Like a Fish to Air – Roatan, Honduras


Anthony’s Key Resort, Roatan, Honduras

Have you ever been so frightened you thought you were going to die?

Not just a little scared, or the kind of adrenalin rush that comes with a close call while driving the L.A. freeways, but the kind of fear where your life flashes before you and your brain says “Oh my God, this is it. This is how I’m going to die!”

Not only was I going to die, I thought, but it was going to be my fault. Sixty feet below the surface in the crystal blue waters of Honduras, I had a wee bit o’ panic. Ok, there was nothing “wee” about it. I had a full-blown panic attack, and I thought I was going to be another travel statistic, another page 12, single paragraph, small print headline, like, “American Woman Drowns Scuba Diving in Honduras”.

Before I went to Honduras I had read on a SCUBA website the tragic tale of a woman who had panicked during a wreck dive and had drowned. The members of the message board were none too kind, blaming her for her plight. “She should have done this or that,” “she shouldn’t have been diving at all,” was the general tone of the postings. This did not instill me with confidence, since I hadn’t been diving for quite a while.

My husband and I were staying at Anthony’s Key Resort, one of the many dive “resorts” on the island of Roatan off the Honduran Coast (resort is a very loose term in Honduras). Before arriving there, we had driven to Copan to explore the Mayan ruins and the surrounding countryside. It felt so great to be traveling again, and I was excited at the prospect of going diving in what is considered to be one of the best reefs in the world. We had been diving in Fiji, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and Thailand, and we couldn’t wait to see what the Caribbean waters had to offer.

The day we arrived it was too late to go diving. The following morning we went to the dive shop, signed in, got our equipment and went out on the boat we were assigned.

Usually, the first dive of the day is the deepest, and this one was planned to drop down along a reef wall down to about 80 feet (24 meters). Right away I was nervous. I had really wanted my first dive in 2 years to be a shallow one. The dive master had all new guests do a buoyancy test, and I had problems at the beginning. My new fins were too loose and fell off in the water. My new mask was leaking. I couldn’t descend, and kept floating to the surface. The dive master gave me another weight. Finally he determined all was ok and we were ready to head out. Why I did not listen to the unsettled voice in my head I will never know, but I would come to regret it later.

As soon as we got to the dive site everyone jumped in. I was trying to maintain my composure, but my breathing was heavy and shallow. I was very nervous and had problems descending again, but since I am fairly strong-willed, I thought if I could just power through it, I would be fine. Finally, I was able to descend and fortunately had no problems equalizing my ears.

My husband David held my hand, and I tried to remain calm as we moved through the water, following the group. I thought that after a few minutes in the water I would begin to relax and enjoy myself. As we swam along, I wasn’t enjoying myself and was just trying to keep my composure and breathe. David on the other hand, defines the expression “like a fish to water,” and was just fine. Slowly, I was becoming less and less sure of my surroundings. Water kept leaking into the bottom of my mask, so to compound the problem, I was having a hard time seeing.

Suddenly, it seemed that water was coming into my mouth through my regulator and I wasn’t getting enough air. I tried taking deeper and deeper breaths; I just couldn’t get the air in. I could feel the panic starting to set in and I tried (really, I tried) to squash it, but it just took over like a parasite in my brain.

I looked at my husband and tried to signal to him that I couldn’t breathe and that I was having problems. Salt water was in my mouth, and I had this overwhelming urge to get to the surface. He tried to calm me down and for a few moments I tried to just stop and breathe, but it wasn’t working. We switched regulators like we had learned in SCUBA class, but it just didn’t seem to help.

At that point I was absolutely certain that I had to get to the surface or I was going to drown. The dive master tried to stop me to do a safety stop, but I wouldn’t. I was absolutely terrified and struggled against him as he physically tried to restrain me. All the while there was a small, conscious part of me that was telling me that what I was doing was wrong and dangerous, but the panic overruled and I went straight to the surface.

Once at the surface, the dive master called the boat over and I got back onto the boat. I could tell he was angry, but thank God he didn’t yell at me. He did tell me it was very dangerous to come to the surface so quickly without a safety stop and that I couldn’t dive again without a refresher course. “No kidding”, I thought to myself. I was already kicking myself, wishing I had listened to that inner voice that told me not to get into the water yet, or at least listened to a friend, who before I left on the trip, begged me to take a refresher class! There is no agony like the cross of humiliation and regret. I was mortified at myself, horrified that I had put David, the dive master, and myself in danger.

When we got back to the dock, they insisted that I see the resort’s doctor, and when I explained what happened he said I was probably ok since we were only down 10 minutes or so, and only down to 60 feet. Had I needed it, they had a decompression chamber available, the only one on the island. He told me to take it easy for the rest of the day. Instead, fueled by the desire to not let it get me down, I went and signed up for a refresher class for the afternoon, which is something I should have done from the beginning.

“Well, it looks like you’re stuck with the old man,” he said. I was standing in the equipment room when Phil walked in. Phil was the head of the SCUBA program at the resort and leads the instructor’s classes. He was 54 and about my height (5’4″, or 1.6 m) with a heavily lined face.

He told me he had no instructors available today, so I was stuck with him. He said he’d have me diving better than anyone on the boat, and that I’d get a credit toward an advanced open water certificate by doing this dive course with him. Essentially, it was a Peak Performance Buoyancy Control class. I tried to explain to him what happened that morning, and I was so overwhelmed that I burst into tears, something I had fortunately avoided doing on the boat.

Today is my mother’s birthday. Happy Birthday Mom, I’m glad I didn’t die today. How much would that suck for her? I thought about calling her, but I didn’t because I knew I’d break down and tell her what happened and she would freak out.

In the afternoon I met up with Phil at the scuba school and watched a half-hour video on buoyancy control. It was fairly straightforward, except that Richard Blade narrated it. This is odd only if you’re from Southern California, since Blade is a former DJ for the local radio station KROQ. By the time the video was done, a storm had come in and buckets of rain were dropping from the sky. We did the class anyway; once you’re in the water, you’re wet.

I won’t go into the details of the class, but I did learn a few things. First, I had probably been over-weighted on my first dive. Second, my new mask didn’t fit properly (too big for my face), and my new fins and booties made my legs too buoyant, making descending difficult. Then, I re-learned how to breathe properly and kick properly. I did have a couple of moments of panic, but I managed to control it. And along the way, in the channel where we did the class, I got to see the remains of a sunken plane, and larger spiny lobsters than I ever saw in all my years as a professional chef. By the end, Phil was pleased with my performance and I felt better about myself.

I would like to say that I went diving every day after that, but I didn’t. The weather was poor, the water conditions rough. I did some snorkeling and even a swim with dolphins, but no more diving. Instead, I listened to that inner voice and decided to wait until I had the optimum conditions to use my new skills. At least I know now I won’t become a newspaper headline and ruin my mother’s birthday.