Into The Abyss

Posted on May 13, 2017

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“The Martini Effect” sounds like a condition coined by the writers of Sex And The City for single bar-hopping women. It’s not. Neither is “being Narc’d” a term used by skateboarders in baggy Carhartt pants. And “The Rapture of the Deep” is definitely not a z-list movie shown on Channel 5 on Sunday afternoons before the tea-time news bulletin.

They are all terms used in diving to describe nitrogen narcosis.

Deep diving exposes you to a phenomenon where gases dissolve into your blood and reach your nervous system through your cardiovascular and respiratory system. The gas itself is not hazardous however the effect can be dangerous because it impairs your ability to make sound and safe judgements. Yesterday afternoon i had my first taste of gas narcosis – nitrogen is the main culprit – and boy was it surreal.

The martini reference is tongue-in-cheek and claims that at 30m/100feet gas narcosis has the same potency as one martini (as a former raging drinker I’d argue it depends on who’s making that martini). Anyway the theory is that for each additional 15m/50feet thereafter you feel the effect of another martini.

My buddy team on Friday afternoon consisted of the drummer and one of my instructors who is also second in command of the village in SavuSavu, so we’ll call him Chief. My task was a dummy run of deep dive navigation skills using a compass and counting kick cycles (every time you kick your right leg it’s a cycle). I was tasked with going into the abyss and coming back to the same point.

We rolled backwards off the boat, popping up into the swell. Fiji is currently on a cyclone watch (category 2) but the water has been relatively calm considering. No sign of Ella so far…and no one is panicking.

As we dropped down below the waves I fixed the compass tight to my wrist and tilted my body forward until I was horizontal and gliding across the reef. In front of me I could see the black fins of the Chief. I turned to look behind me and signalled “ok” at the drummer joining the tips of my index finger and thumb together into a tight circle.

After several minutes we arrived at the wall. My dive computer read 26metres. Our depth today was 40m/130feet. Breathing slowly and calmly I gazed into the darkness hypnotised. Gripped by fear of the unknown and curiosity.

The three of us floated head first down the wall and levelled off at 40m. The exercise was to have me and the Chief go into the abyss for 20 kick cycles and come back 180º to where the drummer would wait. Sounds simple right?

What happened next still baffles me. Chief says I was narc’d for sure. I got confused and completely lot my bearings.

I started off well. I was determined not to over profile ie: drop below 40m. I followed the red lubber line diligently. After 20 kick cycles I moved the bezel and then the preceding steps are a blur. I thought I’d turned 180º but I hadn’t. After 20 kick cycles I knew I was lost and I had messed up. The wall was nowhere to be seen. I stopped just bobbing vulnerably in the abyss, ” I have no idea now if I’m going in the right direction,” I mused.

All around me was endless deep blue. I looked left …..nothing, then right …..nothing. “Where was Chief? Shit!!!! Had I lost him too? How?” I felt a mild sense of panic for a few seconds and then just calmness. “Is this how it ends? I lose myself in the ocean without enough air to make it back. Should I just continue forward, surely the wall is ahead of me somewhere? Maybe I should go back to try to find him? But which way had I legitimately come?”

I looked at my dive computer. Four minutes at this depth before my computer would alarm – an indication to ascend. Except surfacing was the furthest thing on my mind because I was narc’d. I was convinced I had to find the start point at the wall.

In diving when you lose a buddy the protocol is to search for one minute and then ascend. Of course at this depth, staying focussed when things don’t go to plan is hard. I remember thinking “I must find the wall and the drummer. I can’t leave him there, he’ll be worried, what about his air supply? And what about Chief, how did we get separated? Perhaps he made it back to the wall. If he didn’t where is he now?”.

Narcosis can affect people in different ways. Some divers report feeling euphoric others say they have felt giddiness, paranoia, hallucinations even depression. I felt really spaced out like someone had given me a sedative. It was a numbness like a fog. A bit like when you get woken up unexpectedly or some would say feeling “stoned”.

Just then I felt a tap on my shoulder. Chief had been hovering patiently above me watching me like a remora. He was dining out on my condition and laughing hard. He gave me a puzzled look and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “What are you doing girl? Where are you going?” Then he drew a circle on the palm of his hand and I watched him trace his finger round and round while he chortled at depth.

It transpires I’d almost managed to do a bloody circle and we were not going straight. We ascended ten metres to ease the gas narcosis effect and he pointed me in the right direction until we hit the wall. We’d drifted quite a bit from the start point.

To our left we could see the drummer waiting. HIs body language was tense. Chief banged his tank. Nothing. Again he rapped hard on it, nothing. Then we started yelling into our regulators and the drummer’s head swung up and right. The relief of his face was immediate. Oooops!!

He later told me, he was thinking, “Any moment they’ll reappear, any moment now….c’mon, where are they? Shit have i lost two members of my team today? I’ll have to start going up soon. I’m running out of my no stop time…”

After reuniting underwater we started to make our way back to the boat and Chief relayed to the drummer what I did through hand signals chuckling into this regulator and squealing. I scribbled “sorry” on my dive slate which was totally illegible probably still narc’d and made for further mockery. I was then the brunt of jokes for the rest of the day – fair enough and clearly not surprising.

Today I have been practising using a damn compass at just 6m off the dock with my other instructor Big D. Let’s hope the next deep dive won’t be so abyss-mal (ha couldn’t resist!).

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