The Grey Noise

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.

Problem solved.

Category: Dive Log, Scuba Diving, Scuba Instruction

Kevin’s First Dive in the Real World

In September of 2003 I received my Open Water certification and I wanted to start diving as soon as possible. Ah, but where? As luck would have it, my best friend Dan was a diver and he lived in California near the ocean. I called him up and he joyfully agreed to take me on my first dive from a beach near his house.

Perhaps we should have given the location a little more thought.

Bonds of Friendship Renewed

Dan and I grew up together in Las Vegas, but went to colleges in different states. He went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. As an undergraduate he took a scuba class, and learned to dive in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oh, how he wanted me to dive with him. But he knew better than to try to take me in the water unless I was certified. 17 years later, he was thrilled to receive the news that I was a diver, too, and we could finally dive together.

So I flew to California and we drove to a local dive shop called Liburdi’s where I received my first rude surprise.

“I thought you said you rented complete sets of gear.”

“This is a complete set of gear.”

“But where’s the mask, fins, gloves, snorkel and boots?”

“You have to buy those.”

Throw in a gear bag to carry it all, and I was out a couple hundred bucks. So what! We were going diving!

Incidentally, that gear bag is the only piece of original equipment I own. I use it every time I dive.

Check Conditions First

It was November, the time of year in California where the weather starts to turn toward winter. It was a grey, blustery day and the surf was fairly active. Not to worry: being responsible divers, Dan and I asked the shop staff where a good place to dive would be, given the conditions, and what to see when we were there.

“Whatcha wanna do,” they said, “is go to Crescent Cove. Follow such-and-such reef, take a heading of thus-and-so, swim through a notch at the top of the wall and you’ll find the sea lions. Maybe they’ll get in the water and play with you.”

That was good enough for us. So we drove to Laguna Beach, assembled our gear, marched down to the water, and beheld what awaited us.

Getting In Is Half The Battle

Hawaii was nothing like this. Back there, the water was clear, warm, and blue, and most of all, flat. Out here we were looking at cloudy grey skies and angry waves. Though the waves were maybe 4′ high, to me they looked like vast, angry destroyers of the earth.

“Whatcha wanna do,” Dan said, “is put one fin on. Shuffle backwards into the surf. When you get to where you can float, do a ‘Figure-4’ and put your other fin on.” He demonstrated. It was easy.

But as I shuffled back, the water retreated and twisted my fin up and to the side. I put all my strength into forcing it back down. That meant I wasn’t watching the wave that slammed me to my knees. I ended up crawling back on the beach.

Meanwhile, Dan bobbed effortlessly in the water, calling encouragement, showing me how easy it was.

Getting Out Is The Other Half

We found ourselves in a strange and alien world. The water was shockingly cold. The rocks and reef were covered with hostile poky things, purple sea urchins and anemones with fat green tentacles. The surge — the back-and-forth motion of the water — was at least six feet, and more than that near the wall.

Neither of us was quite sure where we were, or even if we were at the right cove, but we were determined to visit the sea lions. We found a notch at the top of the wall, so, true to our directions, we swam through it.

As soon as I entered the notch I realized I had made a terrible mistake. The six-foot surge outside was magnified within the notch to a hideous, unstoppable force. I had a couple of seconds to think about what was coming before I was shot through the notch like a cork from a champagne bottle.

At least I had the presence of mind to keep my regulator in my mouth. But I was completely helpless and disoriented as the ocean tumbled me to the shore. I got tossed around in the surf, and washed up on the rocks. To my amazement, I was completely unhurt.

Meanwhile, Dan, who was close behind me, knew what was coming, and hid from the surge in a little alcove. But when he saw me swept away, he shrugged, and jumped in after me. He went for the same wild ride, and washed up a fair distance down the beach. He, too, was completely unhurt.

Shaken, scared, and trying to balance 60 pounds of gear on my back as I stepped among treacherous rocks, I was amused to remember the scene in Lilo and Stitch where the squishy alien thing got washed up on the shore. I knew Dan would be amused by it too. So in Agent Pleakley’s squeaky voice, I wailed to Dan across the beach, “I HATE THIS PAH-LANET!”

Take that, ocean. I ain’t afraid of you.

What Have We Learned?

