As wreck dives go, it should have been pretty straightforward. A former Royal Navy frigate lies at the bottom of a bay in the South Atlantic near Cape Town in 110 feet of water. It is a popular destination for sports divers. Nearby are the hulks of several other ships, sunk years ago to create artificial reefs. I had visited this old ship before, the last time while making The Wreck Hunters, a TV documentary. This time things were very different because everything that could possibly go wrong did!
The sea conditions were fine, as were the usual dive preliminaries. Because I rarely travel abroad with my own dive gear, I checked out some of what I needed from the dive shop, including a regulator, weights and fins. The buoyancy compensator (BC) was on loan from a friend, as was the 15-liter tank. Customarily, as a trained diver, I would have preferred 12 liters.
What made this underwater excursion different from most others was that we—myself and my partner Caroline, as well as Ian Lowe and Rod King (both navy-trained and among the most experienced divers in the country)— would dive separately from the rest of the group that went out in the boat.
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Rod was aware that I had decades of experience, including half a dozen books published on the undersea milieu. But he still asked pertinent questions about recent dives and fitness. I told him I was in reasonable shape and detailed my regular workout regimen, which included three or four sessions a week either in the gym with weights or on the treadmill, as well as well as regular 500-yard swims in the pool. I’d alternate that with hard walks in the Surrey Hills.
My first problem arrived with the BC and it was two-fold; the vest was two sizes too small, which meant strapping it on like a straightjacket. Also, the purge and inflate buttons were unfamiliar, the latter seeming to merge with its hose. No problem, I’d manage both if and when needed, I told Rod.
I made no mention of light pains on the right side of my upper chest over previous weeks, putting them down to some strenuous boat time in heavy seas off Durban. I was aware—and he was not—that I wasn’t in prime physical condition.
Caroline Castell, my partner, is a lot younger than me; she’s an avid walker, often pushing the limits. She gained her Open Water qualification in Britain four years ago and in the interim has logged several dozen dives. These include time spent underwater free-diving with black-tip, bull and tiger sharks south of Durban as well as half a dozen wrecks. Our travels have taken us across Southern Africa, and she has also dived with whale sharks off Mozambique.
As Ian said afterwards, “She’s actually a good diver…solid performance…took everything in stride and followed my instructions throughout. She might easily have panicked at a critical moment, because she could see her man was in serious trouble, but she did not.”
Our entry from the Zodiac followed, which came after the larger group had rolled over backwards. Then I made my first mistake: I did not follow the initial dive plan that we’d cursorily agreed to. The intention was to gather at an orange buoy tied to the shot line that the skipper had anchored to the wreck. Instead, after rolling in, I continued on down, negative-entry style. Rod wasted no time in coming after me and pointing towards the surface.
After following Rod some distance towards the buoy where the four of us exchanged “OK” signals, I didn’t wait for any further signals and bombed straight down towards the bottom at a rate of knots. Within moments I was disorientated, which, I now accept, was caused by vertigo.
I’d had a series of minor vertigo experiences during the past two diving seasons and said nothing. Instead, I’d reassured myself that I was probably a little dizzy in a new and possibly strange environment and it would pass. It always had in the past. What I also did not know that vertigo symptoms tend to increase with age. But I’m not that old!
According to Rod, “There is no question that you were unfamiliar with your dive gear and not in tip-top physical shape. That was obvious from the start. You should have stopped right there and we wouldn’t have thought anything of it. I always like to arrive an hour early for a dive because it sets my mind at rest, calms my nerves after what is often a hectic drive, which means I avoid agitation. I am also conscious of holding up other divers and that, too, causes stress. But the most significant feature in those initial stages was that you headed down too fast and on the way you lost your grip on things. You also lost a fin, and not long afterwards, the other one went as well.”
Rod is right, of course, because almost immediately I was in trouble, not understanding why my body was unintentionally turning around in the water.
