled the mouthpiece away again. I was a little confused at this point, this was not like any nitrogen narcosis symptoms I had seen before. This chap was going exactly the right direction if he wanted to kill himself. I decided to head towards the surface and pulled him with me. It must have been close on two minutes since I saw him without equipment and he would likely pass out soon if he didn’t burst his lungs first. I tried to make sure he was breathing out as we ascended, although air bubbles seemed to be coming out of his nose anyway. En route to the top I stuffed a regulator back into his mouth once more and again he rejected it. At around thirty metres depth his eyes opened like saucers and he went from calm and serene to rabid dog. He grabbed the regulator from my mouth and breathed from it.
He started to hold on to me like a limpet now and was grabbing me so hard I couldn’t find either of my own spare regulators. I got a hand free and took my regulator back so I could breathe again. I kept the mouthpiece in so my own breathing could relax, although this guy had not wanted to breathe much before, now he did, but not from his own equipment. He grabbed my regulator from me again, at the same time I found the second stage of the spare tank that was clipped to my chest. Now we could both breathe, my suicidal buddy just hung limply in the water looking downwards, still without a mask. The ascent had gone fast, then slow, then fast again and we had built up decompression stops according to my wrist dive computer. I tried to fix the ascent by adding pauses at random depths before starting the more formal deco stops in the shallows. My buddy did nothing but hang motionless as I controlled the final minutes to the surface. He had decided not to wear a wetsuit just before the dive, this helped enormously now as he had thrown his weight belt away two hundred feet deeper and this would have been disastrous now if he was clad in buoyant neoprene. It was dawning on me that this was not an advanced case of narcosis but more likely an attempt to die. I would give him the benefit of the doubt until we reached the surface. The final minutes ticked off and we hit the sunlight. Before I could even voice a “what the f#@k was all that about?” this chap was repeating “sorry…sorry…I’m so sorry”.
This guy had issues. While waiting to be picked up by the dive boat I listened to his story. He was a doctor who had been diagnosed with something nasty. He came away on holiday without his wife with a plan to end it all. Of course he was welcome to shuffle off this mortal coil in any way he thought fit, however I was more than a little miffed as he had tried to pull his stunt on my shift, his sob story didn’t dampen my anger any. As the boat pulled up to us, he washed his face with seawater and regained his composure. The other divers asked if we saw anything cool on our deep dive, some head shaking from both of us seemed to answer their questions. Getting back to the shop, the guy wandered off up the beach while waiting for his hotel taxi to arrive. He didn’t come back for his belongings and some phone calls to his hotel found he had checked out the same day. I told the other guys in the dive centre about my action-filled deep dive over some rum and cokes later. The general ‘compassionate’ opinion of my workmates was that it was lucky he had paid in advance and even better that I had been around to recover the shops scuba tank. We put his private regulator and buoyancy jacket into the shops rental stock. I thought about going to look for his mask and fins during my next deep air adventure.
Following this, weeks were spent looking for a container of toxic waste that was bought for disposal in deep water from Japan, the story went. The local fish life was definitely decimated as the chemical cocktail was dumped only 100 metres from shore, in a planned one mile depth of water. The project planners didn’t check the local sea charts very closely as Barbados has a very shallow surrounding sea. A mile of water depth could only be found many miles off shore, but the cash was useful and the government didn’t have many civil servants interested in scuba diving anyway. Eventually we found the containers that had been clearly axed open before being thrown overboard, the contents dissipated with the ocean currents. For weeks after, shoals of fish continued to be washed up dead. Mutated fish were appearing all along the west coast dive sites also, so God only knows what was actually in the drums. We all purged the chemicals we had been swimming in from our bodies through a regimented consumption of alcohol.
I became a bit gun shy when customers turned up wanting specifically go ‘crazy deep diving’, we even had some pop stars turn up wanting to go to three hundred feet deep straight after they completed their open water courses - very rock and roll. Time and rum eventually faded my reticence to take customers tandem deep diving and soon it was business as usual. Within days, three blokes walked into the dive centre looking to go deep, I agreed to organise it. They had heard at the local Boat Yard bar that an instructor was in town that taught deep diving courses. They all introduced themselves saying that they were divers from the nuclear submarine that was visiting the island for a few days and were looking for some stunt dive action rather than any instruction. Two of the group said they were SEAL Special Forces divers and the other was a British Army diver that dealt with mine clearance. All three were probably Bakers or Window Cleaners, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I listened intently as they bigged themselves up with tales of underwater daring deeds. My eyes normally glaze over when I hear the war stories, but I hid it like a true veteran and we arranged a dive for the next morning. They wanted to start at 200 feet deep and only if they felt copacetic to continue to 300 feet as it had been some time since they had done that. I imagined that the last time these guys had dived to 300 feet was in a previous lifetime, so indeed a long time back. My constant mock yawning must have looked real enough. They said I looked tired and should get some rest.
I imagined that I would need help with these three as they were all pretty big and could easily prove a handful in deep water. I phoned my girlfriend Avril, who was becoming a bit of a deep diving addict and had shown herself reliable in deeper water many times recently. She thought it would be fun and jumped at the chance of a deep dive en masse.
The boat ride out in the morning had the bullshit bravado coming thick and fast. Even my girlfriend was matching her few months of diving experience against our three James Bond candidates who were talking about scuba dives to the Titanic and beyond. All the divers were lying through their teeth right up to the point I told them the depth sounder had stopped working and we would just head out into ‘proper’ deep water
“How will we know how deep it is, and how will we stop?” one guy said. He was clearly expecting a seabed to use as a springboard back to the surface. I threw him a glib answer “Look at your gauges and hit the brakes when you’ve had enough” this caused some Adam’s apples to dance up and down like Mexican jumping beans.
“Okay…let’s drop to 150 feet, group up and if you’re still in the drivers seat, we can drop further” I offered to the now quiet audience.
Avril was to buddy the British mine clearance diver, and I would stay with the two Americans. Down we went. The English guy was an older vintage to the others and a bit of Wily Fox and sensibly pointed to his ears at about 130 feet indicating that he couldn’t go any further. The rest of the group carried on steadfast on the journey to oblivion. We stopped a little short of 200 feet with one of the navy seals pointing at his head with a spinning finger. That was his cue to stop, again a sensible response. I motioned to Avril to get closer to me, together with the other guy who was looking at little spaced out by the whole experience by 240 feet.
Dives beyond established relative safety limits are generally discouraged and shunned by the diving community. Whilst it is acceptably cool to go free climbing or base jumping, there is a palpable stigma attached to seemingly irresponsible scuba diving. The diving centre I worked at did not offer training or fun dives outside of training agency outlines. At this time, I offered a deep air certification course only to 220 feet and a trimix course to 300 feet with mandatory use of adequate helium in the breathing mixture. Deep Air dives were conducted occasionally for friends of the owner, but never for walk-in customers, regardless of their experience claims.
In the early days of technical diving, trimix use was not widespread and deeper air dives were far more common, I remember hearing many early ‘pioneer’ tech divers commenting the fact they didn’t feel the need for trimix until they were below 300 feet. I have met maybe four divers in the last ten years with whom I would be comfortable diving to 300 feet or below breathing normal air. The rest should stay nearer 150 feet even when using any amount of trimix.
It is interesting to see how things have changed since the internet chat room revolution. If a diver mentions in a whisper that they dived below 100 feet breathing air, they would be banished from polite conversation. Unfortunately modern technical divers use helium often to excess as it increases perceived ability, much the same way as steroid (ab)use ‘helps’ bodybuilders. My point being that it is better to increase ability through repetition than by relying on temporary performance enhancers. Helium really only adds a modicum of sobriety, it does not improve buoyancy skills. Helium does not give you an ability you didn’t possess before the dive. This statement will no doubt raise the blood pressure of armchair tech diving gurus everywhere.
So, back to the deep air story, As the dive shop did not endorse very deep air dives, this group had agreed to dive from a privately hired boat. We would be diving in teams of one, and I was there as a guide only, as it would be unreasonably dangerous for me to effect a rescue. All the customers were rufty tufty types and apparently trained to take others lives, it seemed perfectly fine for them to jeopardise their own.
Around the 240 feet the last guy was overcome by narcosis, my girlfriend was 20 feet or so deeper and spiralling around drifting slowly downwards - quite literally a passenger on a driverless ride. I felt still like I was in charge of my bus, but started to slow down my descent, as you never know what’s coming round the corner. Looking up I could see the surface shimmering some 300 feet above, and between me and it were two divers decompressing in the shallows and two more divers about to decompose in the deep. Feeling like you are in control does not mean you are, but I still felt mentally alert and capable of decision making on this dive. I decided that I had had enough and headed up to meet the others. Avril was closest to me and I approached her first, she was grinning but not responding to my hand waving. It is easiest to simply take an unresponsive diver closer to the surface and often they recover quite quickly with little memory of the current situation. I lifted Avril up some 30 feet only, before she awoke from her temporary syncope. Initially quite startled, she realised what must have happened and looked kind of angry but she would have to save the self recriminations for later and any anger felt now would likely be forgotten as adrenaline fed elation always takes over when returning to the surface after an crazy air dive. Deep air diving has been likened to legalised drug abuse many times, but it won’t keep you up dancing all weekend.
