Wednesday, July 4, 2007

My 3 Best Dives Ever!

This blog entry is being done for Kaye (The Fish) who left a comment on one of my entries about diving. She asked about my 3 best dives ever. So after going to her blog and reading a bunch of entries, I decided to go ahead and write about them. They will probably come as a surprise to many people because what makes a dive great to one person, might be a horrible dive to another person. And plus this just gives me an excuse to put up more dive pics, which I always enjoy doing. Let me start by saying that I have never dove Palau or Australia, so that may have something to do with my explanation as well. I don't want to dive them as long as I'm living on Saipan because I always want to appreciate the diving I have here, and I don't want to spoil it for myself. So with that being said, here are my 3 best dives ever...

#1 - It was a Christmas night 8 or 9 years ago, and it was supposed to be one of the brightest full moons of the century. It was very impressive, so I decided to go do a night dive by myself at the Grotto. I know all about how you're not supposed to dive by yourself, that will come up in the next story. Anyway, I waited until the moon was up nice and full, and it was as dark as it was going to get, which really wasn't very dark because of the amazing moon. I had the Grotto all to myself, and conditions were absolutely perfect. No waves, no surge and no current. I saw several turtles all tucked into holes for the night inside the Grotto, but I decided to go out to the Bat Cave and see what might be hanging out in there.

It can be a little eerie diving by yourself at night, as you know it's just you and all the ocean critters. There have been times when I was going along an underwater cliff line, feeling like there was something right there next to me, only to shine my flashlight over and have a white tip reef shark keeping me company. So I headed in to the Bat Cave, hoping to see a couple rays or maybe another turtle or two. I was a bit disappointed as my flashlight swept over the bottom and I didn't see a single thing. Then I went up to this small side tunnel and was going to go down through it when all the sudden I sensed movement above me. I shined my light up to see this massive sheet of white gliding about 3 feet over my head, close enough to reach up and touch. I was just in shock for a minute, trying to figure out what could possibly be so big, it was a good 10 feet across. My heart was beating out of my chest at this point at this unexpected sighting. Then I saw the telltale flaps that came down by it's mouth. I was actually swimming with a Manta Ray. I had always wanted to go to Yap to swim with the Mantas, I thought they were one of the most magnificent creatures in the ocean. He wasn't the least bit bothered that I was there and just slowly swam out of the Bat Cave and out into the open ocean. I followed him for what seemed to be an eternity, I totally lost track of time while swimming with him. Finally I realized I'd better turn back before I was hopelessly turned around. But it is an experience that I can still feel as clearly as I did that night. I really believe it was God's special Christmas present to me that night, giving me one of my biggest underwater dreams. That was the first and last Manta Ray I've ever seen!

#2 - There are some days that you know just by looking at the conditions that the dive will be perfect and nothing can possibly go wrong. This picture of Wing Beach was one of those days.
Unfortunately this picture wasn't taken on the day of this next story. I was taking another guy who had never dove Wing Beach before, he was chomping at the bit to go. It was pretty late in the season, and I didn't have my rope with me that I usually tie onto the cliff line and then take out a couple hundred feet and tie off underwater. I looked at the waves crashing on the reef line, and told him I didn't think it was a very good idea to go without the rope, it would make it too challenging getting back in.

He was older than I was, and said "fine if you're not up to it, we don't have to do it, but I know I could handle it". I guess you know what happened next, I wasn't about to let him think I was chicken or couldn't handle it, so we started walking out to the cut, against my better judgement I might add. As we put our mask and fins on, and laid down in the water, the current swept us out about 100 feet in a matter of seconds. I knew that was a very bad sign, it meant that we were going to have a real fight on our hands to get back in.

The dive itself was fine as we went out to the crevasse, we got to see some eels and a couple sharks. But then when we started trying to come back, the current was so strong we had to go along the wall and pull ourselves along, you couldn't swim against it. As we got back to the spot we should have had the rope tied to, we had to go along the bottom pulling ourselves and not letting go, or you go flying back out. We both finally got in to the point that we could stand up. We took off our masks and fins, and then he got knocked down by the current and sucked back out. He was yelling to me from about 150 feet out, saying he had used all his air and couldn't go back down and was too tired to fight it anyway. He told me to just go get help and have them go looking for him. I was a bit pissed at this point, since he was the one who assured me he could handle it.

I put my mask and fins back on and went out after him, I put his fins back on for him, gave him my spare regulator and pulled him down to the bottom to start our journey of pulling ourselves back in. I wound up doing most of the pulling for both of us, but finally managed to get us both back to waist deep water. Again, we took off our masks and fins, and believe it or not, but he let himself get knocked back down again, and sucked back out. This time though he lost his fins, and he had nearly sucked my tank dry when I brought him in the last time.

