A few weeks ago, a buddy and I signed up for a tour of the wrecks off the Florida Keys. I had already had an interesting experience at one of them, so I was looking forward to getting back into the water in the weeks leading up to our trip.
Now, I’m not a super experienced diver, but my buddy, we’ll call him Mark, had about thirty dives under his belt with enriched air and all that. I figured if I stuck close to him, I’d be safe.
But there are certain… risks involved with scuba diving. And they’re not sharks, or giant squid or whatever. Yes, there are sharks sometimes, and yes, I guess I wouldn’t want to come face to face with a real-life kraken. But they’re not the threats that keep divers awake at night.
What we worry about are the bends. That’s what happens if you ascend from a dive too quickly, or if you don’t end your dive by waiting for a few minutes at fifteen feet below the surface. If you’re not careful, nitrogen can escape from your bloodstream and become bubbles. It’s painful if there’s a bubble in your joints or muscles, but a bubble in your brain could easily be fatal.
Or, if you accidentally hold your breath and ascend, the air in your lungs will expand. And as the pressure of the water around you decreases, you could feel an impact, a soft gaseous pop, and that would be the feeling of your lung popping.
And then there’s the cold. And the risk of exhaustion. And some people say they get the feeling of claustrophobia when they dive, but not me. Not at all. I’m fine when I’m on the bottom, or alongside a reef wall, or in a wreck even… but for some reason, when I’m on the surface, or when I’m doing a safety stop, I get agoraphobia. And I get it bad.
I think it’s because when I’m on the bottom, I have a frame of reference, and I know that there are only so many angles something can come at me from. Plus, I’m never more than a few feet from my buddy, so I’m not constantly looking over my shoulder or anything.
But when I’m on the surface, or doing my safety stop… you don’t know what it’s like. You can’t know unless you’re a diver yourself. Lingering there in the wide open blue, trying to control your bouyancy so you don’t shoot up and kill yourself with a nitrogen bubble in your brain, or so that you don’t drop back down into the depths… it’s unnerving. And even if your buddy’s an arm’s length from you, you can’t possibly see something coming from below, above, to the sides, and behind you all at once.
Hell, even if your buddy’s an arm’s length from you, if you lose sight of him for a second, it can take a minute of frantically turning and looking around to find him again. If you even do find him again.
I told Mark about that as we made our way down past Key Largo. He laughed and told me to relax. That’s the main thing, he said. Relax, stay calm, swim, and if you’ve got a problem, solve the problem. There’s no point in panicking and sucking down your air before your safety stop’s complete.
We arrived at Key West just after 6am. That was enough time to grab breakfast, pop some motion sickness pills, check our gear one last time, and get on the boat. As we approached the dive site, the divemaster—basically the supervisor of the dive group—warned us that although the wreck we’d be investigating was in barely 80 feet of water, there was a current, and a cliff just next to the wreck. In other words, we had to be careful, otherwise we’d be swept over and could descend… he wasn’t even sure how deep it went.
Typical tourist spiel. He scares us just enough to make us pay attention to what we’re doing and listen to him, and he cashes out later when we tip him well for keeping us safe. That’s what Mark told me, anyway.
We got to the dive site around 9am. The waters were warm and while there wasn’t any wind or current on the surface, the divemaster warned us that we wouldn’t know what conditions were like on the bottom until we got there. Then he hopped off the boat, gave us the okay signal, and we followed him down.
The water was too murky to see the bottom, so I stuck close to Mark and the group. Like I said, I hate the feeling of being suspended in open water, so I pretty much descended as fast as I could. And all at once, there it was, in all its glory, the—
No. No, I won’t say it. I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve already gone through. All I’ll say is that she’s a beauty and I could see fish and coral all over her before we even got close.
We made our way around the ship just once as a group. It was like the divemaster said—the current was too strong to swim against it for long. So he gave us the signal to split up and explore the wreck as we wanted. He’d be hanging out around the outside on standby, in case there were any problems.
Mark pointed to the bridge. It was covered by shellfish, but we could see shapes moving inside. Grouper, most likely. Maybe nurse sharks if we were lucky. I got my GoPro ready and we moved in for a closer look.
Jackpot. They were grouper—big grouper, I mean, with mottled gray-black patterns and scars from battles I’d never comprehend. They kind of saw us coming and ignored us, so we were able to get really, really close to them. And a few of them were about as big as we were. These were goliaths… I’d always thought that they were only on the Gulf side of Florida.