We both drifted up towards the next guy, he also looked frozen in time, eyes open but fast asleep. I grabbed his arm and gave a circle in the air with my index finger to Avril, this was the sign that our entertainment for today was over and unless we headed towards the surface now, the diminishing air supply in our single air tanks could spice things up really unpleasantly and soon. Our sleeping dive partner snapped out of his nitrogen induced hypnosis en route. I doubt if he would ever want a repeat performance and I’m sure he felt mortified to see a small blonde girl grinning at him as his Cinderella spell was broken. When a diver is overcome by the effects of deep diving while breathing air, they appear quite normal with eyes wide open, but I’ve never noticed anyone blink. The afflicted diver doesn’t respond to stimulation and they have no memory of the event. The oxygen and the nitrogen gases that make up normal air cause many ill effects when used at extreme depth. In a short time, excessive oxygen toxicity causes epileptic seizures and a host of other insidious although temporary ailments to occur unfortunately without warning or mercy. The symptoms if experienced at the surface would not be life threatening, but underwater they involve drowning and the outcome of this is predictably dire. Nitrogen on the other hand gives a narcotic response similar to alcohol consumption or certain anaesthetics. Diving to 330 feet breathing air would be similar to drinking half a litre of whisky in 5 minutes and then going for tight rope walk, over a precipice. Obviously some people could practice a lot and do this everyday, like myself. But I know that one day a stumble, followed by the inevitable long fall will have my internet judge and jury laughing so much they might spill their Ritalin milkshakes! Using either gas to excess will one day cause symptoms of gas toxicity to creep up on you like a stealthy mugger or worse…the seemingly friendly accountant.
This type of diving probably sounds completely irresponsible, but no more than speeding in your car, and when diving you do not endanger anyone else’s life, unless you are responsible for others of course. Until a macho type of diver finds their personal limits, they tend to feel quite invincible underwater. If you are lucky enough, you will find your limits just before incapacitation, or be lucky enough to be rescued. A deep diver who feels out of control and incapable of self rescue will not stay a diver for very long, they simply give up and take up other less adventurous sports. Technical diving doesn’t have to be ridiculously deep to be over-challenging. Rebreathers, drysuit’s and even hostile conditions are all more than adequate to scare an ill prepared diver into becoming a skier. Sadly too many new divers leave their scuba training without self confidence or, even worse, graduate with a false sense of security gained by having an ‘easy-ride’ throughout training. Traditionally, diving courses were structured to give much repetition to the more challenging skills. Bad or just ‘new’ scuba instructors often allow fast learners to proceed without enough practise, and this does nothing to turn a fun practise session into life saving motor skills.
Barbados was a fun place to live, and working as a scuba instructor was busy and varied. When I taught holiday makers to scuba dive we sat on the beach with a paper instructor manual and just chatted for a few hours, it was very informal. Now, in 2005, I have a laptop computer full of multi media presentations from all the popular training agencies, these new cyber manuals contain far less than 10 years ago and need updating it seems on a daily basis with an accompanying ‘improvement’ fee.
I started work at a new dive centre after a brief trip to England and one of my first jobs was to train the shop staff in First Aid and CPR. This should have been easy, until I was told that there was no mannequin to demonstrate chest compressions with. The shop owner suggested I use one of the new dive guides who incidentally could not swim a stroke, and always wore a life jacket even when walking on the beach! My CPR dummy was called Patrick and he said he would gladly allow us to practise chest compressions on him, who was I to argue? The weather outside was overcast and raining so I had the full company of staff to train in First Aid.
We began and the next couple of hours trickled by as I rambled on and we all had a good laugh while pushing Patrick’s chest in and out and inflating his lungs for 30 minutes…looking back, this was possibly not the cleverest procedure to be practising on a currently living person, but he grinned and bared it and most importantly, didn’t die. The dive shop owner had pulled out all the stops and brought his video player and television from home so we could watch the crackly and poorly acted training video that was mandatory viewing for completion of the class.
I stared out of the window during a long video segment and watched as the rain fell onto the flat sea as it lapped the shore just 50 feet away. Down the beach, I could see a crowd forming and they looked out to a restaurant that stood on a pier. I could see a large slick of red in the sea and immediately feared the worst. I shouted to the class that there was a huge amount of blood in the water and dashed outside to investigate, strangely, nobody came after me.
I asked some of the crowd what was happening, but they didn’t know and were just concerned holiday makers that saw the blood. I hadn’t heard of any shark attacks in the area, so jumped into the water with my diving mask and snorkel. I could hardly see anything as the visibility was terrible, but I noticed a sweet smell as I swam into the red water. I came up to get some orientation and take a breath. The water tasted like melon flavoured bubblegum and my skin was turning red. I headed back to shore and saw some of the other dive guides and instructors laughing their heads off and pointing at me. The dive centre shared a stretch of beach with a hotel and a soft drink manufacturer called Juicy Drinks. Every time it rained heavily or the high tide level occurred after sunset, they would flush the drink containers into the sea to make way for a new batch of flavours. Over the next few months I taught class in Blueberry, Melon, and even Cranberry flavoured seawater. It was quite entertaining, but hardly environmentally friendly as all the local fish life had very bad teeth from drinking fizzy drinks all day.
Most of the days of work didn’t see crazy antics like this but it was never dull. One of the few perks of the job is the fact that diving Instructors seem to be objects of desire for the many single ladies that holiday alone in paradise. When I was not in any long-term (more than two weeks) relationships there were many opportunities to flirt with the customers, and this is still one of the few tangible benefits that go with the job. So that this text keeps its family show certificate I won’t go into too much detail, but maybe the tales of relations with ladies while attempting the deepest shag on scuba, or being caught on camera underneath a glass bottom boat by holiday makers as they looked for unusual marine life will make it into an adult version of this publication coming soon.
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Chapter 3. A Deeper Interest
Work as diving instructor can be very seasonal. To stay busy you need to travel to other holiday destinations as the tourist seasons rotate. After a year in Barbados, I felt a return to the United Kingdom was on the cards. Arriving back in London gave me itchy feet almost immediately, and I phoned around for work in various holiday destinations around the British south coast even before my tan had faded. In 1995, I’d had my first laptop for over a year already, but the internet still resembled semaphore and websites where just glimmers in a ‘net-nurds’ eye. Job searches in the diving industry then, and even more so now were best completed in person - by actually visiting various dive shops. I had arrived in London in June when most summer dive jobs were already filled, so the job search went slowly. While away though, I stayed in contact with an instructor buddy, James. He ran a dive centre on Jersey in the Channel Islands, and often said I should visit. I gave him a call and within a couple of days was on a car ferry to St Helier, the capitol of Jersey with all my diving equipment and my newest acquisition, an underwater metal detector.
Jersey was fantastic, a bit like living in a big city but by the seaside. The dive centre was absolutely huge, with ten other instructors (who never seemed to do any work), and there was an excellent social scene. I soon was busy with work as plenty of the locals had read about technical diving in magazines and now had an instructor offering deep diver training right on their doorstep.
The Channel Islands are smack in the middle of one of the largest tidal ranges in the world. At certain times of the month, the tide could rise and fall nearly 12 metres. This created very fast moving water and amazing drift dives. Mariners too, all through the ages have found these incredible tides an unmatchable force and skeletons of shipwrecks litter the seabed. Local sea charts record somewhere over 300 foundered vessels resting in the vicinity.
The dive centre had a big customer base that went diving as often as they could, this gave me a captive audience to sell my deep diving courses to. Regularly we would organise two boats to take all the customers out to the surrounding islands of Sark and Guernsey for reef dives or, interesting Second World War shipwrecks that still produced brass treasures in abundance. The popular wreck sites were, in ascending order of difficulty; the SS. Schokland, the M343 Minesweeper and the Princess Ena. The daddy of them all was the Jean Marie, locally known as the copper wreck. There were literally dozens of other wrecks nearby, but these were the ones on many divers’ must-see lists.
Technical diving courses were often attended by groups of customers that would complete the entire range of training courses together, with great enthusiasm. As a busy instructor, I still liked to fun dive, but only with people who I am comfortable with. I usually dived alone for fun, but it was always nicer to go with people who could complete dives successfully in the arduous conditions. More often than not, the only time I would dive would be during a training course, and on such dives, my attention was always focused on the job. One group of divers that I felt comfortable to dive with was three friends, Jamie (aka BAZ), Alison and Natalie.
The three amigos finished some recreational courses with me, and then went on to complete various levels of more advanced tech training over the summer. After three months they had graduated as Extended Range divers and were all competent to join the deeper fun dives on wrecks as deep as 200 feet. We would explore wrecks such as the Copper Wreck and the Princess Ena, bringing up ships portholes, ingots of copper and all of the other rubbish that looks like it’s made of divers gold (brass) until it arrives on the boat. It takes a lot of wreck dives to develop proper ‘brass vision’. Quite often the treasure becomes just smelly, rusted ferrous metal as the nitrogen narcosis wears off in the shallows - then it gets thrown back immediately. The summer season is quite short in the UK and by September, the sea temperature drops inversely to the wind speed raising. When it was too horrible to take customers diving, I would join a team of Scallop divers who went out in search of sought-after shellfish in the often unpleasant winter weather. I did enjoy searching and harvesting the seabed, but the weather was becoming more and more hostile and this meant more days out of employment. This was a sign to either hang up your flippers and mask for the winter or migrate. I decided it was about time to move back to pastures warmer.
I planned to go back to Barbados again for the Christmas season and had started seeing Natalie, one of my favourite customers. She also liked the idea of working in the Caribbean for the winter, so we flew back to Bridgetown together. Having a girlfriend who was as interested in deep diving as me was great. We would work all day, she as a Dive master leading groups of divers, and me teaching recreational scuba courses. After work we would go diving again, always deep, just for fun. In no time we had built up quite a little club of divers, mostly going straight to 240 feet or thereabouts, every afternoon looking for antique bottles. Repetitive diving to the same depths each day predictably lost its challenge and allure, so Natalie and myself planned to head deeper still. As the dive depths increased, the group split up – so no one was pressured into doing something they were not ready for. To be successful in deeper diving it’s important to feel relaxed and avoid being pushed into stress inducing depths. As Natalie and I wanted to drop beyond 300 feet every day, it was seldom more than the two of us.
