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2. Going Deep

As a novice SCUBA diver kicking awkwardly toward advanced open water certification, the LAST thing I wanted was to be suiting up to dive the RV Thunderbolt. The T-Bolt, as she is known by her admirers, is a 200 foot long mine sweeper (later cable-layer, later research vessel) built during WWII and sunk - on purpose - in 1986. She rests upright on a sandy bottom off the ocean side of Marathon in 120 feet of water. I just don’t think you have to go to such extremes to enjoy the excitement and terror of recreational diving.

Before the Thunderbolt, the deepest I had gone was to the bottom in 60 feet of water. We practiced choking into our regulators, removing perfectly good dive equipment, floating in place, "salvaging" large rocks with rubber bladders filled with air we could have used for breathing, and losing ourselves among the finger reefs. JB, our instructor, told us AFTER that dive that we would have earned credit for our required "deep" dive if we had only gone down another foot. Ha! Ha! Had I that little bit of information BEFORE the dive, I would have dug a little hole on the bottom, stuck my depth gauge down into it, and surfaced with digital proof that I had met my deep dive goal. Anything to avoid the deep, dangerous Thunderbolt.

Call me Mr. Dive Wimp. Group me with those safety-minded individuals who maintain you can see EVERYTHING you need to in 30 feet or less of water and stay a short, safe distance from the surface. I know people who spearfish within sight of huge toothy barracudas, free dive to the bottom in 30 feet of water to nudge morays out of the way and reach barehanded into dark holes for lobster, and inhale exotic gases to visit dark brooding shapes in two, three and four hundred feet of water. Does THAT sound like fun to you? Not to me.

So on my way out to the Thunderbolt that morning, I developed a plan that would allow me to bail gracefully out of the dive. I would reschedule a sedate 61 foot dive on some other day.

Having gone along to drive the boat while everyone else on board went over the side to driftdive the deep reef, I knew from experience "if you can’t ‘clear,’ you can’t dive." You have to be able to equalize pressure in your cranial cavities when you dive or you will feel like your ears are about to explode and your nose blow straight off your face. Not being able to "clear" is an act of God. No blame. Just sympathy and compassion. It happened to one of the divers the day I drove the boat. He came right back up. He just aborted the dive completely because he "couldn’t clear." He might have been a closet dive wimp. I don’t know. But it worked for him. It could work for me. I would swim to about 30 feet, signal a clearing problem and then abort the dive. Later I would respond to the others’ sympathies with dignity and resignation.

If I WERE going to dive the Thunderbolt, I could not have asked for a more experienced and skilled group with which to do it. In addition to me, the foursome included JB, my dive instructor, and Joe and Sam, two friends and business associates, both certified captains and dive masters. Together they had thousands of hours under water in cold and hostile venues as well as gin-clear tropical waters. With my wife Nancy in the boat as well, with nearly 30 years of experience challenging me to go way beyond my natural inclinations, the path of least resistance clearly lay in the direction of going along with the dive … at least for the first 30 feet.

The Thunderbolt is only one of several large ships which have been scuttled up and down the Keys for the enjoyment of experienced and advanced divers. Every so often, some dive organization will mobilize the local dive/business community, get hold of a ship no one else wants, raise money to strip it of physical hazards and scrub it free of environmental toxins, and then send it, with a lot of local hoopla, down to the bottom in very deep water. There’s another one right now sitting in a shipyard somewhere while the group that wants to scuttle it in the upper Keys (there are two there already) forges its way through all the red tape associated with leaving a big foreign object in or next to a national marine sanctuary. I have no idea why these groups don’t address a broader range of dive interests (including those of the Association of Certified Dive Wimps (ACDW)) by developing in shallower water a network of small man-made sites and underwater nature trails. Never mind.

To make it possible for people to even FIND the Thunderbolt, a large steel neon orange buoy has been attached by a heavy wire cable to its bow. To dive the wreck, you tie off your boat to the buoy and descend the cable to the deck of the ship. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Since a heavy steel object floating on the surface would represent a threat to navigation, the T-Bolt’s marker floats 15 feet below the surface when the tide is slack. To dive the wreck, you have to SEE buoy (a GPS or Loran will get you close) and tie your boat off by diving down to it with a line. When the current is strong (not a good time to go for lots of reasons), the buoy can be down 25 feet.

