By Eric Higgins
It was 1983, and I was about to go on an ill-fated dive in Hawaii. I can remember it clearly to this day. It was at a place called Portlock, on the island of Oahu. We were standing on a five foot ledge overlooking the sea after laboriously climbing down a steep cliff with our tanks on. There were four of us, plus a girlfriend of one of the divers. She would stay ashore and wait for us. The waves weren’t too rough, and it was a beautiful sunny afternoon. Since we had all dived with each other before, we decided to “go for it.” What we didn’t do was make a plan and stick to it.
We made giant stride entries and swam out a few feet to descend. The water was incredibly clear and deep with an indigo blue hue. There was a fairly steep bottom sloping out to sea. My buddy and I dropped down, then headed downcurrent, keeping the cliff face to our left. We soon came upon a small canyon paralleling the cliff, and I managed to spear a soldierfish, then an octopus. The other buddy pair was nearby at the time, and we all stuck close together.
Farther on, I came upon a small conch just lying empty on the right side of the canyon and put it in my goody bag also.
By this time I assumed we were nearing our exit point. I was wrong. Boy, was I ever wrong! The other buddy pair started to turn around and swim against the current, back to our original entry point! They planned to return to the same place we had entered. But by now, I was below 1,000 psi, and we had a long way to go. I decided to ascend to conserve my air supply, while my buddy decided to stick with the other two divers. By this time I was really alarmed because we were fighting a heck of a current and had a long way yet to swim. I decided to use my snorkel when my tank started to get low, and began to worry about a sharks curious about the contents of my goody bag. I kept looking back but I couldn’t see anything in the deep water. We had made several mistakes, and were now paying for them. We failed to properly plan and discuss the dive, and started out by going with the current.
After what seemed like an eternity–and the whole time, I was becoming increasingly anxious about sharks because of my bloody fish–we got to our entry/exit point. During our dive, conditions had worsened. Now, there were large waves crashing everywhere, with thick white foam all around.
I was the last one to try and exit, and I was glad to have a little air left (200 psi), considering all the near shore turbulence. Out to sea, I saw a little “islet,” and briefly considered going to it instead. But then what would I do? So, I decided to exit, despite the surge and swells crashing onto the cliff. The ledge was really a challenge. Since I could not climb it with my fins on, I decided to throw one fin up and get a foothold with my free foot. I also threw the spear up. If I was swept out to sea with no fins, I would have been in trouble. So I decided to keep one fin on and wait for a swell to lift me up a little higher to get a grip. To the grace of God, the girlfriend saw my predicament and, grabbing hold of my right arm, helped me up and out of the crashing sea.
To this day, I really don’t know where those huge waves came from. Maybe it was a freak set, or maybe it was caused by an oil tanker passing by offshore. But I will always be grateful for that helping hand. I nearly lost my mask when a wave hit it, but on that day I was glad to be back on solid ground and thankful to be alive!