There was this fantastic magnetic feeling that seemed to draw us to extreme depth, like moths to a flame. The sea was always electric blue, and always welcomed us with its warm and embracing tentacles, likely similar to drug taking. We both felt a sense of complete clarity of mind and I would do some of my clearest thinking only when approaching 300 feet. This total ‘meditative’ state was clearly addictive, if pot smokers or heroin addicts only knew about this perfectly legal high, then scuba diving would be the most popular sport imaginable. Unfortunately the side effects of deep scuba diving are every bit as hazardous as drugs and cannot be minimised without considerable practice. Even then, oxygen toxicity is so unpredictable and unforgiving…in this case practice does not make perfect.
One afternoon we didn’t join the usual dive boat out of Carlisle Bay, but made other arrangements for a ‘special’ dive. We headed out into the setting west coast sun on a small fibreglass boat borrowed from the maritime university. Our boat driver was Cally; he worked at the University of West Indies - next door to where I used to work the year before. Cally often drove the boat to take us deep diving back then. He often grinned and joked about how foolish we were for doing these crazy air dives.
When I told him the ‘plan’ for today, Cally repeated his favourite phrase - “You all is nuttier than a squirrel’s breakfast”, I always grinned when he said that.
The boat had no depth sounder, and none was really necessary, as we weren’t looking to land on the seabed and would be disappointed if sand came into view earlier than expected. Cally just headed out, he knew of an area where it was very deep. The spot we dived was rumoured to be bottomless. Even the sea charts suggested up to two hundred fathoms, about twelve hundred feet deep, more than enough.
Natalie and I had been below 350 feet dozens of times, always breathing air in single eighty cubic feet scuba tanks. Today we planned to go to four hundred feet. This translated to 123 metres, the Holy Grail for deep air divers. The effect of Nitrogen on this dive would have an anaesthetic effect akin to a bottle of whiskey or a pile of Ketamin consumed in one fell swoop. Ketamin is a powerful horse tranquiliser proving popular with ravers and scuba professionals alike all across Asia.
As always, the dive could be aborted if necessary. Just before the dive, Natalie said that she might stop earlier than planned, as this was a big step and we were heading into depths that would stun an elephant, never mind mentally challenged diving instructors like us. Think of deep air diving as the Rock n’ Roll of scuba diving, ‘classical’ recreational depths may seem safer but they can definitely send you mad doing them everyday. We dived deep on air simply to stretch our legs.
Rolling backwards over the side of the boat, we floated on the surface. Staring downwards, excited, and at the same time drawn to the spider’s web of the abyss below. Moments spent relaxing here would calm the back-chatter in our minds and prepare the reflexes necessary to overcome today’s gauntlet. This surface wait would help physically slow our breathing and heart rates down, in a similar fashion to that employed by all deep diving mammals, before they attempted their own crazy stunt dives.
Dives like this must begin without any conflicting thoughts or even a minor sense of possible failure, indeed no sense at all can be attached to such endeavours. There was no bottom, no chance of rescue, and no descent line that could be used to halt the descent. I think we thought at the time that dives must be controlled solely by good technique, exertion avoidance and finely honed self rescue abilities. The dive begins the same way as always, we vent the air from our buoyancy jackets, invert and kick towards our goal. We would drop like greased anvils towards the bottom at nearly 200 feet per minute. In diving terms this is the speed at which a fly hits a cars windscreen. Natalie was positioned just behind me, in my slipstream, her left hand would be just on the edge of my field of vision. At anytime a simple hand signal would indicate that all was OK, or all was NOT.
The time spent descending into the darkness and time spent at maximum depth is necessarily very short. Slipping through the ocean for long periods is akin to freefall parachuting, the faster you fall the easier it is to make mistakes or miss the important. My eyes scan from side to side to give better focusing and avoid the head spin effect caused by lack of reference.
Dropping down so fast is mentally taxing, trying to steer my body into a stable position, at the same time listening for any abnormalities or change in sensation. Any strange feeling could mean that oxygen toxicity is opening its can of worms must be analysed instantly, it’s the secret of success. Unfortunately Nitrogen is beginning to start banging its drum kit right in the middle of my head. I’m trying to listen for the faintest nuances of escalating impending death due to oxygen toxicity. At the same time I’m overloaded by doom radio at full volume as heavy Nitrogen Narcosis engulfs my auditory senses with its ubiquitous and deafening requiem beat. The infamous Wah Wah tune that has beckoned so many deep divers to their deaths is repeating at a fantastic speed as we pass 350 feet. I signal to Natalie if she is OK and she indicates yes. I stare at my depth gauge and the numbers climb up at a ridiculous speed, I wonder If I will notice when enough is enough. We approach 400 feet and I get the sign to stop from behind me. I start to add air to my buoyancy jacket as this will arrest the descent. I remember that I should have started doing this already and a flutter of anxiety fills me. We break apart still descending and I turn to face Natalie to see what’s wrong. The water still rushes past us and I lose stability for a few seconds, this separates us further. I ask if all is Okay again. Natalie eyes are open but she unblinkingly stares past me. The depth is approaching 420 feet. We have small tanks of air that can be used in emergencies for rapidly filling our buoyancy vests. I reach behind Natalie and open this tank for her. In a second the vest is full and is burping excess air as she moves upwards away from me. I watch as she leaves me, she is inert and ascending out of control, but my mind is blank to these implications.
I reach behind me to operate my ascent bottle. I turn the valve and nothing happens, I turn the valve some more and find that I have unscrewed the small cylinder from the jacket! I bring the mini tank in front of me and open the valve again. This time all the air within just empties into the water. I realise that I am very affected by the situation. I close my eyes to think. Opening them, I look around for Natalie and she is gone, I cannot remember seeing her go anywhere anymore. I look at my depth gauge, it says 428 feet and 5 minutes elapsed time. I blink again and the gauge still reads 428 feet and elapsed time 7 minutes. I look down and see bubbles coming up from beneath me. Maybe she has passed out and gone below me, I stare below and see nothing.
I consider draining my buoyancy jacket of air and dropping down to take a quick look. I won’t leave her down there, not while I can still see bubbles. I look at the elapsed time on my gauge and two more minutes have elapsed. This is no good at all, I have a single 12 litre scuba tank on my back and the tank pressure reads one third full. I will have to perform a series of decompression stops before being able to break the surface. These stops will take longer than 99 minutes according to my computer wrist gauge. I look below and see no more bubbles. I blink again, this time I have somehow moved a bit shallower. The depth now reads 400 feet but I feel clearer and now dread is filling me. I must save myself. The decompression sickness I will undoubtedly suffer soon will possibly give me a stay in execution from the topside tongue-wagger’s accusations. I inflate my buoyancy jacket for the rapid ascent away from death’s jaws but into a guaranteed world of pain. The jacket fills with air and I start to accelerate towards the surface. I leave my bubbles behind me as I’m propelled upwards at a ridiculous speed. Looking at my gauge, I need to know the depth to make the first of my decompression stops. I get the information from my wrist computer display. I don’t have enough air, I calculate, to do all of these stops; I consider that the important ones will be all of the deeper ones starting at 80 feet. These stops will repeat every 10 feet until I get just a long arm reach from the surface. The last stop will be the longest and I know that if I cut the time short there, I will definitely get the bends, but it will likely come after I get out of the water. My breathing is a little fast, if I don’t control it things will be much worse. I concentrate on relaxing, my body going completely limp, just floating, every muscle except my lungs forced to do nothing. The water temperature gets warmer as the surface looms ever closer, the pleasant water temperature reminds me of the complacency a lobster must feel during his journey to the dinner table, a seemingly pleasant ending, but I know my struggle in the final minutes will be more terrifying than a lobster falling unconscious during his hot bath.
The warm fluid that surrounds me now is impassionate about my plight, the sea has taken its harvest no doubt many times today. A few scuba divers foolishly getting too close to the fire will fill a column in a local newspaper, and no doubt a super tanker split open like firewood for daring to match money-saving designs against stormy seas will make the television news. I know I will get to the surface one way or another. I don’t think much beyond that, I try to recall if there was a spare scuba tank on the boat, it was unlikely. I can’t even hear the boat engine come to think of it, this would be the final nail in the coffin, an absent dive boat. I would get to the surface alone, the decompression sickness would strike me an excruciatingly painful blow that would lead to paralysis and death within 30 minutes of surfacing. Without a boat to return me to shore, my final exit from the world will be a fairly unpleasant experience.
I will float face down for a few hours until my buoyancy jacket finally gives up its hold on the surface, then I will drift back down whence I came and take my place in the food chain. These thoughts fill my head for a few seconds, then they disappear. I thought of Natalie, how would she have managed during her unconscious ride to the surface? She could have come around and is now faced with a similar dilemma as me just a stones throw away. The minutes tick by and I complete my decompression stops like a robot. With this style of diving you cannot just decide you have had enough and go to the surface, everything needs to be endured until the end and sometimes beyond this. Extreme scuba diving has no comparisons in the world of crazy pursuits. When a base jumper hits the ground, his adventure is over, much the same as an astronaut. Divers have to wait for hours after a dive before their bodies return to normal and the celebrations begin. This dive has gone wrong and now payment is being exacted. One diver is missing and another about to go the same way. During difficult times it’s easy to get philosophical in the face of hopelessness, for the same reasons the elderly turn to religion, but nothing can change the outcome. Last minute confessions reconcile nothing and certainly don’t lengthen your odds with the bookmakers in the sky.
Its time to replace profound thoughts with rational thinking and problem solving abilities, this is the only process that can help overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. My wrist computer beeps madly, dragging me from my daze, I look for the problem. The surface looks very close, less than 3 metres. The electronic depth gauge is insisting I go deeper and wait another 45 minutes. I check my air gauge, the reading is so low that it defies measurement. I congratulate myself on buying a cheap air gauge that is very inaccurate, who knows how much air I have left! Some ten minutes later my breathing regulator lets me know exactly the remaining air time…none. I have lasted over an hour with less than 20 percent of a full tank. I cannot breathe now and am forced to ascend the final furlong with over 35 minutes of decompression time remaining. This is bad because my dive computer is known for having little conservatism; I wish I had purchased a model aimed at holiday divers which reflect a trend for incredible safety and conservatism. The decompression time I am missing out on will be very real indeed, there is no padding, a bit like Dolly Parton’s bra I thought surreally.
