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The First 130 FeetTrue Stories from the Dive Deck
By Ken Barrick
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Ken Barrick
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGETTING HAMMERED
I was awakened by the bright sun, the beams crossing my eyes through the window of my room at the Riding Rock Inn. It was all the motivation I needed to jump to my feet and start the day. I peered out the window to a gorgeous sunrise. Here I was, getting set for my first morning of diving in San Salvador.
The first stop was breakfast with my dive group. There were sixteen of us. Many in the group were highly experienced divers, a few were once a year vacation divers and there was one girl taking her very first dive trip after being certified back in Baltimore.
Breakfast for the most part seemed uneventful as our large group dined together discussing the upcoming morning dives. The only thing of importance I noticed was one young man in our group, seemingly in his early twenties was pouring something from a flask into his orange juice. He seemed to be doing it discreetly, keeping it from view of the group leader. I didn't know the young man and despite my misgivings, I decided to mind my own business and keep the information to myself. I was not about to get into a riff, with a total stranger, on the very first morning of the trip.
After breakfast my wife and I scurried to our room, collected our dive gear and headed down to the boat. We set up our dive gear and watched as the others set up theirs. Being a dive-master at the time, I could tell who was comfortable and competent and who may end up needing assistance by observing how they assembled their gear and how much fidgeting they were doing afterward. This seemed like a tight, well trained group. I noted quick assembly of gear, all the while joking with no signs of stress or anxiety. I decided to take a seat and enjoy the sun beating down on me. We had clear skies, sunshine, warm clear water and a great group of divers. What more could I want on a dive vacation?
As we approached the first dive site we were advised it was a swim-through, in essence a hole or cut in the reef that acted as a tunnel for us to dive through. The dive briefing informed us that as we swam through the cut, we would come to a Y. At this juncture it was preferable to stay to the right and by doing so we would come out of the reef and onto the wall in about 90 feet of water. The passageway on the left was narrow, fully enclosed and would bring us out on the wall 130 feet below. We could follow the resort dive master Ray or we could go it alone. For those who were not interested in doing the swim-through, they could glide over the top of the wall and stay at a comfortable depth. We could expect to see friendly groupers, a variety of reef fish and hammerhead sharks. This was, after all, San Salvador, famous for hammerhead shark encounters.
Despite being an experienced diver, I am not known to push the limits. My wife and I had listened to the briefing and decided we would dive the swim-through and turn right, the more conservative option bringing us out on the wall at 90 feet. We geared up along with everyone else and splashed in as a large group. Ray motioned for everyone to follow him. As we tagged along I spent some time observing everyone in the water, noting that the entire group seemed to have above average buoyancy control and smooth kicking strokes. I thought to myself, this was going to be an excellent week of diving.
Upon arriving at the entrance to the swim-through, Ray stopped and pointed to the opening. Instead of leading us through, he would hover above on the wall and make sure everyone made it in and out of the swim-through okay. If he led us, he would be turning his back to us and would lose sight of everyone. His plan made perfect sense.
The most excited to enter was our freshly minted diver Allison. This was her first open ocean dive and she made it clear she wanted to be first into the swim-through. I remember thinking to myself as she entered, "I'm not so sure this is the best idea, a brand new diver going first into an enclosed space." If she panicked she would cause a back-up in the tunnel and we could all end up in a world of trouble.
Allison entered first followed by Joe the young man I had observed adding pep to his orange juice at breakfast. I took it upon myself to wedge myself into third position, figuring if trouble ensued, I may be one of the better people in the group to handle it. My wife Michelle tucked in behind me.
With my adrenaline pumping and senses on high alert I squeezed myself through the narrow swim-through, thrilled that the two divers in front of me were not impeding my progress. Visibility was not the best, it was dark and those before me had stirred up just a bit of sediment. I reached the Y and instinctively followed the fins in front of me to the left, forgetting in that moment my plan to go right. There was no turning back now.
Everything happened so fast. I saw a massive shape making a u-turn and Allison using her arms to propel herself backward. It was a 14 foot Great Hammerhead, turning and using its massive head to bump Allison backward ... nudging her in her chest, one bump, then two, then three. From the corner of my eye I saw Joe snapping pictures with his camera and then my hearing senses kicked in and I heard "clang, clang, clang." I looked around then up and saw Ray frantically motioning for everyone to ascend. I looked at my depth gauge and it read 135 feet. I looked back at Allison and observed one last nudge from the shark before it turned and continued on its way, leaving Allison stunned but intact and Joe with amazing photographs.
