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Lost in Paradise- Lessons Learned
Date:06/11/02  By Guest Contributor

In 1998, a co-worker (who I will refer to as "Gracie") and I, both divemasters with nearly 1,500 dives between the two of us, decided to take a dive trip for some well deserved time off from the day to day hustle and bustle of city life. We had planned our tropical dive vacation nearly six months in advance. Our destination was Roatan, in the Bay Islands just off the coast of Honduras. Nine full days of some of what many consider to be the best diving on the face of the planet.

...two divemasters with nearly 1,500 dives combined, what could possibly go wrong, right?

After our journey, a brief orientation and some complimentary non-alcoholic beverages in our system, we were fully hydrated and ready to dive. Since our flight into the Bay Islands had us arriving at our destination at about 2:00pm, we were only able to do one dive that day...however it was quite exhilarating to experience the warm 85 degree waters with no thermocline in our 3/2mm wetsuits. To say the least, we were in Heaven and realized that this is where we definitely wanted to be. There was only one problem: both of us had caught diving "fever" and needed more action. We decided to do some night diving off the resort's lagoon entrance which was equipped with a nicely built custom dock specially designed just for this type of activity. So, after our five-course dinner, we alerted the resort's divemaster that we were planning a night dive and he had several tanks taken down to the dock in preparation for our diving adventure.

After our usual ceremonious gear setup and buddy checks, Gracie and I were ready to take on the night armed with our high-intensity dive lights and chemical sticks attached to our tank valves. Once ready, we began wading into the waist deep water toward the reef's entrance. Though our divemaster and his staff gave us some pointers during a full briefing, our expectations were set and we were certain we needed little advice and we were both anxious to start our dive. We didn't really feel the need to take notes on our dive slates or pay that close attention to the divemaster. After all, here we were two divemasters with nearly 1,500 dives combined, what could possibly go wrong, right?

As we made our approach toward the reef's entrance into open water, we both noticed that the dock area was well lit, but the reef was much further than it appeared from the dock. As Gracie and I got closer to the reef, the water was no longer waist deep and appeared to be five or six feet deep, so we decided to snorkel the rest of the way. Just before we breached the reef opening, we took one last look at the dock area. Though it was well-lit, the dock began to fade from view, but no worries, we simply turned on our dive lights as it was now close to 9:00pm and nightfall had arrived in what seemed like only a few minutes since we first entered the water.

Excited that we were just about ready to submerge and begin our dive, we both descended in order to swim through the reef's opening which was only about three to five feet wide. With little difficulty, we swam through the opening and the backside of the reef quickly began to taper out to ten, twenty-five and finally about fifty five feet, yet we were less than thirty feet from the reef's wall. We were not terribly concerned with depth. Gracie and I agreed over dinner that we would keep the dive to no greater than 45 feet. As we passed the reef's opening, we both stopped for a brief moment to take a compass heading and then commenced our dive. Since Gracie was slightly in front of me seemingly leading the way, I motioned to her that we would navigate by using her compass and complete a simple out and back pattern with a slightly oval orientation.

Once we began swimming outward into open water, we noted how amazing it was that the reef was so expansive and lush so close to the resort's lagoon entrance. It seemed like an endless underwater garden, with rows and rows of aquatic plant life and a plentiful assortment of marine fish life to boot. As we approached the turn-around point on our planned profile, I gently tugged on Gracie's fin and motioned to her that it was time to start making our way back to the dock, since by now it was nearly 10:00pm and we knew that if we didn't return by 10:30pm or so, the resort staff might become concerned.

Now this is where things get a bit (for a lack of better terms), interesting. As we began our turnaround, I indicated to Gracie that I would lead us back to the reef entrance. After all, I was the more experienced diver with nearly 1,000 logged dives and a savvy navigator with nearly fourteen years of experience. As Gracie and I began our return, I had noticed that my compass seemed to have brushed against my BCD and the heading in which I was leading our return path, seemed to be a little bit "off" from where we should have been. "No biggie" I thought to myself, "I'll simply keep the reef on my right side until we approach the same depth as when we initiated our dive". I would be sure to find the opening in the reef that way. After slowly moving along the face of the reef's wall, I failed to find the reef's opening. We swam a pretty good distance and once again, I thought to myself that I probably overlooked the entrance and I would just back-track for a bit, keeping the reef on my left hand side this time...sure, that's the ticket. After all, with my training I could practically navigate in zero visibility and we were encountering a minimum of 80 feet of horizontal visibility on that dive- how could I miss twice in one night, right? Wrong!