The fact that I was wearing a 3mm wetsuit—when everybody else on the dive sported 5mm or more because the water was cold—also had something to do with it. Only later in the week, when I went in again on another wreck lying at about 100 feet, did I realize that throughout False Bay, even in summer, water temperatures are characterized by strong thermoclines at depth. By now, finding myself in deep water, the sea was really cold, but that was the least of my problems.
Another factor I only accepted afterwards, was that while my 3mm (tropical) wetsuit was reasonably buoyant down to about 40 feet, by the time I’d touched the bottom, it offered only marginal buoyancy and warmth. Nor did it help that from the start of the dive visibility was not what it should have been in summer: perhaps 3 feet or so on the surface where it was almost pea-green and roughly three times that towards the bottom.
“It was during the descent, spotting a lone fin slowly sinking towards the bottom, that sounded the alarm.” Caroline said. “My immediate thoughts were, ‘Who has lost a fin?’ I didn’t recognize it as belonging to my partner because my dive buddy was Ian Lowe and he had bright lime-green fins; also, he was right there in the water, next to me. I looked around to see whether there were any other fins in the water, but that didn’t work either because there was a green algae bloom reflecting back at me. It was a long way down to 110 feet—and in trying to keep up with Ian and equalizing, I couldn’t miss the temperature plummeting, especially going through the ‘climes.’ In the meantime, Ian held onto that mysterious fin.”
By now I was in serious trouble. Things that subsequently came to light suggested that I might have blacked out once or twice, though I have no recollection of that happening. Also, my weight belt had become detached and I couldn’t recall undoing the buckle, which was against all the basic principles of diving. Fortunately, I was already too deep to float to the surface, and the heavy 15-liter tank helped keep me down.
“By the time I reached my buddy—he was already at the bottom—I found myself in something akin to a disaster situation,” Rod said. “The man was in a total state of chaos, spinning about and out of control and kicking with no fins. He had also dropped his weight belt and his mask was half full of water. I carefully approached him from the front and offered him my OK signal, but his only reaction was to shake his head and point to the surface. At which point I grabbed him by his shoulders, having quickly retrieved his weight belt from the ocean floor. This I threaded over his BC buckle, well aware that if I let go and he started to head to the surface, he would end up doing an uncontrolled ascent that that would be the end of the story.”
Caroline said, “I hit the bottom and had a quick look around. My mask had let in some water, so I cleared it. Looking about me, I saw the wreck rising with big holes in the bow, after which I equalized for neutral buoyancy and felt myself rising a bit off the ocean floor.”
Though I was disorientated—badly so—I was still breathing hard, and in retrospect, I’m aware that I hadn’t lost complete control. That meant I didn’t throw my arms around my buddy as drowning people often do. But I did hold onto his BC shoulder strap with my left hand, all the time pointing towards the surface.
“As former navy divers, Rod and I have been in the water together hundreds of times,” Ian said. “We also train divers, so we know the ropes. That meant that I quickly became aware that he was having serious problems with his buddy. But I was with the distressed man’s partner, and I couldn’t just leave her at depth and come to his aid. We exchanged a few glances and we didn’t need to spell it out. That meant I knew exactly what to do, the first priority being to get my buddy away from her partner so that she would not see the worst happen, which might result in him dying. Then I might also have a catastrophe on my hands. As it was, she was quite aware that we were in crisis mode. I motioned Caroline down towards the wreck and she did exactly as I suggested and finned, well within my view, along the side of the wreck. I took up a position quite a few feet above her, but also with the other two in view. If Rod needed help, I would have responded.”
While all this was going on, I couldn’t help but be aware that Rod had tried to fit my fins back on and had fiddled with my BC strap when he secured my weight belt. Little else made sense, but I know now that I ignored the most basic diving lesson of all—one that I’d taught some of the novices who had passed through my hands over decades—and that was to stay calm, no matter what happened.
