Ever since I first learned to scuba dive, I’ve found a version of myself I’d forgotten existed: the me that is wholly preoccupied with and challenged by an activity. And, as with horse riding, this one too is all consuming.
In November I drove up to the Hood Canal in Washington, to Mike’s Beach Resort in a little town called Hoodsport. My buddy and I had decided to head up to one of our favorite places to partake in three days of diving: three night dives, two deep dives and two relaxing exploratory dives. Prior to this weekend, my scuba instructor had suggested I read a book called “Shadow Divers.” Because so few people recommend books, I usually check them out. Before Shadow Divers, the only books I’d read about scuba diving were the educational ones assigned to me for various scuba classes. However, the blurb on the back of the book intrigued me. So much so that I downloaded it and began reading almost immediately. I couldn’t put it down. Not only was it superbly written, but it opened up a world I didn’t know existed before—the world of deep wreck diving—and it held a mirror up, in some small ways, to the world of recreational diving that I’ve come to love; to the world of obsession that it is.
I read Shadow Divers through the night, absolutely riveted by the daring, the sense of adventure and the real, historical mystery that the story charts. Then, on the following day, my dive buddy and I decided to head out and do a deep dive. As recreational divers we’re only certified to dive to 130 feet maximum. Most people never go this deep in their entire scuba diving career as coral reefs generally end at the 60 foot mark. If you want to dive deeper than that you.need to take the Advanced Certification. At least if you’re getting certified through PADI.
On my Advanced weekend our max depth was 94 feet. Typically, instructors don’t relish taking students to this depth because as new divers, we tend to use our air really fast, and of course, at that depth, due to compression, we’re using it even faster! The other, minor reason, is that something called gas narcosis kicks in. Some people experience it much worse than others, either panicking or becoming completely blase. It is different for everyone but even if you don’t feel it, it’s supposed to be in effect, ultimately slowing your cognitive processes and motor skills. So, you can imagine how enticing it must not be to take students deep for the first time.
At a depth of say 100 feet, your allowed bottom time is around 20 minutes before you go into decompression mode and are required to make additional safety stops (or longer safety stops) before surfacing to allow your body to off gas the excess nitrogen. Skip these steps and you could get a decompression-related injury—something I have read, in its more extreme versions, is horrific and that can result in paralysis or even death if you are not quickly moved into a hyperbaric chamber.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that I was a little nervous about going deep for all these reasons, and because I’d only done one deep dive before this with a number of instructors and divemasters close by. But, I was also anticipating it immensely. The feeling of dropping down a line, surrounded by what feels like a void, is otherworldly. It’s what I imagine it must be like being in space. To do a deep dive, you usually swim out to a buoy and drop down on an anchor line. This direct descent gives you more time/consumes less air than if you swam out underwater, down the slope, using the air in the tank on your back.
We’d decided to go deep because someone had told us that there was a Bayliner boat around the 90ft mark and that it was worth checking out. After a three minute surface swim, flashlights on, my buddy and I dropped down the line, equalizing as we got deeper and deeper, adding little bursts of air to our drysuits whenever we felt them squeeze too tight. The incredible thrill of the drop was upon me again and I remembered why I loved the feeling of diving deep so much. At this point I had only logged around 30 dives.
When we hit the bottom—75ish feet—we immediately started heading out even deeper, in search of the Bayliner. Soon we had come upon it, something that surprised me because neither of us had been to it before, not on our own and not with instructors or other dive buddies, but also because visibility in the Pacific Northwest is nothing like tropical waters. In fact, they call it Braille diving out here because occasionally conditions will be so bad you might get just 2-3 feet of visibility. That said, diving in the Puget Sound and the canals up in Washington often affords one better visibility. In Hoodsport we often enjoy between 10-30 feet of viz.
When we got to the Bayliner, I checked my dive computer and noticed we were at about 92 feet. A number of much larger fish were hovering around the boat, and a little further out I could see the most peculiar white “pipes” sticking straight up from the ground. I later learned they were actually an organism called a sea whip. I wish I’d taken a closer look. Because I’d been reading Shadow Divers the night before, I was eager to both hit 100 feet (a milestone)) and see if I could feel the effects of nitrogen narcosis. I was pretty sure I’d find it more alluring than terrifying (I am a happy drunk after all), and I at least wanted to have experienced something. So, I gestured to my buddy to head a little further out. To my surprise, he looked much more on edge than me and hung back a little, gesturing for me to me to go ahead. I added a little air to my dry suit to counteract the pressure and swam out further.
Now, if you don’t know anything about nitrogen narcosis (or gas narcosis as they now call it), I’ll give you a brief overview of some crucial things to note. Firstly, I think it could be addictive. Secondly you only get it if you’re diving a blend of gas high in nitrogen. For those of us who dive regular air (that is, 21% oxygen), nitrogen narcosis, at some depth, is guaranteed. Today, divers use closed circuit rebreathers for depth, or they dive a mix of gas called trimix, sometimes substituting other inert gases to assist with decompression and to avoid oxygen toxicity. At this stage, however I am only certified to dive oxygen and nitrox (a blend of oxygen up to 40% max). Nitrox becomes dangerous at depth so you typically cannot use it on very deep dives (an increased risk of oxygen toxicity is the reason here). But, even though you can dive regular air deeper, the effects of nitrogen on your brain are severe. Before people knew about mixing different combinations of gases, they would dive oxygen down to wrecks and in caves, some up to depths greater than 300 feet. They would have to do this all while experiencing nitrogen narcosis, or as we called it, “being narced.” Often this would result in auditory and visual hallucinations, requiring divers to train themselves to stay calm and to remind themselves constantly that some of what they were seeing was not real.
