- June 14-27, 2006
A quick morning run through the bustling streets of Praia and then it was off to the airport for our 12pm flight to the island of Sal. We arrived in Santa Maria a short time later and, after grabbing a quick lunch, set about researching dive operators. Several centers later, we opted to go with Manta Diving. They gave off a good vibe and we seemed to hit it off with Nunu, the center’s Portuguese owner. After arranging a dive for the following day, we joined Nunu and his girlfriend Patricia for drinks at Calema, a local pub. The weather was perfect and we spent the next few hours sitting on the veranda drinking Portuguese beer, watching World Cup football and discussing everything from diving to 4 wheel drives. A great start to our stay in Cape Verde.
The next week was a blast. The main focus was diving and we did a lot of it. The clear blue waters presented new challenges for us including some fairly deep wreck, cave, and night dives in strong currents. It was amazing and we loved every minute of it.
When we weren’t diving we were either sitting on the beach or hanging out at Calema's watching the World Cup. Along the way we made some wonderful new friends including Rita, Dive Master from Portugal with an infectious personality that will put a smile on your face no matter what your mood. We seemed to immediately hit it off and spent hours chatting over beers about travel, life, and pretty much everything you can imagine. Through Rita, we met so many other great people. There was Maren, a witty German working in Sal’s growing travel industry. Nunu, a Portuguese dive instructor who runs Scuba Caribe and his girlfriend Anna, a friendly Brazilian who manages the spa at Hotel Rio. Rita’s fantastic friends from the Azores Rui and Manuela, who were in Cape Verde on holiday, and Gois, a Dive Master from Brazil who’s possibly the most gregarious, outwardly affectionate man we’ve ever come across. All could not have been nicer and went a long way to making our stay a memorable experience.
After a wonderful week of diving in Sal, we were scheduled to depart for Sao Vincent, a neighboring island. On the eve or our departure, we had dinner with Nuno and Patricia. During dinner, Nuno invited me to join him the next day for a special dive - just the two of us (no other clients). He didn’t provide any details other than to say that it would be deeper than the other sites. Always up for a new challenge, I decided Sao Vincent could wait, and eagerly accepted his offer.
The next morning I arrived at Manta bright and early and went about the usual pre-dive preparations. When it was time for the dive briefing, which Nuno usually gives to all clients on a large white board at the dive center, he instructed Rita to give the briefing and told me to following him outside to discuss our plan. This is a short summary of the briefing:
We would join the other clients and dive masters on the boat which was headed for a dive site known as Three Grottos. A site I´d been to twice before including once for a night dive. On the way out to the site the boat would stop long enough for the two of us to suit up, enter the water and make our descent. The boat would then continue to Three Grottos for the scheduled dive with the other clients. Once in the water we would descend to a shelf at 31 meters/102 feet and then drop off the shelf and descend another 12 meters to a cave 42 meters / 138 feet below the surface. We would explore the cave for 16 minutes or until one of our SPG´s (pressure gauge which tells you how much air is in your tank) read 120 bars. It would be a decompression dive meaning that on the ascent we would be required to make a decompression stop in order to allow time for the excess nitrogen to leave our tissue (failure to do so can cause a serious/potentially fatal illness called decompression sickness - picture the old documentaries of Jacques Coustous’ team entering decompression chambers after deep dives). We would then exit the cave and slowly ascend along a reef, navigating our way to the Three Grottos site where the boat and other divers would be waiting. He went on to say that there could be a current which, picture the recent movie Open Water, could cause us to drift off course requiring the boat to come and find us. For safety we would carry an extra air tank as well as navigation equipment and an emergency buoy that could be launched at the surface to signal help.
Usually, I am very relaxed on the way out - even on night dives and deep cave dives which present certain technical challenges. Onboard the boat heading out to sea, however I was a bit tense. There were some red flags. I knew that Nunu, while extremely experienced, liked to live on the edge and regularly pushed the envelop. He often understated max. depth meaning it was possible that this dive could be deeper than stated - a concern since 42 meters was already pushing my experience and exceeded the PADI Tables. We were going to exceed the decompression limits. Something I had not done before. There was potentially a current, and moreover, the boat would be dropping us off and it would be our responsibility to make it safely back - or, as Nunu joked "we might turn up in Brazil, which will take about 60 days."
