Heavy Breathing

By Corey Fischer

I recently became a certified open water diver during a vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii. Although I couldn’t avoid a certain anxiety at the thought of learning a whole new set of skills and behaviors—like breathing underwater—at the age of 54, the PADI training was so well-
organized that before I knew it, I’d gotten my C-card and completed an additional dozen dives along the Kona coast. Enticed by stories of giant Manta Rays that might show up for a late night plankton feast, I set out for my first night dive.

Our guides had planned a twilight dive along the way that would include a swim through a small cave—another first. With a dozen dives in my log, getting my gear on was beginning to be less of a struggle. I was feeling more confident, so I decided to try using less weight since I’d been doing better with buoyancy control. Plus, I was impatient to join the ranks of those grizzled old divers who prided themselves on using minimal weight (and hardly any air, either). This was my first mistake.
Even though the sun was setting, the visibility was good and there was plenty to see: a huge Green Turtle sleeping under a ledge, free-swimming Yellowhead Moray Eels getting ready for the night’s hunt, Rockmover Wrasses tossing fist-sized chunks of coral around. Finally, we reached the cave at 25 feet. The opening was shaped like a giant eye, about four feet high and eight feet wide. As soon as the surge carried us in I discovered that, even with my BC fully deflated, I was positively buoyant. While the weight I was packing might have kept me neutral at 40 feet and below, at this depth my wetsuit became more buoyant, and I had to work hard to avoid bouncing off the cave’s roof. I was working so hard that I neglected to keep an eye on my pressure gauge. This was my second mistake.

When we reached the back wall of the cave and I did remember to take a look, I was surprised to discover I was down to 500 psi. I signaled the divemaster, and he gave me the sign to turn around and head for the boat, which I did. But turning all 6’7” of me in a confined space without snagging a hose or a body part took some effort.
Relieved to be back in open water, I took another look at my gauge before heading for the boat. In a nightmare moment, I saw that the needle was all the way to the left. At the same time, I felt resistance as I tried to breathe through my regulator. The worst had happened. I was out of air. Fortunately, I’d rehearsed this exact scenario on one of my check-out dives, and the situation felt strangely and reassuringly familiar. Having specific steps to follow left no room for uncontrolled fear. I made eye contact with the divemaster—who had followed me out of the cave—and drew my hand across my throat (the sign for “I’m out of air!”). He quickly handed me his alternate regulator, and we calmly ascended to the surface.

Back on the dive boat I felt a new appreciation for all the drills my instructor had put me through during my open water training. I also understood several principals with new clarity: the advantage of precise buoyancy control, the importance of paying frequent attention to one’s pressure gauge and the necessity of maintaining close proximity to another diver. I felt fortunate to have learned these lessons at 25 feet rather than at 100 feet.

Two days later I dove Suck-’em-Up, another site known for its caves. On this dive, I increased my weight and had no trouble maintaining neutral buoyancy. After almost an hour of swimming through caves and arches, watching scale-eating blennies, Scrawled Filefish and an almost invisible frogfish, I returned to the boat with air to spare.

What I learned:
• When diving in caves at relatively shallow depths, make sure you’re sufficiently weighted.
• Check gauges frequently, especially before entering environments that might require extra, air-burning effort.
• Maintain contact with a divemaster or buddy.