A Life Underwater, Chapter 3
A Life Underwater, Chapter 3
A Life Underwater, Chapter 3
A Life Underwater: Chapter 3
When I graduated from FIT (Florida Institute of Technology), I had a tough decision to make. Do I head back to the offshore oil fields where I had begun to make a name for myself in pursuit of the “big” money as a commercial diving engineer or do I stay in Florida and work with the environmentally inspiring Norine Rouse in her Eco friendly dive operation? Two things helped make up my mind. First, money never has meant a lot to me. Second, unlike today, the US offshore oil industry was struggling in the late 70's and the most lucrative work could only be found in the cold North Sea's of northern Europe or working for Petroleum Mexico, who had a terrible safety record in the dive industry. In retrospect, my choice was an easy one and I chose the inspirational Norine Rouse as the next path in my life.
Norine had been approached by a wealthy financial backer to help her build a state of the art sport diving facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. It would be unlike any dive operation facility ever known at this time in history and I would have a say in how it was developed and designed. I opted for low pay but the trade off was daily underwater experiences in some of the most exciting waters in the world and the finest of environmental educations! The Norine Rouse Scuba Club of the Palm Beaches set the bar high in the diving world with a state of the art photo lab, sauna, steam room, Olympic sized outdoor heated pool, 20 foot deep tank, luxury guest accommodations, pro shop, rental equipment facility, teaching class rooms and two state of the art 40 foot dive vessels. We were a “one of a kind facility” and proud of the professionalism our 8 man team carried into our work. Our motto laughingly mimicked the Marine recruiting slogan ....”The Few, The Brave....The Norines!”
Working with Norine was everything I hoped it would be. In a short time I had obtained my dive instructor’s certification, my 100 ton Ocean Operators captain license and began logging over 600 deep dives a year guiding divers in the marine life rich waters of the Gulf Stream. We often said to our guests that if it lived in the ocean it eventually would swim by West Palm Beach! It was true. Every dive of every day was a story unto itself because we would have remarkable wildlife encounters and constant observations that few had ever seen! We were so popular with divers around the world that we were running two full dive boats, two and three times a day, seven days a week to our 80 and 100 foot reefs where we would conduct our drift dives.
The Gulf Stream is a constant flowing river of warm water that loops around the northern and middle Atlantic Ocean. It is the life giving artery that directly influences the weather patterns of North America and Europe. It is also the highway of life that spawns the bountiful ecosystems found on the coral reefs and critter rich waters of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Bahamas and the eastern seaboard of the United States. The closest the Gulf Stream comes to land in America is one mile off of West Palm Beach, Florida. Our back yard! We designed our dives around that current which could vary from zero to 2 plus knots of speed within an hour!
Let me explain what the force of one knot of current means to a human being. An Olympic swimmer, such as multi-gold medalist, Michael Phelps, swimming at his maximum speed flat out.......would stay neutral in a one knot current! He would neither gain nor lose ground....until fatigue took over and he would be swept away. I used to chuckle when I would overhear divers telling sea stories on the dive boat describing a current that they had encountered in their travels as being over 5 to 10 knots! I have clung to underwater outcroppings which took all of my strength just to maintain a grip in 2.5 knots of current! If I had turned my head slightly my dive mask would have been swept away. Looking into the force of the current would depress the powerful spring loaded purge button in the center of my second stage regulator gripped between my teeth causing it to free flow precious air out of my dive tank. If I attempted to open my hand when reaching for another handhold it would be blown backwards with as much force as when you would try to open your hand out of a car window while traveling at 60 miles an hour. You learned quickly how to make the current work for you and my motto as a dive instructor was, “A good diver is a lazy diver!” The energy you did not expend may need to be called upon to save your life or the life of your dive buddy. A fact that I had to put into practice on a number of occasions in my underwater career!
Drifting with the Gulf Stream current was heavenly! We would drop off all our divers with a bright orange buoy and follow that buoy with our dive boat as the divers flew down the reef. Expending little energy, the divers would drift through massive schools of colorful reef fish, surprise immense sleeping loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles, swoop through formations of spotted eagle rays or the huge southern stingrays feeding in the sand or have the coveted experience of encountering a large nurse, hammerhead, bull, tiger or lemon shark. It was like sitting on a high speed train and watching the scenery fly past your window! It was intoxicating and like myself, the divers could not get enough of this unique experience!
Being responsible for hundreds of divers taught one quickly to “underwater multitask”! Your experienced eye could pick out the subtleties of a reef that revealed exciting forms of marine life to point out to the dive guest while at the same time constantly counting the heads of ten or fifteen divers who were zipping around during their drift dive down the reef. To lose track of a diver was inexcusable as their safety was paramount. I wish I had a dollar for every diver I had to buddy breath to the surface because they would become so enthralled with the magic of inner space that they would forget to check their air supply gauge! This always astounded me because in my way of thinking it was like driving your car and never bothering to look at your fuel gauge, trusting to the fates that you would run empty next to a gas station!
I remember a husband and very pretty wife “buddy team” that I had taken on an underwater tour of a 250 foot long shipwreck in 80 feet of water one calm summer day. That experience revealed dangers in diving I had never considered before! The husband fancied himself an expert diver and photographer and had the newest and best of dive and photo equipment to impress me with. Upon descending to the deck of the ship in a powerfully strong current, the husband promptly swam off to take photos of everything that swam by, apparently forgetting all about his “buddy” wife. It quickly became obvious to me that the wife was blowing through her air very quickly and when I checked her air supply I saw she was already dangerously low. Her husband had left her behind and had swum completely out of sight. I assumed he was in pursuit of his National Geographic Magazine cover shot! So I calmed the near panicked wife and put her on my second regulator or “octopus” which was designed for such emergencies, so that she could breath off the ample air supply still remaining in my tank.
I carefully guided her through the maze of obstacles, hatches and corridors of the shipwreck and back to the anchor line which was taut and humming in the strong current. We proceeded to very slowly make our ascent to the surface, stopping for several minutes at 15 feet to decompress before swimming down the length of the dive boat to the stern platform. There, I carefully lifted her onto the safety of the dive platform and boat deck. The pretty lady then looked at me with huge brown tear filled and very grateful eyes and said, “I am so sorry that I never gave you back your regulator to breath off of. I was so scared of not having enough air that I just couldn't give it back to share air with you!” I stared incredulously at her! The lady had no idea that I had had a second and spare regulator. She thought that she should have been buddy breathing back and forth with me, sharing one regulator and its life giving air during our whole swim back to the boat! From the time that I had first put her on my octopus spare regulator, to the time I had set her grateful curvacious butt on the deck of the dive boat, there was an elapsed time of nearly 15 minutes! She thought I had held my breath that whole time! I looked that greedy, inconsiderate and selfish air hogging lady in the eye and said, “Why you are quite welcome! It was no problem at all!” I would be damned if I was going to tell her that I hadn't held my breath that whole time!
The icing on the cake came when the lady's husband popped up at the dive platform five minutes later. He apparently had run out of film, remembered he had a wife and began looking for his “dive buddy”! Before I could say a word he crawled onto the dive platform, spit out his regulator and began swearing and yelling at me, accusing me of sneaking off with his wife to fool around with her!
There are serious dangers one will always encounter underwater but I am still convinced to this day that the two legged ones we meet on land are vastly more unpredictable and dangerous! Give me a good old fashioned shark any day!