I hit the water fins first, kicking inward as I touched down to keep myself from dropping completely below the waves. Paul was already in the water, ten or twenty yards away with his bouyancy vest fully inflated, bobbing in the shadow of a cliff wall. I could barely make out the flourescent stripes on his shoulder, and they were the only part of his suit that was the least bit visible. The rest was black, nearly indistinguishable from the sheer rock bluff. After signaling back to the boat, I rolled onto my back and kicked my way toward the wall. Finally within the darkness I caught sight of his torso, his clear plastic mask and his ice chilled grin. After the way he rushed to get suited, I figured he would be done with the dive before I even got in. But, of course, I was his dive buddy, and he was mine, so he waited in the cold, basking in a garden of bull-kelp and drift wood. When I finally arrived he already had his hand on his deflator, ready to descend, but I insisted he allow me a moment to gather my bearings, and a breath or two.
"This is going to be one to write home about." Paul tried to sound heroic but his teeth chattered too much and so I laughed. Of course, he meant it, though. Paul was a thrill seeker, and I was his friend. Paul wanted to confront danger and prove there was no fear in his heart. He wanted to survive a life threatening incident and claim victory over the sea, and there was no doubt that he wanted to tell the whole world about it. Paul had never been quiet, like me. He was always loud and boisterous, demanding attention from anyone who would care to listen. He was both a comedian and a heckler, and he did not stop to think what I or the rest of humanity thought. He was presumptuous enough to assume that the world would simply cough up its riches to him, if he was just daring enough to step in and take them.
I tried to curb the recklessness in his eyes, every time he mentioned the next quest he would soon undertake, because, of course, that meant I would undertake it as well, and I dearly loved my quiet simple life, my home, my wife and my kids. When he brought up sky diving, I convinced him to take a balloon ride. When he brought up drag racing, I showed him the country-side on ten speed bikes. I did everything I could to keep his overactive bravado from killing the both of us, but when he showed me brochures on scuba diving, I was won over by the colorful photos of tropical fish, the calm crystal-clear oceans, the panoramic skies and inviting sand beaches.
Of course the brochures were a lie, unless we could dole out the bucks to keep ourselves in Hawaii, Cancun or the Bahamas. It was not until after Paul had drug me through the three week course that I realized he had no intention on packing up and traveling to one of the sunnier climates. With the "second best dive spot in the world", in my own backyard, I must have been kidding myself. There was going to be no warm water, no sand beaches, no brilliantly dressed, cutesy, pucker-mouthed fish posing for my camera. What lay ahead was a miserable, cold murky Sound, inhabited by skulky looking creatures hiding behind jagged rocks covered in barnacles and prickly urchins, shadows of demise and shrouds of evil green kelp, rippling upward from depths too disturbing to describe.
At least, that was how I felt until Paul actually got me into the water. After my first dive, I was hooked. I loved it. It was as if I could fly around and explore, spin around and dance with each kick of my foot. I did not care that I could only see, through the plankton and silt, as far as my arm stretched out before me because I found within that reach entire civilizations of starfish, crabs and anemones, busily active in their own complex form of commerce.
After that first weekend, four dives and a certification card with my name on it, Paul and I began what we later came to call our 'knightly' ritual. Twice a week, if possible, we would pack up my Ford Aerostar with all the scuba gear we owned, drive twenty minutes to our local beach site, and partake in an intricate dressing maneuver, covering ourselves from head to toe with neoprene rubber, bi-laminate water-proof fabric, masks, hoods, boots and gloves, completely sealing ourselves off from any direct contact with the environment, just so we could get into the water and get 'wet.'
It was not long, however, before Paul found this mundane frolicking in the shallows of public owned parks to be too limiting for his desire to challenge fate, and so he soon had us paying charter on a touring dive boat that would chariot us to unreachable regions of the Pacific Northwest, the small, desolate, droplets of land known as the San Juan Islands. The ads claimed the dives to be exciting, thrilling, beyond compare; 'Current Dives' that would whisk us across alien landscapes like a bird soaring over cities of steel and golden sunsets, and 'Wall Dives' that would bring us up close to the richness and variety of sea life unknown to any other area of the world, as we drifted, suspended beneath a skyline of mushrooming clouds, small puffs packed densely on the overhanging wall, white plumous anemones swaying overhead like an inverted meadow of daisies, and at the same time, hundreds of feet over an encroaching blackness, itself reaching upward as if it too were alive, similar to the giant strands of kelp likened only to forest trees. This time, he did not need to convince me. We were both sold on the idea by someone else entirely.