I hit the surface; I’d made it for now. The sea is totally calm, flat like glass. The sun is very low on the horizon, very scenic but it will make surface searches next to impossible. I spin around and see the boat. Cally the boatman waves and turns to pull the engine start cord. I see the boat engine cough into life.
“I thought you weren’t coming back…mon” Cally said,
“Neither did I, Natalie is still down there somewhere, have you seen her marker buoy?”
“No, mon I ain’t seen nuttin a tall” These words brought the memories of the last hour crashing back. I threw off my buoyancy jacket and climbed into the boat.
“I don’t think she is coming back, it all went wrong down there”
Cally swallowed and went quiet. I scanned the ocean surface for Natalie’s surface marker buoy and saw nothing “We should look for her Signalling balloon” I said trying to add an air of optimism.
The boat started moving. We circled around and saw nothing. Despair was setting in and pain was beginning to gnaw in my hip. I said nothing. The decompression sickness was manifesting it self in my right hip area with a level of pain which was attention-getting but manageable. I was surprised at how quickly the pain had started, but kept a focus on the search for Natalie’s yellow coloured marker buoy.
We carried on looking but the low sun angle was blocking a huge part of the search area. I asked Cally to head into the sun’s direction so that we could see more clearly behind us. Travelling towards the sun I looked behind the boat, the sea was basked in the yellow sunlight, Natalie’s marker buoy was similarly yellow, but again we drew a blank. I thought we would have been closer together at the surface, there was no current to separate us. I imagined the worst but expected the best. The boat stopped, I looked around, and there it was. A yellow lift bag was bobbing on the surface a few hundred yards behind us. The elation for myself and Cally was incredible, we had searched for over 30 minutes with thoughts of doom and despair. The pain in my hip was like a bad toothache now but It didn’t matter. The boat headed over and I jumped over the side with my mask, landing almost on top of the yellow balloon. I looked below. Natalie was there and breathing and smiling. I swam down and joined her, breathing off her spare breathing regulator while she completed the rest of the decompression stops that I had been forced to cut short. We looked at each other shaking our heads and grinning. This had been a close call, with all the trimmings of having to pay the ultimate price. The only lesson to learn was not to do it again.
We surfaced together, spitting out our breathing regulators at the same time, saying “Oh my god, I thought you were dead!”
The boat trip back was frenetic and animated as we both exchanged our version of what happened. Natalie recalled that she started to pass out as we approached 400 feet and signalled me to stop. After we broke apart at 420 feet, that was her last memory. During the ascent the scuba regulator she was breathing from had fallen from her mouth. Natalie had ascended from deep water to around 200 feet without breathing. The air in her lungs had expanded and miraculously harmlessly escaped through her mouth, instead of the normal route that causes irreparable damage to scuba divers lungs due to embolism. She recalled experiencing a bright light all around as she rocketed upwards to the surface. During the ascent, Natalie was aware that the breathing regulator was not in her mouth. Though still unconscious, an automatic response kicked in that recovered the breathing regulator and inserted it back in with all the usual water clearing and choking prevention techniques. As full consciousness returned, she noticed that her ascent speed was too fast so she vented the air from her buoyancy jacket; this stopped the ascent at 190 feet. A cloud of exhaled bubbles caught up shortly afterwards.
Natalie thought that I must be either still down there or had made my own way to the surface out of view. Because of her short time at depth and rapid ascent, this left her enough air to complete far more of her decompression stops than I could manage. We got back to the dive centre just before dark. I assembled the oxygen therapy set and started to breathe deeply. The oxygen started to do its work after 30 minutes and this gave me some pain relief. I phoned the recompression chamber and they were closed. The receptionist said the doctors were resting after performing multi day treatments on a deep water Lobster diver that had spent close on 50 minutes at 200 feet before ascending rapidly. He would not walk again.
The techniques used by Caribbean Lobster divers make my deep air adventures appear positively sedentary. Imagine taking six or seven loose scuba tanks tied together with string, with one breathing regulator between all the tanks. When one tank runs out, the diver simply swaps the regulator to the next full tank. All this happening in deep water with no means of calculating the decompression stop timings, except traditions modified by the number of Lobsters in the area.
The next morning I managed a visit to the local navy headquarters that housed the islands recompression chamber. The diving doctor said that as it was a day after the symptoms had occurred, and more importantly the fact that I had no medical insurance, meant treatment was not necessary anymore. If my discomfort persisted I could contact him in a few days, in the meantime I should chew some pain killers. That afternoon, I took a bottle of oxygen from the dive centre and went for a shallow dive on the Berwyn wreck at just twenty feet deep for eighty minutes. This in-water recompression session did the trick and didn’t cost anything.
Chapter 4: Clarity Beckons
I dived deep using air because it is fun, cheap and most importantly, because I can. Also, deep air diving provides a level of peace and tranquillity that only parachutists and astronauts experience. We all share a minute or two of intense action at the beginning, then towards the end, lots of time for reflection and sightseeing. I suppose Astronauts get another bout of action when they attempt re-entry, which must be similar to the fickleness of decompressing after an extreme dive. However, in contrast to divers, spacemen are not making many life and death decisions, they just ride an automated fair ground ride called a rocket.
Unlike the many mainstream spectator-orientated sports where corporations can throw countless millions at a title, experience and ability are the only currencies that count in deep water. All the cash or bravado in the world counts for nothing down in the bowels of the ocean. This is what makes it such a noble pastime. It’s not tainted by the dubious commerce of athletics and there are no referees to bribe. All the steroids in the world won’t help at all. It’s only you and your body against your ability. However, if a sports shoe company wants me to tattoo a swoosh on my butt cheek, I’m well up for it!
I don’t have many other vices, I don’t smoke, hardly drink. Motorbike riding scares me to death, I even keep my hair short. I think Free-Diving or extreme snorkelling is unacceptably dangerous and drugs just rob people of their minds. My addiction is to scuba dive deep for entertainment and reward. After the last bout of excitement though, I thought it wise to somehow add a little reliability and a future to my deep diving escapades by squirting some Helium into the breathing mixture. These ‘Trimix’ breathing mixtures as they are called were becoming fashionable at the beginning of the nineties. I received certification in its use in early 1995. After the training I read the small print closely, and diving deep using helium just exchanged the fairly insidious side effects associated with air diving with a host of new and helium specific ones. Air diving beyond the realms of safety sounds quite ludicrous, but it’s not as bad as smoking dope before driving, or riding a motorbike while tired. Pedestrians have never been killed by deep air divers to my knowledge.
A B-list sportsman in the UK scribbled a rant to a diving magazine saying that I was promoting a type of diving in which to fail meant certain death. In his particular two wheeled discipline, I hear that any competitor with a chance of winning a non-ferrous medal is hooked on the drug E.P.O. This powerful and popular (but illegal) performance enhancer has some particularly attractive side affects. User’s report having to get up every hour throughout the night to run up and down the stairs in an effort to increase a dangerously low pulse. Should the heavy sleeper fail to hear the hourly wake up call, he (or she) can rest safe in the knowledge that their heart will likely stop dead, greatly affecting the chances of glory and medals. You don’t have to get up early to go deep diving and I even actively discourage early rising. Also, crazy deep divers don’t suffer from ‘roid-rage’, (unless they are body-builders as well), yet another plus point.
I continued to dive on air, still relatively deep but I didn’t go beyond 400 feet again, mostly because Natalie didn’t want to and it’s not as much as fun doing it alone…What is? I received my Trimix Instructor certification late 1995 and started planning my first 500 foot dive. I had dived to near 400 feet dozens of times already just with single air tanks without drama. When you put a spurt of helium in the scuba cylinders we calculated it would take six tanks each to safely complete such a deep dive. Another major drawback when using helium is its prohibitive cost. A commercial size tank of helium which contains just 7 cubic metres cost over nine hundred Barbados dollars. That is half a year’s wages for a scuba instructor. To make matters worse, Natalie wanted to come too so we needed three helium tanks, luckily I didn’t have to shoulder the cost completely as she had got some work dive guiding, which on most days earned her more money than I got.
The dive centre I worked at now was Coral Island Divers based in the central town harbour area called the Careenage. Working in central Bridgetown meant easy access for cruise ship travellers and the dive centre was pretty busy most days. On afternoons when we both were not either sheep-dogging hoards of snorkellers or rescuing drunken man-over board’s getting a little too merry on the glass bottom boats, we would go for a deep dive to keep practising for the upcoming super deep one. The company I worked at had a very nice dive catamaran, this would have made the perfect platform to do our deep dive from, but the thought of an accident during such a crazy dive caused the companies share holders to veto our plans for using the main vessel. This setback meant hiring another boat at short notice. Finding this boat lost a few days but there were no real time constraints, other than the thought that the helium gas in our tanks would somehow escape from our scuba tanks over time, as was the popular myth of the time.
Our bosses Ken and Chantel volunteered as support divers, Ken had organised our deep dive boat and was told that it was a purpose built dive vessel based on a largish speed boat. When the boat arrived, I wondered where the four of us would sit never mind where we would put the eighteen scuba tanks and associated goodies necessary for our planned epic dive. The boat was 16 feet long at best, but it did have a non-working depth sounder! However, the boat was eventually loaded and we drove very slowly out of the Careenage on another perfect sunny day. The boat was clearly overloaded, but spirits were high.
Barbados is a coral island that sits in relatively shallow water. Neighbouring Caribbean Islands are mostly volcanic and rise sharply from abyssal depths. The most easterly of island chains, Barbados sits surrounded by shoal water and looking for deep water can be tiresome, the task today hampered by the broken depth sounder. Ken knew of an area where the depth should be close on 500 feet, but we wanted something a little more concrete than this, so Ken beckoned over a nearby sport fisher boat and asked them the depth below using their depth sounder. The skipper told us it was close to 600 feet and told us to move a few hundred yards closer in to get 500 feet. Using this very accurate depth measuring technique we dropped our descent line over the side and it did seem to touch the bottom at the expected depth. Putting on our five dive tanks in the sun got tensions rising, but this was merely stress and anxiety as our bodies rebelled against the impending madness that our egos had arranged for us.
