Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Growing up in Florida it was natural to want to spend a lot of time in the water. My mother taught me how do the dog paddle when I was four years old, and since we were living on Indian Rocks Beach at the time, I was swimmning in the Gulf Of Mexico every day. Later we moved a little more inland, but we also had a pool, and it was not long before I was more comfortable in the water than I was on my own two feet.
Through a series of events too long to chronicle, my father acquired a complete set of scuba equipment. Being a big "Sea Hunt" fans I couldn't wait to try it out in the pool, and even the first time under water with all the equipment I was totally at home. I did my first open water scuba dive in the Gulf Of Mexico when I was 13 years old (accompanied by qualified adults, of course), and there was never a moments doubt this is what I wanted to do.
From there I spend summers in Bimini and Nassau (in the Bahamas), and plenty of time in the keys. I must have had thousands of dives of all kinds, until finally I had to give it up to go to college, and then race cars, and then settle in and get married. I missed diving horribly until my wife insisted that I rekindle my love affair with the sea, and to take her with me. Sharing these experiences together brought use even closer, but as my skill progressed I was able to land a few jobs in the industry, from running a scuba shop to being a divemaster.
Divemaster duties encompass a lot of thing, but mostly it is making sure everyone on your boat stays safe. As you can imagine, that involved a lot of babysitting adults, because most people don't dive any better than they drive their cars, which in Florida is pretty pitfully.
Below are a few of my adventers, or misadventures if you will, from my time in the scuba industry.
Yeah, We Have Seen Barracuda
We have seen millions of Barracuda. We have seen so many that we hardly pay any attention to them. Generally, they are no trouble at all as long as you just leave them alone. Occasionally you will come across an old, big one that is pretty brave, but all he is doing is staking out his territory. When they get like that, just swim away from them. They don't want a fight any more than you do.
The captain wanted me to come and babysit a group of spearfishermen on a weekday. They had paid for the full charter, so it was too lucrative for him to turn down. It was just four guys, so how bad could it be? I don't usually like to be around spearfishermen because they aren't much more responsible or competent than the average guy you run into on the highway. Only this is the sea, no place to play around. But, this is my job, and part of the territory.
So I check them out in the briefing and they seem to be a decent bunch. I preached to them about responsible and safe hunting, just to be sure, and they assured me they understood.
We get to the bottom and they seem to be doing ok, so I signal them they are on their own, which is what they wanted anyway. That way they could rape, pillage and plunder the sea in relative privacy.
Once again, it is a lovely day, and I am swimming along by myself, having a great time. Since I grew up in the sea, I am probably more comfortable on the bottom of the ocean than most social settings, and certainly more comfortable than I'de ever be at a black tie setting. It is very simply my second home.
I visit with an octopus whom I normally seek out. Like on all my trips to this site, I crack open a clam, and he reaches out with one tentacle to gentley takes the clam meat from my hand. He is a lovely little creature, completely unafraid of me, and I can shine my light back into the hole and see his eyes. It is a game we play on every visit. I think he likes me, but that is what happens when you feed people or animals.
I turn to swim on to the next adventure and it is only about ten feet away. It is the biggest damm Barracuda I have ever seen. He was a full eight feet long, covered with dark spots, indicating an advanced age. I am sure he was fifty years old. He is picking some vegatation off the wreckage and giving me the eye. He stops, swims a few feet closer, and shows me his teeth.
Now he is a big boy, and extending me the courtesy of the peacock drill before he rips my face off.
Oh, I get it. this is your wreck. How silly of me. I will just swim away and give you the space you own. Sorry for the tresspass.
I only got a quick glance in the distance of one of the spearfishermen slipping the lanyard over his wrist and tying himself to his gun, taking aim and letting the spear fly. I see a spear zing out from the distance and stick the cuda right in his keyster. Now, he is irratated, pissed off and has a spear stuck in his ass, but I am the only thing he sees, and before I can blink, he makes a beeline straight for me, mouth open, and of course showing those big teeth.
It was one of those one stage moments. No stage to realize you are in trouble. No stage to think about what to do. Just the last stage; You are going to die. It was useless to even try to move. He would be there, feasting on my face, before I could do anything.