The wrinkled, wind-swept miser that ran the dive shop first pointed us in the direction of the charter. We had been only in to the shop to get our air tanks filled for the weekend when Paul noticed the poster on the wall behind the cash register. Mr. Dodge, otherwise known as 'Dodger' to the regulars, finished filling my emerald green aluminum eighty and was twisting a knob that would close off the line running from the wall, when Paul uttered his first words of interest.
"Damn, look at that!" He shouted, causing Dodger to look with a start and then nod in encouragement because he too felt the excitement in Paul's voice.
Dodger was an old sea-dog, as all dive shop proprietors are, with a history in the Navy and a half fading memory of a lifetime of stories about the open sea and the dangers below it. If a customer was not particularly wary about the way Dodger lured him into a conversation, he would soon find himself caught standing for hours by the side of the register listening to tales of sharks, barracuda or some horrific moray eel that was soon subdued or out-smarted by the bravery and cunning of that very same Dodger we all thought of as a simple white haired curmudgeon.
Unfortunately, neither Paul or I had ever been hooked, so when Dodger hobbled over on his one good foot to stand behind the counter, looking with us at the poster of a custom built yacht, we soon found ourselves being reeled in by his brash words of authority.
"Best damn dive I ever been on was off that boat." Dodger spoke in a voice parched for conversation. "Got into a current that must have been twelve knots. Shot past the biggest damn rock crab I've ever seen. Big as me, I swear." He gestured with his hands to size himself up.
"You know what Jack Cousteau says about these dives don't you?" He remarked with the familiarity all sea-dogs do of their intimate knowledge of what Jacques Cousteau does and does not say. Paul turned his gaze from the poster, and stared at the old man in his tattered T-shirt and scuffed blue jeans, listening to him as if each word became gospel as it spewed forth from his mouth, for a faith that Paul was soon to be converted to.
"Second best diving in the whole world." Dodger continued. Of course, that was the same phrase we heard every time we walked into the store. It was the same motto stapled to the lips of every store owner, of every employee, of every dive nerd that lived on the boundary between Western Washington and the edge of that great gray Puget Sound. They also liked to tell everyone that the Puget Sound contained, within its depths, more life per square inch that any other body of water in the entire world. They always forgot to mention the fact, however, that most of it was microscopic. Still, Paul was entranced by the questionable opinion that Dodger was claiming to be fact, as if he had just then heard it for the first time and understood it intuitively to be true. I, on the other hand, was a bit more skeptical.
Paul wanted to hear more, and an hour and a half later we both walked out of the store in a dizzying state. During that conversation Paul had discovered his yet unrealized destiny. He wanted to become part of the society of experienced divers, those fabled few strong-breasted men who were taught diving in the days when a candidate could be expected to swim a mile underwater, wrestle his gear away from a giant octopus, and then swim blindfolded back to shore, all the while dividing large numbers in his head without the aid of any sissy depth or pressure gauges, compasses or computers. Paul wanted to experience those experiences that did not really exist, that only found life in the augmented memories and passed down anecdotes of those same white haired curmudgeons that sat behind their counters and cash registers, ringing up inflated bills, selling common air to anyone foolish enough to buy it.
I did not believe a word the old man had said, but I was certain Paul thought otherwise. He walked quickly with his arms moving through the air as he spoke, and the enthusiasm in his lungs bursting outward, echoing off the windshields of the cars in the parking lot. He was shouting, though I doubt he noticed. He wanted to be on that dive boat right then. He wanted to race through the currents and stare in awe at the immensity of the deep. He wanted to live in the face of danger, and feed off the fear in his soul, and he wanted to be the one who told the daring tales of bravery at depth, in depth. He admired Dodger and the others that worked in the store. I thought the stories were pitiful, as well as the shallow lives of those fledgling followers, only half filled with knowledge of what once never was.