There was a movement deeper in the bridge, behind one or two of the floating behemoths. I looked to Mark and he made an up-down motion with his hand near his forehead, then punched toward the motion three times. The signal for a shark. Then he pointed at the bridge, and put his other pointer finger behind his first. I go first, you follow.
We turned on our dive lights and made our way inside of the ship. Everything was dark, tight, covered in barnacles, and as we made our deeper inside the ship, it got murky.
You might ask what we were doing inside a sunken ship, chasing after a shark. Well, it was a nurse shark—only a nurse shark would sneak around inside a ship like that, and I had ID’d it from its tail anyway. Besides, part of the fun in scuba diving is the risk, and I’d been in wrecks before.
At least, that was what I told myself to quiet down all of the alarm bells ringing in the back of my head. Deep down, I knew that I hadn’t gotten a good look at the tail, and that we hadn’t tied a line or anything outside in case we got lost and needed to trace our way out. We’d have to pay extra close attention to not get stuck in there.
I can’t explain how eerie it is to swim through a shipwreck. The whole thing is kind of tilted, kind of canted, and any light that pierces to the seafloor is blocked by the metal structure. The only way to see is to look where your light’s pointing; other than that you see blackness and whatever your mind makes of it. It’s terrifying. That’s what makes it fun.
We made our way down a rather narrow hallway. I kept hitting my tank on the ceiling when I inhaled—the expansion of my lungs was affecting my buoyancy. A few of the doors to the cabins alongside the hall were open. I happened to glance inside of one, and when I saw what was there, I spat out my regulator.
I reached around and tried to grab at it. No luck, so I went for my alternate and sucked in a breath of salty air. Then I screamed again.
The room was filled with bones. Filled with them until they were nearly flowing out of the door. And these weren’t fish bones, these were—God, they were femurs, and pelvic bones, and vertebrae. Nothing like what you’d expect from aquatic creatures, and—God, I dared to swim in, and reached into that mass. I pulled something out, something, and then shone my light directly into the eye sockets of an unmistakable human skull.
A touch on my shoulder. I whirled around with my knife in my hand—but it was nothing. Nothing. Not Mark, not a shark, not anything. I looked down the hallway to see where he’d gone, but… it was empty. I couldn’t even see his light in the darkness.
I looked back to the bones. Then I vomitted into my regulator and started to hyperventilate—no. No. I was wasting my air. I resheathed my knife and got control of my breathing, and my light. I had plenty of air left; all I had to do was to find my way out of the ship. And I had to be careful.
See, wreck diving is considered a more dangerous form of scuba diving. There’s so much that can happen inside a structurally unstable hunk of metal. You can get a hose caught, or cut, or you can get trapped, or anything. All of these risks are mitigated by the presence of a dive buddy, but alone…
Alone I had to be careful. I had no other choice. So I began to trace my way back down the hallway. I got to the stairwell just fine, and obviously I had to go up the stairs to get back to the bridge, but… but the door was closed. The door was closed tight. I tried it a few times, but no luck.
I took another moment to calm down and control my breathing. Then I went back down to the hallway. If I just followed it, it would lead somewhere, surely, and I could use that to get out— but that door was locked too. The door that I had just used to get into the stairwell was shut and locked tight.
Calm down. Calm down. I checked my air—2000 PSI, okay, I could stretch that to a good forty minutes if I breathed slowly. And the stairwell led one level farther down… and, thank God, that door was open.
This hallway mirrored the one above me. Except… and myabe it was because it was deeper, or in colder water, or something, but something about it just felt wrong. It was cold, and it felt dead, somehow. If swimming through through the hallway above me was eerie, this was terrifying. I was sucking down air and I knew it.
My light couldn’t reach the end of th hallway; all I could see ahead of me was dark murk. I was only ten feet away when I realized that the hallway just ended. Just ended in a solid metal chunk that had been part of the ship when it was built.
My GoPro was still running, I noticed. Still in video mode. I don’t know why, but for some reason, that gave me comfort. I lifted it to point at me, made the peace symbol with my fingers, and then dropped it back down to where it hung from my chest strap. Then I made my way back to the stairwell—
Oh. One of the cabin doors was open. That was strange, I could have sworn that it was shut when I’d passed it. I glanced inside, and out of the prot hole… I swear to God, I saw something moving, something swimming just a little too fast for me to see what it had been. And that shape—was it—could it have been that thing, that thing that I had seen when I last went scuba diving?
