It was late in the summer of 2004 and for quite some time I had been living and working in Kuwait as part of a small advisory team to the Kuwait National Guard, an internal defense force of the Kuwaiti military responsible for the security of the Ruling Family and a number of critical sites throughout the country. It was a fairly comfortable assignment although stressful at times due to a much slower operational tempo and an ensha’Allah mentality within the ranks. Any true first class Kuwaiti will consider himself the elite of Arab elite and with the KNG, as with most militaries in that part of the world, tomorrow usually means sometime next week. A three year action plan can just about turn into a career effort with little or no difficulty…ensha’Allah.
Given our somewhat less than demanding schedule, we had plenty of time for off duty activities, though as a Westerner, you really have to be creative to keep yourself entertained in Kuwait. Several members of the team to include myself were avid divers and spent a lot of hours either at the dive club hanging out or actually out on the water getting some dive time. There are several dive shops there and as many decent dive sites ranging fifteen minutes to a couple of hours out. Arifjan Reef was one of our favorites. The depth probably does not exceed 60 feet and the water clarity is fair. There is wreck to dive, a vertical reef and lot of really inquisitive marine life. It is perfect for recreational diving. Kuhbar Island is another interesting place to dive with even more sea life and slightly better clarity. Both of these sites as with virtually every other site in the Persian Gulf have relatively strong currents, but none compare to the surge in the shipping lane and if it is the more extreme variety of diving you’re after, this is it. The Gulf is fairly shallow with its absolute deepest point at less than 300 feet. At its greatest depth, the shipping lane coming in to the coast is probably no more than 130 feet which is just under the average depth for the entire Persian Gulf basin. A deep dive for our team was usually no more than 115 feet to the bottom edge of the lane and we had one particular buoy that we dove when we were feeling adventurous. It wasn’t the depth that made this a challenging dive but rather the surge off the buoy cable. If you can imagine the sensation of being sucked in and out of a straw then you can probably relate. The current in this particular area will pull a diver 30 feet in one surge and it is extremely important to descend on a landmark like a buoy cable. This cable is about as big around as my arm and in the split second calm between surges you can be pulled right back into it if you aren’t paying attention. That kind of high speed impact can knock you out cold or worse. It is hazards like these that most dive teams are very conscious of in extreme conditions which sometimes make them less aware of the more typical dangers that can happen in any dive situation. Those that stay grounded are usually the heroes when everything goes wrong.
One afternoon we were in one of our more adventurous moods and decided to head to the lane. This was going to be the certifying deep dive for one of the newer team members who was doing his advanced open water scuba certification. I had just bought new equipment…a new BCD and regulator and was anxious to try it out in deeper water. The regulator was a little more advanced than I was used to and I knew I would have to make some adjustments on descent as the pressures increased. The water was choppy that day but we went ahead and put the boat at about 75 meters up current from the buoy and entered the water. I think we may have underestimated the currents that day and we had a little difficulty getting everyone in place at the cable for descent. Once we all got close enough, our anchor man went down and everyone followed with me bringing up the rear.
It is interesting that on a day like that the surface is so visually and audibly chaotic, yet just a few meters below there is this prevailing serenity awaiting. The deeper you go the more peaceful it becomes. The currents are still strong and the surge still pulls but you move in unison with everything around you like dandelion seeds blowing in the wind. It is easy to lose focus and in deep water that can be deadly.
We slowly submerged keeping the cable in sight. The current was a bit less violent as we approached 50 feet but still pulling us back and forth significantly. As we hit 70 feet I made the first adjustment to my regulator. I felt fine at this point other than a slight tightness in my chest from the increasing pressure. At 85 feet I made another adjustment to my regulator to slightly increase the flow of air, then continued my descent. At some point thereafter, I lost my air and blacked out.
For many divers, inexperienced or otherwise, this is where it likely would have ended and it would have ended for me too if it were not for my dive partner. Ralph was not only my dive partner that day, but he was also an extremely experienced instructor who had worked at our dive shop for several years. He was good at it and lived for it every day. I think had it not been for his experience and situational awareness, the surge would have pulled me out to sea and I might have never been found.
