Diving the Duane

Duane from above

A version of this was posted on Scuba Diver Life.

As excitement and fear coursed through my body, the last thing I could see before my head went under water was the thumbs down signals from all of the other divers with me. With a full exhale, I grasped the mooring line alongside the others and pulled myself hand over hand down into the depths. Below me was the guide and a couple other dive teams on the trip, behind me my dive buddy and current boyfriend. The line was very large for my hands and difficult to grip, but we each continued downward toward our goal one hundred feet below us: the deck of the USCGC Duane, destined to be the deepest dive I had done yet, and my first without an instructor with me.

At some point while descending on the nearly 45 degree angled rope, I looked up and realized that there was little, if  any, discernible difference between what was up and what was down.  Enveloping me was a murky blue, above… below… all sides. There wasn’t any land or object reference in sight and the bubbles going upward were the only definitive indication of which way was up.  While some part of my mind thought, “this is cool!”, my breath became quicker and my heart rate raced as a panic tried to set in. I gripped the rope in what could only be considered “white knuckled” if one were able to see the color of knuckles at that depth. I tried to remember my limited training. My descent was stopped and I focused solely on my psychological issues. “Just breathe,” I told myself, “focus.”

I took slow, deep breaths while deliberately trying to quell the rising panic that stemmed from the disorientation I was experiencing. This feeling of fear was familiar, an old friend. In fact, conquering my fears was something I deliberately sought to do. “I can do this,” I told myself. “I CAN do this,” my internal dialogue continued with each calming breath as the intense and conflicting emotions and desires triggered a tear to slip out from the corner of my eye and slide down inside my mask.

Within a minute or so I had pushed the panic back and come out the other side of it. After turning and giving my buddy the ‘okay’ signal, I resumed my descent and caught up with the diver in front of me. A feeling of exhilaration ensued, as it normally did after I had conquered a fear. I was ready, I wanted to see this ship, my first large wreck dive and my first deep dive all in one. I was proud of myself and my confidence blossomed in the wake of my triumph. But no sooner had I suffocated that disorientation panic than all downward movement on the line suddenly stopped. I looked straight in front of me and saw why. There was movement there, obviously a large, solitary marine animal of some kind. I gripped the line tightly again. This time though, I wasn’t alone in my fear.

We watched and waited as out of the murky blue around us, the body fully emerged. Its side to side tail movement gave it away as a large shark even before we could identify what kind. I had seen reef and nurse sharks before but this was neither. This was 5-6 times the size of any shark I had ever seen (or so it seemed), its was mouth relaxed in a partially open position and revealed the jagged teeth within. Occasionally in life one faces a potential adversary that one realizes would win in any confrontation that ensued, and in one of those moments, one just hopes, as I did, that the potential adversary decides to swim on past. This was one of those times. Since I am here telling this story, it’s obvious the large, beautiful beast didn’t consider me his next meal. The shark got within a few yards of the 7 divers dangling helplessly on the line and abruptly turned around to swim away. I don’t even remember breathing the entire time, but I must have. I know, at the very least, I let out an exhale of relief as I watched its tail disappear back into the blue. To this day, I’m still not sure what kind of shark it was since at the time I was pretty new to diving. But based on its size and the shape of its mouth, I feel pretty sure it was either a bull or a great white. I realize now, after many more years of experience and education, that the shark presence wasn’t that big of a deal. At the time though, it really was.

The second panic over, I restarted my downward movement with the others toward the deck of the Duane. In moments, out of the blue – literally – I could see the crows nest of the ship and shortly thereafter the entirety of the ship itself. Seeing that ghostly structure emerge from the depths is one of the most memorable and surreal moments I’ve had diving. It took my breath away and from that moment onward, I’ve been a wreck diver. The next thing I knew, we had dropped onto the deck of the Duane and kneeled there as we checked our air and status.

I was excited and a bit apprehensive, but followed the divemaster and others around the ship. I looked at decks, rigging, portholes and tried to imagine the ship dry and above water with dozens of people milling around on it. I  imagined human life living on it, men running around on her decks, climbing the crows nest, looking out of the portholes that I peered into now. It was marine life that called it home down here, nibbling at the coral and algae that enveloped much of the ship.  In my mind I hear the Jimmy Buffet lyrics of A Pirate Looks at Forty about ‘mother mother ocean’, “And in your belly you hold the treasures few have ever seen” . I continued in awe until eventually we had to call the dive for reasons I’ve already told in another post. Suffice it to say, the Duane was and still is one of my most memorable dives for more than one reason, both of which I’ve told now. Even though this dive, for me, had its difficulties, scares, and potential disasters, it’s one that taught me so much about myself, the ocean, and diving in general. I can’t wait to get back there again to more fully explore it so many years later now that I’m much better trained and experienced.

Duane crows nest