Now he was telling me he was at peace, it was ok to leave him, he didn't blame me. Of course he's yelling all this because again he's 150 feet out. If you think I was pissed before, you wouldn't have wanted to see me at this point. I had never left anybody behind before, and wasn't about to start now, even though I was a bit tempted. I knew that I didn't have enough air left to bring us both back in underwater again, which meant that I was going to have to bring us both back in over the reef in the waves. That is pretty much your absolute last resort, but that's what we were left with.

When I got to him, he was too exhausted to swim or do anything, and he didn't have any fins anyway. So I grabbed him and started swimming on the surface toward the reef line, letting the big waves throw us along. When we hit the reef line the waves would slam us down into the jagged rocks and coral, cutting all exposed skin. We got our fair share of urchin spines in us too. There was nothing you could do though but just let the waves keep rolling you and smashing you into more rocks and reef. You had to hope you could grab enough breath between waves to be able to be rolled underwater for a minute or so. When you could finally get your head above water you were gasping for breath. You would have time to grab one or two quick breaths and then the next waves would take you back under and start rolling you over the jagged fire coral all over again. I don't know how many times we got rolled like that, but it seemed like it would never end, and honestly I thought that was how and where I was going to die, I couldn't see any way out of it. By the time I could finally stand up without getting knocked back down by the crashing waves, we were both a bloody mess, and exhausted beyond belief. He said he couldn't get up and walk back in, so I had to drag him to the cliff line and get us out of any further danger.

You may be asking yourself right now why this is my 2nd best dive ever, and why it wasn't my worst ever. If you've ever been through an experience like that where you thought you were going to die, and really, you knew you should have died, but yet miraculously you were spared, you have to be convinced that somebody was looking out for you and decided it just wasn't your time yet. I believe in guardian angels 100%, and have no doubt that I had several working overtime that day. I was thankful I was still alive, and thankful I'd have another chance to go diving, on a much calmer day of course. That dive is also burned into my memory banks like it was yesterday, and I will never forget it. And there is nothing like an experience like that to give you a whole new appreciation for life, and an appreciation that someone is looking out for you.

When the guy who was diving with me got back home, his wife wanted to know what happened since he was all bloody and beaten to a pulp. Rather than tell her exactly what transpired, he let her think that I just showed poor judgement in diving Wing Beach that day, and that I was a bad and risky diver. To this day she continues to spread rumors of what a risky and bad diver I am. I guess that's my thanks for pulling his butt back in twice and making sure he came back alive. It's true that I showed poor judgement in listening to him in the first place and letting myself be pushed into going on a dive that I knew was going to be risky, so lesson learned on my part. It was the last dive I ever did with him, and it is also a big part of the reason that I started diving alone so much.

#3 - The last several years I got into shell collecting thanks to my dive buddy Doug. Up until I met him I had no idea just how many different shells were down there and how amazing they were. And the more cool shells you find, the more you want to look and find others.
Doug and I were diving on this particular day, each looking for shells on our own. We're not the sort of dive buddies most people think of. We ride to the beach or dive spot together, put our gear on together, hit the water together, then we each go our own way looking for shells. We meet back up on the tailgate of the pickup after the dive. Ok, so maybe we're not your traditional dive buddies, but it works for us.

I had been by this one particular hole in the rocks probably at least a hundred times before. I had even seen shells down in it before, and I had tried to get in it, but I just couldn't fit with my tank on. But on this particular day, there was a gorgeous, glossy Ventriculated Cowrie just sitting there, begging me to come down and get it. It looked very fresh dead. So again, I tried fitting through the opening all to no avail though. I looked around to see if there was anything I could reach down and scoop the shell with, but of course there wasn't. I just kept staring it, and it seemed to be just taunting me. It was only a couple feet out of my reach.

Finally, I decided that if I took my BC (vest) and tank off, and lowered them into the hole first, keeping my regulator in my mouth, that my body alone would fit through the hole. So I did it, I took it off and lowered it down into the hole, and followed it down in. So far so good, I made it into the hole and decided to look around for a while as long as I was in there anyway. I found a couple other little shells, but the Ventriculated was just as beautiful as I thought it was. Not a scratch on it, which is very rare for that particular shell.

