Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Bahamas Trip - Day 4 - July 27, 2011 - An Atheist In Shark Infested Waters

Wednesday started off on a rather frustrating note.  We were diving at a site called Shroud Wall located off of Shroud Cay at the northern end of the Exumas Land and Sea Park.  As usual, I buddied up with Craig.

After making our entry, we proceeded along the port side of the Aqua Cat to make for the mooring line.  I was ahead of Craig, keeping a look out for the mooring line.  The visibility at this site was very poor, so I ascended close to the surface so that I would have a better chance of spotting the mooring line.  At one point, I looked behind me and saw Craig about 20 feet below and behind me.  Moments later I could see the mooring line and headed towards it to guide my way down to the mooring block.  When I reached the line, I looked behind and below me but did not see Craig, who was usually easy to spot with his yellow shirt.

As I began my descent, I looked down in the direction of where the mooring block was and in the cloudy water could make out several divers nearing the block, though I could not determine who they were.  I thought one of them might be Craig and figured he would wait for me.  But as I descended towards the block, there were no divers there. 

"No problem," I thought to myself.  "I'll just wait here for a couple of minutes and I'm sure he'll show up."  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited, wondering what I should do next.

Since the reef wall was just a few feet further away, I thought maybe Craig had gone ahead to the wall.  So I decided to make my way over to the reef wall and take a peek.  When I got there, I could make out a couple of divers headed away from me along the wall.  While I couldn't tell who they were, I knew Craig wouldn't have just gone off without me, so I decided to head back to the mooring block.  But when I got there, there was still no sign of him.  For a moment, I considered aborting the dive and surfacing to see if anything might have happened to him.  I decided against it and thought I would head back to the wall and do some sightseeing.

Because I was alone, I didn't venture far along the wall.  I tried to make a careful note of useful landmarks so that I could find my way back to the mooring block.  Before I got there, to my surprise and relief I encountered Craig, along with another diver, Tagi.  Tagi seemed to be making gestures towards me that I interpreted as "What the hell happened to you?"  I didn't reply, but if I could talk, I would have said "You know how long I waited at the mooring block by myself!"  I signalled to Craig and Tagi that I was returning to the boat.  I was still puzzled at that point what had happened to Craig, but was glad that at least he was not alone. 

They headed for the reef wall while I continued on to look for the mooring block.  Seconds turned into minutes, and to my growing concern, I could not find it, hampered as I was by the poor visibility.  Still, I took comfort in knowing that I could not be far away from it and decided to make a slow ascent to the surface.  If I couldn't find the line, I figured I would break the water not far from the Aqua Cat.  Then, to my relief, I saw the mooring line at about 30' and headed straight towards it.

After Craig came back on board, he explained to me that he must have missed both me and the mooring line and that he had ended up surfacing at one point before finally finding the line and meeting up with Tagi.  With the water as cloudy as it was, I could completely understand.
Rather than participating in the next dive, I decided to take my kids on a beach excursion.  We landed near a quiet lagoon and I decided that it was a perfect place for them to try out their snorkel gear.  The sand sloped gently into the water, enabling them to sit and put their gear on and then slowly ease into it by leaning forward and sticking their masked faces into the water.  Andrew had some trouble at first getting water into his mask and snorkel, but I helped him adjust and then the next thing I know, he was off swimming around on his own.  My daughter Kellyanne, on the other hand, was scared to go in and thought she saw urchins, so she stayed at the edge for the most part.  I told her not to worry and to take her time getting used to breathing with her snorkel in the water.  She started to gain some confidence and swam along the shallow edge when it was time to return to the Aqua Cat.

The next site, further south in the Exumas, was Amberjack Reef.  Andy, the dive master for this dive, told us that this was the site where they used to do their shark feeding dives.  And sure enough, as I was putting on my dive gear, I spotted a reef shark break the water alongside the boat.  I teamed up with Craig again and as before, the plan was to head for the mooring block and do some exploring.

When we began our ascent, I saw that there was plenty of life to observe right under the boat.  There were several reef sharks as well as a few Nassau Groupers lurking around.  The water, in contrast to the Shroud Wall, was very clear.

After Craig and I reached the mooring block, we started making our way through the grooves between the coral formations, heading generally away from the bow of the Aqua Cat.  As usual, I took point and would bang my tank or make hand gestures if I saw something that I thought Craig would want to take a picture of with his camera.  With each formation, I tried to make note of some landmark that would help distinguish it from the others.  For instance, the coral patch where the mooring block was had a barrel sponge on top of it.

In our previous dives, there would come a point where I felt Craig and I would go no further and I would gradually lead us back to our starting point.  After one dive, Craig proclaimed that I was "an awesome navigator!"  With this dive, after making a few twists and turns, crossing over an area of mostly sand and then hitting another coral formation, I got that feeling again that we should begin to head back to the mooring line.  I looked at my gauge, which read around 1700 psi.

Things seemed to be progressing rather smoothly.  We passed one formation that moments earlier I had dubbed "The Cactus" because it reminded me a little of a cactus.  Duh!  We crossed the sandy field again and started hitting the higher coral patches cut by grooves.  Then I saw a coral formation with a mooring line rising from it.  Then I saw Tagi, who was by himself avidly taking pictures with his camera.  What a relief, I thought. 

