Abort: When Not Diving is the Best Option
Featured Image: The author clambering out of the water over the rocks covered in bladderwrack.
Until Saturday October 28th, I had never considered the Newport Fingers a potentially dangerous dive site. They were, after all, fairly far up the jetty, shallow, and relatively free of boat traffic. I had also dived them a few times before and knew what to expect. Yes, the rocky entrance was a challenge and the surge not entirely pleasant, but all of it was very doable if you went slowly and carefully.
As you’ll find in many of Oregon’s jetties, rocky “fingers” have been built to stop erosion. They run perpendicular to the jetty wall and are typically comprised of large boulders. Newport has five prominent fingers that are popular amongst scuba divers and freedivers. People often come to the fingers to crab, spearfish, or just enjoy a dive. I am always in this last category.
This time though, I would not be “pleasure diving.” I would instead be mapping the third finger, an assignment given to me by my instructor, Mike, as part of my Divemaster program.
Prior attempts to map this area with fellow Divemaster candidates hadn’t been successful. The first time we tried it, visibility was barely more than two feet, and we spent most of our valuable “high slack” dive time cutting ropes and making knots in the ropes, thinking we could use a search pattern technique we’d learned in our rescue course to cover the whole area. Needless to say, we learned more about how not to map the site.
This time I would be going back with a plan that included yellow duct tape, red marking flags, a handheld GPS, and details of exactly what pattern I was going to swim as well as how often I’d take depth measurements. No ropes would be necessary.
With an easy three-foot exchange I figured that visibility would be my only limiting factor. How wrong I was.
When my buddy—Ben—and I arrived at the site, we pulled out the yellow duct tape and marked off three giant yellow x’s on the rocks. One x for the middle of the finger, one for the outer left end of the site map, one for the outer right end of the map. We jotted down the GPS coordinates and then stuck marking flags in the yellow x’s so that we could easily figure out how many feet out any point of interest was, as well as the heading needed to get to it.
Plan in place, we geared up. I would get in first. He would follow. From there, we’d drop down in line with our left flag and begin swimming a u-pattern search. He would monitor kick cycles and I would navigate and take depth readings. We would do this about 360ft out, to the end of the finger, and then we’d switch over to the other side and do the same thing back.
I clipped my fins to my BCD and began carefully picking my way over the boulders. When I got to the waterline I paid extra attention to my footing. The rocks were covered with a slippery seaweed called Bladderwrack, and occasional anemones were squeezed between crevices. Not wanting to squash them I sat down carefully.
That was when I noticed the surge. Quickly, I inflated my BCD, put my mask on my face and my fins on my feet. It wasn’t a moment too soon. The second I had slipped into the water, I was yanked out and dumped back on the rocks.
I took a deep breath. Okay, that was unnerving, but I had done this before. I could handle surge.
I looked over at the finger, rocks jutting out along the length of it. This was the most exposed I had ever seen it. I had never dived at low slack. Had I done something I shouldn’t have? Surely not. Before I got in, three other divers were gearing up. I had asked them about it and they’d said, sure it was diveable at low tide, they’d done it before. Now though, I wasn’t so sure. The site would be shallower than normal, meaning I’d feel the surge more.
Ben was standing on the rocks, watching concernedly.
“Are you okay,” he said?
I was about to reply when the water collected me and dumped me high up on a boulder, before retreating at least 6 feet below.
I reached for my regulator. Seconds later, the water rose up again and yanked me back in then did the same thing and deposited me high up on another rock, knocking me hard. For a moment I thought my tank was stuck in a crevice. I felt panic rise.
No, I was not okay. I was not in control. This happened a couple more times, before I could even get into a position that allowed me to scramble up the rocks. By then, I was breathless and my only goal was to get the heck out. I didn’t even pause to remove my fins.
When I was clear of the waterline, I looked up at Ben.
“This isn’t normal,” I panted. “I’ve dived here before. It’s never felt like this.”
“What do you want to do?”
I looked back at the water.
“I don’t know,” I said, “What do you want to do?”
“I’m okay with anything. I guess my only worry is getting out.”
