By Mike Boring
In activities such as diving, where the environment is unforgiving and second chances are few, it's important to learn from the mistakes of others. Each accident or near accident should be analyzed to determine what went wrong. As conscientious divers, it's our responsibility to share our most harrowing experiences. Keep in mind that it's most important to provide sufficient background information so that your physical and mental state can be adequately assessed, regardless of how embarassing it may be. Here's my story.
I've always been fascinated by dangerous, high risk activities. My personal philosophy is best described by the words of German U-boat commander, Eric Topp. "Life is a matter of risk and the chances of success are in no way enhanced by extreme caution." However, it was this reckless abandon, no regard for personal safety attitude that led me through several failed relationships, years of therapy, into diving, and eventually on a boat heading out for an open water encounter with enormous creatures weighing as much as 3,000 pounds and up to 10 feet in length. Living every moment perilously close to the edge had become a passion, as well as an escape from my regular job as an accountant.
As the boat sliced through the still water, I was only dimly aware of the divemaster briefing the other divers on safety procedures and animal behavior patterns. I was busy rechecking each piece of my equipment and mentally rehearsing my reaction to every possible emergency situation. This was serious business. There were no protective cages or margin for error. Everything had to be right.
As we started suiting up, I couldn't help but notice that I was the only one who was armed. While everyone else loaded film into their cameras, I unsheathed my SMG multi-tipped pneumatic spear gun which I had named, Matilda, after a counselor I met at a alcohol rehabilitation center in northern Wisconsin. Matilda and I dated briefly during an extremely difficult time of my life. Eventually however, as with every other relationship I've had, she sucked the life out of me, robbed me of what remaining dignity I had, drove me to seek refuge in the bottle again, and then left me for dead. She was a dangerous woman so I named my SMG gun, the most formidable personal undersea weapon ever invented, after her to remind me never to be caught off guard again.
When the boat started to slow down I made the first in a series of mistakes that nearly cost me my life. I knew that the element of surprise could mean the difference between life and death, and I didn't want to be the one who was surprised. I stood poised at the edge of the deck gripping the railing with one hand and clutching Matilda with the other. All I could think of was me, the water, the animals, destiny, and eternity. Completely absorbed by the moment, and totally oblivious to the fact that the boat was still underway, I made a giant stride entry.
The impact knocked the wind out of me, ripped my mask and both fins off, tore my tank from my backpack and pulled the regulator out of my mouth - splitting my lip and dislodging several teeth in the process.
I struggled for a few moments, trying to catch my breath, before realizing I had dropped Matilda. Instinctively, I reached for my laser knife and quickly surveyed the area with a 360 degree turn. Although I couldn't see clearly without my mask, I instantly knew that my worst fear had been realized. I was completely surrounded.
I was terrified that the blood, which now streamed from my mouth at an alarming rate, would throw the beasts into a feeding frenzy. Just as I was about to scream for help, the boat's wake rolled over my head, I swallowed water, and started choking uncontrollably. Somewhere in the process of regaining my composure, I dropped my knife. Now I was unarmed and completely at the mercy of a school of wild, aggressive, blood thirsty manatees.
Through the blur I could see at least six of the beasts. For a moment they almost looked stupid. But when they slowly maneuvered into attack formation, I sensed that they were about to strike. I did the only thing left for me to do, panic!
After a few moments of wildly thrashing about, my instincts and training took over. If I was going to survive, I had to take charge of the situation. Besides, if I had to die this way, I was going to take one of the bastards with me.
I charged the closest manatee, straddled his back, placed one arm around his neck, and squeezed. I couldn't help but notice the deep scars in his back, evidence of previous battles. He immediately dived and rolled over on his back in a cunning, but feeble, attempt to throw me. As we plunged towards the bottom, I felt something brush against my back. I fully expected to be gored (or whatever it is that manatees do to dispatch their prey) to death at any moment. The cowards had me out numbered six to one and I was completely defenseless. I remember wishing that I had my mask on so I could look the murderers in the eyes before they got me.
I knew I couldn't continue to fight without air. I also knew that, apparently due to some genetic mutation, manatees are air breathers too. He probably needed air as bad as I did. As a last ditch effort, I dropped my weight belt, pulled both CO2 cartridges on my surplus UDT vest, and held on tight. We slowly started towards the surface, only 10 feet away. Unfortunately, the 70 pounds I had gained during the off season had finally caught up with me. Inflated, my vest was much too tight and seriously restricted the blood flow to my brain. Only inches away from the air we both needed so badly, we struggled desperately for our lives.
The last thing I remember is losing all peripheral vision and, for some unexplainable reason, thinking how unfortunate it was that I would never be able to finish the liquor in my decorative Elvis decanter. Then everything went black.
The next thing I knew I was in the boat lying on my back with an oxygen mask over my face. The divemaster, whom I specifically remember hearing refer to me as "that asshole", said he thought that I may have embolized and that they were going to evacuate me by helicopter. I lacked the strength to tell him that I would have gladly preferred an air embolism over the horrifying experience I had just endured. Apparently, the attack happened so fast that no one saw what really happened. By the time they turned the boat around and got back to the position where I had jumped off, I was floating on the surface unconscious.
I've spent hours analyzing the events of that day and I've learned several things. First, never believe advertisements in dive magazines. Some resort operators will do anything to convince you that their operations are safe. Second, never do a giant stride entry from a moving boat. A forward roll would probably work much better. Third, replace rubber mask and fin straps with stainless steel hose clamps. Forth, redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. Always carry a minimum of three means of self defense. Finally, life can be taken away in the blink of an eye - if there's any booze left in your Elvis decanter, drink it now while you still have the chance.
During the dull winter months Mike has inspirations of humor which surface during long hours of cleaning and restoring nautical artifacts. (See "Artifacts") This picture was taken on the rear deck of the M.V. Thorfinn in Truk Lagoon in February 1997.