This extract from “Shadow Divers” explains it much better than I have:
“At a depth of around three atmospheres, or 66 feet, that accumulated nitrogen begins to have a narcotizing effect on most divers. That is nitrogen narcosis. Some compare the effects of narcosis to alcohol intoxication, others to the twilight of a waking anesthetic, still others to the fog of ether or laughing gas. Symptoms are relatively mild at shallower depths—judgement skews, motor skills dull, manual dexterity suffers, peripheral vision narrows, emotions heighten. As a diver descends farther, the effects intensify. At 130 feet, or about five atmospheres, most divers will be impaired. Some become all thumbs and struggle to complete simple tasks, such as tying a knot; others turn ‘dumb with the depth’ and must talk themselves into believing what they already know. As a diver descends even deeper, say to 170 or 180 feet, he might start to hallucinate, until lobsters begin beckoning him by name or offering him unsound advice. Sometimes divers realize that they are ‘narced’ by the sounds they hear. Many experience the ‘jungle drums,’ the deafening sound of one’s pulse in one’s own ears; or they might simply hear a hum, like a buzzing alarm clock lost under a pillow. Below 200 feet, narcosis can supercharge the normal processing of fear, joy, sorrow, excitement, and disappointment. Tiny problems—a missing knife, a bit of silt—can be perceived as unfolding catastrophes and snowball into panic. Serious problems—a depleting air tank or the loss of the anchor line—can appear as niggling annoyances. In an environment as unforgiving as a deep shipwreck, the short circuiting of judgement, emotion, and motor skills complicates everything.”
When I first dove to 94 feet, I don’t remember feeling anything out of the ordinary. But then again, apparently nitrogen narcosis can cause memory blanks too. Honestly, it’s a bit like experimenting with a drug, or so I’ve been told. Some people get it, others don’t. Some get it shallower and others get it deeper.
So, as you can imagine, on this dive I was hoping to feel at least some of the effects, just to see how I was effected.
To this day I’m still not sure if what I experienced on this dive was real, or if I imagined it (hoping as I had been to feel anything at all) but it felt like suddenly hitting a wall. At 104 feet I went from being calm and bold to suddenly feeling like I was seeing things. My vision became spotty and I could see black circles all around me–like when you close your eyes really hard and then suddenly open them. I immediately knew something was not right and I turned back, trying to keep myself calm as my heart hammered in my chest. When it comes to scuba diving, panic is not a good choice.
I’m pretty sure what I felt was exaggerated by the newness of being deep, again not surrounded by professionals, but who knows. I haven’t done a deeper dive since, simply for lack of having anywhere to dive deep around here.
As my buddy and I followed the slope back up, I began to feel better. After a couple of three minute safety stops–one at 70 feet, and one at 20 feet–we surfaced. My buddy asked me if I’d noticed how short our bottom time was at that depth and I said I hadn’t. Truth be told, I didn’t even know at that point that I had an allowed ceiling of bottom time before I would enter into decompression mode, requiring longer safety stops that I might perhaps not have had the air for. And yes, they did teach me this in my Open Water class, I just never paid it much heed as there was so much to remember.
I have since learned that technical divers (I’m a recreational diver) do decompression diving as standard. At this stage however, I have neither the training nor the equipment to do serious, deep decompression diving.
Now the whole point of all of this, though I have perhaps gone on longer than is necessary, is that since reading “Shadow Divers,” “The Last Dive,” and “Diving into Darkness,” and since realizing the deep has a much stronger appeal to me than to many other people I dive with, I cannot stop thinking about what is next and about when I can take the next steps, as well as what they will be.
I have read more voraciously than I can remember in a long time–primarily nonfiction and creative nonfiction about diving, and have learned a lot more about technical diving, deep wreck diving and cave diving, including the dangers. And still, the appeal is strong and all of it utterly fascinating. It is made even greater thanks to my friend Gilly, who is contrary to what one would think of someone who partakes in such dangerous activities as cave diving, incredibly grounded, safety conscious, and practical.
Just as reading about deep wreck diving has increased its appeal, prior to meeting Gilly I had no desire to try caving or cave diving. Now these are new horizons, piquing my curiosity.
I sound vaguely obsessed, but I guess I’m saying all of this because I didn’t realize until this year how consumed I have become by activities like this—and by the thought of mastering them. It is the incredible feeling of diving and the thrill of the unknown that is so attractive, but also the realization that I have the courage (or the stupidity) to do what so many other people do not have the courage to do. This in itself is exciting, as is the realization that learning anything is possible, especially things that require training and then hands-on practice. I love hands-on things.
Technical diving is the one other thing that I’ve been thinking about for a while now as it is the gateway to deeper diving and a whole other world of quiet, meditative exploration. I want to say I have mixed feelings about it but the truth is I have only a whisper in the back of my head saying “Why can’t you just be happy doing recreational diving, there are risks enough involved in that,” and then the other part of me pushing me to delve into this new and seemingly exciting world. If I can afford it, in the next year I will head up to Seattle for some of the training: first, an Intro to Tech Diving, and then from there courses on diving trimix and decompression diving. Rebreather diving is still out of my price range and still very much an unknown quantity in the world of diving in general, but the more I learn, the safer it seems to be at depth (in comparison to diving open circuit).
Naturally, none of this takes into account my other personal goals and desires, but diving and hands-on adventure activities have truly been brought into my life in a way I never knew was possible. So, bring on the deep!