TO OBLIVION AND BACK WITH A NEW RECORD
Maclean's flew an Ontario housewife to one of the world's greatest barrier reefs because she said she would break an international depth record for women skin divers. She did it—with 37 feet to spare. This is her own account of how it feels to drift alone over the underwater edge of the world-
BY BETTE SINGER
ON AUGUST 18, 1961, a mile off the shore of Small Hope Bay on Andros Island in the Bahamas, at four o'clock in the afternoon, I stood in the stern of a small boat waiting to enter the water in my first attempt to break the world depth record for women, using compressed air. The record had remained at 270 feet for five years, although I had unofficially broken it myself earlier in the summer with a dive of 275 feet. Now I was back, with a safety team consisting of my husband Jerry; Joe Maclnnis, head of Canadian Underwater Research and the expedition’s photographer; and Dick Birch, a Canadian from Hamilton who now operates a fishing and diving resort at Small Hope Bay. This time I intended to swim 300 feet down into the silent water, where the pressure on my body would exceed 131 pounds per square inch.
Although we had planned the clive for one o’clock a series of delays had pushed it on to four. The navy diving manual states that danger from deep water predators feeding near the surface is increased after this hour. We had to take sharks and barracuda into account, but we weren't overly afraid since they had shown us only a polite interest in the eight years we had been diving in the Caribbean. I wondered if I might feel like a piece of bait on a line, alone at this extreme depth, but the thought did not obsess me.
At a little after four Joe slipped into the water, carrying our slate-line. This is a nylon rope 110 feet long, weighted on the end with
TO OBLIVION AND BACK—WITH A NEW RECORD continued
twenty-five pounds of lead, and bearing plastic slates at 90, 100, and I 10 feet. 1 was to carry a grease pencil on my dive and to write my name on the last slate. We had allowed an extra ten feet on the nylon rope for use in tying it to the anchor line 200 feet down. The final slate then would hang at least 300 feet below the surface.
The boat's anchor had caught far down the side of the reef, but from there the line slanted at a sharp angle to the surface. Using two depth gauges Joe moved to a point where both gauges showed the depth to be 200 feet, not far above the anchor itself. Then, he tied on the line bearing our slates. Five minutes later the rest of us pushed backward from the side of the boat, the heavy twin tanks on our backs becoming mercifully weightless. Below the swells on the surface we entered the cool plas-
tic world of the water. I could use only ten minutes to reach the bottom of the line from the surface, if I were to avoid long decompression on the way back.
We started down the rope that stretched below, beyond vision. At thirty feet we had to check each other's equipment before going farther down. The emergency levers on each tank had to be set to provide us with a few minutes of extra air in an emergency. When the main tank became empty the extra supply would give us time to reach a spare tank. Dick swam to each of us, peering into our eyes. He looked for signs of fear or discomfort, for either one could lead to panic in the deep.
We synchronized our watches, nodded our heads, and finned quickly down. Almost at once an unbearable pain attacked my ears. Using the familiar method of blowing against
fingers pressed to my nostrils I cleared the right ear but not the left. 1 swam against the current back to the anchor rope to stop my weighted descent, and climbed up until the pain lessened. While Dick hovered near, one eye on his watch, 1 struggled to force air into the middle ear canal to relieve the pressure on my eardrum, but it was no good. Finally Dick signaled “hold it” with his open hands crossing back and forth, and wrote on a slate the heartbreaking message, “try tomorrow.” I had already used eight minutes of my time, and it was too dangerous to continue. We climbed back into the boat, my mask awash with blood from the small veins in my nose that had burst with the effort to clear my ears.
A week before, in Cooksville, a small town near Toronto, 1 had left my home and two children in the capable hands of my housekeeper, Marianne. Behind me was the routine life shared by most suburban housewives. The sea had always been a second home to me, and 1 had set out on this adventure with no apprehensions, no fears of leaving motherless children. Although other divers had died making world record attempts, 1 believed that mine could not fail. I had faith in Jerry, Joe and Dick and the precautions we would take for the dive.
Jerry and I had been diving for eight years in Florida, Bermuda, Nassau and Barbados. We had visited wrecks in Georgian Bay and the Bruce Peninsula area, diving into dark water where the temperature could change twenty degrees so quickly that an outthrust hand is chilled while the arm stays warm. But nowhere had we found diving so varied and interesting as on the barrier reef that lies along the shore of Small Hope Bay.
The reef is a submarine mountain that begins on the ocean floor, 5,000 feet down. Its upper surface is broad, crenelated with coral heads and jagged valleys CONTINUED ON PAGE 62
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Suddenly, we reached the edge of the reef. “The green emptiness below yawned grim and still”
where an astounding variety of coral fish hunt and play.
