I wrote this a while back as part of a piece on the lobster divers of Nicaragua who suffer many dive-related injuries. Legend has it that the divers’ injuries result from an encounter with a pale-skinned mermaid known as the Liwa Mairin. It is said that she haunts the depths and punishes those who take too many lobster. The victims of the Liwa Mairin, the wheelchair bound and the zombies, are what drew me to Puerto Cabezas. A few years ago I almost became one of them.
I hope other divers can learn from my experience. Nitrogen Narcosis nearly killed me. It’s no laughing matter.
Bubbles burst forth from my regulator – the sound of distant bowling pins falling over, a cry for help. And with each cry, I was one breath closer to my last.
Suspended in limbo, 130 feet from the surface and nearly 100 feet to the sandy bottom, I watched the bubbles. They playfully danced around each other expanding, breaking, conjoining, chaotic, but always up. The ever-changing surface glimmered above – where air meets water, where life meets death.
From the beginning this day was different from others I had spent working as a SCUBA instructor in Key West. Aboard the Island Diver, technical dive gear pitched with the rolling of the Atlantic. Back-up plans for contingency plans were discussed. We were hosting a dive event sponsored by Skin Diver magazine. The magazine had recruited a group of beginner divers to train, advance, and transform into “Tec-Divers” – divers certified for depths exceeding 100 feet and breathing special mixtures of air. This dive was a culmination of months of training.
With double tanks, large lights, and a spider web of hoses, the divers had claimed the majority of space on the boat. My equipment on the port stern looked shabby and overly simple – one tank, half as many hoses. It was hard to believe we would be diving on the same shipwreck.
My job was to tie up to the wreck, The Kurb. I had done this two days previously and I had had no trouble, but, again, this day was different. On my first time I had jumped in with a line that I hooked to the wreck and then swam back to the surface; I had completed the task with ease. On this fateful day I hopped in with nothing but a lift bag. I was to swim to 130 feet where I would find the exhaust tower of the ship with a line already connected to it. I was to fasten the lift bag to the line and fill it with air from my regulator, causing it to float to the surface. The Island Diver then would see the bag, pull up the line, and clip into it.
Five minutes before arriving above the ship I started to feel a bit anxious. Normally, I didn’t dive deeper than 90 feet. I could swim the shallow wrecks and reefs off Key West with my eyes closed, but the Kurb was still new. And deep.
The air in a SCUBA tank, like the air we breathe is 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen, but our bodies don’t use nitrogen and, under the increased pressure of being underwater, nitrogen accumulates in the tissues of our body. The deeper divers go and the longer he stays the more nitrogen bubbles accumulate. When a diver is at depth, this isn’t a problem, but sooner or later he has to ascend.
Most dive instructors use a bottle of soda to demonstrate this process. The bubbles in the soda are invisible when the cap is on and its contents under pressure. When the cap is twisted off – or the diver ascends – the pressure is released and the gas comes out of solution to form bubbles. In soda the bubbles give our soft drink bite, but, in diving, bubbles can accumulate around joints and the spinal cord. Pain in the joints, unconsciousness, paralyzation, and death can all result. These types of injury are known as decompression sickness and are commonly referred to as “the bends.”
I was not afraid of the ocean or its creatures, but bubbles worried me. I nervously drank water till my stomach and bladder were full and then I drank some more. Each drink of water was a safeguard against bubbles. When a diver is dehydrated, bubbles accumulate more readily.
The boat slowed to an idle and I donned my gear and stood on the dive platform at the stern, staring up at Captain Roy. When he gave the signal I took one giant step backward and began the descent.
Sky diving in space – that’s what it’s like to sink as quickly as possible with no bottom and no wreck in sight. Down, down, as I fell through the water my eyes searched for something on which to focus. Head first I aided gravity with a few kicks of my fins. It was important to find the ship before the current blew me off its location. The water from the depths rushed up to meet me, growing colder and darker with each passing foot.
The tower, first a ghostly dream, became more defined as I closed the distance. The line was attached on the support beam between two stacks. A current ran from the bow to the stern of the wreck; I kicked against it to stay in place as I began to pull the ends of the line up. The line from the towers ran down onto the deck below where it snaked in and out of wreckage. When I tried to pull up the line, it became ensnared. I jerked it and cursed through my regulator when it didn’t come free.
The tops of the stacks were at 130 feet. At that depth I could stay down for around five minutes without being concerned about “the bends”.
What should I do? Abandon my duty and return to the surface, to the boat full of newly trained tec-divers and one Skin Diver magazine writer, in shame?
A certain machismo exists in the diving world. I blame Sea Hunt and James Bond with their underwater wrestling matches. Divers often brag about how deep they’ve been. I had never been deeper than 130 feet and to kick down to the deck at 150 feet, where the pressure was five times the surface pressure, was a foolish thing to do, and would be giving in to a whole other kind of pressure – peer pressure.
