30 January 2010

Blowing bubbles in the face of death

I float in the darkness, the water around me is cold, but not too cold. I am wearing a wetsuit and the various bits of paraphernalia that go with diving, the black water is cut by the beam of my torch, which is leashed to my right wrist. Above me the hard limestone roof of the cave thumps against my head and the dawning, terrifying, realization that I am not in open water brings an immediate rush of panic. I spin around shinning the torch and frantically looking for an exit as my heartbeat accelerates and waves of fear wash over me. I am alone and very scared, possibly more scared than I have ever been in my adult life. The bold text of the brightly coloured PADI training manual springs into mind pronouncing that “overhead environments kill!” How the fuck did I end up in here?

I had just completed a job in Namibia and was en route to Brunei with a couple of days to spare. I opted to go and dive on Sipedan, a unique deep water island off the coast of Malaysia. The archetypical desert island, with sandy beaches and palm trees only 500 m across, fringed by a coral reef. Beyond the edge of the reef the waters drop away vertically to 1000 m. The island sits on top of a volcanic plug about an hour by motor boat from the mainland. A few wooden huts sit on the beach and thousand of turtles, swim in the waters and lay eggs in the sand. Sharks and rays come in from the deep, the place is an absolute paradise.

I was travelling alone and I quickly team up with a guy called Lars, who was also in need of a dive buddy. He is a very experienced diver, way more that me, and I enjoy being in the water with him. One evening he suggested that we take a night dive and I readily agreed. We checked out the kit and entered the water, I followed his lead and we swam through the shallows and dropped off the edge. The usual vertigo that one experienced dropping off a km high wall was replaced by an eerie feeling of being watched in the surrounding darkness. We swam for a while, following the wall. Lars stopping to take pictures from time to time while I casually followed, enjoying the coral and fish. The reef at night is a totally different place, with a whole different shift of workers in the aquatic city.

I killed my light for a brief while, to allow Lars to take his pictures. While I was floating in the total darkness I suddenly started to feel very cold. I turned on the lamp and realized that I had lost my buoyancy in the darkness. The drop in temperature was because I was sinking fast, already reaching 40 m. Bugger. No problem, I kicked up and started to ascend, breathing out to avoid ear damage as trained. Losing your buoyancy is bad form but not dangerous.

Then suddenly I hit the hard roof of the cave above me. At first I was surprised, which rapidly gave way to fear. This is bad, very bad. The coral core of the island is filled with caves and there are currents all around that carry you, sometimes very swiftly sideways. In losing my buoyancy and my bearings I have strayed in to one of these. This is very fuckin bad!

I try to suppress the growing fear. This could be where I die. That is not being melodramatic, that is a very real chance here, fuck fuck fuck! I am about to become a statistic, a warning to others, an anecdote. I feel very lonely and very scaried. Fuck!

I look at the tank gauge and it says 100bar, that gives me about 20 minutes at this depth. That's a very short time to have left to live but it is also a reasonable amount of time to try a sort the problem out. I need to keep cool, the only way I will get out of this is by keeping cool.

I shine the light I can see the roof of the cave but apart from that, darkness in all directions. A couple of kicks takes me to a wall, but I have totally lost my bearings, I have no idea which way is in or out, or how far in I have drifted. I am just keeping it together, panic and a total freak out is just suppressed as tales of scratch marks in cave ceilings from doomed cave divers flash through my mind. I don’t want to die here alone in the dark.

I opt to swim 20 kicks in one direction and if that doesn’t work I will spin around and do 40 in the other and continue adding 20 in each direction until I get out. It’s a plan which might just work and more importantly it’s the only plan I have. As I start to swim, counting, the roof of the cave starts to gently drop down and I am convinced that I must be going the wrong way, but I also force myself to stick to the plan.

After 15 kicks the roof is still above me and just as I get ready to turn, suddenly it disappears. I am still not sure if I am out in the open ocean or just entering a large cavern. It’s still totally dark outside the torch beam. Now I am worried that if I swim up and hit another roof I may not be able to find this passage again. Fuck! Cautiously, I ascend, controlling my bouncy and trying supress the panic derived urge to just swim for it, try to stay cool, go slow and keep my bearings.
Then I see a light, swimming towards me, I let out a huge sigh of bubbles, pure relief, a massive adrenaline hit. I swim more quickly towards Lars and he looks at me partly puzzled and partly annoyed. He makes an O with his thumb and forefinger to ask if everything is alright and I make the same sign back, saying it is. Well at least it is now.

We continue the dive for another 10 minutes and I follow him very, very closely. Still not quite able to comprehend what has happened or that I actually got out of there. Back at the surface he asks where I went and I am too embarrassed to say that I broke so many of the fundamental rules of diving, “keep your buoyancy”, “stick with your buddy”, “avoid overhead environments”, that I tell him I lost my buoyancy in the dark and just sunk a bit, but it was no big deal. I can’t bring myself to admit that I made so many mistakes, at least not just yet.

Next day I ask one of the locals who works in the dive shop about the caves and says that they lose about 1 person a year, “very dangerous, stupid people who want to explore and get lost, very stupid”. That was almost me, well not the bit about wanting to explore, but the rest was correct. Now 10 years later I can laugh about it and when ever I read the bit in the PADI book about over-head environments I can agree with them, they are dangerous. Most of all, now I can say that I looked death in the face and it was very fuckin scary.


M. said...

And that is one of the reasons I'll never dive. So scary!

anyway, it was amazing... nice pictures... but I am the more the type of being home and reading about it than doing it :P

It is my idea or you just wrote in your profile that you are british? I can't be so blind!

John said...

It's not normally that bad, I have since done lots of fantastic dives...

I would like to pretend that you are going crazy ;-) but you are right about the profile.
After your last comment I looked at it and realised why you might think I was American, so I thought I should fix it
Take care