The Plan is simple. Spend nearly two months at the same place. For a change. I’ve chosen Bunaken Island, a diver’s paradise at the northern tip of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Two months in paradise. What could go wrong?
In the late 70s Prince Bernard of the Netherlands in a wonderful example of monarchistic entitlement and privilege turned up with a local Divemaster and ‘discovered’ a phenomenal dive-site.
The entire island of Bunaken is pretty much surrounded by drop-off walls of coral. The western tip of Bunaken, where the channel separates it from Manado Tua island is the only exception. Here, the divesites tend to be more planar, although eventually the coral gardens drop-off over walls.
Prince Bernard is credited with ‘discovering’ the island’s diving potential. Back in the day, long before Google Earth and satellite images were available turning up in remote sleepy locations to checkout the potential of a random island across an archipelago of some 17 000 islands each arguably with ‘potential’ seems a bit too hit and miss. Somebody must have put him up to it. Local folklore perhaps, trickling its way through the jungle telegraph, picked up by self-styled Caucasian adventurers eventuating as whispers in the hallowed halls of the country clubs, hill stations, fine bars and restaurants of the ruling elite where Prince Bernard would have felt quite at home. One way or another he got wind of it and decided to check it out.
He’d have to have come fully prepared with a dive boat, all equipment including tanks and a decent aircompressor. Quite an expedition in truth. That first drop over the side of the boat into the clear blue waters nearly killed him, his breath sucked out by the sheer overwhelming beauty of the spectacular reef walls teeming with so many fish he probably had a hard time actually seeing the reef. Gobsmacked and stunned, his regulator drops out of his agape mouth. Fortunately he’s so stunned he forgets to breathe. When his regulator bumps against his hand he’s brought back to his senses, training takes over and he manages to get the regulator back in his mouth just before he takes an enormous gulp of air.
It’s a lot easier for me, but still not easy. Bunaken is a forty-five minute boat ride from Manado, the large and ugly city in northern Sulawesi. Getting to Manado takes a bit of juggling. Fly Darwin to Denpasar. Overnight. Fly Denpasar to Makassar. Short stop-over, continue Makassar to Manado. Overnight. Manado to Bunaken. Three flights, two nights and one boat ride. Not exactly straight forward. No mass-tourism driven budget airline attention.
All the boats, equipment guides accommodation and food laid on. For a price that varies by 100% between the low- and high-end of the market. All diving on exactly the same reef. Bunaken may be a diver’s paradise but it is not a beach-goers paradise. Much of the island is surrounded my mangroves. The eastern part overlooks Manado and Sulawesi, and gets the sunrise. The western part looks over the volcano of Manado Tua, and gets the sunset. The western part is also the only place with a decent beach.
Salubrious comfort with white tablecloths will not improve my diving experience. Similarly, crappy bungalows looking out over mosquito-riddled mangroves won’t either.
The reviews about Panorama Dive Resort are all good. It overlooks the sunset and a volcano and has a beach. I’m in.
Paying will be tricky though. They want cash. Crunching the numbers and accounting for drinks I’m looking at nearly two thousand euros. Thirty. Million. Rupiah. That’s an outrageous amount of money to be wandering around in hard cash in a place where the average income is one and a half million per month. Twenty times the monthly salary. There’s no ATM on the island. Direct debit, credit-cards, bank to bank transfers, all not possible. Cash. Oh Boy.
Trying to drain two thousand euros in one hit from my cards will freak my anal and mega-conservative bank. Frequently I’ve had my cards blocked mid-transaction, having set off all the alarm bells in the automated security systems designed to counter fraud.
It may be a paradise but for Sven, the business owner and Dive Instructor at Panorama, it’s still a work place. Add the usual work-place blues to Majority country setting especially the dubious ethics and governance practices and there’s plenty of scope for stress.
Google ‘Panorama Dive Resort Bunaken’ and the first thing that pops up is a map showing ‘Bunaken Island Dive Resort’. It confused me for quite a while whilst I was doing my research. Bunaken Island Dive Resort seems to be exactly where Panorama Dive Resort reputedly lies. Sooo … why, I thought, is it called Panorama if Bunaken Island pops up?
Turns out Bunaken Island Dive Resort is built on land owned by Ester, wife of Sven. Ester is a local and courtesy of Indonesia’s strict no-foreign ownership of land laws is the nominal owner of all the lands that both Panorama and Bunaken Island are built on. Panorama itself is in fact two businesses: the original Panorama 1, tailored more for the low-to-mid range of tourists managed by Silvia and Rob. And the more up-market Panorama 2, managed by Sven and Ester. Silvia and Ester are sisters. Rob’s from the UK. Sven is German.
