Into the Dark­ness

Div­ing deep be­low the ocean’s sur­face can be thrilling but per­ilous

Our Canada - - News - By Sean Snow­don, Saska­toon

A last-minute in­vi­ta­tion to go scuba div­ing leads to a thrilling but per­ilous ad­ven­ture.

One week­end in 1995 while we were prac­tic­ing tai chi, my room­mate asked me if I was in­ter­ested in go­ing div­ing with him. With my own gear and a love for the wa­ter, I was al­ways look­ing for some­one who wanted to head to the ocean.

Back then, not too many peo­ple had their own div­ing gear, so it was hard to find some­one in­ter­ested in div­ing. I never ac­quired a large amount of money, so my gear was a used wet­suit miss­ing a sec­tion of ma­te­rial the size of a small break­fast bowl in the crotch. Wet­suits aren’t made to keep you dry, but the neo­prene ma­te­rial wrapped tightly against your body is de­signed to keep you some­what warm for the first 40 min­utes of div­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, if you have a de­cent-sized hole, that will af­fect how warm you stay. Ev­ery time I went div­ing, I came back out af­ter 30 min­utes barely able to move from the cold, but it was worth it.

The con­di­tions were per­fect the day we chose to go div­ing. It was calm and sunny, and vis- ibil­ity in the wa­ter was about 40 or 50 feet—which in sum­mer is quite good, with al­gae and plank­ton every­where. I was feel­ing in great shape. We went into a lit­tle bay just off Camp­bell River, B. C., the lo­cal pop­u­lar div­ing spot, as there was al­ways an abun­dance of wildlife to see. We laid out our gear, checked it over and made a game plan of our dive for the next hour. We planned on check­ing out the wildlife within the first 50 feet for the first part of the dive, then drop­ping down past 150 feet. This was some­thing I was kind of ex­cited about try­ing. I had never re­ally been past 80 feet, as there was re­ally no need. When div­ing, al­most ev­ery­thing in­ter­est­ing to see is within the top 30 feet.

The dive spot for the first halfhour proved its pop­u­lar­ity: The rock reefs were cov­ered with starfish, sea urchins and crabs work­ing their way around the crevices, look­ing for food as the odd shrimp wig­gled by. Ev­ery once in a while, a jel­ly­fish bobbed up and down with lit­tle strag­glers feel­ing its way. Close to the rocks, the anemone closed their outer soft shells when touched, cov­er­ing their colour­ful ten­ta­cles. As we moved through the long kelp, a cou­ple of wolf eels cu­ri­ously cir­cled us be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing back into the dark­ness. As we were hop­ing, a Pa­cific oc­to­pus did let us ad­mire him be­fore his long arms pushed him back into a small crevice within the rock. We did not see any seals that day; how­ever, we were able to watch hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent kinds of fish.

My room­mate mo­tioned to me, by thumbs up, to see if I was okay, then pointed down a rock for­ma­tion with no bot­tom in sight. Af­ter re­ply­ing back I was okay, we started down the rock wall. As I looked at my depth gauge, it slowly read 60 feet, 70 feet…then 100 feet as we con­tin­ued down the rock. I was ex­cited and ner­vous as I looked around, be­cause I didn’t know what was ahead of us; this was some­thing I had never ex­pe­ri­enced.

It was the weird­est feel­ing to look up­ward and find that the sky and ocean sur­face were no longer there. There was no wildlife in sight, other than bar­na­cles glued to the rocks—and the two of us slowly de­scend­ing. I started feel­ing as if life com­pletely

stopped and there was only the dark­ness all around us. You think it’s dark at night, but there is al­ways some form of light around to give di­rec­tion; at 120 feet deep with noth­ing but a flash­light, it was enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

We hit about 140 feet when we stopped de­scend­ing. My room­mate then wrote a sim­ple ad­di­tion ques­tion on a small un­der­wa­ter board, want­ing me to an­swer it. He was a di­ve­mas­ter and was mak­ing sure that my brain was still func­tion­ing prop­erly. With a tank, you can only dive to about 130 feet safely. Af­ter that, phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes brought on by pres­sure be­come greater and greater the deeper you dive, and com­pressed air breath­ing can lead to ni­tro­gen nar­co­sis and other prob­lems. Be­ing a smar­tass, I de­cided not to do the ad­di­tion prob­lem but in­stead did it as a mul­ti­pli­ca­tion prob­lem. He smirked at my an­swer and knew I was still fine, so we de­scended a lit­tle far­ther.

The thing was, even though I was okay, I was very ner­vous about be­ing so deep with no sight of any­thing. It was com­plete dark­ness—not even a shadow. I am not claus­tro­pho­bic, but I was def­i­nitely feel­ing a bit of it. If some­thing hap­pened, I would be in trou­ble. The air in my tanks said 1,500 psi, and this is the time to as­cend. The deeper you go, the greater the quan­tity of air is re­quired to fill your lungs. I knew I had to try and slow down my breath­ing and start up­wards in five min­utes, which I was look­ing for­ward to.

I still don’t know why I didn’t stop and give the sign to go up, but I guess I pro­ceeded down for the thrill of the un­known. I didn’t know till after­ward how deep we went, but when we hit 160 feet, I started to lose it. I didn’t know where I was or what I was do­ing. I just re­call look­ing up­ward, scared out of my mind. I didn’t know any­thing about my life, or what I did for a liv­ing. I didn’t need to com­mu­ni­cate—i guess my eyes and fa­cial ex­pres­sion said ev­ery­thing. My room­mate was hold­ing onto me and slowly started up­ward, try­ing to calm me down.

Once we got back up to 130 feet, I re­mem­bered what we were do­ing—or at least I knew who I was—but in the dark­ness, I still wanted to get out of the wa­ter NOW. We couldn’t just go straight up, though. Un­for­tu­nately, at that depth, we had to stop for five min­utes a few times on the way up for de­com­pres­sion. The closer we got to the sur­face, the more I started to feel re­laxed, es­pe­cially once I saw some light above us.

We even­tu­ally did get up and out of the wa­ter, and then my buddy let me know that I had ex­pe­ri­enced ni­tro­gen nar­co­sis; in div­ing ver­nac­u­lar it’s called get­ting “narked.” Every­body varies in the depth they can reach be­fore this oc­curs. Some divers have re­acted by tak­ing their air reg­u­la­tor out of their mouth and try­ing to give air to a fish, while oth­ers lose di­rec­tion and try head­ing back by swim­ming deeper.

As a di­ve­mas­ter, my room­mate’s depth was around 180 feet; he was see­ing how I would cope when I got narked. It is some­thing I never want to ex­pe­ri­ence again; how­ever, I am glad I did, for I re­call clearly what I couldn’t re­mem­ber— and the feel­ing of fear that went with it. I knew that in my fu­ture div­ing days, 130 feet deep would be my limit; from ex­pe­ri­ence, there re­ally is noth­ing more to see af­ter 70 feet deep any­way. n

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