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A Life Underwater Chapter 4

Updated on December 28, 2011
Gary exploring the largest artificial reef in the world!  The aircraft carrier, Oriskany.
Gary exploring the largest artificial reef in the world! The aircraft carrier, Oriskany.
Breathhold diving for fresh scallops in the Gulf of Mexico!
Breathhold diving for fresh scallops in the Gulf of Mexico!

A Life Underwater Chapter 4

Dying May Not Be Too Bad!

Chapter 4

Around this time I had a life changing experience. A diving colleague and I flew to Grand Cayman Island to attend a two week dive instructor boot camp with a group of superb professional sport divers. The days were filled with miles of surface and underwater swims as well as scenario after scenario of simulated equipment malfunctions and very physical underwater harassment by the instructors. All at depths of sixty to 100 feet! It taught me how to keep a cool head no matter what happened underwater and to control an air consuming heart rate and breathing in a stressful situation.

Cayman is a diving mecca with dramatic vertical drop offs and deep coral covered walls that plunge to thousands of feet. To dive a wall is like flying over the Grand Canyon. To gaze down into that seemingly limitless blue abyss is both haunting and spectacular. The walls in these crystal clear tropical waters are festooned with a myriad of soft and hard corals. There were sponges in every size, shape and color imaginable. There were mysterious coral lined tunnels and channels that wove down the face of the wall that would suddenly pop you out at 250' or deeper. All this beauty was perpetually bejeweled with the pulsating and vibrant colored fishes of every description. It is some of the richest diving found anywhere in the world!

One of our course instructors was a legend in diving circles, had written many books on the dive sciences, was a noted underwater photographer and film maker and had worked with Jacques Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso. Tom Mount, who became a personal friend, myself and coworker, dive instructor, John Ely, would take a break occasionally from classes to do a deep dive on the wall. The maximum depth a diver can attain before the air we breathe becomes oxygen toxic is 297 feet! This is a basic pressure related physical law. My colleagues and I, however, would push that limit on a regular basis in our sport diving. As a commercial diver I had taken oxygen toxicity tests in pressurized recompression chambers to measure my resistance to its effects. In this controlled environment one could watch another diver sitting across from you in the chamber suddenly spasm into a full blown grand mal seizure as he reached his oxygen toxicity threshold. You easily could reach over and remove the oxygen mask from the diver and the seizure would end abruptly. At three hundred feet, however, a grand mal seizure on a working diver could kill him by the simple fact that he would simply drown when his regulator dropped from his mouth. The real reason for the testing of this oxygen toxicity sensitivity was for the commercial diving industry. Divers could work at depth longer without fear of decompression sickness or bends if they would do decompression stops on pure oxygen beginning at 50 feet. Due to the fact that each person is slightly metabolically different, some divers could not make this “Sur D O2” stop safely compared to others. For whatever metabolic reason, I found out early on that I had a high resistance to Oxygen Toxicity and subsequently got more choice commercial dive assignments as a result of this metabolic anomaly.

Tom, John and I were always ready to dive, whether it was in daylight or in the middle of the night! Night diving on a wall or anywhere for that matter underwater is an inner space experience beyond compare and teaches a diver how to sharpen his skills in keeping a cool head as well as developing a sixth sense of acute awareness. Your world of vision is reduced to a narrow tube of light. Many times on night dives I knew I was being “watched” and more often than not would shine my dive light out into the inky depths around me only to have the light bounce off the side of a shark or barracuda who was silently escorting me on my underwater explorations. The incredible draw and appeal of night diving is simply that the reef does a complete changeover of life at night. Creatures you see at night are never seen in the light of day and vice-versa.

Tom Mount taught John Ely and me the art of breath hold free diving. Tom religiously practiced the oriental art of Tai Chi breathing technique as a means to relax and slow down oxygen consuming rapid heartbeats while performing deep breath hold dives. The technique is remarkably effective and soon John and I and Tom were floating silently over the edges of the walls and drop offs up to 100 feet down while holding our breaths for many minutes before slowly returning to the surface. This silent form of diving was intoxicating! Without the masking sound of the perpetual gurgling noises of inhaling or exhaling through a regulator, I discovered what a symphony of sound a living reef possesses! The thumps, grunts, crackle and snap of the inhabitants as they went about their daily lives was deafening underwater. Incidentally, sound travels four times faster to our ears underwater than through air due to the density of water. This makes it difficult to locate the source of sound beneath the surface of water because the sound strikes both ears simultaneously. What also was intriguing about breath hold diving was how close we could silently glide up to the marine life without spooking them with our noisy SCUBA generated bubbles!

