A Near Death Experience

There have been three times in my life that I’ve come as close to dying as someone can get, without actually losing my life. The first time I was just a toddler, and I have no memory of it, so I only know about the experience from my mother telling me about it.

Very briefly, I had a nasal abscess that spread up to where it was going to infect my brain and kill me. The doctors told my parents that the operation to get rid of the abscess would probably kill me, but that if they didn’t operate, the abscess was sure to kill me. It must have been an awful experience for my parents, but obviously I survived the operation.

This is the story of the second time I had a near death experience, and since I was 28 years old at the time, I remember everything about it vividly.

It was back in 1985 in Hawaii, on the north shore of Oahu at Turtle Bay. I was with a group of friends who weren’t divers, but since I had recently completed my scuba training and been certified as an open water diver, I was determined to do some blue water tropical diving for the very first time. So I found a dive shop and a guide who was willing to take me on a shore dive at a place called Shark’s Cove.

My guide was a young woman from Chicago , who was barely 5 feet tall, and looked like she weighed under 100 pounds, but with short blond hair, blue eyes and a nice shape, she was attractive and had a friendly, animated personality. I had only a handful of dives under my belt and knew nothing about where we were diving, so I was completely ready to follow her lead.

Shark’s Cove had a sand beach, which on a calm day, made for a quick and easy entry. But this day, the surf was rough, and my guide said that the waves would knock us into the numerous lava rocks just off the beach if we tried to go in there. So she wanted to walk across the old lava field to the right of the cove, out to the edge, where we could jump in and get down to 50 feet immediately.

Wearing our tanks and weights and walking across 80 yards of the dark brown old lava was quite a challenge. We wore diving boots to protect our feet, but the lava field had a very uneven and treacherous terrain. Being burdened with tanks and weights, it was hard to keep your balance, and not fall. The lava also had a very abrasive and sharp edged surface, and falling down on it would almost guarantee lots of cuts and scrapes. My guide had a wet suit, which would help to protect her, but I was in just swim trunks and a t-shirt. Thankfully, neither one of us fell.

Once out to the edge of the lava, we got ready, waited for a break in the waves, and plunged in. This being my very first tropical dive, I was immediately transfixed by the clarity of the warm water and the numerous colorful fish swimming around us. It was like falling deeply in love at first sight.

But Shark’s Cove had another striking feature… There was a submerged lava wall that was honeycombed with a network of small, short, open ended caves. My guide led me through many of these, and it was really fun. But she was often swimming rather fast, and it almost seemed like she was leading me on a game of chase.

I figured out later that she was trying to run me low on air so she could end the dive sooner. She didn’t know that at the time, I was a distance runner and my rate of air consumption was excellent. So I didn’t mind playing chase and my air held out just fine. At a depth of 50 feet and 25 minutes of bottom time, she motioned for me to tell her how much air I had left. I could see the slight look of surprise in her eyes, when I signaled back that I had 1800 psi, or well over half a tank left.

When we were back out of the caves, she decided to take a more leisurely pace and explore the outer cove. There wasn’t that much coral to see, because during the winter huge waves batter the area and break up the coral, leaving only large humps and mounds of coral reef behind. I was still loving every minute of it, because I saw my first sea turtle and also a small but very brightly colored octopus. And there were still lots of tropical fish all around.

We made our way to the left side of the outer cove, where there was another lava wall. My guide approached the entrance of a cave and suddenly darted inside. Another game of chase? I started to swim in after her… and instantly found myself in a suicidally fast uncontrolled ascent! I exhaled furiously, trying to rush all the air out of my lungs so I wouldn’t embolize, a potentially fatal injury to the lungs caused by too rapid an ascent,  as a powerful invisible force rocketed me upwards. I saw my guide above me, her small body horizontal but spinning head to fins in circles as she was pushed upwards to the light of an open surface. We’d just ascended fifty feet in about five seconds!