Bunaken Island separates the two Panoramas, a two-hundred-meter wide parcel of land dotted with fine-looking all-but abandoned bungalows. In a quirk of organisational eccentricity my Panorama 2 bungalow is right next to Panorama 1’s restaurant and smack in the middle of Panorama 1’s bungalows. Three times a day I have to walk right past the restaurant listen to the sounds of guests enjoying their meal and make my way across Bunaken Island’s past all those ghostly bungalows and down into Panorama 2’s restaurant and eat exactly the same food from exactly the same kitchen and cooked by exactly the same chef as those in Panorama 1’s restaurant.
I’m intrigued by these empty fine bungalows and ask a few questions. I am not prepared for the reality-show of intrigue, betrayal, sleaze, dodgy business, financial duplicity, gangsters, invasions and war.
Frank is the absent business owner of Bunaken Island, leasing the land from Ester. He outsourced management to a corrupt Danish national who has a penchant for young teenage girls and gross-financial miss-management bordering on corruption. Frank also outsourced dive tours to Sven’s dive-shop and employed Ester in a management role. Only he didn’t pay either Ester nor Sven for their services and refused to believe the licentious rumours and corrupt practices reported to him concerning his Danish manager, which includes diverting tens of thousands of Euros of maintenance and upkeep money from their intended purposes. Sven and Ester try valiantly to work with him but are repeatedly stymied and, in effect, betrayed by his unwillingness to listen.
Down and down it spirals until there’s open hostility between the Panorama businesses and Bunaken Island with Frank threatening to wall off his business cutting off the transit path between Panorama 1 and 2. Unsurprisingly this is vehemently resisted by Sven and Ester, Silvia and Rob. Frank turns to gangsters on Bali who mobilise a two-hundred strong army from Manado who approach the island on a charted boat only to be met by another army comprising Bunaken locals willing to defend Their Island and Their People. Police intercede and the boat-borne army is vanquished back the mainland without anyone getting hurt. Ester and Sven receive death-threats. Paradise has a nasty-edge to it.
Millions of rupiahs of legal fees, months of lawyers and courts and Ester, as ‘owner’ of the land emerges triumphant. Land owner she may be, but Frank still has a valid lease for the business.
Hence the business is derelict, the bungalows empty and increasingly decrepit.
“So, let me get this straight” I ask, “there’s a perfectly viable if badly managed business simply going to waste”. In effect “Yes” is the answer I get back.
Hmmm … I’m looking for A Future. Is this a possibility? I sit with Sven and talk him through it. Sven is hardly enthusiastic and it’s clear just how drained he is by the long-winded struggle he’s endured. He’d like nothing more than those bungalows and that business to simply vanish. However, they do exist, so what to do with them?
A few days later Aiyu, Panorama 1’s waitress comes up to me with a serious face and hostile frown: “What’s this I’ve heard about you being friends with Frank?”. Aiyu, and a number of others working at the two Panorama’s used to work at Bunaken Island. Frank didn’t pay them for months leaving them destitute and seriously pissed-off. Life for a Frank Friend at either of the Panorama’s would not be pleasant. “Err, wot? I answer, showing my consummate command of English.
Turns out the conversations I’d had with an elderly Dutch couple in Dutch and my queries about Frank’s business resulted in everyone thinking I must be a spy for Frank who’s now trying a somewhat more subtle approach at winning the war than sending in a boatload of gangsters.
Grudgingly I’m given the benefit of the doubt but only that. They do not believe my denials, not yet anyway. Only time will vindicate me, but they do back off and I’m no longer looking at six weeks being ostracized. It effectively kills any thoughts about taking over Bunaken Island, so I return to relaxing and diving instead.
Island life has its charms: 29C in the water, sunny hot and humid, the odd crazy lightning storm, torrential downpours lessening as the monsoon comes to an end, the days increasingly clear and bright and dry, great food, great people and amazing diving.
Sixty-days to enjoy all of this.
I have however run smack into PADI’s nanny-style of preferred diving, whereas I have a preference for exploratory even adventurous style. Macro-diving versus multi-level.
If you are one of the ninety percent of Australians who live less than one hundred kilometres from the coast, one way or another you’re gonna have to deal with an ocean. And Australia’s oceans are hardly benign.