But right about then, he hits the end of the line on the spear, tilts up and shoots over my head, missing me by less than a foot, seconds later dragging the surprised spear fisherman behind him. I turn to watch the spear fisherman thrashing along behind the cuda, with the water pressure turning his mask sideways on his face, and bouncing him along the wreck.
What was this moron doing anyway? He was going to get himself killed on my watch. That or I would get myself killed trying to save him from his own stupidity. Suddenly, the cuda comes zinging back in, dragging the guy haplessly (no, he wasn't French) behind him, with one of his spear fishing buddies hanging onto his leg and thrashing about just as desperately.
Completely unexpected was the reaction of the other cudas on the wreck. This big guy must have been their king, or something, and they were beserk out of their minds, streaking through the wreckage in all directions, running into things and biting at each other. The longer it went, the more of them came.
Out of nowhere. Millions of them.
It was almost like living through an air raid.
Now, I was a little frightened. It was time to get out of there and let the morons fend for themselves. As I was coming up the anchor line, I looked down and saw the four of them down in the wreckage. They had wrapped the spear line around a pileing and tied the cuda to it. One guy was trying to stab it in the head with his knife, and as the thing thrashed and fought for it's life, the guy stabbed his buddy in the hand. Now, the sea was full of fish blood and guts as well as human blood, a giant wounded and screaming cuda with all his crazed subjects zooming around and snapping at anything that got in the way.
And with the big cuda flopping around, the bottom was getting stirred up and the visibility was going to zero fast. Man, talk about ringing the dinner bell. I wanted out of there fast before even bigger predators discovered the potential feast that was brewing.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp jab in my back. I was so startled that I bit the silicone mouthpiece off my regulator and swallowed it whole. I spun around, convinced I was already dead to find the captain had come down to see what the confusion was all about. He gave me the "let's get out of here" signal and that was the end of it for me.
The captain reminded me that these people were our guests and to act like nothing had happened. It would be tough, but this was business and I would have to just bite my tongue, smile and say "did you enjoy your dive, sir?'
You're a dive guide, essentially in the entetainment business, and part of that is eating people's shit, which I never really acquired a taste for.
Later, on the boat, the man who shot the cuda said he was spooked by one in the keys and just wanted revenge. It took all of us to get the captain's hands off the guys throat.
Epilouge: Me? The human body won't digest silicone. It took three days to pass the mouthpiece.
Nurse Shark Stories
And then there was the 12ft nurse shark that we came upon. He never saw us coming and we never saw him until we were on top of him. Now he was probably alot more frightened of us than we were of him, but he was a big boy, I would guess at least 1500lbs or so.
He was wedged up underneath some pileings that were dropped as part of the artifical reef program, chomping away on a big grouper he had sucked in. That's how the nurses get their food. They just suck real hard and the water pressure pulls in whatever is close enough. One minute, you are minding your own mindless fish business, the next you are being sucked into the chomping jaws of death.
The captain had called me the night before and told me he needed me to babysit some people from Canada. One of them had just gotten out of open water training and had never been in salt water. So I had resigned myself to another wasted day dragging around someone who probably couldn't even swim, showing them the wonders of the sea that I had long ago taken for granted. Yawn!
But of all the surprises the sea has conjured up, that day was one of the most plesant. The Canadians had been partying all night and they were all sea sick, except for one woman. She was an olympic swimmer who took up scuba as an exention of her sport. She was not only a fine, strong swimmer, but a real knockout beauty as well, a little college thing, strawberry blond hair to her waist and a smile that made my heart stop. She was so beautiful that it actually took me a few minutes to realize she also had enormous breasts.
OK, fine, those were the first things I noticed, but you get the idea. She was also plesant as could be, so it was going to be a nice day after all.
Anyway, the rest of the group were all sea sick by the time we got to the site. None of them wanted to go in the water, and they were content to hang over the side and barf their guts out. So, I just jumped in with my gorgeous little friend.
We were having a great time until we stumbled across the big nurse. It was really frightened and it had nowhere to go but straight at us. At this point, I wasn't really thinking it was a big harmless, frightened seapuppydog. I was startles shitless that it was a BIG shark coming right at us.