Finally we arrived at our entry point and, while the boat and other clients, including Sharikay and Eric, waited, we suited up and prepared to enter the water. Just before going in Sharikay looked at me and calmly said with a concerned look on her face to "please be careful and take care down there." It was affirmation that I was on the edge. We went through last minute safety checks - making sure that all equipment was operating correctly and ready to go. Then, on Nunu’s signal, we did a seated backwards roll into the water. The current was strong and immediately swept me to the back of the boat where I grabbed a line and pulled my way to the buoy line at the front of the boat. I met Nunu at the buoy line, we gave each other the OK signal followed by the signal to descend. Out went the air from our BCD’s (buoyancy control devices) and we began to work our way quickly down the line towards the bottom, equalizing along the way. The water was crystal clear (over 30 meters visibility) and I could see the shelf below. On the way down the current was strong and I had to hold on tight to the line to make sure I didn´t get swept away. At the bottom of the buoy line, we reached the shelf at 31 meters/ 102 feet. We paused briefly to make sure each other was OK and then stepped off the edge and, like sky divers falling in slow motion, made a free descent to the ocean floor and the mouth of the cave. It was exhilarating. Beautiful. Like jumping off a tall building.
On the bottom I looked at my dive computer. We were at 47.1 meters/ 153 feet. Some 5 meters /15 feet lower than Nunu had stated in the briefing. We were very deep. At this depth you are at 6 bars/atmospheres. The deeper you go the more everything compresses. Your wetsuit becomes less buoyant and loses some of it’s insulating properties. The air volume in your tank is 1/6 what it is on the surface, which means that you use more air the deeper you go (deeper equals faster consumption). Looking around I noticed that much of the colors visible higher up were gone and everything was in muted tones. Nevertheless, it was remarkably beautiful.
We gave each other the OK, turned on our lamps and entered the cave. Just inside we found a large sting ray - probably 2 meters/6 feet in diameter, which stirred to life as we passed. Amazing. We continued and moments later Nunu tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to our left. Approximately 15 meters away, a giant sea turtle was gliding past - it´s head looked as big as mine. We continued deeper into the cave. As we slowly worked our way through the cave, I looked back towards the mouth again and saw a large sand tiger shark (perhaps 3.5 meters/ 10 plus feet long), it’s body silhouetted by the light outside the cave. It was a beautiful site and I tapped on Nunu’s shoulder to get his attention. When he saw the shark, he immediately turned and darted back towards the mouth of the cave for a closer look. In a flash he was gone. Alone in the cave, I raced to catch up. He was well ahead of me and by the time I reached the mouth of the cave I began to feel very bizarre. I slowed to a stop and sat hovering motionless in the water, just above the sandy bottom. I looked at my SPG. It read 130 bars. As I sat there, alone. 47 meters/153 feet below the surface. I was overcome by perhaps the most uncomfortable experience of my life. My mind started to get fuzzy. Everything around me seemed to fade into the distance. My breathing became so loud in my head that all I could hear was the loud sucking sound as I inhaled on my regulator and the exaggerated sound of my bubbles as I exhaled. It was such an overpowering sensation that I found it hard to focus on anything else. As I sat hovering, the sensation intensified and I started to feel as if my regulator was slipping out of my mouth. I grabbed it with my right hand and held it tight. I was now struggling to breath and keep my regulator in. I felt as if I was losing control of my brain and it took everything I had just to keep breathing. A voice in the back of my head said, "Oh shit. You are in losing it." Alone. I stayed calm but had a growing concern that I was slipping away from reality. I was suffering from nitrogen narcosis. A sensation similar to being drunk, which can occur at depths over 30 meters/ 99 ft.