"You can't actually believe any of that." I had to say something. I would have rather not confronted him about it, but he had been lead astray by those crackpot exaggerations and only I could bring him back to reality. "Dodger's just pulling our legs."
Paul did not even slacken his pace. He had heard what I said, my dissenting criticisms, and took them all in stride. Even his enthusiasm did not die.
"Don't you want to go out there and find out?" Paul replied. "Don't you want to go see for yourself? What if some of it is true, just a bit of it? Wouldn't it be great to be face to face with a giant Wolf Eel, large enough to bite right through your arm, or to be racing over a sea-bed of urchins, with only an inch of ocean to spare between you and ginsu-city?"
"No." I declared with a finality that caused most of Paul's steam to whither away in the wind. I meant it. It sounded horrible to be that close to death. I suppose, though, Paul had some unnatural need for it, being a go-boy forty hours a week, the bottom of the food chain of corporate America. He had to have some outlet, some way to release the stress bottled up from months of yessir's and nomam's. I, on the other hand, cherished the serenity of the simple shallow water, enjoyed drifting up slowly to a yellow-orange sea star, poking at the snout of a long-nosed gooey duck, and teasing flounders out of hiding below a camouflage of muck.
That was me, simple pleasures put me at ease. But, of course, I was Paul's good friend, and his only dive buddy, and he did stand there with an abandoned look on his face, and so I had no other choice but to agree to go on the trip. Without me, Paul could get himself into too much trouble to get himself out of. Without a buddy that understood his reckless behavior, he could easily end up a statistic, or worse yet, the main character of a poorly told tragedy, just one in the repertoire of another washed up sea-dog.
We made plans for an extended weekend vacation that Paul was certain was to deliver to us one of the second best dives in the world. There was going to be an instructor on the boat and he would be endowing us with the holy knowledge of 'advanced' diving; going deep, going fast. We would learn how to handle current dives, drift dives, wall dives, boat dives, and deep dives, all at once, given the duration and nature of the trip. I must admit, the instruction was great and the diving stupendous. We did not find any life threatening challenges, just as I suspected, but we did find the excitement Paul was after. I was mesmerized by the rapid motion as I flew through the water. Paul was frolicking in glee. I was frightened, yet, intrigued by the darkness and monumental eclipsing of the inverted walls, suspended before us like the ancient ruins of Easter Island. Paul lead me in toe into the haunted shadows of every recess of every fisher that we passed by. We poked in with our submersible flashlights beaming, glowing the speckled eyes of perch and wolf eels alike. We did see large rock crabs, but not ones the size of Dodger. We did see a few creatures as big as a stump but most were as small as a fingernail, and nothing ever attacked, nothing ever lurched out and took us by surprise. Still, the trip was a success. We both concluded that the San Juan dives were the most fun we had ever had. We even forgot we were being instructed at the time, that the instructor had been swimming mere meters away, mirroring our every move. On the boat ride home, the last day, we declared to all the other passengers that Cousteau was wrong, the San Juan dives were not second best. They were THE best, and we dared anyone to prove us wrong.
We were so charged with excitement, and I regret now that I was so easily carried away, that we were making plans for our next excursion while we were still unloading our gear onto shore. That dive, however, was not going to be for another six moths, as Paul caught himself in financial straites, and I, with my own constraints, found it difficult to rationalize another weekend away from my family any sooner. But at the end of that six months, we both found ourselves packed and rolling up the interstate toward the marina that moored the same dive boat we had chartered before, the one that had delivered in full on its promise.
I should have been prepared for what happened next, but I was not. I had assumed that the previous splash of reality had brought Paul back to his senses, and had given him a measure of the true, safe, range of experiences to be had under the sea, but as soon as we were on the road, I learned that such was not the case. Paul had learned more than merely the subject of advanced diving on the previous trip that he and I had shared. In addition, he had learned the subtle art of lore. He found a new voice, a new vocabulary that allowed him to speak from authority and turn simple pleasant experiences into dynamic tales of courage. The small crabs suddenly had pincers as big as Paul's hand, and the rat fish that had scurried away before we even got close enough to verify what it was, became a shark that circled for most of the dive, taunting us until we tricked it by resting still in the water, forming our bodies into shapes indistinguishable from boulders.
