Solo dives were a scuba diving instructor’s privilege. On our rare days off, if bored on land, we could always go on a personal dive, une plongée perso’ as we called them – if and when the boat dropped anchor as most of our days were spent drift diving, divers jumping in with the boat at idle and picked somewhere down current later. These taboo dives greatly helped protecting our interest and motivation levels that might otherwise have been blunted by the repetitive babysitting of clumsy Sunday divers.
At first, the concept had posed an ethical problem. Having solemnly preached against solo diving while teaching classes in the much harsher Quebec environment, I could hardly conceive of it being so casual under the Tropics. Eventually, though, I realized that for all practical purposes, an instructor is always diving “alone”. No matter who they accompany or supervise, dive leaders are used to counting exclusively on themselves and certainly would not expect or even want help from beginner divers.
Solo hence represented a mere additional step down and since the thought of being alone underwater was fascinating and I was in Club Med where everything was forcefully easy and superficial, I stepped down. It was implicitly agreed that staff doing solo dives would jump in quietly before everyone else, not really to hide but rather to avoid attracting too much attention, which in the end was exactly the same thing; it is incredibly complicated to explain to beginners they must NEVER dive alone when you are doing it yourself. But jumping in ahead of the pack guaranteed freedom and perfect visibility, and it also greatly increased the likelihood of pelagic encounters. Solo dives were usually rather deep and short, allowing for an early – and unnoticed – return to the safety stop bar under the hull.
I decided to do my first deep solo on a night dive trip and to bring our bright yellow underwater scooter along. I had rigged the electric vehicle with two large halogen lights that made it look very futuristic. As soon as the boat was at anchor by the Arch, I jumped in discreetly while people were still fumbling with their gear and waiting for the briefing. The Arch, just north of the small town of Soufrières on the west coast of the Carbibbean island of St. Lucia, was our only night site because of a large sand patch permitting us to drop anchor; all our daily dives were otherwise done adrift.
Thoroughly familiar with the local topography, I left the rocky arch-shaped formation behind and headed straight towards the drop-off. The sandy bottom dropped down slowly to 50 feet and then broke sharply into a steep slope sprinkled with scarce coral patches. I had not yet turned my lights on, careful not to attract unnecessary attention to my destination. Despite our strict night diving rules, I intended to drop down to 100 feet, maybe even 130 feet, I would see how things went. In any case, and despite common belief, it is rarely completely dark down below at night and if by luck there is a moon, one can navigate just like in broad daylight. That is what I did until I had left far behind me the white flash of our safety stop strobe, which could be seen from much further away than a simple dive light.My universe suddenly shifted from a nuanced and infinite world of shadows and dark shapes to a harsh explosion of bright colors
Just to be sure, I glided down the top part of the drop-off, effectively disappearing from the boat’s visual range, and finally turned on the two spotlights. My universe suddenly shifted from a nuanced and infinite world of shadows and dark shapes to a harsh explosion of bright colors, limited to the halo of the lights beyond which now lay an impenetrable darkness. A shark could now have swam five feet away from me undetected unless it happened to cross my beam.
I dove downward as fast as my ears allowed me to. Passing 100 feet, I did a brief mental recap. I was approaching the sacred 130 feet no-decompression limit. My dive computer showed an elapsed three minutes and the pressure gauge was reading 2,650 lbs/in2, out of the 3,000 lbs/in2 of a full tank. I decided to bust my depth limit, taunted by the tales of French instructors who bragged about going very deep, and banking on the air economy the scooter undoubtedly would yield.
Depth: 130 feet – I promised myself to be very careful and kept going down.
160 feet – I noticed that I must have been a little narked1 because dropping from 130 to 160 feet had been a much lesser deal than going from 60 to 90 feet with a group of divers on my tail.
180 feet – One light was switched off, to keep a back-up just in case.
200 feet – I marveled at the simplicity of this descent and told myself that I might as well keep going a little deeper since I had only accumulated five minutes of bottom time.
211 feet – Suddenly realizing that my heart was pounding in my chest and pumping blood to my head in an incredibly loud fashion, I opted to stop and and I kicked my fins a few times to right myself. No result. I then crashed into the sloping reef and had to admit that I had not added any air to my buoyancy compensator since I had left the surface, trusting the scooter to control my movements and thus becoming as heavy as a prisoner’s ball and chain.
A little stunned, I had to wrestle frantically to free myself from a long soft coral branch that eventually broke and stayed in my hand, as I numbly inflated my vest, astonished at how much air fitted in it before neutral buoyancy was restored.
Blood was still rushing maddeningly to my head and breathing remained short from the battle with the coral. I gave one look at the computer: Depth: 234 feet. Close to 8 atmospheres. 7 minutes. An ascent ceiling and a mandatory decompression stop. In the middle of the night. Alone.
The air tasted funny, metallic and tingling. Waves of pins and needles were rampaging through my body and it felt like blood merely spun behind my eyes without leaving the head
235 feet – My thoughts were tumbling clumsily one on top of another. I restarted the scooter and let it drag me towards the surface. But a buzzer sound began ringing and eventually bothered me so much that I fought to find its source, my mind groggy.
It could not be the scooter. Nor my dive watch. Ah, the computer. The darn thing was warning me that I was exceeding normal ascent speed. Of course, the scooter was much too swift for a safe vertical climb. I tried to orient it sideways in a diagonal but still couldn’t seem to manage my speed. So I stopped it and resumed kicking. But using my fins had become exhausting and the yellow machine, now a dead weight, was cumbersome and heavy.