Western Australian gets hammered by huge swells driven by the roaring forties in the Southern Ocean rolling through the Indian Ocean terminating at some of the world’s premier surf-breaks along the coast. Similarly the Pacific Ocean’s swells hammer the east coast. And the Southern Ocean tormented by them roaring forties and southerlies in turn torments the south coast. No one bothers with the waters off northern Australia coz of the mindbogglingly long list of things great and small that will kill you.
1976 I stand on Cottesloe Beach during an infrequent family beach visit, watching surfers perform. Like everyone else I want to be a surfer. Only to be a surfer you have to hang around a surf-break often enough and long enough to master it, including pre-dawn beach raids to get the best breaks. I live half a day’s travel from the beach. No way. No chance. Not without a serious lifestyle change that just doesn’t appear even remotely possible.
It dawns upon me, standing on the hot sand under the blazing sun watching the surfers, that for a near-naked bi-pedal primate evolved to transvers solid ground there’s something horribly wrong about trying to eke out an activity where two alien worlds collide. I’m neither fish nor bird. Hanging around their interface just seems like a bad idea, not really in one or the other, not part of either. Better, thinks I, to master being in one or the other. I could, arguably, take up parachuting, sky-diving or flying. Or diving. Frankly I’m not sure I mind which one so long as I don’t hang around too long where they meet.
Only which one?
In 1977 my school offers my year the chance to learn to SCUBA dive: Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. School has just offered me the chance to choose. And I chose: I shall become a diver.
I do my first dive waaay back in 1977, and by mid-1978 I am certified. PADI, the current global leader in recreational dive certification, does not exist. Instead it is a six-month Australian Navy diving course. Tough as, especially considering I am only fifteen when I start. Theory is long hard and demanding, full of the physics, physiology and chemistry of subjecting that near-naked bi-pedal land-wandering primate to pressures we are simply not designed for in a media that can kill us. It’s the foundation for the practical.
The practical is to enable the diver – a navy diver – to deal with all manner of challenging situations without panicking. Whilst I’m sure they diluted it somewhat to account for that we are not navy divers but mid-teen school-boys (no girls in my school. Sigh!). Still, we jump off the three-meter diving board with full gear on, perform all manner of intricate entry techniques, there are hours of diabolical equipment failure training techniques, various rescue and recovery techniques, strange practices whereby one piece of equipment or other is removed during diving. Like the goggles. Like the weight-belt (very tricky one). Like running out of air. Like the regulator forcibly removed. Granted this is all in a less than three-meter deep swimming pool with a highly-trained navy diver in control, but it’s still full on.
How do you deal with loss of a weight-belt? Grab your buddy. Dump your BCD as he/she dumps theirs’s, feet up and kick down, ascend slowly, skip the safety stop.
The open-water practical test takes part in mid-winter. Swells roll over the top of us stirring up the bottom rendering visibility practically zilch. My buddy sits ten metres on the bottom swaying as the swells ebb and flow, the instructor half-way between us. I must strip off all my equipment and lay it all on the seabed. I’m permitted to put back my weight belt since they don’t want me shooting to the surface as a sort of human cork on account of my (woefully inadequate) wetsuit. Finally I remove my googles, take a last deep breath of air and strike out for the vague dark shape of my buddy. Swimming around him, I return to my gear, find my regulator then methodically put all my gear back on. Then my buddy does the same. Buoyancy skills – damned hard in the swells, out-of-air recovery techniques, quite different from today since we don’t have an octopus regulator involving a death-grip on my buddy’s regulator to make sure I get two-breaths after they’ve taken their own two. Various search, rescue and recovery techniques.
Duly certified it’s now up to me to practice. Certification’s primary role is to train us not to kill ourselves underwater. Diving skills come with practice. Lots of it.
My certificate allows me to rock up to a dive shop and hire all the gear I need including tanks. Armed with a guide to shore-based divesites along the south west Western Australian coast we go in search of adventure, since neither I nor my dive buddies know anyone with a boat. Normally divesites and surf-breaks rarely share the same locale. Western Australia makes an exception to this.