I could not believe the drivel he was spitting back into my face, as if I had not been on the same dive myself. Did he actually think the current that pulled us along, had really thrown us, out of control, past jagged stones that barely missed impaling us? I was afraid Paul was incapable of separating truth from fiction, and what frightened me most was that he truly believed those had been the actual events. I hastened to guess what he had planned for us when we got back to the islands, what kind of situations he actually thought he was capable of handling.
I had to hide myself in the cabin on the boat ride up just to keep from being implicated in Paul's stories about our previous escapades. I did not want to have to agree to or explain the truth about any of his far-fetched fantasies. Instead I played solitaire and listened to the radio while Paul did his best to gather the largest crowd around him so he could preach about all the things he did not know. I suppose he was not the only one with a lie or two that was passed back and forth during the hours that it took to arrive at our first destination. The others had told stories as well, but none were as daring as the ones told by Paul. None were as vibrant, as fanciful, and as completely off base, challenging the imagination to stretch until it snapped. The others ate it up though, standing around half dressed in their dry-suit insulation, mocked up with all the their fanciful trinkets, specialty badges, and gear worn as evidence of their own heroic deeds. With all the slashes, tears and discoloration's staring them directly in the face, it was impossible for them not to believe the implausible causes that caused the effects. I waited until I saw the island bluff come into view before I ventured back toward the stern where the gear was hung, and the impromptu pulpit had been formed to auction of each new fabrication to the highest bidder.
I suppose that was how Paul got so far ahead of me, why he was already suited and in the water before I even had my buoyancy vest strapped onto my tank. While I was slipping into my suit, he and most of the others were already donning their fins. I was so far behind the rest, that the ship's dive master started the location briefing while I was still fumbling to find my mask and gloves. He gave the entire orientation about the boat, the entry point, the exit point and the pick up procedure, while I checked each bucket one by one, only to discover my weight belt had already been set out on the bench for me. I did, however, hear him caution the group about the sporadic currents in the area. He told us how to make our drift dive safe, which direction to go and which wall to follow to have the safest time.
Those words should have been a red flag to me. Procedures for safety meant possibilities for unsafeness. I should have glanced at Paul and shook my head no, because if I had not been too busy slipping my neoprene hood over my head, it would have snapped to my attention and I would have caught Paul before he did his giant stride into the dark emerald soup. I would have explained that we were going to play it safe, and follow all those rules that the dive master had so thoughtfully laid out. Instead, Paul was already in the water, and the worry that should so easily have been mine, never bubbled forth into consciousness.
When I found him on the surface, in the shadow of the bluff, with his hand already on his deflator mechanism I could only think of the breath that I needed to catch and not whether Paul was planning to go renegade as soon as he got under water. Most of the other divers had already descended, and aside from the boat itself, Paul and I were the only two adrift, bobbing in the waves. Finally, after I rechecked all the settings on my gear, that all my straps were attached, all my buckles closed, that my tank was overly full at thirty two hundred P.S.I., my timer started and my compass set, did I actually acknowledge Paul's frantic plea to go under. I gave him the thumbs down that ironically reported that I was ready to proceed. and so we descended, each with a regulator in our mouth, one hand on our deflator hose and the other pinching our nose.
The air fled from both my buoyancy vest and the valve attached to my suit, each emitting whines in complimentary frequencies, as the water slowly lifted upward, past my eyes nestled safely behind my mask until it was completely overhead, and I was looking with a suspicious gaze at the mystical green aura of ocean, illuminated by the sunlight and thickened by a suspended field of plankton. Paul was directly ahead of me, rolling, as I was, from a fully feet first position, onto his stomach, so he could look downward as he dropped, imitating a sky diver falling through the sky.
Below, I could see the outline of a boulder taking shape, and a few feet lower the rock, an extension of the underwater cliff wall, came full into view, resolving itself into a surface decorated with streamers of rippling brown seaweed, golden edges catching the last bit of sunlight before it bled away into the darkness beyond.
