The scariest moment of my life

Everyone has a dream where they can do the impossible. Perhaps it is flying through the clouds or developing invincibility. Me? My favourite is being able to swim and breathe underwater. Now intuitively we know that breathing underwater doesn’t work, even babies have figured that out. But on a recent trip to Queensland I got to experience the good and bad side of being P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney.

I had gotten used to the leap, this was my third and final dive of the trip. We departed the boat, in the middle of the ocean, alone with my buddy. We both looked equally ridiculous. How anyone looks good donning a bug eyed mask and a tank with 250 atmospheres of pressure strapped to their back is beyond me. In this case, I didn’t want to lose any pressure due to a cooling tank. We were going to need every bar of it; we were going deep.

Diver giving OK signal

The diving signal for ‘are you OK’ is universal, but for us giving the final checks it always feels more personal. I was a little nervous. It was the deepest dive of the trip, just over 30 meters. Things get wierd at this depth, but nevertheless I gave the OK and we started to descend.

I squeezed my nose, equalising my ears. Funny that, how often we balance external pressures against internal forces, here it is literal. I could rupture my ear drums from the pressure differential. We followed the mooring line down, I watched my depth gauge intently. 10 meters and passing, check, that is 2 atmospheres. I take Archimedes under my arm and pump a bit of air into my jacket, as we decend the air in the jacket compresses and loses it buoyancy, I get it back under control.

20 meters and passing, that is 3 atmospheres. We’re approaching the bow of the wreck and I’m expecting narcosis to kick in soon. It dawned on me that humans aren’t supposed to be here.

Diver approaching bow of boat

Weird things start happening when you’re breathing gasses at high pressure. You have to, otherwise the pressure of the water will try and push the air out of your lungs. I’m only 5 minutes into my dive and I am already thinking about the safety stop on the way back out, a necessary precaution to help release the nitrogen my body has absorbed. People have always described decompression sickness ‘the bends’ as a soft drink bottle fizzing up, but in reality it can mean anything from itchiness to sever pain and even death. Ouch.

I zone back in to the mooring line as it hits the bow. 30 meters, and I am getting a bit of tunnel vision. 3 atmos… no, 4 atmospheres of pressure on me and we have 15 minutes of bottom time before we need to go up. Any longer and we put ourselves at risk of the bends. I tap on my tank to get my buddy’s attention. It takes a second for him to look around and figure out where the sounds is coming from. It’s always funny to me how hard it is to determine directions of sound underwater. Our ears just aren’t tuned to the speed of sound underwater.  I give the signal to stick together and we proceed into the wreck.

Two divers in wreck
By Jean Tresfon [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Down this far, little light makes it in from the surface. Red is first to go, then orange and yellow. By the time we get to 30 meters, the water has absorbed everything but blue. Things also look bigger underwater, as the light refracts from the air in my mask to the water surrounding me. It is an odd mix of feelings, on one hand there is the inescapeableness of the situation and on the other there is some sort of tranquility – I blame the narcosis. We had the goal to make it to the boiler room and we were well on the way, my buddy behind me.

I turn around to check he is still there and we’re going the right… PPPHHSSHHHHHHH!!! the regulator yelled, ripped from my mouth. My mind raced. Air bubbles clouded my vision. Venturi should be proud of his discovery, but it was not helping me keep my cool. I flounder around trying to reach my regulator, eventually getting it under control.

My adrenalin is pumping and heart sprinting. The first thing to check is my pressure gauge. Damn. We had to get out of here now. Slowly, calmly, we return the way we came. I might have enough air to make it to the safety stop. We didn’t rush, that would only make the risk of decompression sickness worse. At the stop, I switched to my reserve tank. 10 minutes and we can hit the surface.

Divers waiting at safety stop