I moved in for a closer look. No, there was nothing there, just the deep blue sea. Okay, back to getting the Hell out of the wreck. I turned—
Just in time to see the cabin door shut in my face.
I almost spat out my regulator again. I swam to the door—yanked at the handle, shoved against it with my full body weight, beat it with my hands—nothing. Nothing. I was trapped in there, alone in the cold and dark at the bottom of the ocean.
For a few moments, I just screamed a silent scream through my regulator. My light dangled uselessly from where it was clipped to my vest, and my knife—it was in my hand, and every moment getting closer to my neck.
There was a tapping at the port window. I turned—Mark. Fucking Mark. I swam up to him and started to yell at him—he couldn’t hear me—so I took up my slate and wrote, “Why the fuck did you leave me?” and held it up where he could see it.
He just stared at me and held up his hands, like he didn’t know what I was talking about. Like I wasn’t making any sense. I started to write something else—but he shook his head and pointed at the port window. He wanted to get it open.
Okay. Okay. We can do this. We can do this. I checked my air—down to 1000 PSI; okay, we can still do this. I took out my knife and tried to stab the glass, or crack it, but no dice. I tried to slide it under the metal, but no luck with that, either.
By now, Mark had gotten ahold of the divemaster, and both of them were trying to work the port hole from their end. No luck. So the divemaster pointed at my knife, and kind of made a rotating motion with his hand, and pointed at the porthole—and I understood. He wanted me to use it as a screwdriver.
I tried it once. The blade didn’t hold. Tried it again and got a grip—but when I rotated my blade, it let go almost instantly. It was fucking frustrating—there was nothing to hold onto for leverage; I was in open water, I had to control my boyuyancy perfectly and turn hard enough to undo the screw, but not so hard that my blade lost its grip.
Calm down. Calm down. Breathe slowly and solve your problem. The ocean didn’t care if I lived or died, so raging at it wasn’t going to help anyone. Calm down. Calm down. Get that blade back in there and turn—slowly—okay, the screw’s coming undone. Grab it and unscrew it with your fingers and then move on to the next one.
Two down. Then three. Then four, five, six, and we’re halfway there. I checked my air—600 PSI, not bad, I just have to breathe more slowly. But how, when I was inhaling, counting to fifteen slowly, and only then exhaling.
Easy. Inhale, count to twenty five or more, and then exhale.
Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten was a little tougher, but eleven was easy. One left.
The blade wouldn’t hold. Okay, try again—no luck, okay, try again. No. No, it wasn’t going to work. The screw’s head was too corroded and moldy. I pointed to it and shook my head.
The divemaster pointed to his air gauge. I checked mine… and then held up two fingers. I was down to 200 PSI. Barely enough to make it to the surface…
Mark pointed to me, then at the corner of the room. Unsure of what else to do, I swam there, then turned back to see what he was doing—no. Hold your breath. Hold your breath for just a little longer. Forty, forty-one, forty-two, forty-three, forty-four—gasp. Okay. Now start counting again.
Mark had taken his fins off and was kicking at the porthole. No luck. So then he took his tank off and swung it like a bat—a crack. A crack in the glass. Two more hits and the thing shattered and fell apart.
There’s a move they teach you in your first pool session in scuba class… tilt your mask forward slightly and exhale through your nose. It’s supposed to clear any saltwater that’s maanged to leak in from your face. Well, I was doing that to clear the tears from my face. I swam up to the porthole and managed a brief one-armed hug with Mark—
And then I realized that there was no way, no way in Hell that I could fit through that little opening. It was just too small.
I was down to 100 PSI. Maybe enough to make it to the surface, maybe, without a safety stop. And already it was taking more and more effort to breathe—no. Fifty, fifty-one, fifty-two—okay. Okay. I got it.
I ditched my gear. I actually took my vest and weight belt off and shoved it to the floor, keeping the regulator in my mouth. Then I got one arm and my head out of the porthole, and…
And… that was it. That was all I could get out. No matter how I tried to snake my arm through the porthole, I couldn’t quite manage it.
I spat my regulator out. Exhaled the last drop of air from my lungs and managed to get my other arm out. Squirm—squirm—squirm—and then I kicked over to Mark and grabbed at his alternate air source.I don’t remember the trip back to the surface. Mark tells me we did a safety stop and then made a beeline for the boat; by then, our shared tank was full of more saltwater than air.
Written by Alex Ross Writer