2000-06 Enlighten Me

By Bret Van Dyne

Our trip started like all the ones before it. My high school friend and a PADI Master Instructor, Martin, booked us on the Spectre out of Ventura for a three day live-aboard lobster-hunting trip to the Channel Islands.

On our second day of hunting, we anchored off Santa Cruz to make our third dive of the day. About six of us were pretty hard-core hunters, and we wasted no time hitting the water when the “gate” opened.

As our group made its way toward the island, we systematically combed the bottom for lobster. Upon reaching the island, I noticed a 30-foot–tall wall along the face. As I swam along looking for scallops, I found a cave entrance and decided to go inside. About 10 feet in, I grabbed a couple of bugs and, much to my disappointment, noticed that my twin tanks were low on air. I made a quick trip back to the boat and put a fill tag on my tanks.

Once the tanks were filled I jumped in and headed right back to the cave. At the entrance I took a compass reading, checked my computer for air and time, and then, despite all my training, knowledge and common sense, ventured in for a look. With my light (and back-up light), I swam through the silty water with the cave wall on my right, counting my kick cycles along the way. I just knew there was some clear water and big bugs ahead. After I penetrated what I thought was 100 feet, I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I decided it was not worth any more effort, knelt on the bottom and took a look at my computer and compass. My plan was to turn 180 degrees, put the cave wall on my left and exit.

As I turned, my light went out. I cannot begin to describe how dark it was 100 feet deep in a cave, in silty water, but it’s fair to say that anything even resembling light was absent.

I froze and switched to my back-up light. Nothing. No light.

Think! Don’t panic! The switch has a lock to keep it in the off position while in your gear bag. Bingo that was it. Light on! Now, stay calm, recheck computer and compass, feel the wall, start again.

I swam five feet—(bump)—I hit my head on the wall. I didn’t remember the wall being anything but straight on the way in.
Stop. Check computer and compass again. Did I turn while my light was out?

I knelt on the bottom. Sheer terror washed over me. I flashed through everything I had ever been taught and looked at my computer again. I knew I had more than 2,000 psi in my twins, but what was my next move?

Right then, I saw a dim glow in front of me. Martin’s light was only two feet away, and yet it was almost indiscernible. I kicked once and was mask to mask with him. As he pulled me past, Dana, another diver, put a cave line into my hand and I swam toward the exit. As I came out, I ran over another diver who was stationed at the entrance.

I swam to the boat without hesitation, got out of my gear, sat down at my dive station and racked my brain as to what had just happened. I waited for the others to finish their dives.

Martin told me he thought I had gone elsewhere since I wasn’t waiting for them at the entrance. If they hadn’t come into the cave, who knows what would have happened. Martin said that he knows what terror looks like, and he saw it in my eyes when he found me in that cave.

I was 36 years old at the time, a PADI Divemaster, experienced hunter and trained cave diver. What the hell was I thinking? Here I am almost a year later telling this story, and I’ve broken out in a cold sweat just writing about it.

I broke several cardinal rules of diving and could very well have lost my life, never seen my wife or three sons again. I promised several friends that I would submit this to Skin Diver. And if one diver can learn from my mistakes, the sea will be a much safer and saner place.