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A 40-minute bounce from Mallaig by RIB lies the small island of Eigg. On a beautiful, midge-free June day my buddy and I kitted up to dive a wall on the eastern side of the island.
I’d joined the club the previous summer and started training as a Sports Diver. Today I was diving with a buddy who had qualified as a Sports Diver the previous summer; I hadn’t dived with her before but she seemed the sensible type. We did our buddy checks and rolled into the water.
The plan was to go down to 30m, follow the wall, and turn at when the first of us got down to 100 bar. We’re both keen photographers, so it was going to be a leisurely bimble; we didn’t know what to expect as none of the group had dived this particular wall before.
It was really beautiful. Jewel anemones encrusted the rocks, interspersed with sea fans, dahlia and plumose anemones, sponges and dead-men’s fingers; cuckoo wrasse made a bold colour statement, while hundreds of smaller fry attempted to remain invisible. There was lots going on and as I tried to catch it all with my camera our dive profile was somewhat sawtoothed.
My buddy signalled that she had 100 bar. I had the same and we turned back along the wall towards the boat. The sights were just as good as we pootled homeward.
As we began our ascent, trouble hit.
I used to wear a harness but as the weights weren’t of the quick-release type the club had vetoed it and I’d bought a weight-belt instead. I’d always had trouble with weight-belts, not being of a lean build, which is why I’d originally got the harness. I’d managed OK with the belt the previous summer but had put on quite a lot of weight over the winter. Today I’d tightened the belt as much as I could on the boat, but with the extra pressure it had come loose and started falling down.
I signalled “problem” and pointed to my weight-belt. It took time and quite some effort, but together we got it up over my bum and she held it in place while I tightened the strap. During the struggle we descended to 34 metres, well below our planned depth.
Problem sorted, my buddy tried to put up her DSMB but it got away from her and headed for the surface so I tried mine. The sausage got tangled round its cord and I couldn’t get much air into it, so I let go and we headed up. I hadn’t realised how much air we’d got through while fixing my belt until it became really hard to inhale: my tank was empty.
I signalled my buddy that I was out of air and reached for her octopus. She gave me her pony reg instead; when we got to the surface she told me she only had 20 bar left herself. With so little air we didn’t do a safety stop, despite the screaming from my computer. In fact we came up too fast from about 17 metres.
With an empty bottle I struggled on the surface: it isn’t easy to get enough lift with the self-inflation BC hose to keep a chap my size afloat, especially when you’re also having to tread water. My buddy had headed for the boat but realised I was in trouble and came back to support me until the boat arrived.
The surface party had suspected something was wrong when both our DSMBs came up unattached. When they saw us hanging onto each other’s BCs they quickly got us into the boat and checked our computers to see whether we needed oxygen. They decided we were probably OK – nothing that plenty of liquids and chocolate couldn’t cure, a diagnosis we were happy to go along with (neither of us did suffer any ill-effects).
So what did we learn? From now on I’ll wear my weight-belt, in the words of one of the club instructors, “like a boob-tube, not like a gun-slinger”. I tried it the following afternoon, when our computers allowed us back in the water, and it worked.
In retrospect it was silly to try and send up DSMBs – especially the second one – when we were short of air. Habit has its place, but so does rational thought. One instructor suggested we might have been suffering a touch of narcosis. Whether we did or not, I learnt that doing something just because you’ve been trained to do it isn’t necessarily sensible.