“I just need a breather for a bit,” I said. My body ached from where I’d been slammed into the rocks and I felt limp from the weight of the equipment. Mostly though, my ego was bruised.
Could I really not handle a bit of surge?
Okay so it wasn’t just a bit of surge. It was more than I’d ever dealt with, but really? Was this going to be the reason I called the dive? We had driven out two hours, we’d got everything set up.
All these thoughts ran through my head as I trundled back to the car. I dropped my gear, took off my hood and gloves and then suggested we watch the others get in.
The first man carried his BCD down to the waterline and dumped it, preparing to head up for his buddy’s equipment. Minutes before, this area had been underwater. I called down to tell him he needed to move it further up.
The water looked a good deal calmer then. I pointed this out to Ben. He wasn’t looking at the divers though. A seasoned sailor, he was reading the water, looking far up the jetty. He gestured to the enormous breakers.
“They’ll take a couple of minutes to get here. It won’t be calm soon.”
By that time, one of the divers was in, regulator in mouth, kicking backwards away from the rocks. The woman was now making her way down with the help of the other man. It was still a lot calmer.
They took a couple of minutes to get her mask and fins on. That’s when I heard Ben.
“Here it comes.”
And sure enough, the water rushed in, picked the woman up and pulled her out.
I held my breath and watched.
Her mask was still on, but she seemed oddly submerged.
“She needs to inflate her BC,” I said, thinking aloud. As if on cue, one of the men called out to her.
“Are you okay?”
She didn’t reply. The other, already in the water, moved towards her. I could hear him say “Inflate your BCD.”
At least I hadn’t been wrong there.
If she did inflate it, I didn’t see. Her position in the water hadn’t changed. My concern rose as she continued bobbing below the surface, arms flailing. This was picture-book my Rescue class, the sign of a diver panicking.
I barely noticed the other diver get in the water I was so concentrated on watching the woman. She was drifting towards the finger, pulled back and forth by the surge. Now I could see her regulator was out of her mouth.
That’s when she started screaming.
“I want out,” she said, “Get me out.” Over and over she repeated these words.
Now I was worried.
One of the divers came up to her and asked what the matter was. He tried to calm her down. He told her again to inflate her BCD and then I believe moved to do so (it was hard to tell). She just kept screaming.
I moved to action and clambered down the rocks. I yelled out to them.
“We’ll help her out. If she swims back this way, we’ll help her out of the water.”
I refused to embody the bystander effect and wait for someone else to take charge of getting her out. In this much distress, I wasn’t sure she’d be okay if she did somehow manage to calm down, and I worried the men might try to get her to keep going, plucky as they were. In any other conditions but these I would have waited.
Ben moved down to the rocks ahead of me and grabbed the back of her tank, helping to haul her out of the water. We tried to get her out of the waterline as fast as possible, in spite of the fact that she wanted to rest. Only back on level ground did we relax. That’s when she told us she’d taken her regulator out of her mouth because she thought she was going to throw up.
The others got out of the water a couple of minutes later. Visibility was apparently no more than a foot.
The other divers told us about a couple of nearby dive sites they used as backups and almost immediately headed out.
All in all, I’d made the right decision to back out, even though I had desperately wanted to get in to map the site, and placate my ego. When we did finally check the surge, we learned that it was double what it normally was—a whopping twelve feet, made worse by diving in a very rocky, shallow area at low tide.
Before we did that, Ben and I followed the other divers out to a new site, much further up the jetty, where the water was calm. While I had worried about the two male divers encouraging the woman to keep going in spite of her panic, doing so at a calm location, right away was a great idea on their part. If they had left it, she might have developed an irrational fear of diving, based upon one bad day at the fingers. As my horse-riding instructor always said, “If you fall off the horse, you get right back up and into the saddle.”
Thus, the day was not a total bust. I had learned of a few more local dive sites, I had learned to check the surge before heading out, I had figured out how to map the third finger, I had plotted out GPS coordinates, and I now had a very valid excuse to go straight to Rogue Brewery for a beer and a huge late lunch!