Below the surface it presented an awesome sight to us when we first discovered it for ourselves. Swimming along the top of the reef through the gentle beauty of coral and sea fans, we came one day to the “wall” of the ocean. It dropped suddenly away before us, the very edge of the world. After the sunlit level of the reef’s top, the green emptiness below yawned, grim and still. For the first time we lost confidence in the water’s support and clung to the edge, not daring to swim closer.
This was the location we had decided to use for our deep dive. The light reflected from the wall would allow the others to watch my descent.
Why was I trying to swim so deep? I had always loved flying weightlessly over the reefs, but this dive was something else. There was much more danger involved, and I wouldn’t see as much life in the depths as I was able to see in shallower water. Maybe it was the chance to be first. I didn’t really know.
We needed an onshore wind to find the edge of the reef quickly. From the shore we would follow the top of the reef to the point where it sheered off suddenly into deep water. Several hundred yards beyond it we would drop the anchor with 400 feet of rope and drift back toward the reef wall. The reef lay about 170 feet below. Well over the edge of the wall our anchor had to catch and hold.
The second day out we were able to anchor for a practice dive. The site was ideal. When we reached the edge of the sea wall we found a cleft which provided a dramatic jumping-off place. We gathered here for narcosis tests, planning to descend together to 250 feet to watch each
other closely for signs of the deadly narcotic effect that divers call “rapture of the deep.” This acts on me as though my brain were wrapped in increasing layers of soft wool. My usual feeling of being a part of the sea develops into an active delight, which can be extremely hazardous as it intensifies with increasing depth.
One after the other we swam to the edge of the reef and drew back involuntarily at the first sight of the void. Each of us moved cautiously and descended, feet first rather than head down, into that bottomless hole. Around us was heavy stillness. Our bubbles, compressed to pin pricks by the mounting pressure, tinkled out of the regulators with a brittle sound that grew louder as we swam deeper.
Each of us carried shark billies, hardwood poles with nails at their ends. If a shark attacked, the jagged nails would keep the billy from slipping off his skin, and enable us to keep our bodies a pole’s length away. We didn’t have any reason to use the billies on this dive. Dick Birch, who was chief of operations, carried the only spear. He had the difficult job of watching all three of us, and searching the sea within the limited field of vision provided by his mask.
My reactions as we went down were the same as they have always been. Although we were going deeper I had a strong feeling of alertness, without the apprehensions I had felt closer to the surface. The sea sang to me in the music of my bubbles and delighted me with shafts of sunlight glinting round my head. 1 was intensely alive, as if 1 had returned to an element for which my body had an atavistic yearning. It seemed to me that I could stay there at peace forever.
I felt a touch on my shoulder and Dick’s
face—deep blue in the strangely filtered light, with slightly bulging eyes — swam into focus. He gave the thumb-jerking sign for “up" and 1 obeyed. 1 was laughing, though I didn’t quite know why. As 1 climbed, my mirth evaporated and 1 realized that my appearance could be no less startling than Dick’s. Pink skin tones are filtered from the spectrum below the surface, leaving divers bluer than corpses. A slight squeeze in the mask causes the skin to wrinkle and the eyes to bulge.
The next day we began to work out our decompression times from the navy tables. The timing of the record dive had to be planned in advance and adhered to strictly. My speed of descent was not limited. 1 intended to swim down as easily and as quickly as I could. I would carry extra weights and breathe slowly and deeply, to limit the amount of nitrogen 1 would absorb from my air.
Going back up, though, I would have to move slowly, vith three stops of varying lengths near the surface. The duration of the stops would depend on the length of time I had taken to reach the bottom. 1 hoped to take only five minutes on the descent, but was prepared to use as many as ten. More than this would increase the amount of nitrogen in my blood to such an extent that 1 would have to spend hours decompressing below the surface to avoid the bends.
Although equipment failure was a remote possibility we had to prepare for it. I was using a two-stage Aquamaster regulator which had been thoroughly tested by the Aqua Lung Company of Canada to a simulated depth of 500 feet. But there was always the unforeseeable. To combat this we would tie an extra lung on the anchor rope, and one of the safety men would carry another. In the boat we had four more lungs ready to go if we needed them for extensive decompression.
There was also the chance that the air in my tank would have some impurity in it, perhaps a high content of carbon monoxide from the compressor, which would cause me to black out. Dick, who was to accompany me to 250 feet where he would stand guard with the spear, insisted that there be a line between the two of us. If l did black out, he could keep me from sinking out of sight while Jerry or Joe reached me with a fresh tank of air. We had discussed the dangers of a deep dive, by telephone, with one of the safety men who had been along when Hope Root, a Miami lawyer, lost his life in a similar dive in 1953. Root wouldn't be talked out of entering a tumultuous sea on a day when the current ran strong in dark water. Without a line around him, after refusing to have his safety men deeper than 100 feet, he plunged down and never came up.