The four of us, the only members of the group who turned left at the Y, slowly ascended to meet up with Ray and the rest of the divers. After everyone in the group used the okay sign to ask Allison if she was in fact okay, we swam to the top of the wall at 50 feet and met up with some friendly Grouper.
The Grouper, just like the shark, also took an interest in Allison and I began to wonder if this girl was a mermaid with magical powers over the fish in the sea. My wonder was soon explained when Joe and his friend Mike swam over to Allison, opened her BCD pockets and began pulling out breakfast sausages.
Not known to me or anyone else in the group, including Allison, her two prankster friends had placed a multitude of breakfast sausages in her BCD. They later explained to us why they had done this. On one of their previous diving trips, they had learned that Grouper loved breakfast sausage. Their intention was for Allison to be swarmed by the friendly, harmless Grouper, making this an amazing first dive experience. They had not planned on the passing senses of a 14 foot Great Hammerhead. The shark apparently smelled the sausages in her BCD and came in to check it out. Lucky for Allison, Joe, Mike and the rest of our group, the Hammerhead decided not to take a bite.
At dinner, Ray made us all say a pledge out loud, "NO MORE PRANKS." He had been completely spooked by the actions of the Hammerhead, saying he had been diving in San Sal for a long time and had never observed a Hammerhead approach a diver like that. For her part, Allison was thrilled. She thought the entire experience was awesome. We were quick to tell her she may have just had the most amazing experience she will ever have in diving and all on her very first dive.
Chapter TwoLEAP OF FAITH
Roatan, Honduras is one of my favorite places to dive. The plunging walls host an abundance of life, from fish to black coral and everything in between. There is something for everyone visiting this underwater realm.
This dive day began like many others. Our group boarded the boat and headed out for what was supposed to be a fantastic wall dive. The captain planned to position the boat on top of the wall; the dive master would then enter and lead our group to the dive's starting point approximately forty feet below. We were all comfortable with the plan; there was nothing unusual about it. It should have been a straightforward dive.
The last thing I do before I jump off a perfectly good boat is take a compass heading in the direction of my intended destination. As I approach my entry, I ask the captain or dive master to point in the direction of my intended target. Wherever they point, I take a compass heading directly to that spot. Depending on their professional knowledge is a small leap of faith that has never steered me wrong. If I enter the water into a worst case scenario, such as poor visibility or no visual reference points, I am able to competently navigate forward until something comes into view.
As an Instructor, I always teach my students to take a reciprocal course heading. This is a simple out and back course beginning where they enter the water. On this trip none of my students were diving with me. Michelle, me, and the rest of our highly experienced group would be following the resort dive master.
The plan started off without a hitch. The boat captain indicated to the dive master that we were in position, the dive master gave the signal and one by one we did our giant stride entries into the clear blue water. The dive master gave the signal for our group to begin descending and down we went.
The visibility was very good. By all accounts we had close to one-hundred feet of visibility or better. Due to the excellent visibility I was confused. As we descended I could not see the top of the wall. It was supposed to be just forty feet below. The dive master was leading and I was at the tail end of the group; a position I often take up to ensure that everyone is doing okay.
I kept watching the group ahead of me. All I could see was blue water in all directions. There was no wall in sight. I finally decided to look at my depth gauge and it showed 100 feet. I realized something wasn't right. We were not on the wall, not even close. I looked forward and observed the resort dive master spinning in circles and motioning for everyone to ascend. My gauge now showed 110 feet.
Roatan has many walls that are sheer drop offs into the abyss. The wall we were diving on reportedly dropped to more than one thousand feet. It would have been very easy for us to get into serious trouble. Spatial disorientation is a major problem for divers in clear blue water. With no visual reference points, there were now thirteen of us in this very precarious situation.
I exerted myself quite a bit in an effort to pass the rest of the group and reach the dive master's position. I got her attention, picked up my compass and acquired the heading I had set prior to jumping off the boat. I motioned for the dive master and the rest of the group to follow me. Apparently neither the dive master nor anyone else in our group had taken a compass heading prior to jumping off the boat. She looked at me quizzically but fell in line behind me. My only worry now was – had the Captain actually pointed me in the right direction? With this worry in the back of my mind, I ascended to seventy feet and stayed on my heading. It seemed like I was swimming for an eternity and I was just about to give up and lead the group to the surface when the massive wall appeared ahead of me. Oh how glorious it was. If you've ever had the chance to swim from blue water onto a wall, you know what I mean.