As my head broke above the surface, I had about two seconds to notice that we were inside a pool around twenty feet wide, and surrounded by lava walls. That’s when the first large wave came crashing down on top of me and slammed me hard into the lava. I was lucky because it was my back that hit the wall, with my tank taking the force of the blow and protecting me.

I had another two seconds to look around me and realize that the walls were too high to climb over and there seemed to be no way to get out. There was also still a tremendous force of water pushing upward from below, which made diving back down impossible. Then the next wall of water buried me and I reflexively turned my back to the walls with my tank again taking the full force of the blow with a very loud metallic CLANG!

This time, I managed to wedge my back into a cleft in the wall, to try and hang on in there when the next big wave struck. ‘I could die here.’ I thought. There was no time to think anything else, because the third wave thundered down on me, but somehow I hung on and seemed to be unhurt. I had no idea where my guide was, or what condition she was in.

Then the water in our trap suddenly went calm. I saw my guide bob her head up near the opposite end of the pool and spin around in a couple circles as if she was trying to find something. Then she piked and dove. This seemed like an excellent idea and I instantly followed. The strong upward current that forced us to the surface of the pool had disappeared and we raced down and out of the hole. My guide sped off for the opposite side of the cove, putting as much distance between her and the entrance of the hole as fast as she could swim away. I was right behind her.

Then she stopped, wheeled around and saw me. Her eyes bugged out in her face mask as she repeatedly flashed the OK sign in an exaggerated rapid motion. I flashed her the OK back and tried to look as unperturbed as possible. I even took my regulator out and gave her a big underwater smile. Her wide eyes rolled as she pointed her index finger at me and then at the side of her head while spinning the finger around in circles. This was her underwater hand signal for “You’re crazy!”

The truth is, that it was truly terrifying to be trapped up there, with those huge waves crashing down on top of me and slamming me hard into the jagged lava walls, with what seemed like no hope of escape. But it all happened so fast, and was over so quickly, that it was almost hard to believe it really happened. To this day, it still has an almost dream like quality for me.

What actually happened, was that just as we were next to the entrance of the hole in the lava wall, some huge deep waves rolled through and a large volume of water was forced up the hole, taking us with it like two bugs sucked up a vacuum cleaner tube. As soon as the waves were gone, we could get away.

But it’s a miracle that neither one of us embolized as we shot 50 feet to the surface in a matter of seconds, and also that once we were trapped up there, that we weren’t smashed to death by the waves against the walls. I came out it with with nothing worse than a few scrapes on my thighs, and she was virtually untouched, although her wet suit had some deep gouges in the neoprene. We were both very lucky.

After we were back on shore, she showered me with praise about what a good diver I was and how she still couldn’t believe how calm I was after all that. I laughed and replied that I just thought it was all part of her usual tour. It was then that she leaned forward and said “Chris, could you do me a really big favor?”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Don’t tell anybody about our little adventure here today. Other people might not see it as such a good thing.” I knew what she meant right away. Not a good thing, as in bad for her reputation, and bad for business…

“Well, I dunno…” I replied, with a sly smile. “This might need further discussion.”

“What’s that mean?” she asked, looking slightly wary.

“That means that we should head for that bar near your dive shop, have a couple drinks, and see what we can work out.” She took a long pause while giving me an appraising look, and then agreed.

The rest is another story…   ;-)

 

About Chris Sheridan

I’m a 56 year old guy who is young (and immature) at heart, and I love humor and laughter. Married for 22 years, but still enjoy all the glories of womanhood everywhere, even while dedicated to one woman only - and I hope my wife never finds out about her!
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26 Responses to A Near Death Experience

  1. anorwen says:

    Wow, what a story! Great photos, too.

  2. greatmartin says:

    ‘The rest is another story. ;-)’ WHICH WE DON’T HAVE TO HEAR, DO WE??????????????
    KIDDING!!!!!!!