Without looking, I reached over and grabbed my little buddy, by what I thought was her tank strap , yanking her out of the way.
The thing charged out, came within a few feet and then turned away. With one flick of the tail, it just dsappeared into the murk. One instant, it was staring us down, the next, poof, gone, baby! What a magnificent creature, and what luck it had not run me over tring to escape.
A split second later, the turbulence off the shark's tail blasted my mask off my face and yanked me apart from my buddy. Whatever strap of hers I was holding yanked off in my hand. As soon as I could get my mask back on, I looked for her, and found I was holding her bathing suit top in my hand.
She didn't even realize what had happened and was waving her hands around excitedly, pointing to
where the shark had disappeared and displaying her floating assets until I put one hand over my face and extended her top back to her.
We never spoke about it, but it was a long ride back to the dock.
Bodies on The Beach
He was a big guy, and I mean he was a big and I had tried to help him. He was thrashing around on the surface, kicking in a blind panic and gasping for what would be his last breaths. He had pulled off my face mask, clawed my face and shoved me under the surface a few times. He had bloodied my nose flopping about while trying to find something, anything, anything at all to climb on top of and get out of the water.
I finally broke free from him, and moved away a bit, hoping he would wear himself out and I could move back in to rescue him without getting injured anymore. Right about then I felt a massive tug on my tank, and it was the captain and first mate, who grasped my tank valve and hauled me over the side and into the boat
Captain Ben: "Let him drown." he says
Divemaster Doc: "What, are you nuts?"
Captain Ben: "You wanna be the next corpse?"
Divemaster Doc: "Uhhh, of course not, but we can't let him die for God's sake.
Captain Ben: "I didn't say let him die. I said let him drown."
Divemaster Doc: "What the hell is the difference?"
Captain Ben: "Do you know what two deaths would do to my insurance? That, and there's no sense in having two bodies wash up on the beach."
Divemaster Doc: "OK, you've lost it. I'm going back in."
Captain Ben: No you're not. Wait for him to drown and then go get him. We can respirate him on the boat . That costs extra. You get 20%"
Captain Ben: Yeah. No sense in having two bodies wash up on the beach."
Unexpected Romance And The Sea
Another time we had an especially beautiful woman on board who was starting to get a little sea sick. I convinced her that she would feel better as soon as she got in the water. The captain was a bit conserned, so he put her with me so I could look after her.
She was actually a very good diver and we were able to do our complete first dive, though once back on the boat she started to feel queezy again. We wanted to get back into the water as soon as we could, so we rehydrated, geared up and jumped back in.
About halfway through the second dive she signals she's had enough, so I take her back and we are stopped on the anchor line at 10 feet, just to be safe and avoid decompression sickness, rest so we would have plenty of strength to get on the boat and just generally collect ourselves. I do it every single time without fail. Well, except this time, because she gets sick and I mean, sick.
So, I get her to the top, inflate her (and my) vest and cradle her tank with my knees, and stedy her so she can just get sick, toss her breakfast, and get it over with. I just sort of hold her there and tell her "I've got you. I've got you. It's ok, ." but she wasn't in a panic or anything. She was just sick. She kept saying "Oh, I ruined your dive. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." And I'de say "It's OK. We had two great dives. Just get rid of it so you can eel better." So I tow her back to the rear of the boat saying "I've got you. I've got you." and she sayed calm the whole time.
It was really no kind of incident at all. People get sick all the time. I have actually come up beside the back of the boat and had someone barf over the side and onto my head, so it's just sort of something you get used to.
I never get behind someone who is climbing onto the boat. If they fall, you are under them, and they are generally going to konk you with their tank. But she is really sick, and I put one foot on the ladder to brace myself and try to help her up. Well, she falls, and her tank is going to hit me in the face. I reach up to put my hand on the bottom of the tank and it slips off, sending my thumb right between her cheeks, through her bathing suit, and, well, you can guess the rest.
We get her on the boat and she is still sick, so I get a water hose (we had a 100 gallon fresh water shower) and wash her down, because it is all over her. And I sit behind her and steady her when she stands up to bend over the side. She was ok after awhile. Being a good divemaster I was prepared for such an occasion, and I had a toothbrush and paste in my divermaster kit. I gave her that and then beat it up to the flying bridge as soon as she looked ok. After the misadventure I was pretty sure it was a good idea to avoid her.
