By R. Craig Boyd
While poetic justice may even the score, it doesn’t come without a price. I had logged each and every dive in detail since becoming certified three years ago. I am considered by my friends and peers to be a definite type-A personality.
Even though I tackle the sport with gusto, I’m still cautious in my approach to diving. I had not seen big game, though, and wanted to make the hammerhead shark dive at the Flower Gardens (100 miles off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico) in the cold waters of March. Since none of my usual buddies were as eager, I headed for the Texas coast by myself and joined a group of 30 divers at the pier to board a rather large dive boat.
I notified the captain that I would need a dive buddy and was soon paired with a dive instructor. I figured I was in good hands and mentally let my guard down.
I own all of my dive gear, except a wetsuit, which I rarely need. However, on this trip, with the waters being cold, I rented one.
On the first dive, I had difficulty getting under. I struggled and continued to receive added weight from the boat until I was able to break the surface.
We descended along the anchor line, so I completely ignored my compass. Soon I realized I had no idea where the boat was. No problem, I was relying on my buddy.
My air level soon dipped below the one-third empty mark. Instead of notifying my buddy that it was time to turn around, I thought—thanks to my experience—there was no need to adhere strictly to any ordinary dive plan rules. After my air pressure was below the one-half mark, I alerted my buddy. He nodded and we continued.
Soon, my air pressure was getting dangerously low—I had to surface now. I notified my buddy that we needed to surface immediately. He simply nodded, raised his hand and waved goodbye.
Not only was I panicked, I was pissed. Both emotions overtook me for a moment and before I realized it, I had surfaced with no safety stop, exceeding all safe-ascent limits. I looked for the boat. It was 200 yards away.
After swimming a little on my back, I flipped over and put my mask in the water, noticing a school of rather large fish off in the distance. I concentrated my attention and soon saw 30 to 40 hammerhead sharks schooling below me.
My opportunity to look at the hammerheads lasted only moments, as they soon vanished. Before they left, I could actually see my buddy through the school.
When I finally arrived at the boat, I proceeded to review my mistakes one by one: (1) I thought I was totally prepared and about as experienced as you could be. Now I know that every dive trip is a new experience; (2) I assumed that since I was with an instructor, I was safe and could just go along for the ride; (3) I was not completely familiar with my gear. I had the responsibility of familiarizing myself with it in advance; (4) I did not bother to check my compass; (5) I waited far too long to notify my buddy that it was time to return; (6) I waited too long to take initiative; (7) Not only did my panic and anger serve no purpose, they prevented efficient decision making; (8) My assumptions about a qualified buddy were dead wrong; (9) The fear of embarrassment has no place in safe diving (better to turn red than be dead).
I don’t want to come off like Pollyanna, but patient step-by-step guidelines in this complex sport cannot be emphasized enough—and there is a payoff. While I saw a gnarly mess of hammerheads, my buddy failed to see even one. Poetic justice? Oh, yeah!