For hours the three of us would free dive to the edge of the Cayman wall, anywhere from 60 to 100 feet beneath us. At each dive we would stay longer and longer until we were exceeding four or more minutes per dive time on a single breath of air. Unknowingly we had reached a comfort zone of breath holding that was becoming dangerous. Carbon Dioxide is the waste product of our body and exhaled after every breath we have taken. Carbon dioxide however is toxic under pressure and its re-absorption into our body through the underwater pressure of breath hold diving causes a deadly phenomenon called “Shallow Water Blackout”. The ancient pearl divers of Japan knew of this danger and would post the largest swimmer to watch for the ascending pearl diver who would often times black out near the surface and begin sinking back to the bottom.. The “catcher” as he was called, would swoop down and snatch the unconscious diver from certain death from drowning and toss them into the waiting canoe to quickly recover for their next dive! We were to learn on this particular day of breath hold diving that carbon dioxide can remain in our tissues after a long free dive and that a diver should remain on the surface several minutes to scrub its cumulative and toxic effects from our bodies before descending again!

I had made several deep free dives that morning and was once more slipping quietly beneath the waves to glide down closer to the majesty of the indigo drop off at 100 feet. I found myself swimming beside the silver side of a huge barracuda, feeling an imaginary kinship with this intelligent predator as we wove between towering coral formations on the edge of the wall. I remember hovering over a particularly active coral formation that was teeming with an inordinate amount of swimming life. When I next looked at my watch I discovered that I had been underwater for close to 5 minutes on one breath of air and I realized I had better ascend. The remarkable thing was that I still had not felt the urge to breath and could have stayed longer! As I approached the fresh air and bright sunlight of the illuminated ocean's surface just above me I thought to myself, “Phew! I am home free now.” I was concerned that I had overstayed my time underwater and generated too large of a CO2 debt in my tissues. That was the last conscious thought I remember having in this world!

The next twenty five minutes of my life are a blank page. John and Tom were free diving nearby and told me that after a period of time they both realized I had not resurfaced for quite some time. They began a surface swimming search and eventually spotted me lying unmoving on the sand at the edge of the 100 foot drop off. Two thoughts occurred to me much later when they related what next took place. First, it was very fortunate that my unconscious body did not drift over the edge of the 1000 foot drop off. Second, it was also equally fortunate that my body landed on the sand where it was clearly seen from the surface in the gin clear water. Had I landed in a coral crevice it would have been very difficult to spot my unconscious form.

John told me that he free dove down to where I was lying on the bottom and struggled to scoop me up. He said that dragging my dead weight to the surface was far more difficult than he had first realized and midway to the surface his oxygen starved lungs began to spasm. He had to drop the dead weight of my body and bolt to the surface. My unconscious body drifted back to the sandy bottom. After catching his breath, John and Tom now both dove down to my unmoving body. Each grabbing me by an arm, they began swimming strongly to the surface with my body between them. They told me later that it was the longest ascent of their lives and that when they hit the surface they sucked in massive gulps of sweet air in an effort to quench their burning lungs.

Tom felt for but could not find a pulse in my neck and realized my heart had stopped. He had John go under the water and behind me and put me in a wrestling full nelson hold while at the same time thrusting both knees up into the middle of my back. This pushed my chest high out of the water. Tom then rose up over the top of my body with powerful strokes of his fins and delivered a stunning closefisted blow to my chest. In paramedic terms this is called a pre cardial thump that is sometimes used in just such a “stopped heart” situation. Tom delivered this blow a number of times before he got a faint pulse via the carotid artery in my neck. He then swam behind me and forced the mouthpiece end of his snorkel into my mouth while aiming the barrel end back over my shoulder and toward himself. With his hand over my mouth and jaw holding the snorkel in place, he began to swim me backwards to the dive boat some distance away. As he swam with John guiding him, he began giving the barrel end of the snorkel tube strong puffs of air which would inflate my paralyzed lungs in an effort to resuscitate me. Upon reaching the boat my body was hauled on board by ready hands and full CPR was initiated and performed for the next several minutes because my heart had stopped once again.