When Nunu returned, I looked down at my dive computer and it read that I had 2 min. remaining before I exceeded the no decompression limits. I showed my computer to him and he nodded and signaled that we would continue a bit further before starting our ascent along the reef. We swam along the mouth of the cave. All the while I was struggling to keep the regulator in my mouth and breath. Finally, concerned that I was almost completely out of touch with reality (it was almost as if I wasn’t even in my own body) , I calmly tapped Nunu and signaled that something was wrong. He gave the OK and signaled for us to start our ascent up the reef.
As we worked our way up the wall, my head began to clear and before long my mind began to clear. At the top of the wall we lost the protection of the reef and the current became very strong. Stronger than I´ve ever seen. We fought our way directly into the current as we navigated towards Three Grottos. In an attempt to keep from being swept away, I grabbed rocks along the top of the reef and picked my way along. At one point. the current was so strong that I was holding onto a rock and my body was flying like a flag on a flag pole. Ugh! I could hardly hold on. I looked down at my SPG. It read 110 bars. Still plenty of air. We continued on. Struggling all the way. I found breathing hard, not because I was out of breath but it was just hard to suck in the air. Navigating and fighting the current was challenging and I grabbed onto Nunu to avoid being separated. Nunu pulled his way along the rocks as I kicked along beside him. His 20 plus years of experience was evident and we slowly advanced forward. Along the way we passed the buoy line that we had descended earlier. I struggled to understand why we didn’t grab the line and ascend rather than continue to fight such as strong current which could potentially throw us off course. I checked my SPG again. It read 110 bars. Confused, I stared at the gauge which I was almost certain had read 110 bars the last time I checked it. Maybe it was the narcosis.
We continued a little further along the reef and then all hell broke loose. Without warning, we launched away from the rocks and went hurling out of control towards the surface. Oh shit, I thought. What was happening. The rapid ascent warning alarm on my dive computer began to go sound. We were no longer together and I was gaining speed as I went up. Instinctively I grabbed my low pressure inflator on my BCD and dumped all of my air. After climbing approximately 13 meters/36 feet, I finally managed to arrest my ascent. I looked around. Nunu was nowhere in sight. I spun around again. Nothing but blue ocean in every direction. Then I looked up toward the surface and saw him floating on the top. My heart sank. Shit! I was in deep trouble. I had lost control on an ascent from 47 meters / 153 feet. My buddy was floating on the surface. Injured? Sick? I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I’d just made an uncontrolled ascent on a decompression dive and was now caught in a strong current, drifting alone in open water.
My mind was in full overdrive. I thought to myself, OK. You have to deal with one problem at a time. First. I had to sort out my decompression stops. My dive computer read 3 meters/6 minutes. As I was staring at the computer, the next shoe dropped. I ran out of air! With my SPG still reading 110 bars, I sucked hard on the regulator, managing to get a couple of final breaths before the tank was empty. Still alone, 15 meters/ almost 50 feet below the surface, I looked up. Nunu was now just below the surface and, fortunately for me, was looking down. I signaled up to him that I was out of air and without hesitation he began to descend towards me. As I waited, a terrible burning sensation developed behind my ears and my head started to pound. When he reached me we locked together and he passed me the regulator on his extra tank. I began to breath again.
With one problem solved, we began sorting out our other issues. First, Nunu launched the emergency buoy, a 12 meter line with a self inflating bright orange buoy on one end and a lead weight on the other. With a swoosh it raced to the surface. Now we had a marker indicating our location and a line that we could hold on to as we worked through decompression. Next, Nunu studied his dive computer and then mine. 31 minutes had past since the start of the dive. The decompression stops lasted for what seemed like hours. My head was pounding however the burning behind my ears was gone. All the while Nunu and I were face to face, locked together, clutching the line as we drifted along. As we slowly worked our way up the line, Nunu taped my shoulder and pointed up at the surface. A boat was now circling overhead. I was relieved. Another problem solved. We continued up the line. Decompressing as we went.