I tried really hard to find something else to do when we got back to the dock. I quickly start loading tanks into the van so I look too busy to be bothered, but she comes around the front in the parking lot and corners me. Now, I thought this was going to be ugly, but what happened next was beyond anything I could have predicted and everyone saw it with their mouths dropped to the ground.
She slams me up against a car, throws her arms around my neck, grinds her hips into me, and plants a monsterous, wet, sloppy French kiss on me for about a full minute, tips me $20, smiles, and leaves. Of all the things that have happened to me in the sea, that may have been the strangest.
Supposedly Harmless Sea Life
We couldn't have picked a nicer day to go diving, no way. A little bit of a cool front had come in and it was quite nice. The humidity was down, but the water temperature was still around 85 degrees or so. It just couldn't have been nicer on the gulf of Mexico.
We had a small group. We had two guys who came from Canada and Scotland, respectively. We also had a group of local diving nurses on board. They were regulars who were always a blast. Generally, they are extremely qualified and I never have to bother with them except just be friendly and join them when I'm not babysitting other divers.
On Wenesdays, they would charter the entire boat and it would become the nude nurse's diving club. The moment we would go under the bridge at Clearwater Pass and into the Gulf Of Mexico, off the bikini tops (and some times bottoms) would come, and then it was just a matter of pretending not to look while you were wiping the drool off your chin. Since the captain was my buddy, he always insisted a dive guide would be on board should they need me. I always found a reason for them to need me.
But, sadly, this was on a weekend and I was forced to dive with guys instead. The scotsman wanted nothing more that to see a sea turtle. As barren as the sea is where he comes from, I would have thought he would be thrilled to see anything merely alive, but he was pretty specific that it was sea turtles he was interested in.
We had seen the turtles mate nearly all summer. They would come to the surface, and the male would come up behind the female and bite her on the neck, I suppose so they wouldn't drift apart. Then they would thrash and splash about until they were, errrrrr, done. We saw it hundreds of times.
The Canadian guy wanted to see an Eagle Ray. He didn't care about anyting else. So, we headed out to the Sheraton, a 150ft long tug, sunk in perfectly intact shape. We had seen them all summer long out there, so it was a good bet. We saw almost everything we could have dreamed of, and a school of Eagle Rays came in for a look and circled us for about 10 minutes. The Canadian guy was in heaven.
It was a great dive, but no turtles. Since the Sheraton was a deep dive, we needed to stay out about an hour and dive in shallower water on our second dive. Otherwise, we would risk decompression sickness, something you don't want for sure. We started heading back in to shallower water, toward the wreckage of the cable barge, which was put down as part of the artificial reef program. Over the years, Green turtles have come to make it their mating grounds. It also sat in only 44ft, making it perfect for a second, shallow dive. And, we were right in the middle of green turtle mating season. We couldn't miss.
So, we headed in to the shallow water, ate lunch, soaked up the sun and changed out our tanks. And, of course, flirted with the nurses.
We were nearly 45 minutes into the cable barge dive and no turtles. We saw everything else including more rays, but no turtles. I was really feeling bad for our scottish buddy. To make matters worse, the visibility was going bad as the tide was going out. Our odds were getting pretty long. When the visibility got to around 6 feet, I knew it was only a short time before we would be virtually blind, so I called the dive off.
As I turned to my Canadian buddy, a big green came up behind him, out of the murk, and went straight for his neck. The damm thing was trying to mate with him! I pulled him as much out of the way as I could, but the turtle got his high pressure air hose instead of his neck, neatly sliceing it into two pieces. Suddenly 3000lbs of pressurized air was spurting out in all directions.
The big turtle freaked out and ran square over me in an attempt to get out of dodge. He bounced me off a big head of fire coral and rolled me along the bottom until my mask and fins were ripped off, and my air supply was yanked out of my mouth. My swim trunks were also yanked down around my knees, but I didn't notice because I was more worried about getting my air supply back.
I reach for my regulator, but the hose is tangled on something behind me and I can't get to it.