As I passed the rock I pressed the button on my chest that sent air into my suit. The deeper I got, the tighter the suit pressed against my skin, and so in order to keep from being squeezed to death, vacuum packed and freezer burned, air was added into the suit to compensate. The air also slowed my descent, which gave me enough time to take my attention away from the stop-motion fall and flip on my submersible flashlight, as the water all around was becoming darker, colder and somewhat less friendly.
The beam from my flashlight cut through the water like a giant fluorescent bulb surrounded by a swarm of buzzing bees. The light brought the emerald greenness back to my eyes, but it did nothing to show detail of any contour of any surface. Paul and I had been descending too far from the wall and there was nothing much to see. I motioned to Paul to swim back toward the wall, and so we did.
The wall was almost entirely straight up and down, a single piece of stone extending as far out of sight above as below the water. On its surface hung clusters of purple starfish, fields of white anemones and spatterings of tube fish and barnacles. It was just the way I remembered it from half a year before. Of course, it was not the same wall or even one of the same islands, but the diversity of life held the same mix and so it felt welcome to me. The water no longer appeared so foreboding, as it was now proven home to all my familiar friends. Paul must have recognized this too, because he kicked away after only moments of gathering in the sights. He must have determined the wall unworthy of his time, since it was practically the same as the walls he had already seen. He started to swim to the left, away from the direction of the drift.
It was not until at this point that I finally composed the thought in my head of the worry that should have enraptured me while still on the boat. It was not until that exact moment when the fear of danger ricocheted through my body in a lightning spasm telling me not to follow. But, of course, I had to follow. Paul was my dive buddy and we were not to be separated while under water. We each were each other's backup life support. Where one went the other went, and so in this case, we both went against the recommendations of the dive master who had explicitly detailed the perils of following the wall to the left.
I tried to catch up to Paul, to grab hold of his fins and bring him to a halt, but he was already moving faster than I could because he already found the beginnings of another current, one of the stray channels that we had been told could not be trusted. Paul did not seem to care whether the current could be trusted or not. He considered them roller coasters, natural amusements of the underwater world. He must have presumed the dive boat would come rescue him where ever he turned up, so launching himself face forward onto an unknown path did not bother him. It bothered me, however, and it scared the hell out of me as I saw the wall slip away from my side, vanishing out of reach beyond a veil of midnight black.
Paul was a few yards ahead and so I tried signaling his attention with my light. This, though, he ignored, as he stretched out forward into a superhero pose. He kept his attention focused forward and down, looking into the blankness, waiting for some wonderful sight to emerge, some landscape to appear before him so he could be whisked across it, just like the time he believed to have experienced before. He was an idiot, not to realize that there was no floor about to come visible below him, there was no rocky surface to fly over, at least for another five hundred feet or so, which was the height of the wall below the surface, much too deep to dive to with a single tank of air, and expect to live to tell about it.
I did not have much time to concentrate on what I was about to do. If I did not get Paul to pull up soon, he would most certainly descend too far for safety, and most likely end up bent on the surface, decompression sickness, nitrogen coming out of solution in his skin and in his bones, turning immediately to bubbles, burning and tearing at his flesh. I had to reach him and get him to turn back, get him to head back up and back toward the wall. I realized, instinctively, that if I arched my back up, making myself more vertical in the water, I would allow more surface area for the current to push at my body. Like a sail lifted high on its mast, my body would become my mechanism for locomotion. I did not need to kick, I just needed to soar like a rock barreling through a plate glass window.
Before I reached him, however, as I was mere inches from taking hold of his fin, I felt the suction against my skin and the pain stab into my skull. My suit was becoming compressed again, and my ears were collapsing in pain at the pressure put up against the drums. Normally, my breathing pattern and the few swallowing gestures I made during a descent, shot bursts of air up into my eustation tubes to compensate for the rise in pressure outside. Unfortunately, that method only worked given my descent was slow and controlled. I was shocked to realize that the tremendous squeeze in my suit and the pain in the ears were due to an uncontrolled descent. In the same movement I pinched my nose, blowing air back into my ears and pressed diligently on my suits inflator button, until I felt the pain subside enough to focus back on my task. Then I fished for my depth gauge and brought its glowing face close up to my mask. I was below one hundred feet, edging on one hundred ten.