Once or twice, when Rod hauled me down, I could feel my feet touch the bottom and if I had any sense, I should simply have stopped struggling, bent my knees and settled quietly on the ocean floor for a few minutes, if only to catch my breath and calm things down. But I did not.
According to Caroline, “As we got closer to the commotion, Ian gave me a determined sign with his fist closed, meaning ‘Stop where you are!’ So I settled down on the sandy bottom and tried to see past him at what was happening to Rod and my man. I moved slightly sideways and caught a glimpse of a diver in a state of panic. His finless legs were kicking franticly and I recognized my man’s familiar white bearded head and him signaling to his buddy to get back up to the surface! I didn’t feel fear or anxiety, just real concern that he should calm down and let Ian get his fins back on.”
“But that didn’t happen,” Rod said, “and though we’d been at it only for a couple of minutes from the time we’d left the surface, I was myself quickly becoming exhausted. I’d been battling with the ‘patient’ from the start and all this physical exertion was having an effect. Ian looked at me and signed ‘OK?’ Though I signaled back in the affirmative, things were not going as planned.”
Ian said, “I could see that Rod was having a hard time and, having checked that Caroline was still OK while she meandered over bits of the nearby wreck, I made the decision that if push came to shove, I’d have to act.”
Only days later did Ian admit that if it meant losing me to save his buddy, his logical choice would have been to save Rod. From where he was perched over the wreck, he was more distant in the water from the two of us and the only images he had before him was of one guy struggling mightily to contain the antics of somebody who was beyond any point of rationality.
What would you have done if it came to that? I asked Ian. He replied that there would have been two options: the first would have been to pull my mask away from my face (which wouldn’t have helped much, because it was three quarters full of water anyway) and if that didn’t work, he would have ripped my mouthpiece away.
Without air, unquestionably, I would have blacked out within seconds because I was breathing as heavily as I’d ever done in almost five decades of diving.
According to Ian, “It would have been a considered action because throughout. No matter what happened to her partner, I still had Caroline’s safety in mind. And had she been close enough to witness some of his antics because, to be blunt, the man was dying. I would probably have had a second rescue mission on my hands, which is why I restrained her from moving towards Rod.”
As it was, I several times felt myself “slipping away,” with an almost uncontrollable urge to stop breathing. And listening to the others discuss events afterwards, there is no question that I probably lost consciousness once or twice, though these lapses must have been brief. What I vividly recall while struggling was the reality that I was actually breathing, and if I just kept on doing that, I might eventually make it to the surface.
“We were still only minutes into the dive when I realized that if my buddy had any chance of survival, I would have to get him to the surface, and quickly,” Rod said. “I signaled that intention to Ian and, with head and eye movements, indicated that he should stay on the bottom with Caroline. We both knew that I needed a little longer to give us space and time to do the necessary.
“But then, when I tried to move upwards with my buddy—who had calmed down a bit—he had become deadweight in the water. Simply put, I couldn’t shift him. Nor could I take the chance of inflating his BC because if we became separated, he would rocket to the surface and explode his lungs and that that would have resulted in an embolism.
“The only action left was for me to do a controlled ascent. That meant partially filling my BC to get us off the bottom and throughout, watching my computer gauge for our rate of ascent—following U.S. Navy dive tables. I dumped air constantly as we got higher, something I’d done several times while still in the navy.”
“It all happened so quickly,” Caroline said. “Then I realized that Al and Rod were heading towards the surface and the boat. Obviously, Ian didn’t want me to follow this drama—whatever the outcome—so he and I had another look around the bow section of the old frigate.”
By now, headed up and possibly two-thirds the distance to the surface, I felt the water around me suddenly become warmer. That told me we were close to the surface. There was hope. But I was still breathing heavily and aware that with almost no residual strength, it would be quite a rigmarole to get me aboard the boat. My level of exhaustion was total, but at least I was alive!
