Diving Dahab in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula
Something was terribly wrong. I'd tapped a little air into my BCD (buoyancy control device) and, somehow, the valve was now stuck open, over inflating the BCD (which you wear like a vest), sending me on a panicky bullet train to the surface. I pulled frantically at the BCD's release valve. Nothing happened. Air began screaming out of a valve behind my head. It sounded like a person shouting. I continued to rocket upward. I turned myself upside down and kicked frantically, slowing my ascent slightly. Far below, my divemaster buddy and two girls from Newcastle looked up at me. I popped up on the surface a few seconds later. Air continued to blast out of the valve behind me.
I'd ascended 15 meters in less than 20 seconds. That isn't good. If I'd been deeper, I may have bought myself an express ticket to the decompression chamber in nearby Sharm el-Sheikh. Or worse.
As it was, I was uneasy, my dive ended prematurely, and I had a new anxiety to add to my underwater repertoire. But I wasn't going to let a dangerous equipment malfunction undermine my desire to see the world below Egypt. I began an advanced dive course the next morning.
Keen to do some deep dives, I enrolled in a two-day PADI Advanced Open Water course. This course takes you down to 30 meters under the close supervision of a licensed instructor.
Being 30m below the surface is like being 10 stories down; if anything goes wrong at that depth, it's extremely serious. Also, after 25m most divers feel the effects of nitrogen narcosis, a state of intoxication caused by excess nitrogen in the blood.
How Narced Are You?
The descent into the canyon was pleasant. I hovered above the big crack in the coral, tapped some air out of my (new) BCD, and floated down to 30m in a horizontal position. I felt utterly free. Better still was the view from the bottom. Watching the silhouetted forms of my dive companions glide down amidst a flurry of air bubbles filled me with intense, unadulterated elation.
Yep, I was narced out of my mind.
Earlier, Wael conducted a test to measure my mental response time. On a plastic slate, he'd drawn the numbers 1 through 20 in a random order and had me locate and point to them in consecutive order. On the surface, I'd completed the exercise in a none-too-snappy 35 seconds; at the bottom of the Canyon, I clocked in at a dopey 45.
From the bottom of the canyon we ascended through an enclosed tunnel to a cramped cave known as the Fishbowl. Hundreds of inch-long, translucent glass fish crowded the water. Directly outside the Fishbowl the water was equally congested with goldfish and small blue fish that shimmered in the refracted sunlight.
Fish in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aquaba seem to be much larger than their counterparts in the rest of the world. Huge groupers dwarfed me as they lumbered past; puffer fish the size of Mini Coopers hid beneath table corals and giant clams. Even the sea slugs swell to enormous proportions.
Deep Black Sea
But most dives off Dahab are shore dives, where you suit up on the beach and walk right into the water. The shore dive factor removed some terror from the equation. Also, Wael inspired confidence. And I didn't have much choice – either I did the night dive or I didn't get the certification.
We suited up, tested our lights, and walked into the water just after nightfall. My classmates and I were nervous.
"Okay, everybody ready?" Wael asked as we were about to descend.
We gave him the ‘okay' sign.
"Michael, Toby – you guys have your snorkels in. You might breathe easier through your regulators."
The marine life was extraordinarily active. Lionfish patrolled the sandy bottoms, an irate octopus glared up at our lights, a huge Spanish Dancer (a red, slug-like creature) wriggled across a coral pinnacle.
Toward the end of the dive we even turned our lights off and hovered in blackness. Then suddenly: sparks. Wael was agitating the water in front of him, forcing positive and negative ions to collide and glow phosphorescent (or something like that). We all began churning the water in front of us, creating galaxies of fading stars against a black water sky.
The most infamous dive site in Dahab is known as the Blue Hole. Located just a meter offshore, the Blue Hole is a crater in the coral floor that's as big around as a baseball diamond and over 100m deep. Considered by many to be the most deadly dive site in the world, the blue hole has claimed over 120 lives since it was discovered in 1962.
My classmates and I entered the water to the north of the Hole in a narrow crack in the coral known as the Bells. We immediately descended to the bottom of the fissure, into the open water, 30m below the surface. This was just my second deep dive; I worked hard to control my buoyancy and keep my cool.
On one side of me, a towering wall of brilliantly-colored coral marked the coastline. On the other side was a vast, empty expanse of clear, deep blue water – the abyss.
After 20 minutes at 20m along the wall, we ascended to seven meters and swam over a coral ridge into the Blue Hole. Before the dive we'd agreed to swim across the Hole dead-center, and as we did so the crater walls and other frames of reference fell from view.
At around 55m in depth the Blue Hole merges with a cave known as the Archway that leads to the outside sea. Using a special formula of air designed for deep dives, experienced technical divers can successfully reach the arch, swim 26m through the cave, emerge into the open sea, and ascend to the surface. It's also possible (and considerably more dangerous) to perform the dive on regular air in multi-tank, staged dives.
Deep, empty blue surrounded me as I swam across the surface of the Blue Hole. Sunlight reached down in dancing, splintering shafts. Mesmerized, I stared down at the light. I felt surreally calm. After a while, the light appeared to be coming up out of the hole. The depths beckoned me. I began to feel like I was up for going just a little deeper, if only to see where that light was coming from.
Fortunately, that wasn't an option. I was attached to Wael, breathing off his alternate air source. Spooked by the void and the thrill of my second deep dive, I'd consumed most of my own air before we'd even reached the Blue Hole.
It's Getting Better All the Time
The next day, during a shallower dive, I had a total bottom time of 67 minutes, shattering my previous record.
The incident with the malfunctioning BCD no longer troubles me. In fact, it's made me a stronger diver. I'm better prepared for emergency situations now, and I know how to react better during them. And in the case of deep dives, that knowledge may make the difference between entering the abyss forever and living to dive another day.