Friday, 16 April 2010

Suicidal Tendencies

Coron was busy when I arrived, even the hovels were booked solid. Patric had space for a few days before I'd have to move out for one of his bookings. The options were: sleep on the floor in his kitchen, or take a place on Dive Cal's five day liveaboard trip to Apo Reef. I decided on the latter, especially as a French instructor I know from my time last year, Olivier, would be leading the trip.

We set off late at night, our preparations accompanied by the usual caterwauling from distant karaoke bars, the wails carrying across the water of the bay. Underway by midnight, we were due at the reef for our first dive at 7am; I took a bunk away from the opening to the engine room, and attempted sleep.

The dawn broke through the gaps in the tarpaulin, the engines were cut and the only sounds were waves lapping the sides of our wooden bangka and the frying of eggs. Breakfast was wolfed down as introductions were made. Juri was Yugoslavian, Paul I already knew was an old friend of Gerd's.

The other three were Ace, Frank and Julie from Korea. Frank was a young instructor, though Ace had more experience. Julie had little experience, but possessed the kind of dive kit most serious divers would salivate over, including a computer designed for mixed-gas diving...something she certainly neither needed, or knew how to operate. The three of them were what divers refer to as Christmas Trees: covered from head to toe in unnecessary kit. Ace had three knives, three lights, a compass, two computers and a camera: he was the least equipped of the trio.

The first dive set the tone of the trip: myself, Paul and Juri dived fairly conservatively, while the Koreans were down to 30m, then up to 20m...then back to 35m: up and down more often than a Dutch whore's knickers. As a result of this, they would all gather around Julie's computer and press all available buttons, obviously trying to figure out why they had 25 minutes of decompression time, while we could surface for lunch?

Apo is a fairly pristine reef, and sharks were seen on every dive; only white tips, the grey reef sharks were a little bashful by comparison. We even saw an eagle ray at one point, but while we waited for it to get closer, Ace decided to smash through the pack and swim full-pelt at it with his camera outstretched in front of him. As a result, no-one saw it properly...and Ace was very apologetic once he realised how pissed off we all were back on the boat.

I was in front on one dive, and we descended a huge drop-off; there are points on Apo that drop beyond 100 metres. I was a little bored on this dive, as we hadn't seen much of interest. So I checked my computer and noted that I was at 38m; Irako is Coron's deepest wreck at 42m. I decided I'd see what it was like beyond. Descending to 45m, I decided to try a little more. I bit off a bit more than I could chew.

Nitrogen narcosis affects divers below 30m, Jacques Cousteau called this effect the raptures of the deep. The deeper you go, the more the gas affects you and your perception. Sometimes this can make you feel over-confident, as you would after a few drinks; indeed, sometimes it is referred to as Martini's Law: for every 10m after 30m, you feel like you've had a drink. As I headed deeper, I began to feel strange sensations: my body felt swollen, lips tingled, and as I exhaled bubbles they rang metallic in my ears. As my heart raced, I tried to calm myself. My depth alarm began bleeping on my computer. Slightly panicked, I saw I was now at 60 metres below the surface. That's the equivalent of a 20-story building: a long way down. Alone. And almost at the point of Oxygen toxicity, another danger at depth. I didn't know if this was what I was experiencing, and would soon black out.

I approached an overhang on the reef, it plunged me into shadows, heightening my fear. Having the presence of mind to try and keep calm while heading upwards, I realised that to panic now would see me in a recompression chamber at best; dead at worst. I'd liken these moments to a bad mushroom trip. My voice told me You're going to die here. I had a brief vision of my Mum screaming at my Dad, him sat with his head in his hands. My voice again What you do in the next few minutes decides whether you live or die. It might sound dramatic, but I was paranoid I was going to make a mistake that could cost me my life. I cursed myself and my inquisitive nature: how could I have been so stupid?

As I ascended to 50 metres, the symptoms began to ease. I checked my computer and air, all seemed OK. Looking above, I could see the rest of the group above me. Signaling to Oli that I was fine, I sat at around 12m for the rest of the dive. Relief washed over me. On the way back up to safety, the terror had decided for me that I would never dive again, but now I realised that I'd just pushed it a little too far. I apologised to Oli, as my stunt put him in a predicament; if something had gone wrong, I would have put him in danger if he'd come to rescue me. As a DM, I'm responsible for my own safety; and as a recent father, I would not have expected Oli to come rescue would have been my own fault. Oli just laughed and said he thought I'd spotted a shark, they'd all followed me down to 40m initially. As lessons go, it was a valuable one. It's wise to increase your depth 4-5 metres per dive, until you get used to the sensations. Going 18m beyond your previous deepest is a bit daft.

My death wish seemed to be nothing on Ace's, though. The main reason I had joined the trip was to dive the Kyokuzan, the only Japanese wreck I'd not been inside as yet. We hit this site on the final day of the tour. Juri was to dive with Oli; myself and Paul decided we'd try a propeller-shaft entry. The ship's holds are full of asbestos which has remained since it's sinking in 1944...white clouds of it sit at around 28m. It's very creepy, and downright dangerous to enter. I checked the shaft, and signaled to Paul that going in this way was a big no-no. We made a simpler dive around the bridge and exited. Coming up, we saw Frank and Julie ascending, casting glances back at the wreck. On the surface they said Ace was gone, but didn't seem unduly worried as he was experienced.

A good ten minutes of nervous glances and watch observation ensued. Who was going to go back down there with no surface interval? A splashing of water indicated Ace was up. Climbing aboard with a grin, he answered our queries in pidgin English.

"So where did you get to, Ace?" asked Oli.
"I went...I go inside. Down. I see white cloud, so I look..." he mimicked swimming "...inside I go, more. I no see, and I swim...and swim...and swim...BANG!"
He mimed hitting a wall. Oliver looked at me, horrified.
"So I feel like dis..." he showed us how he felt the walls and ceiling of the hold, absolutely blind "...then I feel and feel, but no hole. I think SHIT!" Shit indeed, mate. "Then after ten minute, I swim out of hole." Frank grinned, obviously pleased Ace had had an interesting experience. Julie beeped on her computer, oblivious. Oli looked relieved he hadn't lost a diver, the rest of us laughed incredulously. I'd know Koreans were the world's worst trained divers, but this was just beyond.

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