I tell my students that most diving accidents are the result of not one, but several mistakes in a row. Here are just a few of our mistakes that day:

  • Turning our backs on the ocean. (Mine, anyway.)
  • Not being aware of our surroundings, especially our location.
  • Attempting to dive in conditions that were far too challenging for my skill level.
  • Bringing a camera along, when another distraction was the last thing I needed. Nice pictures, though.

We covered all this in my Open Water class. It was such a textbook list of mistakes that I use it to give my students a vivid example of What Not To Do. It still amazes me that neither of us was injured.

But unhurt and suitably chastened, Dan and I simply got out, swapped tanks, and got back in again. The next dive had its own set of adventures, like low air and an endless swim back. This time I quoted Finding Nemo. But our new association as dive buddies was off to a great, if bouncy, start.

Category: Dive Log, News, Scuba Diving TAG: , , , , , ,

Kevin Gets Open-Water Certified

Kevin | July 24, 2012 | COMMENTS:No Comments »

The Adventure Begins

In the summer of 2003 I visited Hawaii for the first time, on one of several working trips around the Pacific. I worked for a defense company, and they sent me out to install our radios on military aircraft. I was overwhelmed by the strange beauty of the islands, and when I wasn’t working, I tried to experience as much as I could. I hiked mountain trails and ate strange food and visited the flowing lava. But I wouldn’t enter the ocean. I was afraid of it.

Afraid, but fascinated. Some of the guys I traveled with were scuba divers, and they were shocked that I didn’t dive too: “We’re in Okinawa! We’re in Guam! How can you not dive?” That was all the incentive I needed. Having stopped for gas across the street from a shop called Surf ‘N’ Sea, I wandered in to ask about dive lessons, and signed up the next day. Lessons began at the end of the week.

In Order To Get Ready

As someone who lived in the desert, with a sensible terror of the ocean, I set out to discover whether scuba lessons were actually a good idea or not. I figured, “If I can’t snorkel, then scuba’s not for me.” So I marched down to the beach, borrowed a mask, snorkel and fins, and asked some guy how to use them. I had never worn fins before.

We were staying at the Turtle Bay Resort, on the northern tip of Oahu. It’s got a small bay that’s mostly protected from the surf, and it’s a good place to learn to snorkel. I backed into the water, stretched out and carefully started swimming. I quickly got the hang of it, and by the time I got out a couple of hours later, I had learned some important lessons.

  • Don’t try to fight the waves. You will never control the ocean. You can only control yourself. Move with the waves, and around them.
  • Always watch where you’re going, so you don’t split your head open on the sharp lava rock that suddenly looms out of nowhere.
  • You can in fact float in 1 foot of water, so as not to impale yourself on the “fire coral.”

Only Three Days

The guy at the shop told me I could be scuba certified in three days. I took him at his word and scheduled my return flight on the fourth day. There was a snafu over a doctor’s permission slip, so I didn’t even crack a book until the night before my first lesson. This gave me three nights to read the entire Open Water book, complete all the exercises, learn the tables, and answer the exams; three days to listen to the lectures, watch the videos, and do all my training in the water.

It was an aggressive schedule, but no more aggressive than what I had been working for two weeks, when I would get up at 2 AM to catch a preflight briefing, install equipment on the airplane and work desperately to troubleshoot it, while they were delaying takeoff, the crew was staring at me and the Lieutenant Commander was on the phone demanding answers. We worked around the clock, removing the gear late at night to get ready for the next day.

There was one other student in the class, a kid of 15 or so. We met our instructors Richard and Heidi (“HAY-dee”) in the comfortable little classroom and set quickly to work. There was no time to waste.

The First Dive

Many scuba facilities start their students in the shallow end of a pool, to comfortably ease their transition to the undersea world. Surf ‘N’ Sea has no such luxury. What they have is ocean, and that’s where they started us. Heidi drove the kid and me, and all our gear, up the coast to Shark’s Cove on Oahu’s North Shore. There at the beach we assembled our gear and walked out into the water.

When you train with PADI, you watch a video that recaps the study materials for extra reinforcement. The video showed a smiling lady kneeling in 3 feet of water, blowing bubbles and gleefully signaling “OK!” The narrator enthused, “This is your introduction to a whole new world!”