That feeling soon dissipated as I looked at the mooring line and saw that it came to an end about 15 or 20 feet above us.  Also, I did not see the barrel sponge on top of the coral formation that I had remembered earlier.  Something was wrong.  I gestured to Craig to indicate my confusion.  I remembered that Andy told us during his dive briefing that there was an old mooring block at the site.  I took my best guess as to which direction I thought the boat was and motioned for Craig to follow me.

I kept a nervous eye on my gauge, which was now nearing 1,000 psi.  We continued on for a few minutes and when the gauge was below 1,000 psi, I started to become very concerned.  I motioned to Craig that I was going to surface and take a look for the Aqua Cat.  When I surfaced, I saw it quite a distance away from us and wondered if my air supply would be sufficient to make it back.  I descended again and motioned to Craig the direction of the boat and then I started kicking my legs as hard as I could.  When my gauge got down to about 750 psi, I surfaced again.  While we were a bit closer to the Aqua Cat, we had been heading in a direction that would have put us well behind it. 

Again, I motioned to Craig, who was a few feet below the surface.  This time, I didn't descend but decided upon a surface swim so that I could maintain eye contact with the Aqua Cat.   Slowly, inexorably, I got closer to the boat, but the going was made difficult by the current.  I decided that our best bet was to head for the Magick and grab on to the yellow rope that tied it to the back of the Aqua Cat.  

I knew Craig was still behind me, but after a point, survival mode took over me, and I was more focused on myself.  My air supply was continuing to deplete rapidly as I struggled against the current.  My air had dropped to about 500 psi when I could finally see the yellow rope in the water.  I kicked furiously, grunting loudly with each kick as I inched my way towards the rope.  It started to feel like, in spite of my exertions, that I was stationary.  Then when it was just several feet from my grasp, I looked down and to my right and saw a Caribbean Reef Shark slowly heading in my direction.  While the picture at the top of this post was from a different dive, the angle of approach was about the same, only I was at the surface and the shark was about maybe at a depth of ten to twelve feet.

I didn't panic from the sight of the shark, because it appeared rather indifferent to my presence, but I remembered thinking, "It would really suck if he attacked me now, when I'm so close to the safety of the rope."  My real concern was my air supply, which was approaching the 400 psi point.  With a final effort, I reached out with my hands and grabbed the rope, which had seemed to tantalizingly beyond my grasp.

It was at that point that I thought about Craig again.  He was a few years older than me and I knew if I was struggling, then he must be too.  "What do I do know?" I asked myself.  Part of me wanted to let go of the rope and swim back to him to guide him to the rope.  Then I considered my own situation, exhausted and low on air.  One of things that is taught in the Rescue Diver course is that when considering whether to assist another diver, make sure that you don't end up needing to be rescued yourself.   Again, my desire for self-preservation kicked in, and I decided to get back to the Aqua Cat, where I could direct the crew to where Craig was.  So, like my first dive at Closemon Reef, hand over hand I pulled myself along the rope until I got to the ladder and climbed up to the dive platform.  I gasped to the crew member, can't remember which one it was, that we had gone to the wrong mooring line.  I looked back in the direction where Craig was and saw that two crew members were already in a dinghy and on there way to pick him up.  I felt doubly relieved, for Craig and for myself.

When I ascended the steps to the dive deck, I was greeted by my son Andrew, who told me excitedly, "Dad, I was snorkelling with the sharks!"  While I was off on the dive, Andrew had asked if he could go snorkelling and Stacey, the only female crewmember on the boat, went in with him.  I was very proud as well as very surprised at what my son had done.  Generally, he tends to be timid and afraid to try new things.  But for some reason he took to snorkelling in a big way.  Stacey told me that when a shark swam near him, Andrew even extended his arm out in the direction of the shark, only to retract it as the shark drew closer.

However, even the news of my son's snorkelling feat failed to lift my spirits for long.  After greeting Craig upon his safe return to the boat, I went back to my dive station and sat down with my head in my hands.  I felt upset with myself for putting another diver, in addition to myself, in danger due to my failure to navigate properly back to the mooring line.  Perhaps my earlier successes had me feeling a little cocky and I had overestimated my abilities.  I sat there sulking for a few minutes and then went up to the sun deck, where Craig and his wife Sherri had gone to grab some refreshments.  I told him that I was sorry that I had gotten us lost and had put us in a potentially dangerous situation, but he brushed it off and told me not to worry about it.

Following the surface interval, the next dive was going to be at the same site.  Craig asked me if I would go back in with him again, and I decided that it would be best if I did.  We agreed this time that we would stay within site of the boat and in we went.   We spent the dive exploring the coral formations underneath the Aqua Cat.  As we swam beneath the stern of the boat, I looked up to the surface and saw that Andrew was snorkelling with Stacey again.   Then we came upon Nick and Bailey, the two teenagers on the boat, along with Bailey's dad, standing on the sand and taking turns doing backflips in their scuba gear.  I had never tried a backflip while scuba diving before and decided to give it a shot.  It was both easy and fun and I repeated it several times.  A short while earlier, I had experienced one of the worst dives of my life, and now I had learned from a couple of teenagers how to cut loose and have a good time underwater.  It was exactly the kind of dive I needed to have.

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