Against my better judgment, I swam to the deck as fast as I could and freed the line. Back at the stacks I recovered both ends in my hands and attached the lift bag. I filled the bag with air and watched it rocket to the surface – triumph – before jerking to a halt well below the surface – defeat. I looked down at the deck of the ship and saw the line caught again.
That’s when my brain stopped.
“Nitrogen narcosis,” I always remember to bring it up to my students since the topic is good for a few chuckles. “It’s like being drunk…a feeling of euphoria. If at anytime you feel this during a dive, ascend slowly until you are at a depth where you no longer feel it.” Jacques Cousteau referred to it as the “rapture of the deep,” elevating the phenomenon to boogie man status. Like the boogie man, stories circulate in the diving community:
“I heard of a guy who had been diving for thirty years that got “narced” really bad; the poor fella didn’t know which way was up and swam into the abyss to his death. His body was never recovered.”
“Did you hear about the guy who had a few too many nitrogen cocktails and forgot to keep his regulator in his mouth? He tried to give it to a fish. Can you imagine that? He drowned with half a tank’s worth of air left.”
The exact cause of nitrogen narcosis is not known. Scientists believe that it is the result of nitrogen’s increased partial pressure at depth interacting with neurological processes. The effects can be greatly enhanced by a build up of carbon dioxide, which happens when you exert yourself by doing things like kicking against a current. Euphoria, unexplained fixations, anxiety, unconsciousness, can all be a result of narcosis. Small problems can quickly become big ones.
I hung on the line near the tower. Minutes passed and I did not move or think.
That’s when she came – my very own Liwa Mairin. She was fat and ugly, a Volkswagen with fins that divers in their right mind would recognize as a goliath grouper. With a menacing grimace on her face, she swam to within a few feet.
Then she talked, “Bark! Bark!” Her words were felt as much as they were heard.
My consciousness crept out of its silent prison and I looked at my gauges.
“Where had the time gone?” I thought. My dive computer started to flash things I had never seen before. It was telling me that since I had been so deep for so long, I should immediately ascend to a certain depth for a certain amount of time. This is referred to as a decompression stop.
“Where had the time gone?” The computer’s reports were not good. My estimated amount of air left was less than the amount needed to make the necessary decompression stops.
My conversation with myself continued.
“This is not good.”
“I am calm.”
“Breathe nice and easy.”
“What should I do? I need more air.”
Thoughts came slow and were interrupted by minutes of blackness.
I clung to the rope and stared up at the surface. I could muster no solution and with a calm resolve, I pondered my death. I would run out of air spit out my regulator, and my lungs would fill with salt water and I’d sink. My grip would lessen on the line and finally let slip. The current would carry me away.
My gaze went from the surface toward the wreck. The bright orange lift bag floated in mid-water and gave me an idea. I pulled out my knife and cut the line that prohibited the lift bag from surfacing. Upon reaching the surface it would signal my location to the boat, and that there was a problem. It rocketed up like an out of control balloon. Before reaching the surface it flipped, releasing its pocket of air and sunk to the bottom. I watched it fall, slowly spiraling, drifting like a limp body forever lost in the ocean’s current.
“Go up or you’re dead. Go up!”
The eerie part was that death neared and I wasn’t afraid. I knew I wasn’t in my right mind, but there was nothing I could do about it. I thought about how the narcosis was my ultimate curse, yet my altered mental state was a sort of blessing. I would die, but at least I would die peacefully.
When I heard the boat, I watched its dark shadow on the surface as it passed over and paused before motoring away. A small portion of its shadow remained. It moved, had arms, and legs. It came down, grabbed my arm and led me to the surface.
It wasn’t until I reached the surface and saw the fear in the eyes of the divers and of Captain Roy that I became afraid. I had been to 150 feet and my total bottom time was near 30 minutes, about 25 minutes longer than I should have been down. As the narcosis subsided, my thoughts turned inward. I imagined the nitrogen bubbles floating around, piling up around my spinal cord. At any moment I might lose consciousness forever. I might die. I grew pale and began to shake. My right foot went numb.
The Island Diver met the Coast Guard back on the island and I was transported to the naval station where I spent six hours in the hyperbaric chamber that would crush the bubbles until they had been exhaled
I emerged from the chamber bubble free, but bubbles leave a mark. My left elbow ached for weeks – a scar left by nitrogen gas. Occasionally to this day when I am nervous, stressed, or exhausted, my elbow will ache.
I had training. I had top of the line equipment. Yet I still found myself in a situation in which, if I had not been treated properly, I faced death or paralysis.
But I was lucky.
Each year countless Miskito divers aren’t.