The scuba dive was my second of this trip, deep on the Palancar reef, which runs for many miles north and south off the eastern coast of Mexico and Belize - the longest reef in the Caribbean Sea. I was watching my computer for the three main items a scuba diver has to monitor under water: air consumption (how fast is the tank emptying), nitrogen loading (how much out of balance is the blood) and remaining bottom time (how long can the diver stay at this depth before risking the necessity of a decompression stop upon ascension). If any of these factors become a problem, then one solution is to ascend in the water column – which slows air consumption, reduces nitrogen loading, increases bottom time remaining – and also makes the diver closer to the surface and fresh air.
I was diving with Paul Anderson and David Smith, off Cozumel Island, Mexico, which is famous for its strong, fast currents, 30 foot tall reefs and narrow canyons between the reefs. It was Paul’s fifth trip and Dave’s third trip, but my first trip. As long as we stayed close to the dive master, then we were mostly safe. The dive boat drifted with the divers, theoretically in the same current, and when at the end of the dive the divers ascend to the surface, generally, the boat is there to pick them up. To keep out of cross currents, the dive master kept the group mostly just above the sandy bottoms of the canyons.
I inadvertently lost control of my buoyancy for just a few seconds and drifted upward. Suddenly I found myself being shoved by the ocean current up the wall of the coral canyon and over the top of the reef, out of sight of the group. The canyons were a labyrinth, not in orderly columns and rows, but like a fractal. I immediately tried to swim down the reef face and back into the canyon I had just exited, but to no avail. The higher I rose, the stronger was the current, and the more cross currents pushed me away from where the group was drifting. The danger of my ascending to the surface alone, far from the boat and lost in the Caribbean Sea, increased with each second. I felt the grip of panic welling up in my chest.
I later learned that I was in less danger than I imagined. If I was not able to get back down, I could stay high in the water, look for the other divers’ air bubbles filtering up through the reef, slowly head in that direction, and eventually (probably…) make it back to the group. If I never found the group, I could go to the surface, inflate my safety sausage, sound my air horn and wait for the boat to (probably…) find me.
After a Herculean effort kicking my fins and stroking with my hands, I made it back to the bottom just behind the group – only to discover another problem. I was hyper-ventilating: breathing way too hard from the physical effort, mental anxiety and adrenaline. It felt as if the air hose from my tank was too small and I could not get enough air. I had an overwhelming urge to shoot 80 feet to the surface and suck fresh air. Such an act would be likely suicide – since an uncontrolled, fast ascent is a nearly guaranteed way to get the bends and possibly die. After struggling to regain control of my body and mind, I slowly came back to equilibrium. I quickly learned some valuable lessons about drift diving: keep control of your buoyancy, watch your height above the bottom and keep right on the diver master’s fins. After this little adventure, the rest of the dive was actually fun.
On several of the later dives we finned through deep underwater tunnels, which can be a little unnerving. If something goes wrong, you can’t ascend to reduce air consumption or reduce nitrogen loading – you are stuck at that level until exiting the tunnel. The many ups and downs in the water to enter and exit tunnels can also be tough on the ears. The first day that we went through tunnels I got a little tense, breathed too hard, lost control of my buoyance and scraped my knees and elbows on the sharp coral in the tunnel walls. But after getting the hang of it, the last several tunnel dives were fun and incident free.
The week of September 11 – 18 Dave Smith, his wife Hilda, Paul Anderson and me, Bob Laney, took a scuba diving trip to Cozumel Island, Mexico, in the western Caribbean Sea. The package deal offered to us by the Hotel Cozumel Resort and Dive Paradise outfitter was a total of 16 dives. Each of us sat out several dives scattered throughout the week to rest, so I did 13 dives. Hilda limited herself to snorkeling. Incidentally, the package also provided all meals, all you can eat, and unlimited drinks, all the time, including beer, wine and spirits. We could walk a few blocks to downtown Cozumel and buy real Cuban cigars. Is this a great hemisphere, or what?
I used to know Spanish like a native, from when I in lived in Peru, South America, for several years during high school. I played soccer in the park in front of our house every day and jabbered with the native chauffeurs, gardeners and butlers. Over the years, I have had a few occasions to travel to Spanish speaking countries, mostly in the Caribbean, and some proficiency would come back. But I have mostly forgotten how to speak it. On this trip I started out real rusty. Then Paul had the bright idea of my downloading a Spanish to English dictionary app for my iPhone. I did and voila! Within a couple days my Spanish was coming back to me. By the last day I was able to carry on short conversations with our Mexican hotel staff, waiters, maids and dive masters.