Some of the spare scuba tanks that would be used for decompression stops later needed to be tied to the descent line at the appropriate depths and Chantel was loath to be the one responsible for the fastenings on such important tanks. I had to fasten the tanks myself while wearing my five tanks and wearing a 10mm wetsuit in the blistering sun. Natalie waited in the water cooling off and preparing for the mental gauntlet that was no doubt in store. Ken was energetically telling us to hurry up as the tidal flow was now moving and we were moving into deeper water. I hit the water hot and flustered in a tangled mass of breathing regulators and hoses. Between us we were wearing half of the dive schools rental regulators, and eighteen scuba tanks were clipped either to us or the down-line, so our bosses had a double reticence in supporting this stunt. Thankfully they were being quite cool at the moment.
I held the line and took my diving mask off whilst looking down into a very blurred abyss. The feeling of cooler water on the face triggers a reflex that is used constantly by diving mammals such as dolphins. This no-mask breathing trick would cause my heart rate to drop along with slowing my breathing. When descending deep underwater, relaxed breathing cannot be over emphasized.
A few minutes of relaxation later, we began our descent. The water was very clear and at 27 degrees Celsius, a little on the warm side with our thick wetsuits. Dropping down as if parachuting through a never ending dark blue sky felt amazing. The visibility downwards must have approached one hundred and fifty feet. I was first on the line at the beginning, I looked behind me periodically to see Natalie grinning and clearly loving it. We had switched from air at two hundred feet to a trimix mixed from equal quantities of helium and air, this mix gave us ten percent oxygen and fifty percent helium. Dropping beyond four hundred feet we still had daylight conditions, we had read that natural light permeates beyond six hundred feet in the Caribbean Sea, though I did wonder how this was proven. The water had turned a little cooler by four hundred and fifty feet, but I can’t say that it felt any deeper or scarier than other dives in the past. The tanks we had to use were without manifolds, merely independent scuba tanks used daily in the dive school. I put my own Scubapro regulator on the right hand tank, on the left was a standard Sherwood Brute from the school inventory. Natalie had her own similar high end model on one tank and an Oceanic rental model on the other. Breathing gases with high helium contents make any regulator breathe great, as the popular balloon gas is far less dense than nitrogen or oxygen and flows much more easily, in addition to its more useful property of giving the breather a funny voice.
I stopped on the line to check my pressure gauges and switch regulators. Natalie dropped below me on the line and we continued downwards. On checking my gauges, I was alarmed to see that the glass had broken on one and it had filled with water, although it still offered a reading. The other resembled a snow scene table ornament, with lots of small pieces floating in an oil and water soup. The descent speed started to slow as the plan called for hitting five hundred feet in seven minutes, at this stage we were going a little fast. This dive would literally only be a bounce for a couple of minutes. The breathing tanks were too small for anything epic, although we regularly dived with a single tank of air to four hundred feet. Breathing helium meant ascending much more slowly than if we used air, so most of the gas attached to us would be used solely for the ascent.
Hitting five hundred feet for the first time was a bit of an anticlimax really. The anchor line must have moved, because looking down we could see the seabed slowly moving past some sixty feet deeper. Gripping the line, we compared our depth gauges against each others to see who had gone deeper, and exchanged some grins. The Helium content of the gas we breathed made us feel as if we were diving to two hundred and fifty feet breathing air, with regard to nitrogen narcosis and oxygen toxicity. Our back tanks contained 50% Helium mixed with air, this caused the oxygen and the nitrogen fractions to reduce by half also. Instead of the usual 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen as found in surface air, our mixture was 10% oxygen and 40% nitrogen with the balance 50% helium. This allowed us a sort of equivalent narcosis depth of roughly half the actual depth we dived. Being as clear headed as this was very strange and a little disconcerting. Normally, deep diving using air would give feelings of invincibility and confidence. Today our clear heads meant the whole experience was endured with an air of sobriety. Feeling both very deep and sober for the first time made me feel more vulnerable than during any of our crazy air dives. We wanted to grab a pebble as a keepsake, but sadly the seabed was just too far out of reach. No heroics were planned, so all that was left was to head back up.
Some might argue that diving deep just for the sake of it seems pointless, but the feeling of extreme depth can be exhilarating and priceless. If it was easier to do, many more divers would do it. Deep divers may spend only a short time at maximum depth, but this is very similar to the limited durations planned by high altitude mountain climbers. Experiences that include the mind and body are definitely more valuable than solely exercising the senses in the brain. I certainly don’t understand folk who take drugs or alcohol. Artificial highs like these only offer some escapism for a few hours. Users are still the same bores after the effects wear off, minus a few brain cells. To quote an immortal line from the movie Trainspotting, ‘Choose life, and exchange your televisions, drink or drugs for twin scuba tanks’. That’s enough of the bar room psyche lessons for now, remember we are still five hundred feet down. We had got down here but that was only half the challenge, we had to get back up. The ascent was fairly routine, although we had to ascend much more slowly than usual. Because of the helium, you have to ascend no faster than 10 metres per minute. At this stage of a deep air dive, computer alarms would be screaming as we left our exhaled bubbles far behind. Also, breathing the balloon gas in our back tanks today meant doing decompression stops much deeper than if we breathed normal air.
We had our first formal decompression stop around two hundred feet. I had read about deeper stops and decided that we should add an extra stop at three hundred and thirty feet. At this point I would change breathing gases to air. Natalie waited until three hundred feet to do the same. Going from trimix to air at this depth was visually like closing the curtains and leaving a gap in the middle. I noticed my peripheral vision drop from one hundred and eighty degrees to around forty-five in just a couple of seconds. I wrote on my dive slate vision collapsed to grey. It was an interesting feeling, so I tried to repeat it by going back to the trimix. Returning to the lighter gas was noticeably much easier to breathe but my vision did not open back up like I imagined it would. Natalie had a similar experience a few minutes later. Vision would not return to normal until we reached the virtual shallows of two hundred feet. Remember that Helium is not narcotic but Nitrogen is. If you suddenly stop breathing Helium and replace it with mostly Nitrogen, you will experience immediate and extreme sedation. This doesn’t happen at the surface, but try it while one hundred metres underwater and if you are lucky you will see what I mean. New divers would be killed, but my junkie-like adaptation to Nitrogen gained from doing excessive Deep air dives afforded me some level of protection.
Onwards and Upwards - all the pressure gauges we had were broken and several regulators were leaking from both the high pressure and low pressure hoses. All the shallower deco stops went fine, although we had to swap a couple of faulty regulators over underwater. I figured that as so much equipment had failed on this dive, it would all need stripping and servicing. A couple more pieces of kit wouldn’t add much to the workload, I might even get a bulk discount on the parts required. During the deco stops around one hundred feet, we had a surprise as one of the decompression tanks came whistling past us headed for the bottom. I looked up to the surface to see Chantel holding her palms out and pointing to a now empty piece of rope. I hoped we wouldn’t be needing that tank! The dive lasted a little under three hours and went largely to plan except for the broken and lost equipment. Ken and Chantel swam around us during the last deco stops, snapping away with an underwater camera. In the pictures I looked quite concerned, as I was probably totalling up the costs for today, both pre-dive and for all the lost and broken dive school equipment.
When the dive plan was finished we bobbed up to the surface and exchanged jubilations with each other. The relief was evident on our support crews faces, Natalie and I were very happy. She had become the deepest female diver in the ocean. During the deco stops, I was already planning a thousand-foot dive in my head based on today’s successes.
We told our two support divers the details of the adventure throughout the journey back. Landing on the dock outside the dive centre, it was clear I had a full evening of work in front of me. I had to fix as many broken regulators as I could because tomorrow was very busy with people booked on scuba try-dives. About nine that evening we hit the bar at the Boat Yard to celebrate, but by ten o clock, tiredness and the call of bed was impossible to ignore.
This dive was late in the Barbados holiday season so it was about time to return to England to find a job ahead of the summer season. I returned back to Jersey with Natalie, as she had a proper job in a promotions company to start, and I arranged work at a north coast dive centre called Watersports, in Bouley Bay. The company was the oldest dive centre in the world, I think. The owner Jimmy started diving here in 1958, way before the warmer seas and other benefits associated with global warming, he told me constantly. I started running recreational and technical dive classes and built up a steady business with holiday makers and locals. Jamie, aka ‘Ginger Baz’ had just returned from Australia with great diving adventure stories. We planned some deeper wreck dives for the next weekend. Unfortunately the tide tables predicted one of the biggest ranges of the year, close to forty feet from high to low water. Choosing to dive the Copper Wreck at two hundred feet depth on such a tide was inappropriate with hindsight. As was very often the case, divers that had chomped at the bit at the mere mention of such a dive became reticent and un-contactable as the dive day drew nearer. A planned group of six dwindled to three by the morning as we loaded the boat. A new diving charter boat was taking us to the wreck positioned half-way between Sark and Jersey. The vessel bristled with electronic monitors and shiny stainless steel fittings, plus a cheerful skipper with a hot coffee-pot.
The weather was agreeable, but big tidal movements mean poor visibility, today the seawater was green like phlegm. Arriving at the site on time, we dropped anchor. The three divers were Ginger Baz, Natalie and myself. We wore big single tanks of air with small pony bottles of oxygen used to speed up the decompression. Planning just fifteen minutes at depth, we hoped to find the elusive copper ingots that littered the seabed around the wreck. Tidal conditions were so strong in this area that just two hundred metres from this wreck was another called the Rafio. The Rafio was a salvage barge that sank while attempting to liberate the copper ingots from today’s target. Rumour had it that the barges crane-grab had overreached itself and underestimated the current speed, sending it straight to the bottom. Mariner’s tales mentioned lockers full of commercial diving equipment aboard this boat. I had visited a couple of times before in search of this diver’s gold, but found only bare cupboards and lots of rusty metal.