Then it was time to work my way back out of the hole, so I pushed my vest and tank back out of the hole first, and then followed them out, keeping my regulator in my mouth the whole time. I was thrilled, I actually pulled it off, and without a hitch, until I tried putting my BC back on that is. My weights are all built into the BC, so it wanted to sink, while my body was trying to float since I didn't have a weight belt on. So I was having to wrestle with it trying to get both arms into it. In the process of the struggle, I managed to tear the mouthpiece right off the regulator, but I didn't realize it until I exhaled all my air and tried to take in another breath. I got a mouth full of salt water, and no air. I frantically tried sweeping around to grab my extra regulator, but couldn't find it since my BC still wasn't on. Without any air in my lungs, I knew I had to get to the surface quickly, and I also knew I was dead if I left my tank down there, so I tried pulling it to the surface.

I was in about 60 feet of water at the time, and I managed to get to within about 20 feet of the surface when all the sudden I felt everything going black. I was starting to pass out from lack of oxygen to my brain, and knew I wouldn't make it to the surface. Again I was watching my life flash before my eyes, unable to believe it was really my time. I guess in most accident cases, you never really think it's your time to go. I saw Kelli's face, knowing she probably wouldn't be surprised, but would still be crushed all the same. I wondered if they'd ever find my body, and if they would wonder why I didn't have my BC on. Maybe it would be a good thing they didn't know that I died from something so stupid. It's amazing how many thoughts can go through your brain in such a short amount of time. Time truly does seem to stand still in those moments.

So with one frantic last sweep, I tried to find my extra regulator. Fortunately my hand snagged the hose and I managed to get it in my mouth before I passed out completely. Now that I could breathe again, I slowly let myself fall back down to the botom and carefully put my BC back on. Again, my guardian angel was on the job that day and spared my life yet again, even in the midst of my own stupidity. As I was trying to put my BC back on I was having a hard time because I had something in my hand. I was still holding on to that Ventriculated Cowrie. It now sits on my desk as a reminder of what a blessed person I truly am.

Doug and I decided that maybe we should stick a little closer together as we talked about the experience afterward. And we did...for a couple of weeks. I never said learned all the lessons I should from these experiences did I? But they have all given me a profound appreciation for life and the chance to keep diving. Some people might have quit diving after those experiences, but if I have to quit diving you might as well just cut my heart out too. You have to learn to not only accept the good with the bad, but to learn to truly appreciate it as well. That's why these are my 3 best dives ever.

Thanks Kaye for prompting me to put them down for posterity.


6 comments:

Jeff said...

This is not a comment at all on your gripping accounts, but from the time I started diving, I noticed a certain macho culture in diving I don't like. I won't go out in less than optimal conditions. There is always another day -- especially when you live in Saipan. A good scare will remind you of the respect you need to have for the underwater world. It is a great service that you posted these stories Harry. They serve as good warnings for others.

The Fish said...

This was unexpected!
I've asked this question a lot of times before and i rarely get answers like yours. I must say WOW -- but mean it in different ways. I envy your passion and admire your skill. Foolhardy? A bit. Adventurous? obviously!
I bet you're wondering what your purpose is for still being alive! (aren't we all?)
Definitely laud the pictures-- all raw with depth, character, and presence. Not that I'm a worthy judge but your pictures do scream invisible words. And for me, that's art in photography.
I believe in angels too 100%, and seeing the beauty that is underwater is enough to make you believe there is a God. :)
Thank you for the unexpected reply to my question. Although meant for posterity, i'm touched nonetheless.

Bruce A. Bateman said...

Those are truly amazing experiences, Harry, and well told too. The pics are excellent.

In response to Jeff's observation about the macho exhibitions you sometimes see divers display, it reminds me of the similar display among airplane pilots except it is even more pronounced. I was in that business for quite a while and saw a lot of it. There is an old saying that there are old pilots, and bold pilots, but few old bold pilots. There should be a parallel saying for the diving community.

The Fish said...

there is macho exhibition everywhere :)

Anonymous said...

Great stories Harry. People ask me why I dive alone so often….. My reply is simply; “Sometimes it’s more dangerous diving with a buddy.” Why? You illustrated it perfectly in your second story in “Best Dives”. Unfortunately, some people don’t know there limitations.
Somebody once told me I was “crazy” to dive alone at night at the Grotto. It was a government payday Friday when that person offered me that particular observation. I told him, in my opinion it’s more dangerous driving after 10:00 PM on a payday Friday than it is diving alone in the Grotto at night.
:)
M. Dalsaso

Anonymous said...

Great stories Harry. People ask me why I dive alone so often….. My reply is simply; “Sometimes it’s more dangerous diving with a buddy.” Why? You illustrated it perfectly in your second story in “Best Dives”. Unfortunately, some people don’t know there limitations.
Somebody once told me I was “crazy” to dive alone at night at the Grotto. It was a government payday Friday when that person offered me that particular observation. I told him, in my opinion it’s more dangerous driving after 10:00 PM on a payday Friday than it is diving alone in the Grotto at night.
:)
M. Dalsaso