JJ stood on the ladder outside the boat, still dripping water from his scuba dive. His face took on a shade of green, and we were all startled when suddenly he hurled red over the side of the boat.
It’s unusual, but not unheard of for a diver to get sick, especially if the seas are rough. But they were calm this day, and seasick is no reason for red vomitus. Repeated heaves gave the impression he was hacking up a lung, or trying to turn his guts inside out. We were all, OMG, what the hell is going on, and what are we going to do about it?
The good news was there was a doctor on board. The bad news was the doctor was JJ. Physician, heal thyself. But we still weren’t helpless – one of our other divers was an emergency medical technician. We had emergency oxygen on board, and all five of us had training in CPR and O2 administration. This all raced through my head as I watched the scene unfold.
Another diver later mentioned it reminded him of a book where a diver on an extremely deep dive came up spitting blood and subsequently died. It seemed like a major oh shit moment.
But in time, JJ recovered from his nausea, claimed he was ok, and climbed aboard. Still, what was going down with what was coming up?
* * * * *
We were in Neah Bay, on the NW coast of Washington state for a weekend of cold water diving. We started our day making a run from Neah Bay all the way to the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the top of a seamount called Duncan Rock.
If you look in the upper right corner of the picture, you can see a lighthouse on top of an island called Tatoosh, and past that a section of mainland called Cape Flattery. The cape claims to be the north-westernmost point in the contiguous United States, but this little section of land we were about to swim around clearly has that beat.
Duncan Rock is a dive we rarely attempt. Conditions have to be ideal. It’s very exposed: looking to the west there’s nothing but 4,300 miles (6,900 kilometers) of open ocean before you run into Japan, Canada is 12 miles (20 km) north, Tatoosh Island is 1.3 miles (2 km) south, and the Strait runs 90 miles (150 km) east. Tides have to be moderate. Winds have to be low. I’ve been diving with our club for over 25 years, and this was only my third dive on the rock. The first dive, years ago, had strong surge; in places I’d get pushed 10 feet back and forth for every two I’d swim. The second was crazier still. In places the current was so strong there was no way to fight it; you’d need to hide behind a rock and find another way out. People have died getting caught in the down currents.
One of our divers had his own bad experience that day long ago that I was hiding behind rocks. He almost got caught in one of those down currents and barely made it back to the surface before his air ran out. Kind of one of those, “Oh shit, is this it for me?” moments. So, if he made some excuse about not wanting to deal with the sea lions while spearing fish, you’d have to cut him some slack for sitting this one out.
Sea lions, btw, are rather large. I wouldn’t want one overly interested in me, but they’re fun to watch swim. I can tell you this because my dive buddy JJ and I did do the dive this day, and they checked us out while we were checking them out. Nine feet long, 1000 pounds, thankfully they stayed 10-15 feet away.
You may think we were crazy to attempt it. But this time, the conditions underwater were benign. Only a bit of light surge in the canyons, good visibility, and life everywhere you looked. Enormous mussels, covered in anemones, sponges, and other invertebrates. Huge schools of black rockfish. Other critters, too many to name. It was wonderful.
And no horrible down currents to drop us into the abyss, or up currents to blow up our lungs with expanded air. Nothing that should cause JJ or me to spew red.
Afterward, we headed back to Neah Bay, to do a second dive off of Waadah Island – our usual haunts.
There are several good places to dive off of Waadah, but for this dive we went off the point at the west end. We call it the “fingers” because the underwater topography has a series of ridges and ravines, much like fingers with gaps between. JJ and I dropped in, and although the tidal currents had picked up considerably we still got in a good dive, staying in the ravines to avoid the current.
At dives end, we needed to do an open water ascent. We were well away from the drop in point so no anchor line, and no long strands of bull kelp to hang onto on the way up.
Normally, at the end of a recreational dive we’ll do a safety stop. This is a pause in the ascent around 15 feet to off-gas excess nitrogen, akin to doing a decompression stop. It’s not mandatory as a deco-stop is, but adds a little safety margin.
However, when the tidal currents are running strong – well, you remember that 150 kilometers of Strait I mentioned? It’s best the dive boat can find you when you come up. Hanging out in current, taking a hidden ride underwater for a few minutes is a good way to get lost. Upon surfacing you may find yourself a distant dot on a large wavy body of water, and end up on a long, cold float.
So, we skipped it.
Knowing this, we took the ascent slowly. A diver’s regulator feeds him air at the same pressure as the water that surrounds him. As he ascends the surrounding water pressure decreases and the air in his lungs expands. Remember that horrible potential up current I mentioned at Duncan Rock? It’s important to not ascend too fast – you’ve got to exhale to release pressure and have enough time to do it. Otherwise, ruptured lungs. Even more likely, all that excess nitrogen absorbed into the body’s tissues at the higher pressures we breathe at depth (air is 78% nitrogen) can fizz up and cause the bends.
The boat found us. I boarded first, JJ followed, and “oh shit” followed that. What the hell? I was fine, we played it safe, I was there and could vouch for that.
And as we sat on the boat and chatted it seemed he was indeed ok. He gave no sign of flopping on the deck, in extremis, blood pouring forth from various orifices. And then it came to me.
“Hey JJ,” I asked, “was that beets I saw in the sandwich you had for lunch?”