Jumping over the side of the dive boat gave us a nasty surprise. The current had changed from slack to definitely not, already. We held onto the anchor line as if our lives depended on it. To give you an idea of the strength of the water flow, imagine doing pull up exercises with a sumo wrestler holding on to both legs. The water was cold, green and horrible, visibility just a couple of feet. We pulled ourselves down the rope like we were competing in a Tug of War competition. The deeper you get, the weaker the force of the current. That’s the normal maxim and it usually worked but by seventy feet down, I was still fearful that my mask would be ripped from my face. It was a proper struggle pulling down this rope. I looked around to see Natalie shaking her head as she waved a signal of good bye and let go of the line. In one second she was swept from view. Knocking this dive on the head was definitely the best idea in the face of these appalling conditions. Baz and I continued on downwards, looking for easier conditions, failing miserably.
The current was scheduled for seven knots today; the dive boat could barely manage twelve. If we mistimed the journey back, it would take forever travelling against the tide. Sometimes it made sense to just anchor for six hours until the tide changed direction. By about one hundred and sixty five feet, I stopped and turned to face my buddy while struggling to stay holding onto to the anchor line. All the natural light was left far behind and we operated by torchlight completely at this point. Trying to explain that we should abort the dive after I recovered the boat’s anchor from the wreck was next to impossible in these conditions. It was like having a sign language chat at night while fighting multiple opponents. I think Baz had a rough idea about what I had planned, but after I pulled myself the final furlong to the wreck below I was sure of the communication breakdown. The anchor line was jumping up and down frantically. One second it was tight as a piano wire, the next, lost against the rusted spars of the freighter below. The up and down movement was unusual because the seas above had been flat as we left the surface. I swam further along the rope until I reached the section of chain just ahead of the anchor at two hundred feet depth. My feet felt like I was swimming in treacle and it was getting thicker. Looking behind, I realised my lifting bag and reel had come loose, the line was wrapping around my knees and legs. Away in the murky distance my dive light picked out the yellow lifting bag spinning around acting like a sea anchor while pulling more line from my reel.
I would need two hands to fix this problem but they were both busy holding onto the anchor line rodeo. Out came my knife and I cut straight through the line, setting loose my lift bag. Now it was free to roam the ocean, free of its master like a Romjin warrior. This selfless act would cost me forty quid. Now I was loose I could pull myself along the line towards the metal hook. Holding the line was becoming a real chore, as the anchor line tensed under the strain it would generate small bubbles from the turbulence. The ship’s anchor was an expensive one and our boat captain had specifically asked me to throw it clear of the wreck at the end of the dive. I timed my efforts to coincide with the upward thrust of the anchor line. I would then ascend without a reference line and complete my small amount of decompression stops just hovering at the correct depths. Releasing and throwing the anchor clear was quite easy – with some lucky timing. As the line went slack, I quickly pulled the anchor blades from the wreckage. The next wave lifted the anchor free and it was gone with the current. However, it came crashing back downwards a few seconds later right in front of me. The heavy length of chain between anchor and warp was draped over my neck, tank and legs. Even better, the rope after the chain had caught under some wreckage. I was properly trapped now, and with every upward thrust of the line it became tighter, crushing me further downwards against the gnarly wreckage.
As if I needed more excitement, the current started lifting my mask from my face as I looked from one side to the next. Alarm bells were ringing now - I still had half a tank of air, but the decompression time was mounting quickly and I was completely pinned down. I struggled uselessly against the current for ten more minutes, now I had just a quarter of my air supply left and thirty eight minutes of decompression stops. Removing my equipment seemed like a good temporary solution, I would wriggle free of it, free myself, and then put it back on. Unclipping my buoyancy jacket was next to impossible but much easier than removing the inflator hose to my drysuit with my cold numbed hands. I had been down twenty minutes now, my single tank of air was almost empty. The smaller tank of oxygen that I had slung beside it could only be breathed at twenty feet, and in any case was only half full. Things were looking grim, but I kept my focus on getting free. At twenty-three minutes elapsed time, I was out of my jacket and free of the anchor line. Dragging my equipment from under the line I put one arm through the jacket harness and pushed towards the surface. The current surged me upwards away from the wreck. I grasped the anchor line with one hand, the line burned as I let it slip through my fingers quickly. I had to get out of the deeper water quickly if I wanted to tell this story to my buddies. At one hundred and fifty feet my air tank ran empty, leaving me with almost an hour of decompression to complete and no means of doing it. My buoyancy jacket contained some expanding air, I put its deflator mechanism in my mouth and took a seawater-filled breath. Choking through the brine, I managed one inhalation, the next came a little easier. I breathed back into the jacket so that I would not lose positive buoyancy. Putting the exhaled air back in this manner would water down the oxygen concentration to dangerously hypoxic levels, but mindful of the alternative, I breathed again.
I remembered a friend in Barbados that was forced to breathe the pure carbon dioxide inflation bottle that used to be put on buoyancy jackets - he passed out in seconds, but floated to the surface. Thinking I was getting light-headed I knew that these would be my last thoughts unless I breathed from the small oxygen tank behind me. I continued swimming upwards carefully exhaling my lung contents, becoming fearful of taking another breath from the buoyancy jacket. I put the oxygen regulator in my mouth at ninety feet. Taking a breath, I did some quick math, the pressure of oxygen at this depth was 3.7 ata’s, but the speed of the ascent would quickly drop this significantly. My brain was too foggy at this point to calculate just how significantly, but the oxygen would surely help this. I had considered breathing a lungful of oxygen from the small tank back into my jacket inflator while I was much deeper. I would in effect be simulating a semi circuit rebreather at one hundred and fifty feet with pure oxygen and expired air. The figures I contemplated would have made more sense scribbled on a suicide note. I saved the idea for the shallower stop depths. The decompression time was still near fifty minutes, but every breath breathing the oxygen would knock down my decompression time three times faster compared to air, definitely this was in my favour.
Normally I would last about twenty-five minutes on a little tank like this, but that was at twenty feet with a full tank. I started breathing it at ninety feet and the tank was only half full, even my foggy-headed math arrived at scenarios best left until they happened. I continued to pull up the line until fifty feet from the surface. Stopping here for a few minutes, I hung onto the line in the buffeting current. The anchor was still jammed in the wreck and I was bearing the full force of five to six knots of tide by now.
I moved up to forty feet and waited for another minute, but strangely felt the need to pop my ears. I looked at my depth gauge quickly. It is rare to have to equalise your ears while travelling upwards. Congestion in the ears could cause this problem, but I was not congested now. I checked my depth gauge again - although I was holding onto a fixed line, I was definitely getting deeper. Pulling upwards, I tried to get shallower again. As I pulled the rope, it just ran through my hands without me going towards the surface. After a further minute of pulling I could see the reason. The dive boat had gone and the captain had attached a buoy to the end of the line. With my weight on the line, combined with all the pulling, I had forced the buoy under the surface. At this point, the flexible buoy would be crushed from the water pressure and sink down. This was happening now in front of me. I had the end of the line in my hands now. With no more line to play with, the current strength started to push me downwards again. I tried to inflate my buoyancy jacket to add air and temporarily fix the problem. It worked for just a minute before the current stepped up a further gear, and I was travelling downwards yet again. Thinking quickly, I released my weight belt from around my waist. Gaining 28lbs of buoyancy helped, I was able to hang semi-comfortably at ten feet, the deflated buoy stuffed between my legs. I could not hear the boat engines so it was definitely not nearby. My dive computer still read twenty-seven minutes as my pony tank of oxygen coughed its last breath. Little would be gained by breath holding here, I let go of the line and bobbed to the surface. I had again overcome some crap odds but it was too close for comfort this time. Now, again, I was about to get the bends and this time the dive boat was nowhere to be seen…
The sea had turned rough since we left the surface. I lay backwards in reflection whilst rocking up and down in the waves. The distance from the top to the bottom of the waves was sufficient to completely obscure the land some fifteen miles away. I had no compass, and a shipping lane was near with cross channel ferries routinely travelling at forty-two knots, fantastic. The small island of Sark was about nine miles away, and the current was going in that general direction. I wondered if the bends that were coming soon would affect my ability to swim in a straight line. Floating along for about fifteen minutes, I heard a boat engine. My dive hood obscured clues as to the direction of travel, but it was definitely getting louder and therefore closer. I kicked my fins to get myself upright, I needed to see the boat so I could get out of the way and then signal for help. Relieved to see it was my dive boat, they were as surprised to see me still alive. I climbed aboard and asked immediately for the oxygen kit. Natalie and Baz were both aboard the boat, and told me that everybody had thought that I was dead. They thought I had been underwater for far too long a time with only the single tank. The dive boat captain had been a little more optimistic and started looking down tide for me, similar to where the other two had surfaced.
I think it was a bit premature to think the worst. In this case they had been right, but how many divers have perished after days afloat and lost at the surface? My experience with Caribbean boat drivers had seen lost divers in conditions a lot calmer than today. After all, the captain had spotted Natalie on the surface nearly a mile away from the down line. Baz had surfaced at a similar distance, which was no surprise given the speed of the current. Because I had been down so long, without sending up a marker buoy to mark my position, the captain assumed quite rightly that I may be down tide an unknown distance, but not likely more than five miles given the time. They had been searching the whole time, but getting less and less optimistic. They were returning to the buoy position after sixty minutes elapsed time, simply to attempt the anchor recovery with the boat winch. The cavalry would normally be called after a diver had been lost for more than two hours. I breathed the oxygen bottle on board for thirty minutes as we headed back. Quite unusually I did not get decompression sickness probably due to the elevated depths I breathed the oxygen.
