I check my watch. The second hand tickssilently past the hour mark as I slow my breathing and watch Ben’s fins disappear into the deep. I grip the float tightly, watching the dive line as it drops straight down to the seabed four stories below. There is no sign of Ben. The seconds tick past. I try and focus on my breathing, pushing the rising panic to the back of my mind. Every dive so far I have turned back before the plate. Time is running out for me to make the depth. I try to switch off, focusing on the tiny jellyfish that dances back and forth in front of my mask. Three breaths in, six breaths out. Ben appears from the murk, gliding silently to the surface. His return journey complete, it’s my turn to dive.
I let my hand drift up in front of my mask. Two minutes has passed since I started my breathe up, more than enough time to focus, lowering my heart rate with controlled breathing. In the back of my mind the fear of hyperventilating is pulling at my focus. If I scrub my lungs of CO2 now, I won’t get the warning signals until much later, increasing the chances of a shallow water blackout. I have to go. The balance is tipping from calm to panic, and I need my heart rate lower. Lifting my head out of the water, I prepare to take my final breaths.On the surface the water is choppy. The muffled sounds from the dive boat suddenly become crystal clear as my head clears the waves. Slowly and deliberately, I stow my snorkel on the float. Maintaining my breathing as I hold position, I give the signal that I am ready. My mind silently clicks through the motions: breathe up, breathe out, three-stage breathe in, equalise, kick-kick, bend at the waist, one stroke with the arms, equalise, legs straight and kick for the bottom. It’s a lot to remember. Two days’ training is not enough for the sequence to be muscle memory. The actions are still deliberate, pondered; every wasted second, every movement out of place wasting vital oxygen that I will need to get back to the surface. I breathe up to stop the panic. In, out, and in one last time. I feel the air inflate my lungs, my ribs tense with the pressure. One last gulp and the dive begins.
The surface is a blur. My world becomes inverted as I duck dive away from the glassy boundary between our world and the deep. Pulling down with my arms, I feel the pressure on my ears immediately as I descend. I bring my hand to my mask, pushing air through my sinuses to block out the panic of being unable to breathe. As I kick down I find the line, fixing it in my view. For the next minute this will be my world. Straight down into the murk.
Five meters pass quickly. I fight the urge to look up or down, maintaining a neutral position to conserve oxygen. All I can see is the dive line in front of my face. I tick off the marks on the rope. My lungs begin to burn, urging me to breathe, but I haven’t gone 10m yet. The plate is at 16m. The panic rises: I should have hit the double black marker by now, my previous best low point. If I could find the mark I know the bottom would be close. I keep kicking, lungs burning, into the darkness.
Eventually I find the mark as my throat begins to gulp, my body’s CO2 levels urging me to breathe. Six more meters. I slow down, hesitant. This is it, the lowest point I have ever dived to. I know I can return from this depth, but I need to push further, past my panic and into the unknown. This is it. My best shot. I push the fear to the back of my mind, trust my body, and kick down again.
After 10m, everything seems to change. The burning fades as I focus hard on the line, the colours changing around me from blue to green. I can feel the pressure crushing my body; in these last few meters time becomes syrupy. I am completely focused on the line now, letting my body propel me deeper as I follow the silvery trail down, down, down. There are no more markers to pass, no more thoughts to occupy my mind, the next point I hit is the bottom. Four more kicks.It comes quickly, the small yellow disk the size of a dinner plate, marking the depth of 16 meters, the height of two standard houses stacked together. I stretch out a hand and touch it; I have reached my goal. I invert my body: in the three-dimensional aquatic world I am upright again. I look around, seeing the seabed disappear in muted shades of green and black; kelp and seaweed blow in a tidal wind like grass in a midnight field. But the focus is broken, the concentration lost. I am still underwater, the surface 16 meters above me. The burning returns to my lungs as I realise I am only half way.
I kick up. Fighting the urge to look for the surface as the burning in my lungs increases, my body involuntarily gulping for air as it uses up my oxygen. I feel the tug of the lanyard on my wrist as I drift from the line, all my thoughts now on the surface, the tranquility of being deep leaving my body as I ascend. I look up, the surface now within sight, shimmering like a veil of glass separating the two worlds. My kicks are ragged, inefficient: I am using up too much energy. The contractions have moved to my chest, my body fighting over scraps of precious oxygen. But I am there, my buoyancy carrying me faster and faster to the surface. I see the light shimmer across the surface, the float, the line. My head breaks the surface and I let out a shout. “BREATHE!” Ian’s voice brings me back to the present. I breathe in, sucking air deep into my frantic lungs. Two more deep breaths – “I’m ok! I’m ok!” I give the signal. The dive is complete, I made the depth: 16 vertical meters into the upside down aquatic world on a single breath. The door is now open to step into the deep.