At the risk of becoming mystical, the next moments remain permanently etched in my conscious memory and in a powerful way has influenced me and my perspective on life ever since. I do not speak of it often and I stopped long ago speculating as to how or why it occurred. I accept that it happened and it has given me a peace and a sense of “knowing” throughout my life. A kind of private wisdom. It is a fearlessness of death and indeed knowledge of how comforting it is to embrace death and to accept it for the gift that it ultimately will be for all of us someday.

The next conscious image and memory I have after blacking out just beneath the surface of the water was me hovering over the scene of my body lying on the deck of that dive boat. It was similar to watching a movie only I was the center of the frantic attention. Tom and John were taking turns doing CPR on me. John was giving me breaths on every fifth chest compression while Tom was laboring over me. A dive companion and friend named Kendra was kneeling near my head and whispering softly a repeated prayer for me to live. The captain was chattering on the VHF radio alerting an ambulance to meet us upon beaching our dive boat near the island hospital and his two crewmen were scrambling around the vessel in an effort to get all other divers out of the water and into the boat. One diver on the boat was attempting to pull up the anchor in preparation for the emergency run to shore.

I realized that I was dead. But it was OK and in my mind a perfectly natural state to be in. There are no descriptive words to adequately paint the feelings and sensations I experienced at that moment in time. It was the happiest and most exhilarated I had ever been. I was wrapped in the most all consuming white blanket of love and peace and was totally content to never go back to that body lying on the deck beneath me. And then suddenly and from inside my head I heard a voice! Loud, distinct and clear, it simply commanded. “You must go back!” There was no question at all in my heart that I should not obey that powerful voice although I recall a fleeting regret that I must leave this divine and perfect place.

And I was back! Racked with painful spasms of excruciating coughing, I was spewing salt water from my lungs and mouth. Lying on the deck of that boat with my head in Kendra's lap, I knew that the next road that I must walk down in my life would be a challenging one. I spent the next weeks in intensive care units in the Caymans and the United States, healing from the serious effects of salt water drowning. I suffered permanent scarring to my lungs as a result of the inevitable pneumonia that salt deposits in the lungs create as a byproduct. I had expert physicians inform me that the tissues of my lungs were now so fragile that my diving career was over. When I breathed, you could hear my lungs crackle like wadded cellophane wrappers taken from a piece of candy. The doctors believed that my lungs could never withstand the dramatic changes in pressure that diving exerts on its tissues and the tiny grape-like alveoli present in my lungs would simply burst.

I could not accept this! In my thinking, if a muscle is weak, you exercise it. If my lungs were weak, you work them! The first day home from the hospital I left my bed in the middle of the night and attempted to jog down the street. I made it only two houses away from my home before I turned and crawled my way back, wheezing and gasping and exhausted. The next night I ran four houses down and every night thereafter I ran a bit further and then further again until I began to feel my lungs stretching and filling and properly exchanging oxygen and CO2. My pulmonary doctor was impressed with my recovery but would look at me sternly and say, “I don't know why you are recovering so quickly and I do not want to know....but don't stop what you're doing”! He suspected I was pushing the envelope in my rapid recovery and he knew that I needed a letter of endorsement from him that stated that I was cleared to dive again. Initially he was dead set against signing one. But I was not going to give up diving and to his credit and wisdom he signed that letter which allowed me to return to the world I missed and loved and the continuation of the pursuit of my diving career.

John and Tom saved my life that morning and to this day, when our paths cross, we always smile and nod with a knowing and unspoken connection. They were incredulous when I described in minute detail all that was said and what actions were being taken while I was lying dead on the deck of that dive boat. Neither they nor I have ever questioned it. It was a gift from a far greater and knowing wisdom then any of us will ever possess on this plane we exist upon in life.


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