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… ;-)