I would have screamed if I thought it would have done any good. Twenty more feet and both Paul and I would be past our limit. We were not trained to go any deeper. Paul must have noticed the squeeze himself, because he tilted up just like I was and adjusted his controls. He spun back to look at me, and while I held up my depth gauge to impress on him the fact that we had gone too deep, I realized he was in no position to see what I was doing. Something dark and black was filling into his mask, and by the look of him, with his eyes bugged out against the clear plastic, and his hands flung around his head, clenching off some incredible pain, he must have been frozen in a state of panic.
I kicked myself forward a few more feet and took hold of Paul's vest along a shoulder strap, pulling us closer together. I took my flashlight and brought it to bear on his mask, discovering the liquid inside to be red and not black at all. It must have been coming from his nose, and somehow an immediate pressure change had caused it to start to bleed. All in all, it was not a major medical problem, and could be solved easily at the surface. The big problem was that Paul was not responding to my hand signals. He appeared to be conscious, air kept periodically trickling out of his regulator exhaust, as if he were breathing, but he did not blink or turn his head when I waved my hand in front of his face. I sighed heavily out my mouthpiece and watched the bubbles erupt into a sheet of crystal balls racing upward, at a rate too quick for my own good.
The depth gauge read one twenty two. We were still going down.
I paused for one more moment and added two long bursts of air to my vest, and then turned onto my side, kicking as best I could with one hand locked onto Paul, the other held forward with my flashlight, trying to search out where exactly sat the wall.
A wall should not have been so hard to find. It should have been like asking a child where the sky was, or, in fact, where was the ground. The wall was so huge, it might as well have cut the Sound into two. It ran half the length of the island and extended from over a hundred feet above water to at least five hundred feet below. It was the biggest thing in existence for more than a couple miles, but the water was so dense with particles that the visibility at that depth was still just under twenty feet. The current had drug us an immeasurable distance away, in an unknowable direction. I played on the hope that the wall was somehow on a path directly behind me.
I swam harder than I thought possible with my fragile bones. I was not an athlete like Paul or even well exercised. Except for the outings we had together, I was mostly dormant, not that I was fat or unfit, just that I should not have had the strength to pull myself and Paul against a raging underwater river that was bent on carrying us away from the rest of humanity. I kept kicking, however, hoping that it would do some good and I kept praying that the wall lay in the direction that I tugged and pulled at, against the water surging against my face.
In the distance I saw a vague image. It was large, and as I inched toward it, it grew bigger in my view until it encompassed half of all that I saw. A large rock structure, wall-like in appearance rose before me, only a few yards away. I gathered that last bit of strength from every spare pocket and reserve and pulled it together into one final push toward the cliff. I notice on the rock as I neared almost close enough to touch, that the fissures cut into its side were all in motion upward, flowing opposite of my direction, which was still down no matter how hard I tried to swim up against it. Realizing it was fruitless to swim against the tug pulling down, I kept crawling forward until my hand locked hold of a small outcropping and I pulled myself and Paul to a stop. For a few entire minutes at least, we hung there, myself hanging from a loose hold on a rock, and Paul hanging by the tight grip from my other hand, while I breathed in and out slowly, dropping my heart rate back to a level that would allow me to pause and think of my next course of action.
The depth gauge read one ninety nine.
We were almost two hundred feet below the surface, in the middle of what I now know is called an underwater waterfall. It sounds sort of ridiculous, but I did not find it very humorous at the time. The water was coming down from above faster than was possible to swim up. There was no way short of scaling the wall to get back up all one hundred and ninety nine feet. If only I did not have to hold onto Paul, I could lift my free hand over my head and search for another fissure to grab hold of and pull myself up, but I did have a hold of Paul, and unless I was immediately about to die I could not let go. I would not have been able to live with myself.
I tugged ferociously at the rock, trying to fling myself upward far enough such that my hand could search out another fissure, somewhere higher than the one I just let go of.