    • Don’t worry Martin – I have another site for posting THOSE kind of stories, and none of them will be appearing here. I sure wouldn’t want to offend your delicate sensibilities. Lol!

  3. Wow! Fascinating story! Thanks! I’m sure your worked out a compatible agreement. I have to say, though, the one thing that really bothered me with this guide is during your “adventure,” it appears as though her only concern was saving her own ass. As a guide, they have a responsibility for the group (which is just you here) as well as their own safety. I’m a former backcountry back packing guide, and I’ve had instances (not nearly as horrific as yours, though) in which I had to place the safety of a member of my group before my own. That’s just part of being a guide. If one is not up to handle that responsibility, then don’t guide.

    But I am so glad you made it out okay…. and definitely very lucky with the rapid ascent. :)

    • Yeah, she blew it. But I still remember her fondly for reasons that I won’t elaborate on here. Though looking at all that happened from a more impartial view, she wasn’t a very good dive guide. She shouldn’t have taken us out to that dive site, with the conditions as rough as they were. And although I kinda laughed it off at the time, since her little trick didn’t work, intentionally trying to run me low on air to shorten the dive wasn’t very professional either. But in her defense, once the wave set that pushed us up the lava tube stopped, she did briefly try to find me at the surface when she was wheeling around in circles looking for me, but then she was overwhelmed by her own survival instincts and she took off.

      As she and I agreed upon, I’ve kept her secret for all these years about what happened that day. But I also never have and never would recommend her to anyone as a dive guide.

      Thanks for enjoying my story, and you’ll never, ever guess who just recently reminded me of her – but by physical appearance only. ;-)

      • A fossilized Mick Jagger???

      • Well, thank you. I’m flattered. But sadly, I don’t look like that any more. MS has taken it’s toll on me this past year….

        • Very, very sorry. I remember the first time you mentioned being diagnosed with MS over a month ago, and at the time I was going say something then, but I thought ‘no, just try to keep her laughing – because that’s what will help her more than sympathy’. But I am very sympathetic and very sorry that you are going through this. And no matter what you say, I’m still going to think of you as the attractive blonde on Brad Pitt’s arm, as well as the woman who is always interesting and engaging, and now a real friend of mine here on WP.

      • Thanks. It is just very frustrating. I had a spinal tap on Dec 5th and cannot get back into the doctor until Feb. 1st – and the nurse will not tell me the results over the phone. I cannot get on the proper medication until I see the doctor and he reviews the results – as I know damn well he’s not going to look at them until I am sitting in the exam room waiting. So, in the meantime, I deteriorate every day. Today, just walking up and down the six simple steps to get into the front door of my office is like having cement on my feet. I’m okay with diagnosis, though. I’ve done a lot of research and there are a lot worse things I can have. But life is completely different than it used to be. LOL.. there was a 1968 Shelby Cobra (red) parked on the street right out front of my office… so off I go as quick as I can with my camera. Owner was there, too. All original (except the tonneau), he said. But by the time I got back up to my desk, I had to just sit and rest for 5 minutes before I could do anything else. Hell… and I used to scale 1,000 foot rock walls. Oh, well

        • It must be very, very difficult, and I know that’s an understatement. I also hear you loud and clear about the insurance industry and I understand your frustration – my father has serious dementia and I could write a book about all the ways in which health insurance and health care has failed both him and us, the ones who love him and are his primary care givers. I can work up some very intense rage if I really let myself think about it, so I try not to, as much as that is possible for me.

          So will you be posting the photo of the 1968 Shelby Cobra? I can look at pix of Mustangs all day! And where did you scale 1,000 foot rock walls? Cause that’s very impressive! I’ve done a lot of back country hiking and backpacking, but I never quite made it to technical climbing – though I know that I could have done it because when I was younger I could free climb almost anything.

      • And I have paid insurance, too. Those fools who support our insurance industry are idiots. It sucks!!!

