Scuba diving is classed as an extreme sport. I find this strange, but then I’m more than happy to pootle along at 10 metres looking at pretty fish. The idea of doing tech dives to great depths really doesn’t appeal to me whatsoever and I basically saw diving as a pretty risk free enterprise, in much the same way that skydiving is. Things like diving or skydiving aren’t statistically dangerous at all, and most accidents and injuries happen because of someone making a mistake or behaving recklessly. I don’t behave recklessly underwater and I make sure to stick to my limits. Unlike some people (my idiot boyfriend) I’m not going to dive alone and get wedged in a cave at 38 metres trying to catch a crayfish.
I went out for a two day live aboard trip for my birthday a couple of weeks ago on a boat called Rum Runner. We did four dives on the first day and, other than terrible visibility, they all went fine. Quite strangely, other than the skipper who was an instructor I was the most experienced diver by quite a long way (this includes the three strong crew of brand new DMTs). Not that I’m a diving pro at all, but I whilst I may not have a list of qualifications I’m very comfortable under the water and, by that point, had done 64 dives.
After a very hot nights sleep we got woken up, wished Happy Birthday (me) and told to prepare for our morning dive. The equipment on the boat isn’t top notch (it’s a cheap trip so you can’t really complain) and while I’d borrowed Mikey’s gear I was using tanks and weights provided by the boat. My borrowed tank was so difficult to turn on and off that I actually got a blister on the palm of my hand; that’s not just me being a wuss, even the strapping Swedish blokes had trouble with it! So feeling rather tired I went to turn on my tank and found that I couldn’t. I tried again…it wouldn’t budge. Checking my gauge I felt rather foolish: my tank was full of air, I’d been trying to turn on an already open tank, duh!
Once I was in my gear my buddy and I completed our ‘buddy check‘ using my favourite acronym of ‘Bruce Willis Ruins All Films’ so we remembered each important item on the list. Everything looked A-OK and was working like it should – it was time to dive!
Note for non-divers: I use very little air while diving so don’t often check how much I have left for the first 20 or so minutes. When diving you’ll usually start with 220 bar and if I’m doing a fairly shallow dive I’ll surface with about 100 even after 50 minutes underwater. It helps that I’m a girl and am very relaxed while diving.
The dive started well. We descended to about 8 metres and then swam up and over a coral bommie before descending down a wall on the other side. There was some very pretty coral and a few nice fish to have a gander at. Fifteen minutes in and the dive was going brilliantly, until…
“…oh, that breath felt a little weird.” Perhaps it was my regulator, Mikey’s are super duper posh scuba pro ones that I’m not used to and you can adjust the air flow. Hmm, nope. Not that. I looked at my gauge, “Shit! 60 bar left, how the hell did tha…,” my brain seemed to stop and my vision turned black and white as I struggled to take another breath. The needle had shot down to 0. There was no air in my tank. I was underwater and I had no way to breathe.
Excuse my French, but shitbollocksfuckityfuckcockingshit.
Immediately I looked for my buddy, the lovely Kristin, who thankfully was only a few metres away. A few metres that, at the time, seemed the length of an Olympic pool. I looked at her, eyes bulging (her flattering description, not mine) and did the dreaded out of air signal – a slash across my neck. We swam towards each other and the instant she was within arms reach I grabbed the regulator out of her mouth and took two huge breaths. The two best breaths of my life. Then, sensibly, popped it back in to her mouth and helped myself to her octo.
Afterwards she said to me, “you ripped my reg right out of my mouth!” to which my response was, “of course I bloody did!”
I checked my gauge. Back to 190 bar. Tried to suck some air from my reg. Saw it shoot down to 0. What. The. Hell? My main concern was that I’d set up Mikey’s gear incorrectly and had somehow managed to break it. That stuff is expensive and I’d already managed to break his camera the day before (it was one of those trips. I also got bleach on my favourite top. Totally comparable incidents).
I signaled to Kristin that I was OK and that we should surface, so we slowly started to ascend. As we swam up I started to shake from adrenaline, and wasn’t unhappy as I felt wind hit my scalp. Well, I thought, that could have been a lot worse.
“What the fuck happened?” “I don’t know.”
We swam back to the boat, me apologising every two sentences for Kristin having to end a dive early (we buddied together because on her previous dives she had to surface early due to her buddies using their air too fast. Oh, the irony!). I said I’d get out, grab a new set of gear and hop back in so we could continue diving. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like not having air underwater stop me!
Well, it turned out new gear wouldn’t be necessary. Everything was fine, apart from the fact that my tank…erm…wasn’t actually turned on… It must have been opened slightly for pressure testing or something, no one is sure. Regardless, it was open enough to give me air until the pressure at depth got too much. So I got my tank turned on then we continued diving and saw a moray eel and a bump head parrot fish. Awesome.
I know this seems like a horror story however it just goes to show that diving isn’t the dangerous thing, human error is. I absolutely should have been more thorough in checking my equipment. But it also goes to show why we should do what we’re taught on our courses. If Kristin and I hadn’t been sensible and kept close to one another (like so, so many dive buddies don’t) things might have been very different. If I’d panicked and fled for the surface I might have hurt myself. I stayed calm and did everything we’ve been taught to do and here I am, telling the story.
Diving is one of my passions. I love it. One day I want it to be my job. I can think of nothing I’d rather do. So has this put me off? Not a bit. My overwhelming reaction when I had to surface was, “boo, I’ve missed out on a dive” not “That was awful lets never do this again”. Having said that I’m glad I was the one who had that tank and not one of the really novice divers. I kept my cool but if I’d only done ten or so dives I imagine my reaction would have been rather different.
The incident taught me some valuable lessons (mostly that I’m a weak armed idiot who can’t be left alone) and, really, the worst has pretty much happened now. I may as well keep going. Although I’m certainly going to exercise reasonable caution in the future, you simply can’t let bad situations stop you from doing things. If you have a bump while you’re driving you don’t vow to never set foot in a vehicle again, that would just be silly.
Although as the modern day philosopher Karl Pilkington says: “Everyone expects the worst. Otherwise why would you wear seat-belts?”
Stay safe, kids. And keep diving!