Down Too Deep with No Air to Spare

By Lanny Schwartz

I was finally away from Miller’s Quarry in Iowa and off to some world-class ocean diving. Bumped from a flight earlier in the year and with a free round-trip voucher in hand, I had convinced a reluctant airline that I needed to go to Cozumel. It was spring break, and as a student (now a professor), I had never before done anything but work over break. I had searched through Skin Diver magazine and found a personable travel agent who booked me into an economy motel and arranged a five-day dive package with an operator who was (and mostly is) “...very safe and reputable.”

The next day after I arrived, I was picked up at the dock in one of the operation’s small, fast boats. There were six other divers on board: a family of four from Boulder, Colorado; a North Slope oil worker who wanted sunshine; and a feminist from British Columbia who, in the course of conversation, had said, “All men are air pigs.”
The family, regulars with the dive operation, had requested we dive Punta Sur, which to me was as good as the next place. Our dive guide was a small-bodied Mayan, and I can’t recall ever seeing him exhale underwater. Our dive orientation was in broken English, and I understood almost half of it. He explained that Cozumel diving was drift diving, and we must stay with the group to be recovered by the boat on the surface. He also explained this would be a dive to 120 feet. I was a bit alarmed at the depth, but was not feeling in control of the dive. My previous deep dive was by accident to 90 feet when my weightbelt buckle had broken and I swam down to recover it. I was nervous and my thoughts were a jumble of my dive instructor’s admonitions: “...limits to recreational diving...nitrogen narcosis at depth...dive tables...safety stops and, gee, don’t you go through air really fast at that depth?” The dive guide said to let him know when we were down to 800 psi.

We went over the side and down to the wall. The spectacular scenery helped my nervousness a bit. My breathing was rapid, and my brand new regulator that promised to breathe easy supplied plenty of air to this “air pig.” I was the first to hit 800 psi. I finally caught the attention of the dive guide and showed him eight of my fingers. He motioned me forward and signaled to stay close to him. With a planned safety stop at 15 feet, how would I have enough air? I checked again and showed the guide five fingers. He motioned me forward with the group and pointed to the opening of a small cave. With great misgivings I went into the cave opening, and on the other side my gauge said 200 psi and 120 feet. I showed the guide two fingers, and he handed me his octopus. I breathed from his tank for the ten minutes necessary to complete the dive, and at the surface he announced he still had 900 psi in his tank.

At the time I really thought this dive straddled the fence between safe and unsafe. Lately the dangers of that dive have been abundantly clear, and that time I had gotten away lucky. I was unclear of the dive plan, inexperienced at the depth and too timid to ask about things I needed to know. Next time I will persist with my questions in spite of the language problems. I will try to remember my instructor saying, “take slow, deep breaths.” I had my regulator adjusted to a more suitable flow rate and have resolved to insist on surfacing when my air supply runs low. I will not trust my safety to an unknown quantity of air in someone else’s tank.