Several divers have died on this wreck. The last one took eighty days of searching the vicinity before he was recovered exactly where he went in. Technical diving has the ability to throw all manner of unpredictable spanners into divers plans, far more than no decompression diving. I had the whole toolbox thrown at me today. Keeping a cool head and having strong self rescue skills helped with many of the dramas. The boat captain’s skills today played a very important role in tracking the divers and the current.
However, the antics I have detailed would have been avoided with a common sense approach to the conditions; both boat captain and diver are responsible in this respect. Sadly, when egos compete with a potential loss of income, disaster can serve a bitter pill. The Copper wreck is one of my all-time favourite wreck dives. Searching for the ingots of copper that have spilled from the wreck since 1917 has been the continuing reason for me to visit the site many times since. The 65kg bars, shaped like Toblerone chocolate bars polish up fantastically. They would lead me to dive in the flooded Copper Mine at Coniston in seven years time, this gave me 1500 more dives to perfect my self rescue skills. The mine dive would take most of the few lives I had remaining and make today’s dive seem like a picnic at Never Land.
Thankfully, the next few months of diving went far smoother than this dive. New customers came and went, both at recreational and technical diver levels. A group of postmen came looking to get some trimix training as they had already been doing deeper dives with lengthy decompressions. They all had their own boats, but one had recently bought a rigid hull inflatable, or RIB, that was perfect for diving and had a huge range. The next few months were spent completing training and completing dives in the English Channel that became ever more adventurous. Natalie and I wanted to look into diving some of the wrecks that lay deep into the Hurds Deep area some sixty miles north of Jersey. The Deep, as we called it, was littered with wrecks all along its 45 mile length, with more interesting ones between two hundred and forty and six hundred feet. This natural depression was a tributary of the French river Seine in ancient times. Because of its extreme depth, it had hosted the dumping of all things toxic from many countries. Greenpeace had recently televised some footage showing UK government vessels throwing almost fifty thousand drums of radioactive and biohazard waste into the area. This seemed the ideal dive site. Before jumping into unknown territory, we decided on a warm-up dive to five hundred feet right onto the position shown during the environmentalist’s report.
Two regular deep dive buddies, Mark and Gerry insisted they wanted a bite of this pie. Mark had the nice RIB, Gerry was a competent deep diver. As both were over twenty one… they were in. We planned the dive for early September 1996. Three months gives plenty of time for practice and mind changing.
Fast forward to September. The cylinders for the four of us were filled a week before the dive. All the equipment would be loaded into a van and be shipped by sea to the alcoholic’s island of Alderney. A couple of days before, I would fly to Alderney to assemble and test the equipment, Natalie would join me a day later. Mark, Gerry and Tim would drive the empty RIB to Alderney the day before the dive. We would only have one support diver between the four of us, he would be Tim. Although young, Tim was a switched-on deep diver and had a lot of boating experience. His experience with outboard engines was invaluable, as the RIB was quite new and as such, still suffered mechanical teething problems. The dive would only be a bounce down and up, with less than two hours decompression time. All the divers would carry all that they needed to perform the dive autonomously. The plan involved using the same descent line but diving solo, that suited Natalie and I fine. A complication was that the dive site was bang in the middle of possibly the busiest shipping lane in the world. Luckily, that was Tim’s problem and at least he would not get bored, what with avoiding the super tankers and bulk carriers while tending four decompressing divers.
The ferry company phoned me to advise that the van full of equipment had arrived on schedule and I booked a flight to St Anne’s, Alderney for the next day. So far so good. I left on the Thursday morning, my flight taking just thirty minutes flying north over Guernsey and onwards to Alderney. The small inter-island aircraft that ply the Channel Islands were operated by Aurigny Airlines, my plane today was called Nessie. It had a big green sea monster design painted across the engine cowling. The tiny craft had a very slim fuselage that allowed you to look out the windows both sides of your seat. The pilot simply shouted the safety procedures as we taxied for take off. Today the captain had brought a friend for some flying lessons, he continued, hoping that nobody would mind. Over the roar of the engines, I don’t think the other passengers heard anything. Teaching friends to fly in a commercial airliner did cross my mind as a little unusual. Still, it probably happens all the time. The friend did look very overweight, if we crashed he would be useful to soften the landing for me and the others back in Economy class. Obese people must work very similar to a driver’s air bag in this way. I always counted these air bags that filled the first class and business class seats when flying long haul. This was the method to my madness when I asked to sit with the smokers at the back of the plane – also I heard that the tail always snaps off and its occupants fair better than those more forward. Letting salad dodgers fly the plane today was the least of my worries. Over the weekend we planned to plunge five hundred feet onto a nuclear waste dump, in a busy shipping lane, with a skeleton support crew.
The plane flew very low, sometimes it seemed no higher than the wave tops. Although the sky was blue, the wind was strong. The plane was buffeted by cross-winds so we flew a little higher. From our elevated height it was easier to see the bigger picture. The green sea was covered in white horses, although at this height it looked quite flat. The weather forecast was not looking promising for the weekend, but recently these reports seemed as accurate as tea-leaf readings from a psychic. My flight came to an end, and we landed at Alderney’s only airport that doubled as the golf course and botanical gardens. My taxi driver to town said that he was also the air traffic controller today. His wife had a bed and breakfast, this arrangement constituted a multinational company in the northern Channel Islands. The guesthouse owner gave me a great deal on a suite with three double bedrooms a separate kitchen and a garden which would suit me and Natalie fine if we argued. I arranged a cosy three bunk-bed deal in a converted loft at the top of the hill for the three guys coming over tomorrow. I hired an eco-friendly electric rental car that was little more than a golf buggy and headed for the harbour. The van full of equipment was still onboard the deck of the freighter tied up beside the office in Braye Harbour. I went into the Port-a-cabin and signed some release forms. Driving the van back into town, I wanted to unload everything into my little garden and inspect everything. This job took the rest of the day and some of the evening. All the equipment seemed fine and undamaged. I phoned Natalie and the guys to give them the good news.
I had a stroll around the cobbled streets of Alderney. Finding an old pub at the top of the main street, I went in for some dinner and glass of shandy. I had my food at the bar and got talking to a brandy nosed local fisherman. He was pretty drunk and asked me If I knew what Alderneys biggest import was, I shook my head. “Alcohol” he slurred, chuckling to himself. Then he asked what Alderneys biggest export was, again I was clueless. “Empty bottles” he replied almost falling of the bar stool. I looked around the bar, his story looked close to the truth. Alderney is known for being home to two thousand alcoholics clinging to a rock. Ironically in the local paper I read that you are likely to meet more individuals with a net worth greater than one hundred million pounds in Alderney than anywhere else in the world, such was the relaxed taxation system here. Maybe I would meet some of these people tonight and borrow some cash. I tottered down the cobbled hill back to the guesthouse for some chocolate biscuits and bed, not necessarily in that order.
I picked up Natalie from the airport early in the morning. We went for some sightseeing to kill some time. Mark, Gerry and Tim were due to arrive around one that afternoon. I didn’t fancy their journey of sixty miles by sea as the wind had really picked up overnight and it was properly rough now. The harbour wall, known as the Breakwater in Alderney, is an engineering marvel. Originally almost a kilometre and half long, it was built in the middle of the last century by the British navy to protect its fleet stationed here. There are no land masses between this Breakwater and the eastern United States. Unimpeded Atlantic swells can generate enormous power, the waves could hit the wall with sufficient force to send waves and spray hundreds of feet into the air. The sea conditions in the area have a challenging reputation. Areas called The Race or The Swinge have biblical tidal streams and treacherous rocks. These combinations have ruined hundreds of mariner’s plans. Our three friends in the RIB would travel through the Swinge today en route to Alderney. I hope they wore good raincoats and life jackets. After lunch we strolled down to the harbour to meet our dive boat. There had been no mobile phone contact for the last three hours. There would be no contact for another four hours. It crossed my mind that they had got into trouble during the crossing, but it was more likely that they were drunk in a pub somewhere. Natalie and I waited in a cake shop, drinking tea and reading newspapers. At four o’clock, there was still no word from our buddies. Then the phone rang and I heard Tim shouting something, but all I could hear was the screaming outboard engine. Minutes later, the orange craft came into view. It looked like there was only one person on board. Mark was driving and he slowly brought the craft alongside the pier. As we peered down from the dock, we could see the other two were lying down on the floor, huddled up. The deck looked very clear of clutter, maybe they had done some modifications before leaving port.
When the boat was all secure, the two passengers climbed the ladder up to the quayside. Nobody said a word, they looked like drowned rats. From their dampened demeanours, the seas must have been a little lively during the voyage over. I asked what time they left Jersey. Tim groaned that it had taken almost seven hours of hell to get here. I asked where all the seating had gone, and that the boat looked like it had a lot more room now and was a clear improvement. Tim became spokesman, explaining that halfway between Jersey and Guernsey the waves became very large and they motored along dead slowly, unable to make any real headway. A huge wave broke over the boat, filling it to the top of the tubes with green water. Mark kept driving forwards in an attempt to drain the boat which had become very heavy and sluggish due to the weight of water inside. A minute later, he turned around to check on the two passengers. His jaw dropped when he saw an empty boat behind him. Gerry and Tim were gone, as were the seating pods and all the belongings attached to them. The freak wave had knocked everything overboard and that’s why the decks looked so tidy. A frantic five-minute search behind the boat revealed Gerry and Tim waving as if attempting to fly. They were clutching the few belongings that still floated. The seats were gone, along with the spare fuel containers. They had indeed been in quite the adventure. Their combined possessions were contained in one black plastic bag now. Mark said that most of his dive equipment had been lost over the side, so he could not dive tomorrow. Gerry had lost stuff too, but there were enough spares between us to make up a complete set of kit for him. We headed for the pub first as some sorrows needed drowning. When the shivering had stopped, we nipped back to our guest house to lend Mark a pair of Natalie’s jeans. I didn’t have any spare trousers, so he squeezed into Natalie’s bright green jeans that were covered in red starfish patterns. They commented that the room was nice and asked where they would be sleeping. Fifteen minutes walk up the hill and after a pub stop, they were climbing the attic ladder to their bunk beds. I couldn’t stop laughing when I imagined the scene.