190 feet – The air tasted funny, metallic and tingling. Waves of pins and needles were rampaging through my body and it felt like blood merely spun behind my eyes without leaving the head. I was hitting the reef with my knees and fins but did not pay attention to that, concentrating on the two variables on which depended my fate: breathing rate and ascent speed.
150 feet – Dizziness began to recede slowly and I finally regained control of my lungs.
120 feet – I spotted faint light rays drawing shadows on the top of the wall, far to the right and above me. I had climbed straight back up and would come up too far from the boat. I corrected my trajectory and checked the computer: 11 minutes. The deco stop wasn’t increasing.
80 feet – I found some sand and followed a long funnel that I recognized from past daytime dives. I was almost out of trouble. The computer gave me a few minutes back.
50 feet – Landing on the sandy bottom, I took a minute to recap the situation, my thoughts now straight and clear. I had 1,200 pounds of air left and according to the computer, no longer any mandatory decompression stops to be done. Bottom time: 14 minutes. I decided to stick around in the shallows for a while, to break the ascent even further.
Finding a group of divers under the boat in some 30 feet of water, I turned my second spotlight back on and aimed my scooter towards them, showing off. JM, the instructor leading the dive, immediately borrowed it and took it for a spin, leaving his group for me to watch.
Not really knowing what to do to entertain them, I found a cute little ray on the sand, of a pale beige color and softly rounded shape. I pointed it out to them and, breaking the absolute no-touch directive, tapped it with a finger to make it swim away. A strong shock made be back up with a jerk. I had managed to pick an electric ray.
Disgusted, I recovered my scooter, showed the ray to JM vaguely hoping that he would touch it too and headed back towards the surface, defeated. I paused a good 15 minutes at the safety stop, suddenly quite worried about what I had just done, and then climbed back on board and broke down my gear silently. I drank a few precautionary glasses of water to re-hydrate and laid down at the bow, not too sure if I was proud of myself.
I had just beaten – and by far – my own depth record. Solo. By night. Without any training or planning. Then there was the second record, much less glorious, leaving a sour taste in my mouth : never so close to a catastrophe, never so stupid.
I did, however, keep on doing occasional deep dives for about two years. Mostly, it was about the thrill of going places most people would not even dream of, and the privilege of swimming at uncharted depths, on unexplored walls and healthy reefs. But deep inside, I knew all too well that what was truly calling me down there was a very conflicting duo of emotions: the eternal wish to know myself better and the need to taste the very essence of life concentrated within a few dangerous minutes. It was the razor’s edge call. That devious, handsome voice that makes people climb incredibly hostile mountains or cross an ocean on a kayak or walk to the pole, risking everything for the sole gain of living harder, faster, higher, deeper or not at all.
I relied on my mounting experience and the two simple rules I had crafted for the circumstance: double the gear, half the buddy system. While diving with a partner on a recreational outing was absolute logic, it became quite the opposite at extreme depth. Down deep, where everything hung to a thread and anything could go wrong so easily, helping a distressed diver became incredibly dangerous because of one’s own weakened faculties. Another diver in trouble was a serious threat, and no one wanted to either face that threat or inflict it. So we dove alone.
An infinite spec of pure human silliness, irresponsible to the point of greatness, alone in the middle of a killer water mass of immeasurable crushing power
I did my last deep dive off the North Wall in Provo, in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That day, our boat captain had the same idea and so we went off separately, out of sight of one another, straight down the magnificent wall.
At 257 feet, I leveled off. I had just wanted to pass 250. I was nervous and quite ready to ascend back to the sunlight, but I caught a glimpse of movement below me and looked down. There was my captain, some 30 feet below, following a graceful eagle ray, his bubble streams trailing behind him in gigantic columns of intricate texture, white slashes of human presence on the deepest ocean blue, rising all the way to the surface and the real world beyond it.
At that moment, seeing him as I must have been myself, an infinite spec of pure human silliness, irresponsible to the point of greatness, alone in the middle of a killer water mass of immeasurable crushing power, at the mercy of the slightest hiccup or mechanical failure, irremediably isolated from the surface by the physics of pressure and time and gasses, fragile mind, small footprint, deep commitment and blue coffin all around, something clicked in me that would never again be forgotten. As far as I was concerned, it was not worth it and would likely end in tragedy.
I never dove casually below 150 feet again.
Many years later, I was involved in a tragic recovery attempt in Little Cayman when a fellow divemaster from one of the liveaboards disappeared underwater and I had to briefly scan Bloody Bay Wall down to 180 feet in a major, multi-dive-operator recovery effort.
The razor’s edge is everywhere. The missing diver had not, it would seem, been able to resist the call of the deep. He might even have welcomed it.
2001 – Club Med St Lucia
1 Narked: Common diving expression, from the word narcosis. A diver breathes regular, compressed air, which is composed of roughly 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen. Nitrogen narcosis, also called rapture of the deep, is an insidious effect of that nitrogen when breathed at high pressure. It makes divers lose their grasp on reality while diminishing mental and motor faculties. Narcosis is progressive and increases with depth; however it has no lasting side or secondary effects and is relieved by ascending back to shallower depths.
I translated and adapted First Deep Solo from my book Les aventures d’un GO désorganisé, available in French on Amazon. It is part of an overall translation project aiming at releasing the book in English as well.
“Many dead divers have been found inside [deep] shipwrecks with more than enough air remaining to have made it to the surface. It is not that they chose to die, but rather that they could no longer figure out how to live.”
Robert Kurson – Shadow Divers