I missed. There was nothing to grab hold of, and my tug upward had almost been useless. With the current whipping down across both of us, we only cleared about an inch or two before reversing direction, plummeting back down the cliff. Frantically, I scrambled to find another hold as my hand slipped down across rock, crumbling the loose pieces, and tearing my glove on the newly exposed surface. Consequently, cold water rushed inside and almost immediately, my hand froze up, unable to bend my fingers enough to clasp down onto anything. I tried with my feet, to kick us up against the wall, scraping my suit against its surface, but still we slipped downward.
In a sudden inspiration, I switched hands with the one that held onto Paul. I stuffed the one that was now frozen from movement through his vest strap all the way up to my elbow, and with my new free hand I caught hold of a small ledge I saw rising rapidly up at us. We stopped there, hanging against the current pulling down. My depth gauge bobbed up into my face from underneath my left arm. We were now at two twenty two, almost half way down the entire depth of the island, and it looked like no matter how hard we tried, we still kept going down. I knew that we would not be able to survive at this depth much longer. Our air would soon be depleted. We just did not have enough air to last, even if we could get up high enough to make our decompression stops, the ones that I had not been trained to do, but I was aware of at least in essence.
Air. The word sat for a moment in the narcosis of my mind. I do not know why I had not thought of it before. Air could lift us to the surface in the way a toy balloon rises all the way to the clouds. All I had to do was inflate my buoyancy vest until I started to rise upward. It was brilliant. I must have been too overcome by narcosis to let that obvious solution slip my mind, the nitrogen doping up my blood was as effective as a fifth of anything potently alcoholic. I grabbed the inflator hose of my vest, pushed down hard, and listened to the sweet sounds of air rushing in and the pressure building against my torso, hugging me, telling me I would get out of this alive. The burst valve discharged over my left shoulder, allowing excess air to flow out before the bouyancy vest would actually explode from over expansion. Fully inflated, I let go of the wall to start my drift upward.
I continued falling down.
I reached for the wall and missed. Reaching again, the wall pulled away. Somewhere down deep, below two hundred and thirty feet a cave cut into the wall, the wall that had been snug up against my side, now withdrew too far away to grab hold of. I could not use the wall to stop me, and I was still sinking down, faster that I could swim up, with Paul hanging on. I thought about letting go of him. I was going to die, if I did not get rid of Paul and race toward the surface. I needed to get rid of the weight.
The thought of that struck me just as the air had. Both Paul and I were wearing weight belts around our waists. They were what allowed us to descend in the first place, and I remembered just then, through all the dizziness brought on by the narcosis of the nitrogen collected in my blood, that the weight was supposed to be the first thing ditched in an emergency.
I grabbed the right hand release of my belt buckle and pulled it. Immediately, thirty five pounds of lead dropped from my waist, down in to the darkness below. If only I could lose that much weight as easily on the surface, I laughed to myself. I found Paul's release and grabbed it as well. His belt slipped off as easily as mine, and soon they were joined together at the bottom of the cliff, in a weight belt burial ground that I was glad was not about to become my own, since I now realized that I was no longer heading down. Both Paul and I were slowly rising up.
Tears came to my eyes as I watched the depth gauge read off its numbers, and when it rose above two hundred I started to pant and almost hyperventilate. I checked my air gauge and it was reading low, just under five hundred pounds, but I figured it would be enough if I just went straight to the surface. We might get the bends on the way up, but the bends were survivable, most of the time.
At one fifty, I lifted Paul's face up to mine. Paul had passed out some time ago, and there was nothing that could be done for him until I got him to the surface. At one hundred, I noticed that we were starting to pick up speed. The current was still pulling down, but my dry suit and Paul's had both expanded, so that now we looked a bit less like divers, and bit more like Pilsbury dough-boys.
I tried to vent my air through the suits exhaust valve, but it could not escape fast enough, and I could not lift Paul high enough to get his to vent much either. Only the violent pressure of the air inside his suit, caused any to leak out at all. Suddenly, I realized, that if I did not grab onto the wall immediately, we would both rise up so fast that out suits were likely to explode, and then just like the toy balloon that rises too high in the sky, it pops and comes crashing down to the ground.
