An Underwater Scare

This past weekend, I completed six dives to receive my PADI Advanced Diver certification. I’ve been an Open Water diver since August of 2004, and a Nitrox diver since August of 2005, and finally decided to take the next step so that I can “officially” dive deeper spots without having to be escorted by an instructor or Dive Master.

Part of this set of dives was my first true night dive. I have done a couple of dives in the early evening, and one time with my friend Adam and his girlfriend Jeannette we did actually dive using lights as it got twilight-y, but never before in actual complete darkness. So at 8pm on Saturday, July 7th (lucky 7/7/07!), I’m out on the American Dream II, off on my first night dive. I’ve dove off the American Dream II before, and I’m comfortable with the boat, so all signs pointed to a good time.

The first dive, a 70 ft trip to the wreck of the Captain Ramon, was fun. It wasn’t completely dark, so it had a cool deep twilight vibe about it. Although we did use lights, strictly speaking they weren’t necessary. The only annoying thing about the dive was that I had a lot of trouble clearing my mask – it seem to keep filling up with water a lot faster than normal. I did not pay much attention to it at the time…

A little over an hour later, and now it’s pitch dark outside. Around 9:30 pm, I dive in again, this time for a true “in the dark” dive along the Barracuda Reef. I’m diving with a fellow named Chris, one of my classmates in this certification course – whom I had never met prior to this. And almost right away, my mask problem comes back. Water keeps filling up my mask. I clear it, it refills, I clear it, it refills… very annoying.

And to make matters worse, Chris and I keep getting further from the main group, because each time I clear my mask, I’m pausing in mid-water to push and fiddle with my mask, while of course holding my light and trying not to blind anyone else with it. Finally, I take the mask off completely, because I decided that I must’ve put it on wrong, or got one of the straps somehow under the sealing area. I straighten it out, put it back on… but no matter what I do, I can’t keep the water out of the mask.

By this point, my eyes were really stinging from the constant bath of salt water, and I really can’t see anyone else at all. And it is pitch black. And I am about 35 feet underwater. And I haven’t seen any of my gauges for the past 10 minutes, so I’m not 100% sure of my actual depth. So I’m not 100% sure if it’s safe for me to ascend or not.

And at this point I realize that something must be truly wrong with my mask. I take it off and put it back on again, and this time water rushes in constantly – it will not clear for even a moment. The only thing I can see is the faint glow from the chemical light attached to my buddy’s tank. I wave my light at him, hoping he’ll get the message. The light moves closer, and I reach out until I can feel his tank – since I can’t see anything to speak of underwater and in the dark. I tap at my mask, make a slashing signal with my hands, and give the “thumbs up” signal meaning I have to ascend. Chris gets it, and we head up.

Luckily for me, even though Chris had no idea exactly what my problem was, he did get that I had a problem, and so he managed our ascent slowly and properly. When we surfaced, I explained the problem, and examined my mask. Holding my light up to it, I found that the glass front had ripped away from the plastic seal, leaving about a 1 inch gap at the top. Which explained why water kept rushing in. And why I could not clear it.

No one else from our group was visible. Chris told me that although he tried signaling, everyone else was swimming quickly and purposefully along the reef, and no one saw him. Another problem with diving in the dark that we hadn’t considered!

We spotted the boat about 200 yards away. Since it was not an “emergency” by any means, neither of us signaled to the boat. We inflated our BC’s (that’s “Buoyancy Control Device” or “the vest that fills up with air” for non-divers) and started back-stroking towards the boat.

At one point, Chris paused. “Was that you that just brushed my leg”? he said. “Uh…. probably”, I said. We both turned our lights back on. Neither of us said anything out loud, but I at least was thinking that while I’ve never been afraid of anything I’ve encountered while diving, it’s a very different matter when you’re swimming on the surface in the dark.

But we arrived at the boat without incident. I apologized to Chris for ruining his dive, and he made a joking comment that I was now destined to be “That Guy” who couldn’t complete the night dive and had to come back early. I said I’d gladly accept that label, as soon as my eyes stopped stinging.

About a half an hour later, everyone else returned. And of course, we had both missed some incredible night diving sights, including seeing some of the coral reef feeding in the dark. My instructor John complemented both of us on keeping our heads, and gave Chris props for acting like a proper dive buddy.

And that was pretty much that. Strangely, I was never really scared (well, OK, a little bit), but I sure was annoyed. I was never in any real danger, but I have to say that not being able to see while deep under water in the pitch dark is not an experience I care to repeat.

The next day, I bought a new mask and tossed the old one in the trash. Thankfully, the final 2 dives the next day were perfect, and I got to try my new mask out down to 110 feet (the wreck of the Rebel). And despite my scare of the night before, I was struck by why I love to scuba dive… there is something about the eerie beauty of a coral-encrusted shipwreck, deep beneath the oceans’ surface, that strikes my soul. The peace and serenity of life at 100 feet underwater cannot be beat.

After the deep wreck dive, we finished off the certification with an hour-long drift dive on Oakland Reef, where our naturalist Dive Master Andrew pointed out many interesting fauna, including a golden eel, snapping shrimp, sea stars, and a strange spider-looking creature with a blue cupola on the top.

When the boat docked, instructor John announced that we were all Advanced Divers now, and signed all the appropriate logs. I exchanged phone numbers and email addresses with my classmates, and loaded up the Mini with my tanks and gear. As I was closing up, someone parked next to me commented, “That’s mighty aggressive use of a Mini”, and I just smiled. “Yes, but it can take it”, I said.

I’ve resolved that I’ll go night diving again, and fairly soon too, so I don’t get “a thing” about it. I’ve told this story to a few people who don’t dive, and they are horrified when I describe the experience. But as I said, I was never in any danger, I never lost my wits, and the guy I was diving with did exactly the right things as well.

Having said that: You better believe I’ll check my mask very, very carefully from now on. And – I think I’ll dive with a spare, just in case.

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