For the first time in many years, Paul chose not bring his full featured camera. I had my low end, land and water SeaLife camera. Paul has it so engrained into his character to take dive photos that several times he borrowed my camera while under water. He took some of the great close up wildlife shots in this slideshow. Dave brought his fairly new, tiny GoPro camera in an underwater shell with attached heavy duty lights. We discovered that GoPro has cornered the market on underwater photo and video cameras. On every dive the majority of other divers had GoPros. Many of them were mounted on the end of sticks so the camera could be pushed up under the reef to get wildlife close ups, without the diver having to get so close as to get stuck or scare the fish. At the end of one dive, while Dave was at the surface right behind the boat, his camera wrist strap (that he borrowed from Hilda) broke and his camera plummeted 40 feet to the bottom. Dave had already taken off his fins and could not go back down. Luckily, another diver saw the camera go past and retrieved it.
You may have noticed that in some of the photos I am wearing white short pants. Most divers wear dive gear and exposure suits made of neoprene or other synthetic material, which is almost always black. It is hard to distinguish one diver from another, and if the visibility is not good, it may be difficult to see them at all. The white shorts added greatly to my visibility. That was my idea to enhance my safety – so my dive buddy can follow me more easily and be closely available if I get into trouble and need air in a hurry. There was an occasion on one of our later dives when I looked around and observed that the dive master was 5 feet in front of me, Paul was 3 feet to my right and Dave was 3 feet to my left. I felt as safe as a baby in a crib!
Seven days of exposure to the tropical sun, wind, salt water and sand on my skin and hair, while never using any soap or shampoo – but getting many fresh water rinses - gave me a good patina. My skin had a nice oily sheen and my hair had great body! Compared to the other divers, I found that I had superior protection from sunburn, windburn and mosquito bites.
We were blessed to be fed many kinds of tropical fruits - papaya, mango, oranges, bananas, watermelon and pineapple. We found that tropical varieties are fruitier: sweeter and tastier. I don’t understand why American food importers are so stuck on one homogenous variety of each kind of fruit, but we North American consumers are missing out.
Besides seeing hundreds of kinds of corals, sponges, bi-valves, crustaceans, turtles, stingrays and fishes, we also saw a good amount of terrestrial wildlife: iguanas, crabs, terrapins and humming birds. The iguanas had a strange habit of sitting on a fence that surrounded the resort, always facing toward the west and always standing next to fence post. Paul has been on more than 250 dives over several decades. He said that this trip had the strongest ocean currents, the biggest moray eel and the most lobsters he has ever seen. On one occasion, Paul found about five lobsters in a row looking out from under a reef. He slowly, carefully put out his hand and reached towards them. The lobsters all skimmed his hand and fingers with their antennae as they investigated this strange creature.
The first afternoon, our checkout dive to monitor our equipment and set our weights for correct buoyancy was off the dock behind the hotel. All our dives were by boat off the northeast corner of the island. Each day brought a two tank dive in the morning and a one tank dive in the afternoon. Besides us three amigos, each boat had from two to twelve other divers on board. Some of the dive sites were named for English things (Virgin Wall); some for Spanish items (Columbia Reef); and some were Mayan Indian names (Yucab Reef). Our dive boats were named Calypso, Renegade, Paradise Diver and Aries. We were repeatedly told that our radio frequency is channel 88. Thus if we got separated from the group and surfaced away from our boat, we could tell other boat operators how to call Paradise Divers to come get us.
Since my last ocean dive two years earlier, had had gained about 20 pounds and had acquired a noticeable beer belly. That fat caused a double problem. The fat itself was extra weight that I had to tote around and haul out of the water at the end of the dive. But worse, fat is lighter than water and thus buoyant. While at first blush buoyant may sound like a good idea, it actually hurts. I had to add about six pounds of lead weights to my dive vest so I could descend, which caused me to have even more inertia. I e-mailed a message to Terri that when I got home, she had to put me on strict diet and exercise regimen.
Having to breathe the cold dry air from the scuba tanks under water, and being exposed to the sun and wind on the surface, we were constantly pushing back from being dehydrated. We drank water and fruit juices like sailors drink beer. All the liquids kept our bladders full and needing to be emptied. On the boats it was a job to keep peeling down our wetsuits and waiting in line to use the head (bathroom). Some of the commodes were not lady friendly – having no seat and no capability to flush except by pouring a bucket of sea water into the bowl.
From one of the older dive masters (who were all Mexican and usually funny to talk with) I learned a better way to descend at the beginning of the dive. Expel all the air from my BC (dive vest), which puts me floating just below the surface. Then expel the air from my lungs, which allows me to slowly descend feet first (head up) to the bottom about 60 feet below. Then to equalize my ears, tilt my head so the bad ear is up, hold my nose and make a sneezing action. Do the equalizing repeatedly during the whole descent. It worked like a charm – the easiest I have ever gotten to the bottom!
Eventually I extended this no BC air concept to the whole dive and ascension to the surface. I tried to control my buoyancy solely by my breathing and finning. Paul taught David how to breathe from his stomach instead of his chest, which reduced Dave’s air consumption and extended his dive times. Paul also taught me to do a better slow ascent and safety stop at the end of the dive by watching my computer to more closely monitor the rate of ascent and holding at 15 feet depth for the safety stop.
A good time was had by all! Dave is already planning his next dive to Bonaire Island in March 2015.