Losing consciousness, accepting death, those were my last thoughts, but before getting into details, I would like to share first why I would still risk my life & keep diving.
Somewhere around the year 2010, I was flying on top of Mediterranean sea, where I noticed that we spent hours with water below us in the flight. I teased my brain to remember the fact that more than 71% of the earth is covered with water, and once I landed, I started to research more, and found out that oceans contains 99% of living space on the planet, yup, right! I was equally shocked. Looking more in the taxonomy of those living there, I found that the most recent research found that at least 230k species live in water. Can you believe that, knowing that I and you as surviving Homo sapiens are just 1 species! I can’t avoid the fact that us, as humans, are very arrogant ignoring that fact, living in 29% of that earth, thinking that we own it all. That discussion can divert into what we did so far, global warming, and many other interesting topics, but I wrote that intro to explain why one day, I decided to learn how to survive for few hours a day to explore that 71%, and maybe see as much as I can, and learn from, this 230k species. I coupled that after few years with underwater photography, to document as much as I can of that awesome world! I encourage every single person to do the same. I will follow with a separate article about why I do scuba-diving.
September 2016, red sea, using enhanced air (Nitrox) mix to have a chilled dive and allowing myself to have more deep time for my underwater photography mission. A 40-50 min relatively short dive, early sleep at night, then take my flight next morning, sounded like a nice plan. I had two other divers with me, later I knew that one of them had only 25 dives before, and the other is advanced open water diver. Being a rescue diver, I learned later, that I am the most experienced one in the dive. We decided to do a nice zodiac dive, so I grabbed my new SMB (surface marker buoy) to test, for none divers, an SMB is basically a balloon that you inflate underwater to signal for the surface, in that case, our zodiac, that divers are coming out. Of course, I had with me as well my underwater photography equipment, with a wide angle setup. And that is of a significant size, as they say, a photo is worth a thousand word, so below photos of the SMB & my underwater photography equipment i had with me.
45 min passed, my air is in 50 bar mark (which means I have like 15 min of air, based on my consumption in that dive). So I got my SMB out, signaled to the other divers to stay on 5 meters for our safety stop. For none divers again, a safety stop is to avoid what is called a DCI (decompression illness). When we are underwater for a long time, our body gets saturated with Nitrogen, which in that sense in liquid form in the blood stream. As we rise, the pressure gets less, with basic physics, the liquid becomes a gas again. If you did not give enough time for the body to gradually get rid of that Nitrogen while it is in liquid form, one of the major risks is that it becomes bubbles (gas) in your blood stream, and get stuck in your joint, brain, all based on your luck. Can kill you at once, cause paralysis, joint damage, or more. Overall, it is not fun at all, and extremely dangerous. That is why, part of diving, a common technique is waiting a bit extra underwater, even when by math we know we don’t have any Nitrogen left (technically you always have micro amounts). This extra time we call safety stop, and we do it on 5 meters.
While getting my SMB out, I dropped its roller. I looked down & estimated it is at 9-meter depth, so I gave the SMB to one of the divers & went down to grab it. I got it, and while coming up again to 5 meters (thus continuing my safety stop)I noticed the thread is all over my camera housing, tank, fins! Later I learned that the other diver took the SMB, and for only God knows the reason, inflated it, causing the thread to move, and become tenser. I untangled all that I could reach, looked on my dive computer, it was giving me 8 meters depth, and I checked my air, and I had like 10 min remaining. I pointed to one of the divers with me, asking him to untangle the thread. It took him a while, more than 6-7 min, I started to realize that time is quite critical now. I asked him to cut the thread, but later I learned that he didn’t see, or notice my signal, plus, he didn’t have a knife (i had though but couldn’t reach it). tick tock tick tock, till a miracle happened and two divers were diving in the exact location! They were experienced, saw the situation, came to help me, and in less than 30 sec, the thread was off my tank & finns.