To get out to the divesites, mostly a few hundred meters from the shore and often around reefs we have to first negotiate a way through the breakers. Twenty kilogrammes heavier and sans fins we’d wade into the surf as far as we can, turn our back to the breakers dig a foot in the sand or on the rocks to stabilise ourselves and desperately try to get on a fin. Repeat for the other foot, all the while being hammered by breaker-wash. Fins on continue to shuffle into the surf this time backwards, or turn over and try to swim. The number of times I got dunked, thumped dragged and banged along the sandy bottom or rocks are countless. On more than one occasion I’m left bloodied and scarified. We try to duck under the breakers, at which point we are more or less in control. Then of course we have to get our bearings, swim either underwater to avoid the swells or if possible on the surface to preserve air until our best-guesstimate suggests we are now atop the divesite and down we’d go.
The dives were neither deep nor long. Fifteen meters maybe. I don’t recall anyone running out of air, so we weren’t down that long. We used US divetables for the dive plans which are conservative. Some of the regulators did not even have air-gauges. Instead when the tank got to 20% volume the first stage would ‘ping’. I don’t remember ever dealing with a ‘ping’.
I got caught in a rip racing against the reef, visibility cut to zero, lost in a washing machine of sand, turning over and over and over until the rip hit deeper water, lessened and I could get over the reef to the clear deep water on the ocean-side. I’ve no idea where my buddy is. Upon returning to the beach I find him safe and sound, patiently waiting for me.
Another time, in the crystal clear waters of the Southern Ocean I realise my regulator is being systematically pulled from my mouth, the hose taunt and unyielding. Turns out I’ve failed to securely fasten the tank onto my BCD and it is falling off taking my regulator with it. No sign of my buddy. I’m in this on my own. I sink to the bottom, take off my BCD and refasten my tank before continuing my dive.
On more than one occasion in the Southern Ocean we’d be ooing and aahing at the shear abundance of huge fish among the cold-water corals, kelp and seaweed beds and granite outcrops when our visibility plummets as a shadow is drawn over the sun. The first time I confess was mildly disconcerting. What, our thoughts went, has covered the sun (on a classic cloudless sunny summer’s day)? Looking up a huge school of tuna is barrelling overhead, blocking it out. We flip on our backs and sink to bottom to watch the spectacle. For tuna are a large fast fish and they are chased by even larger faster predators the most notable of which is the Great White Shark. On our backs on the bottom we watch wondering what it is that’s chasing those tuna. Never saw a shark.
This is my start in diving. I don’t know really how many dives I did. Never kept a log book. No-one ever asked for one. What’s the point? I hire a car they ask to see my drivers’ licence. I go to rent diving gear, they wanna see my certificate. It’s up to me to manage the risk, that’s what certification is all about.
They were all adventurous. Not in the screaming deep-cave-NITROX-HELINOX-night-current-style adventure. Simply that it was up to me and dive buddies to manage the dive from beginning, through the profile which we made up, to the finish.
February 1989 I leave Australia and start living in Asia, working four weeks on four weeks off on oil rigs. A fellow-rig worker gets me back into diving and if diving’s on offer at a beach I happen to end up at, I go diving. I am methodical. I arrive, secure accommodation, find a dive shop and do as many dives as they offer. Two a day, three a day, everyday for two to four weeks. It is the first time I’m exposed to the PADI system. The first time I get a dive-guide to lead me. It’s a lot easier. No-thinking diving. During the dive-briefing I’m told the dive profile, my maximum-depth and bottom-time, how I shall keep an eye on my air-pressure gauge (WoW! I have a gauge! How novel), how I shall inform my dive-guide when I’m at 100 bar, when at 50, how I shall ascend spending three minutes at five metres. Even who my buddy is gonna be. All I have to do is fall in the water and follow instructions. How hard can it be?
By the end of 1989 I’m a regular visitor to Puerto Galera and Sabang Beach in the Philippines, to dive.
After a while, Chuck, the owner, explains the economics of my diving. My naval diving certification had been converted to some recreational open water diving equivalent, restricting me to a maximum 18 meters depth and relatively safe, managed dives. Chuck explains that should I do further diving certification I not only get the dives but I also get to do more adventurous diving. Sounds like a plan. Bit by bit I work my way through Advanced Open Water, then Rescue, Deep Diver Speciality and, eventually Divemaster, all under PADI. By now it’s 1991 I’ve just been fired from my oil rig job, the high season’s about to hit and do I care to be Divemaster? Thus begins a year long stint running a dive shop in Sabang responsible to provide the experiences a myriad different type of diver’s want. My speciality are the adventure dives. The Young Guns who want deeper, further, in stronger currents, at night, they are mine and I’m damned good at it.
Come mid-1992 I must have a cumulative dive total of over six-hundred and quite possibly more.
I am experienced. I know how to dive. I know what I like. I’m trained to look after myself.
