Thursday, 27 January 2011

Murder Rock

A biting wind tore at my face, salty air stinging my nostrils as waves broke over the bow. The boat slowed, its beating heart slowing to a steady thump beneath our feet. To port was the craggy coastline of Weh, and just visible ahead was mainland Sumatra. Yudi gathered us together and told us about this dive site known locally as Batee Mueduro, or Spiky Rock. At the point where three seas meet in a cauldron of seething surf, shards of rock break the surface to mark the pinnacle of a broad domed reef below. We separated into several groups: Yudi would take myself and Grumpy, Carinne would guide the Irish couple, the rest with the owner's son. Yudi explained about the vicious currents on this site, and the potential dangers. Myself and Iain exchanged a knowing glance: if there were any hairy spots involving currents and potential danger, Yudi would want to take us there. Fine with the pair of us but, watching the waves smashing the rocks before us, I'll admit to being a little apprehensive: deep breaths.

We kitted up quickly, and a leap from the bow saw us descending rapidly to avoid being swept off the site. Once on the reef, Yudi got his bearings and gave us the follow me. Keeping the peaked rocks on our right shoulder, we hugged the reef as we swam to keep as low a profile against the current as possible. As we crested a rise and crept into a plain below, we met another current, and our legs were swept from behind us. So now we were moving in reverse, looking over our shoulders as we moved from handhold to handhold, clinging on in the face of Nature's might. Now it was simply a case of staying put and seeing what animals saw fit to turn up for our entertainment. These fast-moving waters are rich in nutrients and a magnet for pelagic, or ocean-going, creatures. It wasn't long before we spotted a school of Spanish Mackerel 10-15m directly above us; facing the current, these elongated fish barely flicked a tail to hold position, seemingly unaware of the ungainly humans clinging on for dear life below them. With the sun reflected in their silver sides, they were a fine sight.

A check of our dive computers, and a jabbed thumb from Yudi, we were heading for the pinnacle of rocks at the centre of the site. After seeing the nature of the water from the boat, I was dubious of the wisdom of this. But our diminutive guide likes his thrills, and I had learned not to ask but to sit back and enjoy the ride. We picked our way to the giant boulder in the middle of the cluster, rising to around 8m. Hanging on for dear life, it was a good enough place to do a meagre safety stop to get rid of excess nitrogen bubbles in our bloodstreams. The three of us were on the vertical face of this wall, only letting go to check the time on our computers. Someone had hold of my fins and was tugging violently at them. I looked over my shoulder to see that this was not the case; it was the current, a violent poltergeist, trying to drag me off the rock and out into the blue. I moved position to a more sheltered position, biting my regulator mouthpiece when I had to look around, simply to prevent it being ripped from my mouth; afraid to turn my head too much for fear of my mask being torn from my face.

It was then that I saw Carinne, the French DM, with her charges below us. Irish Dave was a good 10m away from her, and his girlfriend further still...deeper out on the plain. I motioned to Corinne to get them to come to her. It seemed to me she was looking out for herself, yet again. Dave was hugging a small rock, the current lifting his body and slamming him back down again, over and over. Iain called him over, and he picked his way towards him, looking very uncomfortable. I descended a little, and waved his girlfriend over...thankfully she responded and crawled gingerly towards me.

Below me, a situation was devloping: Dave's weightbelt had come loose, and he was struggling to hang onto it. If dropped and thus drastically lightened, he was on his way to the surface in a rapid ascent, risking the Bends. Iain managed to kneel in front of him and pinned him to the wall, screaming at him to sort the belt out. It took a few minutes, all the while our air slipping away. Iain managed to remedy it himself. Once secured, a noticably panicked Dave signalled to Iain that he was low on air. Grumpy grabbed hold of him, signalled to Carinne to come with them as she had the most air left...leaving myself, Dave's girl and Yudi. He and Dave let go, the sea whipping them away into the blue. Carinne stayed put. Unbelievable. A few minutes later she let go, spinning head over heels into the bright detailess blue light, alone.

I checked my own air, and it was seriously depleted: time to go. I could have done with a little more time decompressing, especially after the near-incident with Dave. But I'd find it hard worrying about Decompression Ilness with no air to breathe. So I pushed off the rock and was spun around several times before managing to stay upright. The only problem was, as the current was sweeping me over the reef, it was following its profile...meaning I was going down, not up. Shit. This was not good. The best option was to inflate my jacket a little and kick for the surface to free myself from its grip. This would risk me going up too quickly, but I'd take my chances with the Bends rather than drown, any day of the week. Despite me kicking like a donkey and pumping valuable air into my BCD, I made a surprisingly steady, and therefore safe, ascent. Gratefully breaking the surface, I took a delicious lungful of fresh sea air and fully inflated my jacket. Relieved doesn't come close, I can assure you.

Looking around, I could see Dave's girl bobbing on the surface looking concerned. I asked where Yudi was, she called to me about her fella. I assured that, if he was with Iain, he'd be right as rain. I was a little worried about Yudi though, as he couldn't punch his way out of a wet paper bag. But then again, he'd dived here countless times. He'd be fine. As we drifted away from the rocks and the boat closed in on us, I shouted to the crew, then relayed to the worried girl that Dave and Iain were on board. I climed up the ladder, and ducked inside the area behind the bridge. Old Grumpy had never looked grumpier, grim-set face covered by an oxygen mask. I suppressed a laugh, as he looked furious. Which made it a bit funnier for me. He told me that Dave had guzzled all his air as well as his own, leading to him ascending without doing the sufficient deco. On the surface it turned out that Dave had panicked and mis-read his gauge: he still had air in his tank. He was very apologetic, and a little embarrassed. It goes to show that being a qualified Divemaster is one thing, but having sufficient experience is quite another. The Irishman had qualified in the Gili Islands of Indonesia where, without intending slight, my Nan could have dived. This one scared me, I'll gladly admit; Dave's girl swore bitterly and said she'd never dive again. But surely it's all part of the fun? In those moments where you realise you could lose your life, you will never have lived it so intensely.

After a few anxious moments waiting for the other divers to surface, everyone was being pulled back onto the boat. Kit was disassembled, tea and biscuits passed out, tales of near-death exchanged. Carinne occupied whichever part of the boat Iain didn't; yet another incredible diplay of her diving to further anger him (and me). My gremlin of a guide gave me a toothy grin as he peeled his wetsuit off, reeking cigarette clamped between his teeth. "Nice dive, huh?" My smile said it all.

"So what's this one called again, Yudi?" I queried.

"Batee means Spiky Rock" he replied.

"Bloody Murder Rock, more like" I muttered. He cackled, raising his eyebrows rapidly, and went off to seek tea. What an amazing morning.