Bart - Happy to be alive after Maracaibo Reef

(FROM PART I) Now, there’s being alone and there is alone — and you can trust me on this: drifting in a swift current 240 feet down in a dark, watery landscape and running out of air with no soul in sight is alone as it gets.

When you think you’re probably going to die, your first instinct is to do some fast breathing, a bit of hyperventilating. After all, your situation, for better or worse, is definitely pulse-pounding, adrenalin-rush scary and exciting. But most would agree that it’s not the best idea to breath fast when five minutes of air is the only thing keeping you from becoming fish food. In these moments, paying your cell phone bill on time no longer seems important.

I start up with a few kicks and glance at my dive meter to check my ascent and to make sure I’m not going up too quickly. I see that I haven’t moved at all and am still at 240 feet – SURPRISE, DUMBSKI!  I’m very negatively buoyant and nitrogen narcosis is screwing up my perceptions and thinking.

I pop more air into my vest to give me some lift, and start kicking, what I think is kicking, anyway, and check my depth meter.  I still haven’t moved off the 240 foot mark. I am running out of air going absolutely nowhere!

(PART II) I put more air into my dive vest and finally start to move, kicking slowly and checking my depth and air – now under 1200 PSI. I’m mentally “fuzzy” as I try to keep pace with my rising air bubbles, a safety measure of not ascending to quickly. I do luck out and my mind clears at about 220 feet.  I know that I don’t have enough air to breath normally and make it back.

I know if I panic, I’m dead. I’m thinking that I will probably die, anyway, one two ways: 1) run out of air and drown, thank you very much, or 2) come up too fast, be forced to miss my decompression stops, and get the bends close to or on the surface – that’s getting nitrogen air bubble blockages in my blood stream when I’m forced to surface to quickly.

The bends occur when nitrogen dissolves in our bloodstream under pressure, and if we come up and reduce the pressure too quickly, our blood releases the nitrogen into our system as bubbles, very much like beer or fizzy sodas under pressure release bubbles when you open them. Bubbles in our stomach feel fine, but bubbles in our blood block arteries, just like having a heart attack or a stroke. And bubble-blockages can hit anywhere, the brain, heart, lungs, and other fun places.

I know there is no question of breathing normally as there’s simply not enough air, so I have think of a plan to survive. To conserve air as long as possible, I decide to take very shallow breaths – say 1/10th of a normal breaths, to try to make my air last.  At the same time I also know that I can’t hold the breaths I take because the longer I hold my breath, the more nitrogen my blood absorbs and greater the chance of dying of the bends on the surface. What’s a mother to do?!?

I’m very lucky that I don’t panic – not yet, anyway. I figure the only chance I have to survive is to take very shallow breaths and immediately blow them out for as long as I can till nothing is in my lungs. Then, I’ll wait as long as I can before taking another shallow breath. This may give me a sense of breathing and at least get me some air while preventing as much as possible a nitrogen build up and the bends. I don’t know if it will save me, but there are no other choices open to me.

As far as getting past the two decompression stops on my dive computer, if they still remain at twenty feet and ten feet, I will cut the first one in half and try to complete the final one. I also know my dive computer has a built in safety factor, so I may be able to shave the safety decompression stop a bit.  Either way, I know the odds are still against me ever paying my Visa bill, again.

I ascend, no longer knowing or caring about the two doofs I followed into the void. It was my mistake and a bad one – overconfident in my diving abilities. What are the doofi up to?  I have no idea and no longer care because it is survival mode time. At 180 feet I’m still going through air quickly, even breathing a little as I can.  The air is getting perilously low at these deep depths.

At 120 feet I see Pedro and Dan way off in the distance drifting towards me, but they didn’t see me. My air is down to 200 PSI and they’re up-current, so if I try to reach them, but can’t in time, I’ll use up the rest of my air trying to get to them and probably drown.  I kept going up, knowing I will run out of air, anyway – but closer to the surface. I know I can make it to the surface now, but how long can I stay at the two decompression safety stops?  Not long enough, I know, and wonder if I will be hit with an embolism.

A minute into the twenty foot safety stop it cleared from my meter, so I rose to the ten foot safety stop for ten minutes, knowing my tank is at zero and no way am I going to be able to stay and decompress for at ten feet for ten minutes. One minute later I suck the last three tiny breaths out of the tank, blow them out as much as possible, stay as long as possible, then rise to the surface ten feet away. I know this is the most dangerous part of the dive, due to the maximum pressure differential closest to the surface.

My head clears the surface and I take a deep breath with the Cozumel sun falling on my face. I’m still alone and know if I’m to die from an embolism, it will now or in the next five minutes.  So, I think, screw it, enjoy the sun and the air and the blue-green water and being alive – if I’m alive five minutes, I probably made it. If not, enjoy the end because it’s out of my hands, now, and there are many worse ways and places to die.

So I lean back in the water, a smile and the sun on my face, supremely happy in the moment and grateful that I cheated death. Or if not cheated, then at least dodged Her for the moment. I know that I am one lucky sum’bitch.