“Getting Al to the surface took quite a bit of effort, but, as it says in the instruction manual, don’t stop trying until you reach the surface!” Rod said. “Then followed the biggest shock of all: With the Zodiac alongside and stripped of his weights and BC, Al just flipped over backwards in the water with his arms and legs splayed. He just lay there, totally immobile, on the surface of the ocean. Hell, I thought, this is serious. I turned to our skipper and shouted: ‘We’ve lost him, Dave. He’s dead!’ I really did believe that he’d gone.”
Well, as we now know, I hadn’t gone anywhere. I needed some breathing space and, aware that the most horrific experience of my life was behind me, I just relaxed in the water and let the sun shine on my upturned face. The other two had not yet surfaced, and it was a real effort to get me on board because I had absolutely no strength left in my limbs. I had to be physically lifted out of the water and then put onto pure oxygen for several minutes.
One of my immediate impressions after the dive was that Al was almost certainly ‘narked’ by the time he hit the bottom,” Rod said. “He wasn’t rational and some of his actions fringed on the ridiculous, which worried me because I am aware that he has dived most of his mature life. But I am also aware that the possibly of suffering from nitrogen narcosis increases with age, so it must have been on that almost disastrous excursion into water that was relatively deep.
“In saying this, I judge by experience. I have been diving for 30 years and have rarely been ‘narked.’ But a couple of years ago I went down on to the wreck of the Fleur, which is an old navy ship that lies at about 160 feet in another location near Cape Town. As I descended, I could immediately sense the change, the warm feeling that envelopes you, the fact that I couldn’t focus or think straight and finally, I started to lose control. That was the first time anything like that had happened and it makes me a much more cautious diver today. Having discussed it with others divers, the consensus was that the effects of nitrogen narcosis do increase with age. Also, with Al and Caroline’s dive, the entire episode lasted little more than three minutes, down and then all the way up again—so much happening in so little time. As Al said afterwards, time really did stand still for him and, if asked directly afterwards, he would have thought they’d been down almost half an hour.”
There were several extraneous factors that feature in a dive that went horribly wrong. Because I remain active and reasonably fit, I was not physically stressed. Indeed, only weeks before, Caroline and I had white-watered 11 rapids down the Zambezi Gorge. Some were Level 5 (Level 6 can be life threatening).
Even more enervating on that trip was the climb down a precarious rocky face into the gorge and then up again after the “river run” was over: both were 1,200 feet-plus and it took an awful lot of effort because the incline on the return trudge was easily 70 degrees.
I have climbed Kilimanjaro, and though that safari takes place over several days (up and down Africa’s tallest peak), the Zambezi jaunt—five hours or so—was, to my mind, tougher. Also, a year ago, off Mozambique’s Bazaruto Island in the Indian Ocean, I inadvertently went down to about 180 feet, having become separated from both the dive master and my buddy because of a 6- or 7-knot current.
But as Ian and Rob concluded in our debrief, whatever you do, whether it be scuba diving, mountain climbing or even a spell at the gym, you really do need to know and understand your limitations. I obviously did not. And in my 76th year on this beautiful planet, that’s really no excuse for putting at risk my life and possibly Rod’s.
One of the immediate consequences of that little adventure was to counter any fear that might have resulted. As the saying goes, if you fall off a horse, you get right back in the saddle again. I did so days later, the four of us going down about 80 feet to explore a sunken minesweeper that also lies near Cape Town.
The half-dozen wrecks that have been scuttled in Smitswinkel Bay south of Cape Town have had their share of drama. Only weeks before we went down, a 56-year-old sport diver died after becoming trapped in the engine room of the diamond recovery ship Rockeater, which also lies at 114 feet. Before that, a group of divers in the same area were buzzed by an 18- or 20-foot great white shark. Because there are a lot of seals on nearby islands, there are many of these predators about and over the years there have been shark attacks on both surfers and divers, several fatal.