My introduction to a whole new world was when Heidi signaled us to go down, and suddenly I was descending through 20 feet of water. I did not feel gleeful; I was terrified. But within seconds I forgot my terror as I became aware of what was around me.

All my life I had read about the life in the sea, but here were the fish and invertebrates, urchins and eels and coral, right there in the water with me. The lovely underwater films I grew up with had exaggerated nothing, in fact, they had understated the beauty and the wonder. In my delight I felt like an 8-year-old.

All I had to do now was complete my certification. Piece of cake!

“Were you ever in the Navy?”

Staying safe in the ocean is a serious business. It’s crucial to develop good habits and procedures early and follow them consistently. Beginners haven’t had time to develop good habits and procedures, but their instructors have to keep them safe regardless. It’s hard on the beginners, and it can be very hard on the instructors, each of whom must find their own way to handle the stress.

Richard’s was to chew us out. He replaced Heidi in the ocean after the first day, when Heidi told him she “couldn’t handle” the 15-year-old. The kid was unmotivated, and inattentive. But Richard would have none of that, and he chewed the kid up one side and down the other, and me too when he thought I needed it. Which was often.

For example, there was the CESA exercise (“Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent”). All open water students must simulate an out-of-air emergency by swimming to the surface without inhaling, exhaling all the way to avoid lung injury, and orally inflating their buoyancy vests at the surface. The trick at the surface is to kick hard enough to keep your face above water so you can breathe in and blow out into your vest. But I had only worn fins for the first time three days ago, and I didn’t really know how to kick; I kicked from my knees instead of from my hips. Inflating the vest was an ordeal for me. Listening to the ensuing tirade from Richard was another.

But I was used to tirades. I had spent the summer working under the loving attention of a Lieutenant Commander – the one on the phone – who chewed out everybody who worked for him. It just rolled off me, although I asked Richard once if he had ever been in the Navy.

One Minute to Spare

On the third day I earned another tirade when I took off along a compass heading and didn’t watch my air consumption. I burned through the tank and we ended the dive after 20 minutes. Richard was apoplectic. Had we come up one minute earlier, he said, the dive wouldn’t have counted for training and I wouldn’t have finished certification*.

So there we were with a few hundred yards to swim back to shore. As I plowed my way back along the surface, I dreaded what I was certain would be the chewing-out of my life. Instead, once we got back, Richard said, “Congratulations. You just passed the swim test.”

An Instructor’s Perspective

At the time I thought nothing of Richard’s harshness. I had fairly low self-esteem, and figured I had it coming. But my instructors at the professional level were very explicit about treating students with kindness, compassion and understanding. An instructor’s hostility or indifference adds another obstacle to an already demanding undertaking.

But by now I know how terrifying it can be for the instructors, who see just how much danger students put themselves in with their innocent blunders. Scared for our students’ safety, and sometimes for our own, it’s tempting to try to yell some sense in their heads. We must not.

Richard made a scuba diver out of me, and regardless of his teaching methods, I had an exhilarating time of it. I had adventures I hadn’t dreamed about just two weeks before.

But I look back on some those adventures now with horror. On one of our dives, Richard asked if I was claustrophobic. No, I replied. He led me through an underwater lava tube. At the time I was enchanted – I remember particularly a school of fish hovering motionless against an alcove – but the thought of what might have happened if I had lost my head makes my skin crawl. I found out later that PADI standards expressly forbid instructors to conduct classes in a location where there is no clear path to the surface.

On the other hand, Richard and Heidi were sharp and knowledgeable, and (usually) fun to be with. I admire their steadfastness and skill at improvisation. With experience I’ve learned how critical to successful teaching that particular skill can be.


*Poppycock. PADI standards say that a dive also counts for training if the student breathes 50 cubic feet of gas. I surely breathed more than that.

Category: News, Scuba Diving, Scuba Instruction TAG: , , ,

Digital Communications: The Art of Listening Quietly

Kevin | July 19, 2012 | COMMENTS:No Comments »

Article content to be added and a live frog to be eaten.

Category: Engineering TAG: ,

Control System Design: The Art of Understanding

Kevin | | COMMENTS:No Comments »

Article content to be added.

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