Slammed and Slashed in an Elkhorn Rinse Cycle

By Eric M. Olenick

The half moon shaped beach in front of our condos in Akumal was protected by an almost continuous barrier reef of Elkhorn Coral, which came within just a few feet of the surface. The reef had a small natural cut that allowed boat passage from the protected waters of the beach to the deeper, open waters of the Caribbean.

My buddy on this dive, Larry, was an instructor I had met at the start of my week long vacation in Akumal. He seemed an excellent and very conscientious instructor; I had watched him help lead several of our previous dives.Our dive plan was to enter the shallow, calm waters from shore, take a compass heading to a marker pole at the entrance to the barrier reef passage and head into deeper water. I was not wearing a compass and, since Larry was an instructor who had just made the same dive the day before, I felt secure in following his lead.

We began our swim toward the marker pole. The maximum depth was only about 14 feet. There was surge but nothing I couldn't handle (or so I thought). We completed the first leg of our dive. Larry then set off on another heading. I found out later it was the one he had taken the day before. We swam along the new heading to some fascinating coral heads and more Elkhorn Coral swarming with small tropicals. The surge had us zooming over the coral and the ocean floor with incredible speed. This should have sounded an alarm in my head. The surge seemed just as strong, if not stronger, then it had been in the shallower water inside the coral barrier.

Larry and I fought our way around the coral, consuming an incredible amount of air, until our pressure gauges told us it was time to head back. When we surfaced to confirm our plans to return to shore we noticed the skies had grown darker, the wind had increased considerably, and it looked like another rain storm. Larry took another compass heading, we submerged and began the 800 yard swim back to shore. This is when the fun really started.

I was on Larry's left side, about 15 feet away, flying forward with the surge and then trying to hold position as it moved in the opposite direction. As we came into shallow water, I suddenly found myself on top of the Elkhorn Coral, put there by a large wave. Before I could do anything, another large wave smashed me into the coral. When I finally got my head above the surface, my mouth was full of sea water. The coral had snagged my regulator hose and ripped it from me. I gripped the coral tightly with both hands to keep from being dragged across it by the retreating water. I could not reach for my regulator or switch to my octopus without being swept away. I tried to crawl over the coral and off the reef before the next wave hit, but my right foot had gotten caught and I couldn't move. Another wave pounded me into the coral; my hands and legs were already cut and bloody. I'm going to die here, I thought. I'm going home in a box.

About this time Larry surfaced off to my right about 60 yards into the boat channel. Another wave came and then another. Each one inflicted more damage, drew more blood. But my foot was free. I frantically tried to crawl over the coral, but now my regulator was entangled. I was able to turn around and free the hose just before another wave rolled me across the coral.

Larry finally realized my predicament but was physically unable to reach me. Even a small dive boat stopped to render aid but was also deterred by the reef.Suddenly, there was a short lull in the waves, long enough for me to gather my thoughts, stick my head below water and spot a small path through the coral. I submerged and swam with all my might. I kicked and clawed my way through the Elkhorn Coral, and cleared the reef just as a wave came crashing down.

Out of breath, heart pounding and still dazed, I filled my BC with air and floated. Larry swam over and we rested before starting our surface swim back to shore.

Later that evening I found out Larry had not set an exact reciprocal heading to the channel opening but had decided to take a short cut.

My first mistake was not confirming the dive plan with Larry. If I had known he was going to take a short cut back to shore, I would have strongly urged against it.

My second mistake was to put my trust in a brand new dive buddy based solely on his experience and instructor rating. I trusted the title instead of my own common sense.

My biggest mistake? I underestimated the sheer force and strength of the ocean. The increased force of the surge should have convinced me to abort the dive and wait for a better day.

When I returned to Houston several days later, I purchased a good compass and learned to use it expertly. It would be my navigation skills I relied on next time.

I LEARNED:
  • To confirm the dive plan with my buddy.
  • Not to put my trust in a brand new dive buddy based solely on his experience and instructor rating.
  • Not to underestimate the sheer force and strength of the ocean.