      • I’ll probably post it tonight as my Project 365 Victim-of-the-day photo. But it’s not a mustang… it’s similar to this: http://www.carforums.net/reviews/makes/1575/1968%20Shelby%20Cobra.html but not a showroom car like this one.

        Most of my climbing has been on 100-200 footers (mostly sport, overhangs), but did a few 1,000 footers (on trad) in Red Rocks outside of Las Vegas NV.

        • Michelle, I just saw this now because it ended up in the spam folder, and I’m glad that I always check, because every now and then, it makes a mistake. Anyway, I went straight for the link and was quite surprised when I didn’t see a Mustang! But I’d still love to drive a car like that one too! It looks like it would absolutely fly!

          Gotta run! I’m being summoned to the dinner table and I’ll catch ya later!

  4. Karmen says:

    Chris, great story! Great photos! What a ‘guide’!

    Glad you’re still here :)

    • Thanks Karmen! I’m glad that I’m still here too! Uhm yeah, my guide was a real piece of work. But after almost getting us killed, she was kinda fun, so I guess I’ll remember her more for what did happen with her, instead of what almost happened. Lol ;-)

  5. I’ve been a professional adventurer for about 10 years now, and that most recently meant being a dive master in the Florida Keys. You’re both very lucky. Tell me- did either of you itch after the dive? I think one of the things that may have saved you was diving back down to depth so quickly. You avoided lung over-expansion by exhaling (nicely done!) but all that nitrogen in your blood still has to go someplace. Re-pressurizing may just have saved you.

    As for… “Michelle?” I think it was- terribly sorry to hear of your condition. You seem to face it with admirable calm and grace, and that’s tremendously inspiring to me. I sincerely hope I can find a young woman that sort of spirit. Best of luck with everything. Know that you’ll be in my prayers.

    • Thank you, Wander, for you kind words. There truly are worse things to have, and I have friends and family members that have dealt with horrible conditions they were born with their whole lives. So, it is just a matter of perspective.

    • The Florida Keys was my second & third experience with coral reef diving off Key Largo in 1987 and 1988 and it was great! We also got to dive The Bibb and The Duane in 1988, which had been recently sunk then, to become artificial reefs. I’m sure that they are even more impressive diving now, since the corals and sponges have had over 20 years to colonize them.

      I know what you are referring to about nitrogen and “itching” from our rocket ascent, but I don’t recall either of us experiencing it after the dive, so maybe being able to descend as quickly as we did, saved us from any nitrogen issues. Thanks for stopping by – it’s always great to talk to another diver! :-)

  6. I envy you being able to do that, everything looks so beautiful below the surface! I am very glad you survived, that must have been scary, especially being new at diving! :)

    • Thanks! I’m very glad that we survived too! :-) It WAS scary but thankfully a very brief experience. Tropical diving does look amazing and beautiful beneath the surface, and it’s been the source of more than a few genuine “peak experiences” of my life. Thanks for stopping by. :-)

      • I bet it is beautiful! The pictures of reefs, fish, all underwater life, are amazing! Do you go often?

        • Just happened to be revisiting this post, and I’m sorry that I missed this reply. My wife and I don’t go tropical diving as nearly often as we’d like to, because if we could, we’d be tropical diving every weekend. But with living in New England, that isn’t going to happen, because of limited vacation time and financial resources.

          But all in all, I really can’t complain – In the last 24 years we’ve been tropical diving off the FLA Keys two different trips, once off the Bahamas, on two different trips to Hawaii, and I believe seven trips to some great diving locations all over the Caribbean. I know other divers who have done much more than that, and some others who have done only one or two, so I’m grateful for all the experiences that we’ve been fortunate enough to have. We’ll probably have to eat in soup kitchens when we can no longer work, but it will still have been worth every single dive.

          Thanks for commenting, and again, I’m sorry that I missed it the first time around.

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