The Thunderbolt is a very popular Middle Keys dive site. When conditions are good, you’ll find lots of boats circling the area, waiting their turn to tie off to the buoy - or to the stern of another boat already at the buoy. It was busy spot the day we went. We joined the waiting, circling fleet and, when it came our turn, tied off to a dive shop vessel just before us in line and next up for the buoy.

If you like high-tech tools and equipment, you will of course love diving. Tight rubber suits. Inflatable vests. Tanks of compressed gases. Stainless steel valves. High pressure hoses. Surgical tubing. Sharp knives strapped to your body in strange places. You’ll want your own equipment so you can look at it when you are not diving, but you can also rent or borrow parts and pieces while over time you invest in your own good stuff. The wet suit, fins, dive mask and snorkel were mine. The rest was borrowed from friends.

The boat was quiet as we struggled into our dive stuff. On the way out, we had all strapped our tanks to our BCDs, connected our regulators to our tanks and BCDs, and checked air pressure. We had also wriggled at least half into our wet suits. At dive time, all we had left to do was wrench ourselves into and clasp on our BCDs, strap on our weight belts, slip on our fins and masks, turn on our air, inflate our BCD and flip backward over the side. Piece of cake.

According to our dive profile, we would rendezvous under the "ball" and then descend down the cable together to the deck below. A cable descent keeps you from being swept away when the current is strong and lets you find the wreck when visibility is less than 100’. Once at the deck, we would separate. JB and I would head for the bottom to complete a few dive exercises. Sam and Joe would be spear fishing. I would have a few minutes to explore the wreck before we gathered at the bow, ascended the cable to the buoy, and hung there for the required decompression stop before returning to the boat.

The moment I hit the water, I checked my equipment, tightened things up a bit, deflated my BCD, submerged to about 10’ and swam toward the buoy.

Black and bright colored bodies and dark boat hulls floated around me in a translucent emerald sea. But for the Darth Vader-like sound of my own breathing, it was silent. I could sense intense activity around and below me: divers combing the wreck below, divers returning from the wreck, divers descending in groups to the bottom, boats circling the buoy at idle speed, the water-muffled sound of boat engines and voices calling across the water. I felt like a small child dangling from his mother’s hand in a super-crowded shopping mall: awed by the surrounding chaos, secure in his mother’s grasp.

As I made my way along the hull of our boat and the lead boat to the buoy, I "zoned," starting a continual, active status check of me and everything around me. All senses suddenly up and running. Gathering data. Water temp. Current. Company. Equipment operation. Depth. Time. Remaining air. Status check. Do it again. Do it again.

The others were there, below the buoy, waiting. The moment I reached for the cable, the group moved, beginning its decent. Sam, Joe, JB, me. We went down FAST. Things were happening too fast. My body was on automatic. My conscious mind was going along for the ride, marveling at the view, wondering what was going to happen next. Manual over-ride was not an option.

Down we swam into a green dream. Bubbles, millions of them, the spent air of divers exhaling it far below us, formed a magic curtain around us. Their upward voyage, added to our rapid rate of descent, made it seem we were FLYING down the cable.

Not once did the thought of abandoning the dive occur to me.

I was too scared. I was too focused. I was swept up in the moment. I was going along in response to peer pressure. I was ecstatic.

It was about a third of the way into our headlong flight to the ocean floor that I began to think that there was someone standing on my dive mask and my eyeballs were being sucked out of my head. It was "the squeeze," the natural consequence of the inexorably increasing atmospheric pressure. My eyes were being wrenched out of shape. My vision was blurring. Quick. Back to the book, to my training. Equalize! I forced a bit of air out of my nose into the mask. The pressure eased. The pain eased. A little more air. Just right. The giant stepped off my face. My eyes regained their shape. The blurs around me resolved into the shapes of yellow jacks, big yellow jacks, schooling around us. I swam down through a school of snapper, equally magnificent in size and color.