Luckily, at ninety feet, fissures and large crevices appeared much more abundant and I quickly caught hold of one. Nestled back into a groove, I devised my final plan. I nudged my shoulder up beneath an outcropping which gave me a free hand to reach down and pull loose my knife from its sheath near my boot. Dive knives were standard equipment then, and still are today, except they are meant to be used to free a diver from nets or fishing line. I took the knife and cut into the latex seal around my left wrist, and then I cut one of the wrists off Paul's suit as best I could. The air within my suit escaped quickly out my sleeve, and just as quickly as it escaped it was replaced by ice cold water flowing in to meet my skin. I shivered at the chill oozing down over my body and pushed my cut arm down to stop the escaping air. I then dumped all the air from both our vests. There was no point having them explode either. Finally, with my knife back in its sheath, I push back off from the cliff.
We continued ascending at an acceptable rate, every few moments, lifting my arm and Paul's so the air could escape from out of the suits fast enough to keep us from accelerating. At seventy feet I started to gasp. The draw off my regulator came more difficult with each breath, and somehow I just knew what the feeling meant. I was out of air. My tank was empty. I grabbed the regulator and threw it away from my mouth. Paul had an octopus, a spare second stage connected to his primary regulator. It too was standard equipment, recommend for all recreational divers. Somehow, today's dive did not seem at all recreational. I continued to breath off his spare, and at thirty feet we were finally lifted free of the current flowing down.
I lifted our arms one last time, filling our suits with water that in comparison to the water below and our chilled bodies, felt amazing warm. Waterlogged, I swam us both the rest of the way to the surface, inflated Paul's vest with the automatic inflator and blew mine up by hand. We floated for a brief while, as I looked up at the cliff and the remaining one hundred feet of rock. The sun peeked softly through the scraggly trees lining its top. I passed out. A short while later we were found by the dive boat, lifted from the water and warmed back to life.
Thinking back on that day, I have to admit that it was the day that changed my life, Paul's too. We both survived, though we both sat in the decompression chamber back at the Virginia Mason hospital for almost three entire days. Paul came back to consciousness while the boat was rushing us back to harbor. We had not shown any immediate signs of decompression sickness, but no one wanted to take any chances.
Paul never spoke about diving again. In fact, her never spoke about much anything again. As soon as he could, he packed up and moved to Arizona, as far way from anything he considered even remotely associated with water. Paul had finally had his dance with fate, and he discovered he did not even know the steps. He freaked, panicked and passed out, though it was not exactly his fault. His body passed out due to the lack of blood from the nose bleed, but still he never let himself forget it, and he never allowed himself to put his life in jeopardy again.
I had a different reaction. I quit my job, pooled as much money as I could together and opened up my own dive shop. I had a new mission in life and that was to keep people like Dodger from influencing divers like Paul to risk their life on foolish thrills. The customers liked what I did. They liked how I kept the sport safe. Within two years I had driven all of the other shops in the city out of buisness. Even Dodger himself boarded up his doors and went into retirement.
That old sea-dog sometimes wanders into my store, though, now and then, just to see what's new in the world of diving, and please do not be shocked if you see him trying to lure people like yourselves into listening to one of his long, terribly boring stories about his hey-day of daring deeds at sea. I try to keep him from bothering the clientele, but he does it anyway, and I don't seem to be able to stop him. He may try to tell you a tale of how diving was in the old days, but don't listen to him. None of his stories are true. I opened the shop so I could put an end to these ridiculously outrageous fabrications told by divers trying to live in a fantasy of false notoriety based on what is nothing more than diving mythology.
I figured that sport divers needed someone like me to look out for their bests interests, and warn them of the dangers of the ocean, and the depths, and their misconceptions of the limits in all of us.
I also rearranged the pricing schedule. Tank rentals are now ten dollars per day and air has gone up to five fifty a fill.
Of course, the dive that day was only the second best dive I've been on in my lifetime. The first best dive, now that's a story. You see my hair, how its all white now? If you have a few minutes I'll tell you about it. This one you just will not believe.