Panic away!

San Agapito, Philippines

I never liked the sea. It is slimy, salty, and stings my eyes. But as I marveled at schools of tropical fish darting about in blue and yellow streaks among brain coral on the Discovery Channel, it hit me. I have to know: Is the sea really as vibrant as this? The only way to find out was to steel myself and learn how to scuba dive. It took me over a year to save, find a reputable agency, and round up equally adventurous companions. After hours of in-water training and pizza-fueled evening classes, I became a certified diver. But this isnÝt about my first experience in the deep. I'm going to tell you about flirting with death, 80 feet below the surface.

Three months after I completed my checkout dive a training dive where students demonstrate skills and take tests I went out on my first dive trip sans my instructor. My friends and I went out to Verde Island, somewhere between Anilao, Batangas and Puerto Galera, Philippines. I took comfort in the knowledge that I would be diving with five divers with more experience, and quickly learned to deal with harsh underwater currents and enjoy the company of clownfish, puffers and barracudas.

On the second day, we planned to take a motorized dinghy to a popular dive site at San Agapito, an abandoned Spanish port teeming with sea life. Excited, I woke up at six, smoked two sticks, and felt like I had conquered part of the South China Sea. I took a cup of coffee to shake off the cobwebs and ate a small breakfast of eggs and toast. As fate would have it, I slipped a borrowed glove over my right hand.

"San Agapito is like a big pole of coral," said the dive master. "We can swim around it, though it is known to have strong under currents. We don't know the direction the current is heading, so we will just drift with it once we're down. OK?"

"OK" I echoed, as I gawked at the surf exploding against the rocks. We got in and finned down to 86 feet as the current gathered force. We were working against it and moving over a small wall, holding unto rocks and crawling, so to speak, as the dive master instructed. While I tightened my grip, I felt my legs slowly curling upward. I was trying to pull them down when one of my companions signaled me to release and swim left. That got me worried. I was about to flip upside down as my legs were swept upward. I let go anyway, and as expected, the current carried me four feet up before I got my hands on a coral, but it was loose and broke off. (It's nerve-racking to damage coral as even the smallest formations may take hundreds of years to form.) Worse, the piece I picked up fell straight on top of another diver's head.

I was desperate, and already six feet above the rest. The dive master noticed and insisted that he pull me down. Fearing the worst, I resisted. Abruptly, my legs shot up and I was completely upside down, frantically groping in the water for something to hold. My left palm was bleeding, a cut from a vengeful coral. I couldn't pull my legs down at all. I was now ten feet above the other divers. The dive master crawled towards me, looking down at the others as they struggled to keep from being carried away. Then disaster struck: In an effort to reach me, the dive master pulled the regulator out of my mouth as I was taking in a breath. I tried to retrieve it, but he was swimming down too fast. In emergencies like this, I am supposed to exhale slowly until I access my second regulator, fondly called an octopus by some diving agencies, but I wasn't thinking. Instead, I was holding my breath and gulping water.

My heart was pounding and my eyes felt like they were going to burst. The dive master didn't realize that he had me by my regulator. I knew my octopus was flailing somewhere behind me but I did not want to risk releasing a hand to get it. It was a choice between shooting up so fast and getting bent (the bends, or decompression sickness, is an injury from failure to properly release nitrogen from the body by ascending at a correct rate) or drinking more seawater. I chose the latter.

"Damn it! This isn't a good way to die" I said to myself.

Finally, the dive master looked up and saw my mad, popping eyes. It took a whopping six seconds, an eternity for a panicked diver. He immediately returned the regulator to my mouth. I sucked voraciously as my lungs screamed for air, but forgot to purge the regulator (clearing it by blowing or allowing air to rush out) before breathing from it. Alas, I had another gulp. I continued anyway, as the water gave way to air from my tanks. My left hand was bloody but unrelenting in its grip, my nails soiled green and brown. I was anxious. I listened to my bubbles and deep breaths. The coral that was my lifeline suddenly caught my attention. In the middle of its flat body, a tiny cream-colored plankton with red speckled ends swayed gracefully with the current.

I thought, "You're beautiful!" I stared a little bit longer and slowly brought my legs down. My breathing relaxed and I crawled. I was back at 80 feet and gave my dive master the OK sign.

After I regained my composure, two divers yanked at me and we began to surface, lifted by another current. We were surrounded by a swirling mass of dancing bubbles, thick enough to obscure everything else, spinning us 360 degrees. Some divers ascended ahead of me, as I relished the blobs of clear crystals. Then, I felt the wind on top of my head. I was on the surface and I pumped air into my stabilizing jacket. My friends and I were relieved and giddy at the same time. That current was something else. We climbed unto the boat. I told them what I said to the coral, and we all had a good laugh.

After an hour of rest, we dove again, in shallower water with less drift, thank God. I was dazed and exhausted but felt exhilarated. It was good to be back in the water.

Despite all this, I never found reason to get rid of my gear and stop diving or tell anyone that diving is an easy way to get killed. I lost money, time, and a lot of skin just to get to the bottom. I love the sea and I will dive again. But next time, I will be wiser, more prepared, and eager to say to the citizens of the deep: "YouÝre beautiful!"

By Shirley V. Grande, 26, Philippines CMAS Open water diver

WINNER best story July 2003

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