So now, I am blind, crippled, stunned and out of air. And drowning. I can't see my buddies, but they are in their own little disaster with air blasting out of the scotsman's hose and the canadian trying to share his air with him in a swirling blur of buddles. I am on my own.
My scuba instructor in the '60's told me I might just die scuba diving through no fault of my own, or I might live forever, but the first time I panicked it would happen right then and there. It was a good lesson and thankfully one I remembered. I was forced to take my tank unit off in order to find my air supply. I simply sat down on the bottom and calmly did what I had to do. After that, I pulled my pants back on, and found my way back to the boat blind and finless. I could have been happier.
It wasn't until I got on the boat that I figured out that I must have been sitting, bare-assed, on a big batch of fire coral as I was taking my tank off. Fire coral never bothers you until the air hits it. Fire coral is similar to a jellyfish sting except it is much, much worse. When the air hits it, it is like a burning match. My ass was on fire. There were not any real flames, but it sure felt like it.
The best treatment for fire coral is to put some meat tenderizer (really) on it and let it air out. So I was forced to bear the humiliation of having the nurses tend to the wounds on my bare keyster, then to ride into the docks with it sunning nicely in the breeze.
And my buddies had a beer and laughed about their adventure.The Canadian guy got to live his dream of seeing Eagle Rays, and the Scottsman had the thrill of seeing his Canadian buddy almost raped by a 500 lb rabidly horney sea turtle. If only The Canadian knew how close he came to being a 500lb turtle's lover they might not have found it to be so funny.
Compressed Gasses Are Scary
We've had a few people in the scuba industry killed by tanks coming apart under pressure and other nasty accidents. The valves of modern scuba tanks have a little copper disc that will give way under too much pressure, sort of like a safety valve. It's called a burst disc, and it's smart to replace them once a year, especially as we dive in salt water and copper corrodes pretty nicely under those conditions.
The summer I managed our local shop there was a bad run of burst discs from one of the manufacturers and it took awhile to sort out who was putting out the bad ones. Lots of bad burst discs got into tanks that year when they had their required yearly visula inspection.
The burst dic is held into the valve by a bolt that has little holes drilled into it. When a burst disc fails, the air escapes out of those those tiny little holes drilled. The air comes out at 3500 psi and about a million miles an hour. As you can imagine, the noise is utterly terrifying. Eventually you almost get used to it, but the first time it happens to you it is pretty harowing. I have actually seen grown men shit themselves!
Of all the crazy summers to be working in the dive industry and handling tanks every day, I had to pick this one. I must have see a hundred of them go off. It scared the shit out of me almost every single time. Eventually the horror would subside a little more quickly and you could get a chuckle out of seeing other people terrorized......while running for the door, that is.
Essentially a burst disc failure is harmless.....but pretty scarey. Kind of makes stupid fun with firecrackers seem harmless, but I've got plenty of those stories too!
Sometimes the burst discs would burst when you were filling the tank. To keep the tanks cool whiole filling them, we have a big fill binfull of water. If a burst disc let go while the valve was submerged
in the water filled refilling bin, and the air would blast water in a radius of about 50 feet, scaring and soaking the shit out of everyone in the store. The joke was we had a spare pair of underwear hung by the refilling station for anyone who needed it after a burst disc went off.
One time in particular stands out in my memory when we were on the boat, and in the hot sun while waiting for the captain to find the site. One poor guy was sitting there with his tank on waiting patiently to get in the water. We are rocking gently with the waves and everything so so beautiful and peaceful. It was a really nice, relaxing day, right up until this guy's burst disc gave up on him.
It was so loud and unexpected that he was flopping around on the deck, screaming and out of his mind in panic, and trying to get away from this hissing monster that was strapped to his back. It scared him so bad that we had to ask around to everyone on the boat for a Zanex, and thankfully one lady had some with her. I swear, I thought that poor guy was going to have a heart attack, even after it was over.
PS: Some things you just never get used to. The last day I worked in the shop I reached into the fill bin to take a tank out and the dics let go right when I touched the valve. My dental impressions are still in the ceiling. I used the spare underwear.
Posted by Doc Austin at 2:11 PM