Twney-five years later at fifteen meters depth on Likuan II off the west coast of Bunaken I’m bored. The Group are myopically peering at a single dot on the wall, Jopel the Divemaster showing them some millimetre long critter among the fine fronds of some delicate coral. It’s called ‘macro’ diving and seems to have become the de facto dive purpose of choice in the last ten years or so. Suits PADI fine: group is always tight knit, slow and easy, shallow. As in: low risk. Suitable for the teems of divers who chew through their air, aren’t particularly good and who aren’t particularly interested in ‘testing their limits’. They don’t mind being baby-sat through a shallow dive, following an experienced dive-guide who tells them when to look left, when right, when down and when to ascend.
And I have to be here, following the Divemaster. Long gone are the days of hiring out your own equipment and hitting the divesites. Nope, godda follow a professional diveguide. But, hey, aren’t I a professional diveguide? Yes, but you don’t work here.
But I’m bored and trying to work out how I’m going to survive forty dives like this. It’s not that it’s boring at less than eighteen metres. There’s zillions of fish, all small mind you coz relentless fishing pressure has removed all the large predators. It’s colourful, the coral’s great, it’s warm, visibility is phenomenal. But y’know we’re moving at a snail’s pace. There’s only so much floating around looking at exactly the same spot for twenty minutes that I can handle. If we actually swam around it’d be great, only the dives wouldn’t last long coz people would use all their air swimming. Then they’d complain. So, ‘macro’ is in.
They are still staring at the dot on the wall. I’m five meters out from them, floating perfectly in space. It is a truly wild experience to float. It is an alien world here. We are not evolved to float in a viscous media meters from anything we could either hold onto or stand on. It is unquestionably one of the main joys of scuba diving … being able to float and look around at the astonishing 3-D spectacle taking place. I turn around, the reef giving way to a limitless blue sea. Fish bustle and hustle around me. They are not used to a near-naked bi-pedal air-breathing terrestrial animal in their midst. They don’t know if I’m friend or foe. They take the default approach: avoid unless unavoidable.
A few metres below me is a small ledge of reef. I am floating right over the edge of it. As I turn the variegated colours of the reef change into deep indigo blue where the wall plummets to the depths. I cannot see the bottom. Here I am, floating around fifteen meters in waters with thirty meters visibility, and I cannot see the bottom.
I turn back to the group. They are still huddled around the same dot at the same place on the reef. They haven’t moved, they seem oblivious to the whole holistic reef hustling and bustling around them. And they are certainly oblivious to the limitless depths below them.
It is almost irresistible … the lure to sink headfirst into that deep indigo void and see what’s down there.
Instead I turn on my back and float there for a while. Then I float upside down. Then on my stomach. Finally vertical feet down. A quick check of the group. Still looking at that macro something-or-other. Ho Hum.
What to do?
My dive-log-book, which I started to keep again starting in 2016, faithfully records how captivated I am by the dives …
Depth, bottom time, temperature, weights, and some perfunctory highlight. Technically OK, satisfies the requirements of a log-book, just. Signed and stamped by The Diveguide and Dive Resort.
It kinda encapsulates my diving experiences.
Don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful diving. But it’s lacking something.
Sven, Panorama’s owner and Dive Instructor is sympathetic. He’s got no end of deep and adventure diving stories based around the walls and the mystical depths they plunge to. Only, he’s constrained by the other divers in the group. Those who simply aren’t enamoured with a deep multi-level dive.
Every-now-and-then we dip below thirty-metres, before rising to hang around the coral gardens and the macro stuff. I love these dives. They combine a bit of the deep with a bit of a swim and a finish in blizzard of colourful fish and coral.
There are some funny moments too. The couple of times I struggled to get down, my buoyancy all over the place. I work out that an 0800 morning dive-time neatly intersects with my body’s biology. By the time I navigate myself through the hair-pin bends of breakfast, coffee and a good morning shit, my system is simply hyper and I don’t have enough chill-down time before I subject it to the drama and stresses of diving.
The times I inadvertently become Divemaster again working with a couple of divers who’s buoyancy is all over the place and who’s dive times frustrate them. At fifteen metres I’m floating perfectly but Rob, a slightly rotund Englishman is at sixteen meters and resolutely sinking, his legs vainly kicking in an effort to stem his descent. His left hand grasps the power-inflate-button on the inflator hose, his eyes focussed absolutely on mine, determined to follow my instructions and master buoyancy.