I drift alone on the surface until a hundred yards away I see Pedro, Dan, and Paco in the boat. They’re looking for Doofus, Roofus, and me in the waves. I have a whistle on my vest by my head for just this type of scenario. I give two longs blasts and they wave, turning the boat to pick me up. We pick up Doofus and Roofus five minutes later bobbing together in the water.

After we store our gear I ask Doofus, “What were you guys doing, taking off like that?”

“We were trying to hit 300 feet on a bounce dive on a single tank of regular air,” he replies. The rest of us are shocked at the reckless stupidity of such a stunt.

“Why didn’t you say something to Pedro or Dan and me, so we’d know what you were up to, instead of us having to wonder?” I ask. “I thought you guys were going to get into trouble and followed you down to 240 feet.”

He looked at me and said, “You don’t have any business at 240 feet. That was stupid.”

Macho man needs a reality check, so I tell him, “Let me give you some facts, Slugger – nobody has any business being at 240. And as far as ability, I’m on this boat with experienced divers for a reason.  The bottom line is, you’re a dive master and you playing macho man and not telling anyone, including the dive master on this boat, is damned rude and reckless.”

“I got to 251 feet and Bill got to 287 feet,” Doofus proudly crows, “and  you still acted stupid doing what you did.”  Bzzzzt – wrong answer at this point.

“Well, I do agree following you to 240 feet to maybe save your silly ass was stupid, but let’s take it to the next level.  You tell me you’re a dive master with 2000 dives and yet you let your buddy go alone to 287 feet? Tell you what – I’ll meet you at Carlos & Charlie’s tonight and well soak up a few brews and tell this story to the divers, then ask them to take a vote on who’s the bigger dumbski, you or me. I’ve got a hundred bucks that says you get the most votes. Wanna’ bet, Frisky?”

Doofus doesn’t take me up on the bet and spends the rest of the return trip pouting alone in the front of the boat. Roofus, his real name is  Bill, is a good guy and was simply mislead by his buddy, Doofus, into thinking diving to 300 feet is a good idea.  So we meet for dinner with some other divers and have a great time. Doofus doesn’t show.

The Next Morning:  Paco and Pedro sidle the boat up to the dock with Doofus and Roofus on board.  I ask, “Where to?”

Doofus replies, “Maracaibo Reef… any problem with that?”

“None at all,” I smile and drop into the boat. I can’t believe Bill is going to try it again.

At Maracaibo, it’s a repeat performance of yesterday – Blooey! Doofus and Roofus hit the water and kick like banshees for the wall. Dan, Pedro, and I leisurely swim down and level off at 160 feet.  I drift along the wall, enjoying the sea life and scenery ….. and 2100 PSI of air. Occasionally I turn to watch Doofus and Roofus kick towards the deep indigo blue and the blackness beyond until they disappear from sight.

And I am perfectly fine with that.



  1. [from Cindy #1] Take care of yourself out there, dude! You don’t want to get the bends. It might be worse than winding up as fish food!


    • Bart Nedelman says:

      You got that right, Cindy. I got myself into a bad situation trying to help out a couple of macho types that weren’t playing with a full deck. All I can say is, I done seen that monkey show and I don’t want to see it no more. Ever dive Cozumel?


      • I hear lovely things about Cozumel, but I haven’t been there yet – [and] Macho types often show up in the yearly Darwin Awards, but not as often as one might think.


      • Can’t relate exactly to that experience: But I did a dive on Maracaibo Deep a few years back. Off the boat and into the “deep-blue” , no reef in site. I was following the divemaster’s verbal directions. Before leaving the boat he said to swim down and follow a certain heading, we would see the reef. Very disorienting in the “blue” with no point of reference. Sure enough the reef came into view at about 100-110′. The rest of my group proceeded down to about 140-150′. I started to get a bit fuzzy near the 120′ mark. I signaled to my buddy, not feeling too good and going up a bit to level off. At 90 feet still not clear. Ascended up to 70-80′ before feeling much better. Spent the rest of the dive 80′ and above. I had a great learning experience, a comfortable dive and don’t feel I missed a thing by not dropping to 150′.


        • Bart Nedelman says:

          Hi D-Man,

          Sorry for the delay on your comment – it just popped up. You were smart and didn’t go macho, like a lot of guys would. Physiologically, we all have different tolerances. Mine just happened to be 235 feet on that day. 240 feet hit me and I was very lucky to make it back. In fact, it probably hit me earlier and I didn’t know it because I should have been checking my air as much as my depth on the way down. Live and learn, but sometimes you can die learning if you’re not careful.


  2. [from Cindy #2] This is one of my favorites from Edna St. Vincent Millay – thought you’d like it, too.

    Oh,mine is a body that should die at sea!
    And have for a grave, instead of a grave,
    Six feet deep, and the length of me,
    All the water that is under the wave.

    And terrible fishes to seize my flesh
    Such as a living man would fear
    To eat me while I am firm and fresh-
    Not wait ’til I’ve been dead for a year!


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