I swam up to 5 meters to start my safety stop, my computer now gave me 4 min (since I spent down plenty of time, and my estimated go down grab the roller & come up again took around 9 min!). I looked at my air meter, and it shows 30 sec remaining of air! I signaled to my dive buddy near me to give me his additional air mouthpiece (each diver have two mouthpieces, one for him to breath, and emergency “octopus” for any other diver who might need air). I took it, blow out, then tried to breathe in, and it was all 100% water! The mouthpiece was broken.
By that time, I am already without a breath for 1.5 minutes, with a lung full of water, my body is quite irritated and I am forcing it to stand still not to consume more oxygen from my blood stream! I took it, calmed my buddy down, tried to fix it, breathed from it again, and it’s again, not working! Later I got to know that he broke his own regulator and borrowed this one from a colleague, it was working out of the water as he tested it (a regular diving check), but underwater, it had issues. My lung was filled already with water, almost 2.5-3 min of no air, tried to breathe from my own tank, it was empty of oxygen, almost like breathing smoke! My lungs were very irritated, my body is very low in oxygen. I started to have what we call, funnel view, my vision became quite blurred. My body was panicked, I told myself what I learned from years of diving, and being a rescue diver, STOP, THINK, ACT. And I did. I was back to rational thinking, ok, I do not have oxygen in my blood. For 3 min, I am without any input of it, my body will fall and paralyze in about 1 min, my brain will be damaged in about 3 min from lack of Oxygen. I decided to go out of water will all effort & energy I have, out early, risking a bit getting the DCI from Nitrogen, but its way less than a certain death if I spent few sec more.
I did it! I reached the surface somehow, filled my BCD with my own mouth as I had no air in the tank to even fill it, then I partially fainted. I opened my airway myself and applied the emergency response training, and then my body started to spit all the water out, and my lungs started to function properly again! I took the zodiac, with my buddies, and went back, took pure Oxygen, and luckily the day was saved, and I didn’t get any dramatic DCI symptoms, which means I am fine.
My 5 lessons learned
Stuff I learned about diving
1) Training does matter, following best practices does matter. If I ignored the safety precautions, the 4 min safety stop, could be a deco stop of 10-12 min, I would then certainly get decompressions sickness, if not die. Though as a rescue diver you are trained to save others more, you can apply same training on yourself as well.
2) Drowning is certainly the worst death. I always doubted that, but reaching half drowning situation, it is! You see death coming towards you.
3) Select your buddies if you can!
4) Most of the stories I heard of very experienced divers who died, they died in easy dives. Do not underestimate a simple zodiac dive like the one I had, I almost reached death in it. And if I underestimated the dive, I would be dead now. Underestimation and arrogance are divers enemies.
5) If you do underwater photography, make sure another diver know how to handle & use the SMB. It was very hard to me to do my hobby of photography, and at the same time manage & lead the dive.
Stuff I learned about life
1) Nothing at all matters: Before that dives, I had concerns regarding my work, investments, family, health. And guess what, after that accident, all disappeared. Seriously, nothing at all worth it.
2) Our body can betray us: After 3 min of no Oxygen, something was asking me to accept death, my body was signaling my mouth to open and breathe water! It was very weird & extreme feeling. I was fighting living with my own body. Seems like biologically our body can be stupid sometimes. So do not put stress on your body, it can leave you in the first split-road.
3) Stay fit: If you are fit, your body can endure more stress, whether physical or mental. Do not smoke, drink a lot, and keep a healthy diet (i don’t, but I do my best). The doctor who checked me after told me that if I have unhealthy lungs, I would be dead already!
4) Confidence is magic: If you ask me now to hold my breath, I might do max 1.5 min. I have seriously no idea how I managed to do 3 min, and swim up, fill my BCD with my own mouth, while my lungs are full of water! My will to stay alive, my confidence that I will succeed is the only rational explanation for that. So believe in yourself, even if you see death calling for you. Stay spiritually strong, and help the people around you, those are the most effective way of raising your confidence & giving positive energy, well, at least for me.
5) Mirror your experiences: That extra mile I learned to give in sports, I used it to get out of the water and survive, and didn’t quit. That belief I had during that accident, I certainly used it after in viewing my business concerns & believing in passing it. So learn from situations, and try to apply what you learned in different aspects of your life.