Status check. Comfort check. Remember to breath. Everything in place? I looked up but could not see the surface. Around me I could see the bubble curtain and schools of jack and snapper. A pair of divers drifted by, ascending, relinquishing their grips on the cable to let us pass. Looking down I could see at last the bow of the ship looming up toward me with its gigantic cable spool. I could see the pilot house. Perhaps a dozen other divers were there before us, floating over and alongside the magnificent ship, gliding through the open windows and hatches of the wheel house. And amongst the divers were other swimmers. Huge swimmers. A six foot long barracuda. A 150 pound jewfish. Shoot one of those fellows, and you’re going for a ride.

We gathered on the deck, using hand signals to communicate with one another. Conditions were ideal. No current. Visibility better on the bottom than 14 stories up at the surface. Thousands of tons of water around us. No quick and easy way to the surface should something bad happen. But I was there and doing OK. Better than OK. I was lost in the experience, enjoying every sight, savoring every breath.

We split up, JB and I going over the side to the bottom to perform our requisite exercises. Sam and Joe went hunting for dinner. They were looking for smaller game than the members of the welcoming committee, the owners of the wreck, who swam about confidently, possibly recognizing in some primitive way that their great size and weight made them exempt from any risk posed by humans with spears.

JB and I completed our exercises quickly and then swam along the sandy bottom to the stern of the ship and its great single propeller. Sam was lurking just off the stern, waiting for a good sized grouper to poke out his head from the curve of the hull. We left him there to move up over the stern rail and over the rear deck. The opening to the ship’s hold gaped below us, a cloud of small silver fish, millions of them, drifting in and out of the opening. As we ascended toward the rear rail of the deck house, a diver from another group crossed abruptly in front of me. A fin kick, the fin brushing across my face, and suddenly my regulator was gone, brushed out of my now empty mouth. So now what was I going to breathe?

OK, quick. Back to the book. Don’t panic, think! My missing regulator was safe at the end of its hose, but it was not within sight. As I had been trained, I swept my right arm down and back in a counterclockwise sweep, feeling the air hose against my arm about halfway through the motion. As I followed through and completed the loop, I felt my regulator slide into my hand. I grabbed it, pressed the purge button as I brought it to my mouth, and popped it in. Air is SUCH a wonderful thing.

JB, who had apparently noticed my "situation" and turned back to help, signaled, asking if I was OK. I tapped the top of my head. I was OK. With not enough time remaining for us to explore the pilot house, stand at the ship’s wheel, we proceeded on around the pilot house to the bow of the ship to rendezvous with the others. As we swam, Sam joined us, wrestling a grouper on the end of his spear, a 5 foot barracuda following an uncomfortable distance behind.

Our ascent to the surface felt anticlimactic. We followed our own bubbles slowly up the cable to the bottom of the buoy where we waited out our decompression stop before swimming back to the boat and surfacing. But it was also the perfect denouement. Hanging there with the others, I had some private time to think back over the dive and to enjoy the curtain of rising bubbles around me and the great schools of yellowtail, snapper and jack swimming beside and below me. The surface was a short fin kick away. I was tired. I was exhilarated. I had survived.

Deep dives without exotic gases and long decompression stops are short dives. We were on the bottom less than 15 minutes. But I think your first deep dive, like jumping from an airplane, repelling down rock, or swimming with dolphins, is one of those life-defining events. Rather than fade with time, it grows richer each time it comes to mind or you share it with friends.

The Thunderbolt was behind us, but our day wasn’t over. We moved into the shallower depths along the reef tract and anchored up. We rested. We re-hydrated. We dumped nitrogen from our systems. We went back down to explore the patch and finger reefs and the coral gardens bordering Hawk’s Channel, to scare lobster from their nooks and crannies, to spear more fish for dinner.

Finally, while the others continued to "tank it," I packed it in and joined Nancy, dive-widow Nancy, to snorkel lazily on the surface. All in all, not a bad way to spend a day off in your own back yard.