Our next attempt came on Monday. August 21. after the doctor had examined my ears and decided I was fit to dive. We redoubled our efforts to have everything organized early in the day, and at one o’clock we were stationed over the divesite and anchored to the edge of the reef wall. While Joe positioned and retied our slate-line, Jerry followed behind with two tanks. He tied one to the anchor rope at fifty feet and stationed himself with the other at 150 feet.
Dick and 1 gave them five minutes before starting down. I carried ten extra pounds of weight in my hand instead of wearing a weight belt, and Dick did the same with four pounds. The weights we would jettison at the lowest point of our respective dives. Dick carried a spear and sixty feet of rope.
As we came to the edge of the reef Dick quickly checked my gear and slipped the end of the rope on my tank, waving me good-by. I stepped off the edge and drifted down, gathering speed. Dick sank to 250
feet and there held onto the slate line, dropped his weights, and began paying out rope to me. His figure disappeared in a flood of my bubbles and I settled comfortably to concentrate on my breathing and surroundings.
I began to glow with the initial surge of well-being. The air tasted different and had weight in my mouth, but my regulator kept up its steady wheeze. I dimly felt the water turn cold around me and for a second the light was blotted out by an overhanging ledge, causing an additional chill. The loneliness of the deep grew in me, a different thing than its counterpart on land. With it came a false confidence in myself, akin to the feeling of home-coming that I always have in the sea. I was completely relaxed and without fear. My body was gently supported in shimmering green. My movements, now, had become in my mind as supremely graceful as Pavlova’s, and 1 drifted, dreaming, down. 1 laughed to think of all the unnecessary fears we had had. Nothing could happen to me here.
As I fell I noticed the water getting bright again and below me there spread a projecting lip of the reef from which the surface light reflected. I could see the end of the slate-line above it and was sorry that I would not be able to go over it to see what lay below. Running along the reef at my height was another ledge resembling a mountain trail and I was aware of fish swimming along it like peasants on their way to market. But I did not identify the fish. In some way my brain and eyes seemed disconnected and it was difficult to register what I was seeing. Visibility was even greater here than near the surface and I had the impression that I was falling into a vacuum. There were no signs of current.
As I came to the end of the rope between Dick and myself there was a gentle tug on my back. Surprised from my dreaming I turned my head and the mouthpiece began to slip from between my slackened teeth. A slow feeling of panic took hold of me, a good sign since it showed me that narcosis had not dulled my instinct for survival. My hand moved slowly up and pressed the mouthpiece back in my mouth. In the hand was a pencil and 1 remembered again the reason for my being there. Dangling near me was the luminescent square of the bottommost slate, bearing the large numerals 300. I began to trace an S on the slate while another tug came on my back, as Dick grew worried about the unplanned delay. Giggling, I tugged back and received a frantic impulse along the
line. I obeyed the signal and started up, moving my fins slowly in the suddenly solid water. Then I remembered the weights in my hand and let them go, pausing to watch them spinning away. Much lighter now, I swam with greater ease.
Dick crossed his eyes at me when 1 reached him, and together we swam up to Jerry and Joe, who patted my head and pumped my hand. In the confusion of their boisterous congratulations 1 backed into a coral head and felt a sudden sting where the sharp coral bit into the watersoftened skin of my leg. I saw blue threads oozing from the open lip of a wound. Now we would have to be careful during our long decompression, and hope that the cut would stop bleeding before predators found us. The thought sobered me.
At forty feet we stopped for one minute; at thirty feet we waited four minutes, and at fifteen feet we settled down for a stay of forty minutes. My bottom-time had been nine and a half minutes, almost the exact limit we had put on the dive. Now we must wait, unable to talk, close by the anchor rope, while the heavy concentration of nitrogen in our blood decompressed slowly.
Dick held his spear ready and circled me every few minutes, turning to look in all directions, for we had seen the long body of a tiger shark silhouetted above us. It made several wide circles around us, appearing like a shadow against the horizon, and we hovered together, alert for any sudden aggressive move. But it seemed merely curious and I kept my hand over the leg wound. The forty minutes passed and we were hauled into the boat, cold and weary. The record was set.
With the motor running slowly we drew away from the reef, dislodging our anchor with its attendant slate-line. On pulling it up we measured the line from the point where it had been tied onto the anchor rope at 200 feet, to the end of the weight. It measured a little more than 107 feet. 1 had dived 307 feet.
The next day, in the plane heading away from the sea, I followed the landmarks that led home. For a moment I was flooded with nostalgia for the green waters of the Bahamas. Lake Ontario glinted below, quiet-looking after the swells of the Atlantic. The shore line took shape and the silver thread of the Queen Elizabeth Highway unwound to the horizon. Was my daughter, Melanie, over her cold. I wondered? Had David reluctantly submitted to the haircut he had needed before I left? Within an hour I’d be home,