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IHTM Know your limits

Dangerous Depths - Know Your Limits

A heady cocktail of youthful bravado and nitrogen narcosis led Stephen Cunliffe to dangerous depths…

The wreck danced up and down in slow motion. I knew that wrecks were not supposed to move. I checked my depth gauge and it confirmed that I had just descended past 50m. I gradually ascended to 48m and focused on the bottom below, hoping that the narcosis would subside. 

A school of jacks circled the stern of the boat. ‘Don’t look at them,’ I thought, ‘they are supposed to be moving.’ I needed to focus on something that was supposed to be stationary, such as the wreck, and I waited to see if my head would clear. The ship slowly settled down and once again lay still. As a recreational sports diver, I had seldom ventured past 30m, so the sensation of serious nitrogen narcosis was something that I’d rarely experienced.

I know plenty of divers who, during their early careers, participated in dives that many people would rightly consider to be reckless. During my mid-twenties, I too sometimes attempted dives that were beyond my qualifications, experience, level of expertise and all acceptable recreational dive limits – such as this one, on the 60m-deep Windjammer wreck off the Caribbean island of Bonaire. 

This was my first foray into the world of technical diving and I was grateful to be under the direction of Roger, a good friend and experienced technical-diving instructor. He waited on the Windjammer below and surveyed my progress. At 53m, we were on the wreck, which had started to wobble again. Roger stopped me and tested my level of coordination at depth. It was a challenge to find my nose with my index finger, and I felt a sense of monumental accomplishment when I managed it. If it weren’t for Roger’s experience and my anticipation of doing Bonaire’s famous deep wreck dive, I would long since have heeded the warning signs and aborted the dive. With some effort I passed the tests, and Roger signalled that we could proceed.

Conditions on the wreck were optimal, with visibility at 30m and no currents. Inside, as I detoured around a giant green moray, I checked my depth gauge – it read 57m. With nearly seven bars of pressure at this depth, it felt as though I was drinking my air. A close eye on my pressure gauge would also have revealed that air does not last long at these depths; however, as we exited the wreck at the stern and settled on the sea bed, narcosis had stolen my sense of time and robbed me of my awareness.

The exact depth at which nitrogen narcosis sets in is difficult to predict, and everyone reacts differently to being ‘narked’. Some divers can feel it at 25m, while others are barely affected at 50m. At depth, everyone experiences to some degree a slowing of reactions, a loss of coordination and a clouding of the brain. 

As we arrived at the crow’s nest, which at 61m was the deepest point of our dive, I was again happily drunk on nitrogen narcosis. I had no clarity of thought, and depth had robbed me of my sense of time. I felt so safe in the crystal-clear, warm water. I was dumbfounded when Roger signalled that it was time to start our ascent. It felt as though we were barely five minutes into the dive, yet my computer confirmed that we had already been down for 21 minutes. My pressure gauge reaffirmed the need to ascend, with my main tank virtually in reserve. I searched the murky depths of my brain to comprehend how the last 15 minutes could have just vanished like that.

Our decompression went according to plan and, 90 minutes after descending, we were reunited with the Caribbean sunshine. On surfacing, my instinctive reaction was that it had been a successful, drama-free dive. However, there were bits of the dive that I couldn’t remember, including no clear recollection of a second swim through the wreck. Parts of the dive had simply vanished from my brain. 

In hindsight, I now appreciate that it was a combination of youthful recklessness and naivety that took me down there. This was a deep, technical dive that was well beyond both my training and all recommended recreational dive limits. Without Roger’s careful attention, as well as some dumb luck, this foolishly deep dive might just have been my last. 


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