For the next twenty minutes or so, we searched for the reef opening, but to no avail. Its as though nature had closed the opening and we were being denied re-entry to the resort! With well over 1,500psi left in our tanks, I figured the best thing to do would be for Gracie and I to surface and orient ourselves to the reef, take a new compass bearing and we would be all set. Making a normal ascent, as we breached the surface, we were both astonished (and honestly a bit terrified) to hear the all-to-familiar sound of waves crashing against the shoreline. Though only guided by moonlight, we were still able to make out the fifty-foot distance to the rocky shoreline. We looked both left and right and to our disbelief, neither one of us knew where we had surfaced in relationship to our point of origin.

After staring in disbelief for a while we both decided that it might be best to approach the shoreline, climb out of the water to higher ground and once again, try to position ourselves in relationship to the resort. To make an even bad situation worse, though we were able to make it out of the water and onto the rocky shoreline with relative ease, it didn't take long for Gracie to stumble a bit and fall down. After all, we were still equipped with nearly 50lbs. of scuba gear on our back, making it more of a challenge. The rocky shoreline was a very jagged and sharp section of volcanic rock. At this point, several things became abundantly clear. First, we were hopelessly lost. Second, Gracie had managed to cut herself, though nothing life threatening, she was still bleeding quite a bit. Third, it would only be a matter of about 20 minutes before the resort employees would start searching for us. Given this, though tired and quite rattled by now, we both agreed that we would get back in the water, swim one direction and try one last desperate attempt to find the reef opening.

With our dive lights both beaming out into open water (both being well aware that sharks have been known to sense blood in the water from a distance of over a mile), we submerged to about five feet and began swimming south along the reef. Nearly at wits end, we finally found a big opening in the reef and proceeded to swim on the surface to the lagoon. We thought we had finally found the entrance to our resort's lagoon... wrong again! Though we did find "a lagoon" it was the wrong opening in the reef- wrong lagoon. We realized that we had swam too far south down the coastline. At this point, we had no choice but to exit the water and hitchhike back to the resort on land.

Well to cap the adventure, both Gracie and I (with the help of some locals who didn't seem to understand anything we asked them), ended up walking on land back to the resort. After nearly falling through a cattle guard grate (with full scuba gear in place) and paying out a fairly expensive tip to our tour guide, we finally made it back to our resort. Not exactly the way we had anticipated, but we were safe and sound at our home-away-from-home. Since we were only about twenty minutes past the return time that we filed with the divemaster, we figured that no one would ever find out about our adventure at sea. Wrong again!

The next morning Gracie and I were both painfully aware of what happened, as were the resort dive staff. You see, both Gracie and I had to ante up to the truth when we showed up at the marina the next morning with all of the cuts and scrapes from the prior night's dive/walk! We both ended up feeling like poster children for the "Don't let this happen to you" campaign for the resort! In summary, not all was lost. For the rest of the week, Gracie and I were elected to be the resort's living and breathing examples of why unguided night diving was no longer allowed at the resort.. There were positive sides of our experience, such as winning the "wildest story" of the week, but I can honestly say that this is one award that Gracie and I would never want to win again!

The mishaps on our adventure could have been avoided with better planning and the right equipment such as a brightly flashing strobe on the surface above the reef entrance. Additionally, had we listened to our divemaster's briefing more closely, we might have heard him tell us about things such as the tidal change and how it often tends to change the appearance of the reef. Hopefully the events and lessons learned in this "real-life" scenario will validate and quantify the importance of proper dive and contingency planning and hopefully will help divers avoid becoming poster children for the "Don't let this happen to you" campaign!

Here's what we learned from our experience:

1. Never attempt to do a night dive without a daytime orientation of the site you plan on diving

2. Divers should always meticulously plan their dives, regardless of certification/experience level or their flamboyant egos. Proper dive planning and preparation is critical

3. Dive buddies should review and discuss simple procedures such as navigation of the dive itself. In most cases, the diver who navigates out should always be the same diver who navigates the return path

4. Always seek advice from the local divers or dive resort staff. Regardless of the country your diving takes place in, a few well-taken written notes could end up saving you from a great deal of pain, suffering and embarrassment or could end up contributing to saving a life in some cases!

5. Divers should ALWAYS dive well within their limits

Dive Safe

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