Finally, after 14 minutes of decompression stops, we reached the surface. I immediately grabbed my low pressure inflator hose and manually filled my BCD. The boat was now gone and there was nothing but blue ocean in every direction. Nunu and I were still face to face. He asked if I was OK and I said that I had a bad headache. I also told him about the burning behind my ears. I took off my mask and Nunu looked at me and calmly said in a soft voice "Jim, you are bleeding from the nose." I wiped my nose with my glove and there was bright red blood all over the fingers. I could taste blood in my mouth as well. I spit and a large amount of blood came out. I sat there staring at the blood which was floating just in front of me on the water. Nunu asked if I’d had problems equalizing. I said, no. No problems at all. In fact, I never get nose bleeds, much less blood in my mouth. To say I was concerned would be an understatement. Who knows what I had done to my body on the fast ascent. I couldn’t remember if I’d accidentally held my breath. And what about when I was floating in mid water out of air? If I had, the blood could be the result of lung over-expansion, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when you hold your breath underwater and the compressed air expands in your lungs during ascent. Because of the fast ascent, I was also concerned about the possibility of decompression sickness.
Shortly after we surfaced, the boat returned. The crew helped me pull off my BCD and weight belt and climb into the boat. Onboard I wasn’t sure what to do. I climbed to the back and sat in a corner by the engine. I wiped my nose again and my fingers were covered in blood. Once Nunu was onboard we took off to meet up with another dive boat who was standing by in case the other clients surfaced. Waiting on the boat was terrible. My mind was flooded with what if’s. Nunu and I sat together as the others climbed out of the water. As I waited, I washed my nose and mouth with salt water and the bleeding soon stopped.
The ride back to shore was agonizing and the hours and days that followed were even worse. I felt like I’d been run over by a freight train. My headache persisted for several hours after the dive. My muscles ached. I had a fever and my resting heart rate was 96 bpm (by comparison my normal resting heart rate is closer to 46 bpm). My chest was sore. I got worn out just walking down the street. Worst of all however was the mental stress. So many what if’s were running through my head. What if I’d held my breath? What if I developed decompression sickness due to the fast ascent? Both were potentially fatal problems and the only decompression chamber was out of service. Sheri, Sharikay, Eric, and two dive masters that we’d become good friends with all sprang into action to help – consulting other dive instructors and dive doctors and pouring over the data from the dive to determine the best course of action. As a precaution, I was put on oxygen (a preventative measure to reduce the chances of developing decompression sickness), given plenty of fluids and aspirin, and told to get plenty of rest. Through it all Sheri couldn’t have taken better care of me. She was by my side for hours on end, attending to my every need and doing everything she could to put my mind at ease. I could not have felt less alone or more loved. It’s yet another reminder of how truly fortunate I was to have met her 17 wonderful years ago.
In the end, I was fine. After a few days of rest I was pretty much back to normal and eager to return to the water. The SPG was tested and proven to be faulty. That explains why I ran out of air at 110 bars. Nuno and I have discussed the dive at length and reviewed data and graphs downloaded from our dive computers. Many questions have since been answered however others still remain. Regardless, the experience underscores how important it is to pay attention to potential warning signs, avoid undue risks and most importantly, be willing to abort a dive if necessary.
By the time I was back to normal there wasn’t enough time to visit Sao Vincent and Santo Antao. We didn’t mind much however because we were having a wonderful time hanging out Rita and her friends. The last few days before returning to Dakar were spent hanging out on the beach, drinking beers and generally lazing about enjoying Cape Verde’s perfect weather. To top it off, Rita’s friend Nuno was very generous and invited us out for a day of quad biking to explore the island. Anna also offered us free massages at her spa in Hotel Rio on the day we left, but unfortunately we weren't able to take her up on the offer because of the many errands left to do before catching the flight.
Alas, it was time to go back to Africa. Saying goodbye to our new friends, the prefect weather, the great diving, the running water, the sit down toilets, and the electricity was difficult. We’d had an excellent time. Cape Verde was the perfect antidote to our hard slog through the desert. It was a wonderful vacation, which went a long way to refueling our batteries and preparing us mentally for the difficult, raining road ahead.