We met by the boat at nine o’clock in the morning. Looking out to sea was disappointing, the wind had dropped slightly but it was still more suited to kite-flying than boat journeys. The forecast for the next day included force 5-6 winds and rough seas. Today we had moderate to fresh winds, and the weatherman’s term for the wave height was just ‘rather rough’. It certainly looked rather rough from here, but if we didn’t go today we wouldn’t be going at all. We loaded the boat with just three sets of twin tanks and decompression bottles, had one last cup of tea and headed into the waves. The venue wasn’t far, but the sea was not playing nicely, with the wind and swell coming directly at us from the west. The dive site was roughly nine miles from the harbour entrance, but ninety minutes later we were still plodding through the swells. Gerry kept asking what HPNS would feel like, saying that this was the only thing that concerned him. Helium tremors would be new to Gerry and Natalie was winding him up by saying that the symptoms of high pressure nervous syndrome were very nasty and he should be very worried. I added that the mixtures we were breathing today should be of more concern. We would all breathe trimix 10/50 down to five hundred feet. With the Nitrogen fraction in this mix at 40 percent compared to 79 percent in regular air, rocket scientists were not needed to calculate how we would feel. If you halve the nitrogen, you would expect to feel roughly half as deep at any given point, with regard to narcosis. Today we would experience a nitrogen narcosis level equivalent to two hundred and fifty feet breathing air. Gerry had never been deeper than two hundred and twenty feet ever. Natalie kept reminding him of this now and tensions were rising. He asked if he could dive with me, I said he could if he could keep up. The boats GPS system played a tune to advise of our arrival. Tim and Mark prepared the anchor rope and threw it over the side. We seemed to be in the middle of the shipping lane as planned. Today’s stunt needed to be performed in a sea area roughly one thousand metres across. This separation lane kept the super tankers from colliding as they approached each other, often on autopilot. Tim was watchman and he reassuringly looked as if he had slept properly the night before. The three of us put on our equipment and made some last minute checks. Natalie was going first and slipped backwards into the water, clearly eager to get on with it. I went next and Gerry followed me over.
The water visibility was not great because of the rough conditions, but I could see my own fins and the end of my legs and this was sufficient. The deeper you descended here, the clearer the water became…normally. Natalie dropped like a stone and was soon out of sight. I waited for Gerry to get his groove on, but he seemed very preoccupied with his equipment. I gave him the down signal and he replied okay. We dropped to one hundred and fifty feet, semi together. Gerry signalled to stop and started fiddling with his tank manifold. He pointed to me and then downwards. I took this as he wanted me to carry on, so I did. In the Bahamas a few months earlier, all of my good depth gauges were stolen. The insurance company replaced them with the equivalent new models from Uwatec. At about 99 metres depth I found that they were not completely similar. The figures on the digital depth gauges simply froze. I knew I was still descending as the line slipped through my fingers and my ears still needed equalising. My back up gauge still continued to register the depth and by this time said four hundred and twenty feet. I carried on downwards looking down for signs of Natalie. Narcosis was filling my head big time. I checked the gauge once more, it still said four hundred and twenty feet, but my head suggested otherwise. I felt like I was breathing air at this depth, my mind clouding over, but I did not hear any Wah-Wah symptoms. The gauge had obviously frozen and now I had no idea what depth I was at.
The sea charts in the area showed a hole nearby with up to six hundred feet depth, maybe we were in it. Dropping further I could see the glow from Natalie’s dive light. When I arrived, she was looking up and holding the line just in front of the anchor weight. The seabed shot past us like a video game filled with huge rocks appearing then disappearing into the blackness. We had made a special anchor for this dive from welded sections of angle iron wrapped in chain and dipped into a vat of molten lead to add weight. The anchor now was half its original size and completely smooth. I gave her the signal that my head was full of narcosis, she agreed. Looking at her depth gauges confirmed they were as useless as mine, not surprisingly as they were virtually identical models. Drifting along in the darkness while feeling heavy narcosis in an unknown depth lost its appeal quickly, although I had only just got there, I signalled that we should leave. The trimix gas we breathed was supposed to feel the equivalent to a two hundred and fifty feet air dive and I had comfortably dived to this depth and deeper many times. But at the moment it felt much deeper, at least half a bottle of whisky deeper. The toxic waste drums we came to visit were nowhere to be seen. Just as well really, as I was in no mood to discover anything funky, never mind glow in the dark chemicals at five hundred feet. Interestingly though, the government report said the area was chosen because there were no appreciable currents this deep down to disturb the containers of industrial waste. I can confirm that the depths of the Hurd Deep channel experience some of the strongest tidal speeds I have ever encountered. The drums would have been instantly swept away and the contents lost into the sea and eaten by local fish life. Cap de la Hague Nuclear reprocessing plant is also nearby. It would be hard to conclude who was contaminating the area more.
We headed back up the line together. The ascent plan was fairly easy to follow. There were only three or four deeper stops before the formal deco ceiling was met. Back then in 1996, deep decompression stops took the form of Pyle stops. Richard Pyle, a famous deep diving fish scientist that had the idea of incorporating deeper than traditional stops to add a feel-good factor. The special computer software we used to calculate our stops advised that we could ascend directly to fifty metres to begin decompression. To ensure our own feel-good factor we stopped additionally at ninety metres, then seventy-five and sixty metres for one to two minutes. It must have worked because we did feel good at the moment. Once natural light appeared at 80 metres, the sea took on a fabulously eerie deep purple hue. It was a bit like a desert sunrise but underwater. The software we used to plan the dives was written apparently by experts. I did find it strange even back then that the gurus writing these software programs had not dived anywhere near these depths themselves. Because of the unknown depth we had dived to, we felt it prudent to extend the shallower deco stops.
Tim met us at 30 metres, bringing ours and Gerry’s spare tanks with him. Everything was going fine, and we took them from him to be used maybe later. I asked him about Gerry, scribbling the question on my dive slate. He replied that Gerry had had equipment problems and was back on the boat already. By twenty metres my super expensive dive computer started squealing like a distressed pig, the information display was now blank and orange gas was pouring from underneath the front glass. It had obviously flooded down below and now the seawater was mixing with its lithium batteries. The chemical reaction got so frantic, that within minutes the display lifted completely away and the innards continued to gush orange clouds of gas. The computer had stopped reading depth at 127 metres on the way down, but started working again for the last 100 metres until now when it gave up the ghost. My spare depth gauge still worked and we were relying on a deco plan written on our dive slates anyway, so the damaged computer was just a noisy nuisance now to be added to my museum of failed equipment. The dive plan called for a switch to fifty percent oxygen from the 22 metre depth mark and one hundred percent for the 6 and 3 metre stop depths. The time spent decompressing was comfortable, as the summer ocean temperature nudged 16 degrees Celsius, and the lively swell at the surface didn’t reach past 3 metres. We broke the surface at one hundred and seventy minutes elapsed time.
Natalie and I climbed back onto the boat both in high spirits, although the conditions at the bottom were crap, it was definitely quite exciting, and nothing irreplaceable had been lost or broken. Gerry said that his regulators started free flowing when he got to sixty metres, so he sensibly aborted. Natalie said that was a good decision as he wouldn’t have wanted any of what was at the end of the line, the sarcasm was dripping from her words. Mark lent Gerry his brand new £900 dive computer to use on this dive, the same model as had flooded on my wrist. When he climbed back into the boat, he was still in a bit of a strop. During some heavy handed action the computer strap snagged and broke. The luxury depth gauge skipped and bounced on the buoyancy tubes before being lost over the side. Gerry’s day had been both expensive and unrewarding, but at least it hadn’t been painful. Mark and Tim asked if we heard the gigantic boats that passed over the buoy line. Our anchor line had drifted straight into the shipping lanes and vessel after vessel had run over it. They had played chicken with super tankers as we decompressed unwittingly below. I remembered that the dive was very noisy throughout, in the deeper water the distant throb of engines was clear but during the shallow stops, the propeller noise became so loud that we thought we might be getting new hair cuts if we didn’t watch out. Luck had pushed the descent line out of the shipping lane towards the end of the dive, but as we languished at fifteen feet during the longest decompression stop, the passing boats still felt like they were on top of us.
The wind was still in full effect and it must have been unpleasant for the guys in the boat for the last three hours, but it was all over now with no real upsets. We headed back to St Anne’s harbour to get drunk. We stumbled from pub to pub, finishing in what looked like an old church converted to hold rave parties. Teenagers jigged around completely wasted. I could only manage one drink here as the din from the sound system was just too mind numbing. Gerry was asleep in the corner having celebrated a little too much. We found him still in-situ at ten the next morning. The same trance music was still blaring out. Some true hardcore ravers were still giving it large with their frantic semaphore dance moves. This was Sunday morning worship, Alderney style.
The weather had settled and maybe it would have been better to wait, but I didn’t care now, it was all over. The weather could just have easily have got worse, but Gerry was having none of it. He sat there moaning over breakfast, complaining that he didn’t dive because we had insisted on going when it was rough. Natalie flipped and said that he would not have dived whatever the weather and his excuses yesterday were total crap. He was scared and just bottled it. The pin drop silence meant breakfast was over, Gerry stormed out in a huff. Finishing our bacon and eggs we checked out of the guesthouse. The boat was refuelled and tore off southwards on the now flat seas - it was home in an hour. I put the van full of equipment back on the ferry and we called a taxi to the airfield. I could see Nessie the ‘Dinoplane’ waiting as we drove into the car park. Stan the cab driver put his air traffic control hat on and bade us farewell.Like it so far? want to Buy A Copy ? Click the BUY NOW button below - £9.99 (inc postage)