I watch his kicking, how hard how fast, the frequency. Simulating with my left hand I depress my thumb twice in rapid succession. He mimics me, depressing the power-inflate button. His kicking slows, the power is less, the frequency too. Another two blasts. Almost, almost. Another two and he’s free, floating, drifting, the elation on his face priceless. Sven doesn’t charge me for the dive. I enjoyed it.
Still, despite the few dips below thirty, the few swims, I am still obliged to hang around above twenty metres peering at macro stuff if that’s what the dive profile is.
I don’t have a dive watch or anything by which I can monitor my own dive. I need to follow the diveguide to know bottom times. For the next dive and the next one after that are all based on this dive profile. Which are all planned out by diveguide’s dive-computer.
There’s got to be a way, go to be …
… I’m diving, going incrementally deeper. Sven, dive-leader dips his head down, signals ‘watch your depth’ and for me to come up to his level. I have to comply, he’s got the dive-computer … the Dive-Computer the dive-computer the dive- computer … I lie in my bed the dream still vivid in my mind …
“What chance I can use a dive-computer this dive?” I ask Sven a couple of hours later.
Somewhat battered Suunto-Zoop strapped to my wrist I dive. A couple of dives later, got it sorted. I order one for myself. This is liberating.
“Do you mind” I ask one day computer in hand “if I drop down a bit deeper?” I really wanna check out the minimalist monochrome world five atmospheres below the surface.
“No” Sven the Boss answers, after a moment’s thought. He knows I’m a good diver. He also knows that neither he nor his Divemasters can lead a group dive to the depths I wanna go.
Sooo … here’s the Plan: I, and I alone, plunge past the 18-24m level of the dive group until I bottom out some point between 30 and 45 (or more) meters, hang around for a while before rising as a subterranean Phoenix to rejoin the group and bit by bit let the nitrogen bleed out of my system in the shallow spectacular colour-saturated coral and fish bedecked world less than ten meters under the surface. Very non-PADI.
Margin for error alone at 45 m is … about … more-or-less … something in the order of … kinda … zero. Twenty or more meters below the nearest diver who most likely can’t even see me should something go wrong, and there’s one or two very nasty insidious things that can go wrong, I can just kiss my ass goodbye and let the waters carry me away.
The greatest risk is nitrogen narcosis: basically being stoned under water. It’s all them atmospheres fucking around with my body as I breath a ‘normal’ air-mix. I pulled a diver up once who had narcosis. The softest human body I’ve ever touched. When I grab his arm it’s as if he has no muscle. Totally relaxed. And gone. Eyes half closed, mouth slack … gone. As we ascend above 26 m he snaps too as if nothing’s happened. Doesn’t understand why I cancelled the dive.
Another is panic. Losing control. What if my regulator gets dragged out of my mouth by the hose getting hung up on a coral or rock. Would I panic rather than retrieve it? Panic and I die. Simple as that. Regulator-ripping-out-of-mouth is surprisingly more common than you think. Can’t say I am used to it, but I know how to deal with it. I’m not one to panic.
What if I get lost? I’m alone after all. Bunaken is mostly wall diving, not expanses of coral and reef canyons, plateaus, sandy bits and swells. A diver either goes with the wall on her left side or on her right. The worst-case scenario is that the current changes and they are waaay over there and I have to surface alone. That would freak them out badly, the “Where’s Max?” dilemma. Dead down below or safe on the boat. Given the clearness of the water I should be able to see them from twenty meters below them. Hopefully.
Down I go, to thirty, looking deeper. It’s a wall and it just keeps on going. Thirty-five looking deeper. Forty looking deeper. I bottom out at 45 m but there’s a long way further I could go.
My system starts heating up, pulse rising, breathing quicker, deeper. It is a discomforting sensation. If you knew that narcosis is a serious possibility and you were looking for early signs, is this sense of discomfort an indicator? According to what I know, no. Narcosis is a state of relaxation, being stoned, impaired judgment and over confidence. Not an over-heated system.
Looking up I can’t see any diver. Hmmm … they are lost at the extreme edge of my visibility. I rise and swim smack into them as if planned. The rest of the dive runs perfectly.