I do not remember anything about the actual point I lost consciousness, but I had apparently signaled him that I had no air and instinctively tried to ascend. The first life saving step in this situation is to resist the panic instinct. There is not a lot of time to analyze anything at this point but looking up at a hundred feet of surging water above you is a pretty helpless feeling if you are on your last breath of air. With no ability to breath, rapid ascension is instinctive but extremely dangerous though your mind tells you that it is your only chance. This is true at any depth but at 100 feet it is probably going to be futile…and fatal. If you make it, the bends will either kill you or make you wish you were dead. Holding your breath while trying to salvage every remaining benefit of oxygen from that last breath of air can lead to a horrific and agonizing death. Failing to expel the compressed air will burst your lungs as it expands in them on ascent. As a diver especially when diving in extreme conditions, you have to be prepared for everything, accept the possibility of anything and confront your fears. You have to rewire your instincts to the point that your response to extraordinary circumstances is correct more often than not. No one knows how they will respond in the face of death so if you are courting it, you have to be technically, physically and mentally prepared. Recreational diving at 60 feet in good conditions has its dangers too but doubling that the depth in storm surge might be considered extreme. Prepare yourself.
According to Ralph, though I don’t remember any of it, the first thing I did right was signal that I lost air. The next move could have been my demise had my first response been incorrect. In a brief moment of panic, I attempted to ascend, and then stopped in time for Ralph to grab my leg before the surge drug me away. All of this probably happened an instant before I blacked out. I had countered the panic instinct long enough for him to pull me back face to face where we apparently made eye contact before I lost consciousness.
The next thing I actually remember was Ralph and I slowly ascending. As quickly as it happened it was over and his octopus was my lifeline. We stopped at about 60 feet where we stayed for several minutes. I was becoming more clear headed and fiddled with my regulator to try and figure out what went wrong. I signaled that I wanted to breathe on my own again and he gave me the ok. I removed the octopus and inserted my regulator and purged. It functioned properly and I was breathing comfortably. As nervous as I was about doing it, I seemed to realize right away that if I did not get back on the horse that threw me, I might never go back down. I gave a thumbs down to signal I wanted to descend and Ralph looked at me, sort of cocking his head as if to ask if I was sure. I gave him an ok…no problem. I couldn’t see him smiling with the regulator in his mouth but that squint in his eyes said it all.
We caught up with the team at the bottom, none of whom were aware of anything at that point. Despite everything that occurred on the way down, it was one of my best dives in Kuwait, certainly my most memorable. On the bottom, I just sat there in awe staring like a small child at the many things I had never seen down there before. They were always there; I just didn’t see their beauty before. The tiny specks of glowing sea life were brilliant as always but my appreciation and enthusiasm had reached a new level since I had left the surface. The tiny starfish clung to my mask and I played with them like a child would play with a kitten. I didn’t want to leave this beautiful place at the bottom of the sea…but with time running out, it was time to ascend.
Our slow and deliberate ascent that day was uneventful and even peaceful, at least until we broke into the wretched chaos of the surface world. On the boat, Ralph played down the seriousness of the situation which I should have expected. He was a humble man but also very good at what he did. Maybe to him, it was all in a day’s work just as it is to the fire fighters, policemen and paramedics in our communities. Saving a life is anything but ordinary and it is never routine to the one that has been saved.
The very next day I went back down to the bottom of the shipping lane, again in the spirit of getting back on that horse. The cause of my blackout was likely a combination of narcosis and a poorly adjusted regulator. I’m not sure if that wonderful feeling of euphoria I felt on the bottom was due to a greater appreciation for life after such a near death experience or the anesthetizing affects of the narcosis, but it was life changing. I quickly got over any reservations about deep diving but I did experience some difficulties for a few years. Though I never remember having any dreams specifically about the events of that day, I would occasionally wake up suddenly, soaked with sweat. As I would sit up in the bed trying to catch my breath, the only thought I would have was of that late summer afternoon when I almost lost my life at the bottom of the Persian Gulf.
I left Kuwait in late 2005 after two years. Though I never saw or heard from Ralph again, his saving of my life is not something I will ever forget nor will I ever be able to express my gratitude enough. Because of this man, I am still here to go fishing with my grandkids and to fulfill whatever Gods plan is for my life. It turns out Ralph wasn’t the only dive partner I had that day.