Do You Have What It Takes?
In the fall of 2011 I started working as a dive leader on a boat in Hawaii. We took divers off the eastern wall of Oahu, where the diving is spectacular. There are several wrecks, including a Corsair fighter plane that crashed in a training accident in 1943. The water is crystalline blue and the rocks teem with critters.
But conditions are challenging. It’s usually windy and the surface is choppy; riding a tiny dive boat out there is not for the weak-of-stomach. (Sadly, and messily, many of them try.) Dive sites tend to be deep. We do a lot of drift dives. There is almost always a current. Sometimes it’s really strong.
Simply diving out there can be an adventure. But leading divers will put you to the test. Leave aside for now the divers themselves – just leading them through those conditions will see what you’re made of.
Divers take entire classes to learn deep diving, night diving, wreck diving, or Nitrox diving. A typical dive for us was a deep night wreck dive on Nitrox. How was I supposed to handle all that, while not losing any divers and keeping them safe in a current? The answer, of course, is “Get to work.”
Suddenly About To Die…?
One night we led a dive to the Corsair. I was new to working a boat, and apprehensive about leading a group at night in the ocean. And now we were taking them to 107 feet.
My buddy led the group, and I followed them down the line through featureless dark blue water. An infinity of blue – usually you can’t see the wreck until you’re right above it. Down, down, down, until I touched the sand and suddenly I realized I was in big trouble.
I felt suffocating vertigo. I was dizzy and light-headed. Roaring noise filled my ears and black lightning crossed my vision. Worst of all, the underwater world seemed to retreat, as if behind thick glass; I had lost the focus that’s crucial to dive safety. I thought I was literally going to pass out and drown.
But my training asserted itself. Even while my inner voice was shrieking in fear, I got my buddy’s attention, signalled “Trouble/Goodbye,” and made a careful return to the surface. I kept my ascent to 1 foot per second, which is easy to do on a line, and waited out a complete safety stop at 15 feet. By the time I got out I was myself again. Now I had a mystery on my hands.
A Theory Presents Itself
My first suspicion was narcosis. Narcosis is caused by the presence of inert gas, usually nitrogen, dissolved in the tissues. It tends to happen at lower depths, often around 100 feet. Divers who get “narked” can feel drunk and suffer impaired judgement. Jacques Cousteau called it the “Rapture of the Deep.”
Narcosis is strange; it affects every diver differently, some more than others. Before the incident I had never felt narked, even below 100′. Apparently, when it finally struck, it struck hard.
But what could I do about it? The first thing I tried was nitrox. Nitrox is a blend of oxygen and nitrogen with a higher concentration of oxygen than air contains. When you use it properly, it’s physiologically the same as diving at a shallower depth. (When you use it improperly, you can die. Be careful.)
So the next time I dove the Corsair, I used nitrox. It made no difference whatsoever. I got whalloped again by the “grey noise,” just as hard as the first time.
From then on, the grey noise would come and go. Sometimes I felt it at 60′. Sometimes I felt fine at 100′. There was no pattern I could see.
If They Can Do It, I Can Do It
Shadow Divers tells the story of a group of divers who explored a sunken U-boat, using air, at a depth of more than 200′. At that depth, narcosis was like a howling whirlwind. The divers could barely think. Their pulse pounded in their ears. They were subject to hallucinations. Yet they had to work through the narcosis regardless to stay alive in a terrifically dangerous environment.
They had it a lot worse than I did on the Corsair, and thinking of their ordeal, I resolved to work through the noise and be an effective dive leader, somehow. I mostly succeeded. But the grey noise was a big distraction at best and distraction was the last thing I needed.
The worst time was a night dive I led to the Sea Tiger, another wreck at 100′. Things went wacky on that dive from the get-go, with a broken engine, a late departure and a snarled mooring line. I was already jittery. But when we descended to the wreck, the grey noise struck as hard as I’d ever felt it. I went from jittery to terrified. I led the my divers around and brought them back safe and happy, when all I wanted to do was clutch the wreck and sob. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to die with that stupid song in my head!”
All’s Well That Ends Well
I finally figured out what was going on, and it had nothing to do with narcosis. It was my sinuses.
Being a total badass, I love to decend to a wreck head-first as fast as I can equalize my ears. Great fun, but it means that sometimes my sinuses never get a chance to equalize. All those symptoms are caused by the difference in pressure across my mucus membranes.
So I take Sudafed before a dive and decend more slowly, and if I feel the noise, I just turn upright for a bit. Now, diving the Sea Tiger feels like diving in the shallows.