And so my diving experience changes dramatically. Gone is the ‘boredom’. In it’s place a sense of adventure and exploration. In truth it’s but a small amount of time I spend down deep, out of necessity, before joining the group. But it is an important amount of time. I am relentlessly asked “What’s it like down there?” “What do you see?”. I try my best to explain but any explanation fails to capture the actual experience. The ‘what I see’ is only part of the full picture. It’s the feeling, of five or more atmospheres acting upon me. It’s the absolute weirdness of it all. A world bathed in moonlight yet with the same clarity as sunlight. I can see easily enough but there’s non of the rich colours we take for granted close to the surface. Then of course the habitats, ecosystems and biodiversity are different.
By now I’ve a bit of a reputation. Jopel, or Ali or even Sven, tell the dive group the dive profile and then ask “Max, tell me, what is your dive profile” accompanied by laughter. And I’d answer “Get down to thirty, see how I feel, go deeper if all is OK”.
Normally the second dive of the day is shallower than the first. The third shallower than the second, and so on. Only, this particular second dive I go to forty-seven and a half, two and half metres deeper than my first dive. Takes a while for the nitrogen to safely bleed out of my system at the decompression stops but I surface alive and well. Ger, a somewhat obnoxious Irish woman just insists on wanting to know how deep I’ve dived. And I am equally insistent on keeping that gem of information to myself. I seriously doubt Sven really wants to know how much of the envelope I am pushing down there. Ger, annoyed by my reticence, makes a grab for the dive-computer. Ger’s twenty years older than I, and it is physicality which finally gets my point across that I am not going to share with the groups just how deep I did go.
It’s a couple of deep dives later, a slope where the wall bottoms out at twenty meters. Current means keep the wall on the right. I don’t have equalisation problems and I plunge head first fast and nasty straight past one of the groups who (they tell me later) watch me disappear out of sight and they are at 35 m. Lovely slow motion gliding. It’s breath-taking and beautiful, flying over the reef I go deeper and deeper in a long, long sweeping curve as the depth remorselessly increases. At forty-five I’ve non of the sense of discomfort of my first forty-fiver. Swimming I continue at forty-five as my computer begins to warn me of staying here too long. Ascending I continue my long graceful curve until the wall appears and I approach twenty metres. Somewhere around this depth should be the groups, visibility is good but I cannot see even the remotest tell-tale signs of air-bubbles rising from indiscernible divers. Hmmm …
I’ve been swimming and if they’ve been doing their macro stuff I’ve probably covered fifty meters for their one.
Now, it’s all gonna work out. I know this. But they don’t. If I can’t or don’t find the groups I’m gonna surface alone and face the justifiable wrath of Sven. For they won’t know my fate until they surface by which time I could have been dead for an hour.
Swim swim swim swim … hmmm … this is taking a bit longer than anticipated. Bubbles, vague shapes of divers. Relieved I approach only to realise they are from another dive company. I swim right over them and wonder what they think about a solo diver cruising along at 20 m, breaking that cardinal dive rule.
Swim swim swim swim … hmmm … this is taking a lot longer than anticipated. Half an hour after I started I see more bubbles and are very relieved as I cruise over Jopel, Divemaster of one of the groups until I come across Ali ostensibly my dive guide with the other two of our group. The relief on his face is palpable. He too understands the risks I take and 30 minutes of no trace of me would have him very worried. Sven yells at him after we surface (after 90 minutes. Not only the deepest diver but the longest too) which I think’s a bit unfair. All responsibility is mine. He should yell at me, not the poor Divemaster delivering an experience to the others of our group.
My logbook plots a distinct change: pre-computer vs post-computer. From pleasant picturesque dives at twenty metres when I godda use the data from the Divemaster, with barely anything written in the comments field. To thirty-plus metre plunges meticulously recorded following my computer. Fucking excellent. I am truly enjoying this. This is what I like about diving. Bit of a shame I’m doing it solo, but better solo than not at all.
I like the small macro stuff but I love the adventure, the deep long sweeps into the minimalist monochrome world of the depths before returning to rest and recuperate in the coral and fish wonderworld of the shallows.
But yesterday was on the edge. Forty-five meters deep. The weirdest sensations. I am not comfortable. System’s heated up and struggling. Narcosis? I try to think. No idea, but I know I do not feel this way at thirty or shallower.
Forcing myself I continue for a full ten minutes trying to work out what I’m experiencing. I don’t have any problem reading gauges or checking out the world I’m in, which is breathtakingly beautiful. My pulse seems OK yet my heart feels as if it’s racing. And there’s definitely something going on in my head. Not a headache, not tunnel vision, not not not … but yet something. My breathing picks up. Now this IS tricky. To successfully pull off a deep dive I need enough air to do all the safety and decompression stops. Breath deep fast and long and I may run out of air. Rather embarrassing, if you think about it.