For those of you who have not had such an opportunity, picture being able to fly like a bird and soaring toward the side of a mountain. The visual impact is the same. I could look down the wall into the abyss ... and I could look up to see the sun's rays coming over the top of the wall. The colors popped as I approached the wall. I could see schools of fish swimming in formation around coral heads and sea fans. This is a view very few recreational divers will ever see.
I glanced at my computer and it showed I had been in the water a total of twelve minutes. Most of those minutes were a blue water swim I will never forget. The anxiety of being in blue water, one hundred feet beneath the surface, with the realization that there were nearly one thousand more feet beneath me; it took my breath away. The pride I took in leading my comrades out of the blue and back to the wall was priceless. To this day many of them still talk about this dive and the amazing view it afforded them.
Personally, I still consider every jump from a perfectly good boat a "leap of faith," and after this one in blue water, I no longer place any faith in resort dive masters. I approach each and every dive as if it is me against the world. I have faith in the ability of three people to get me back to the boat – me, myself and I.
I listened intently as the dive master and boat captain debated who was at fault for the predicament. Did the captain drop us in the wrong place? Did the dive master somehow begin her initial descent in the wrong direction, leading us away from the wall? I will never know for sure, but I do know that this dive ranks among my all-time favorite dives and I told them both they should take credit for that!
Chapter ThreeLOST AT SEA
Diving from a live-aboard dive boat, basically a small floating resort on the water has become one of my passions. Having traveled extensively around the world diving from these types of vessels from the Bahamas to Australia, I have come to appreciate the added sense of adventure. There is nothing quite like the feeling of standing on the forward deck peering out into an endless expanse of water, with no land in sight. You come to feel the sense of adventure Jacque Cousteau must have felt exploring the worlds' oceans.
On this morning I would be diving with a close knit group of friends on the sailing vessel Domino out of Miami Florida. We had been at sea for a couple of days and the diving had been wonderful and uneventful. Our dives had included typical encounters with reef fish, turtles, moray eels and the like. The crew seemed more than capable and our group of experienced divers was in the process of lulling them to sleep. The crew had little to worry about as we repeatedly entered and exited the water without incident.
The next dive on a site named Triple Sevens would change all that. Tim and Mary were both experienced divers, but didn't dive on a regular basis. They were your annual vacationers, doing fifteen or twenty dives a year. They had looked smooth on all of our dives to date, so I had no concerns as we entered the water. The planned dive seemed easy enough. It was only 60 feet to the sandy bottom and the plan was to follow the anchor line forward to a set of shallow pinnacles, small pyramid shaped reefs sticking up out of the sand.
I was the first to enter the water and I was instantly met with a moderate current. The current was running from bow to stern and the boat was holding position with the anchor line headed straight into the current. The visibility was okay but not great. I'd later estimate it to be 30 to 40 feet. As I descended, around 20 feet or so, I was kicking forward to the anchor line when I looked back at my wife and noticed she was getting nowhere. It was as if she was kicking in place, making no forward progress at all. As the thought popped into my head that perhaps we should abort the dive, she signaled to me that she was descending to the bottom. I glimpsed at the anchor line, set my compass on a direct heading to the line and descended with her. When we reached the bottom, the current dissipated and we made our way across the sand using my compass heading. Eventually we came to one of the pinnacles and located the anchor. Remembering the visual image of the site from the dive briefing, I felt confident we could navigate the site and end up back at the anchor line.
We set out diving around the pinnacles and eventually came across the rest of the divers. Everyone seemed to be doing fine. A total of twelve divers had entered the water and it seemed all were present and accounted for. Further proof, I remember thinking to myself, that this was a well rounded and experienced group.
It wasn't until the end of the dive that I realized something had gone horribly wrong and even then, initially, I wasn't certain. As all of the divers returned to the anchor line for the ascent back to the surface, I realized only eleven were present. I looked down and observed Tim holding onto the line, casually looking around for his wife Mary. As I peered out onto the site, I did not see any other movement or bubbles, so I swam down to Tim and signaled the question "where is your buddy?" His response to me, a shrug, caused my stomach to knot. I was certain Mary was not on this site.
Excerpted from The First 130 Feet by Ken Barrick Copyright © 2011 by Ken Barrick. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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