Physiological or psychological? After ten minutes my systems is desperately sending warning signals which I calculatedly ignore.
Thoughts of mortality float across my conscience. “Will I die?” I think to myself. “Is this it? Have I taken it one step too far, finally?” Although I’m feeling very uncomfortable it’s not out of control. There’s a weird form of comfort and encouragement in thinking about the possibility of perishing here. It suggests I am cognitive and if I am cognitive that means I have not gone too far. There’s also a perverse pleasure in being in this position. I like the challenge of overcoming, of defeating this strange uncomfortable sensation. It is entirely and utterly up to me, what happens to me. I have placed myself in this position. The only person who can get me out of it is me. Trial by fire: expanding my comfort zone just that little bit more.
Ten minutes. Not long. But at this depth undergoing thermonuclear meltdown it seems like eternity. Ten minutes is long enough though, and I begin my ascent. Looong and slooow, as it should be.
The urge to deep breath is overwhelming. Almost. A deep breath means super-buoyancy, which means godda breath out fast which means chewing through my air. Unless I hang onto the rocks and huge sponges and let my lungs fill deep and long, hold for a few moments and breath it out long and slow. Several times I do this as I rise above thirty-five above thirty. The discomfort lessens but does not go. Not narcosis then, which abates as a diver ascends. Above twenty-five to twenty and still the discomfort persists. Carbon dioxide poisoning? Or central nervous system oxygen toxicity, caused by the alarming increase in oxygen partial pressure at depth. At the surface oxygen partial pressure is 0.2 ATA. Add six atmospheres and it is 1.2 ATA. Six times more oxygen (and nitrogen) molecules in my system than at the surface. The alarming thing is CNS oxygen toxicity causes “uncontrolled convulsions (1)” with “frequently no warning … a diver is perfectly fine one moment and convulsing the next (2)”. That is: they drown unable to keep their regulator in their mouth. Unless their buddy rescues them. Hmmm …
Makes me wonder.
I find the other divers easily and float above them to get out of their way as they meticulously pick over the wall looking for tiny things. I’m glad they are slow moving and the current negligible. Gives me time to finish my last deepstop at 12 m, returning me to no-decompression limits.
Studying my computer I consider simply abandoning the dive. Do that and I’ll not really know what this discomfort thing is all about. Bit by bit as the dive progresses my system calms down and I return to ‘normal’. My worries about a heated system seems unfounded. I don’t run out of air, surfacing with all the others at 85 minutes on 40 bar. What I’d expect from ten minutes at 45 meters and a long slow ascent. I wonder if it’s psychological after all. The cumulative concern of all the reasons why someone really shouldn’t dive to 45 meters solo.
Did I enjoy the dive? Damned right!
Will I do it again? Damned right!
Stuart and I go back a long, long time, to the early 80’s when we were students at The Western Australian Institute of Technology, which underwent a handy name change during our tenure to Curtin University. We were even diving buddies back then, both of novices. Stuart ‘did’ the World, or at least a sizeable chunk of it in the late 80s before settling in Adelaide. In turn, I left Australia in the late 80s and fifty countries later are still trying to work out whether I should settle, let along where.
In the last thirty years and fifty countries Stuart and I have only ever met up when I manage to get my ass to Adelaide, one of the world’s least attractive cities. We have not met often.
This saddens me. Stuart is or certainly was my Best Mate, and I miss not having him in my life. The reality of two utterly different lifestyles played out an entire planet apart.
But this year this time this place Stuart will finally visit me. At Bunaken. For two weeks. Am really looking forward to it. Being a diver I have persuaded Stuart that he really needs to do an Advanced Open Water certificate, so he and I can take on The Depths and do other exciting things. That’s the plan anyway.
Only … it’s been a while since Stuart dived. And he’s not good at equalising … the absolutely imperative need to re-balance the air in the inner-ear as a diver descends, and ascends. Failure to do this will be fucking painful and can lead to damaged ear-drums including rupture. A lot of divers have a problem equalising and quite a few abort dives but a meter underwater unable to equalise. It’s serious stuff.
The photo-shoot of Stuart going through a refresher dive lead by Sven gets an abrupt termination when Sven asks “Why are you taking so many photos?”. The Frank-Bunaken Dive Resort-debacle may have settled somewhat but he’s hyper-sensitive and creates paranoia scenarios from an innocent vacation passion of recording the first dive in over a decade.
I accompany Stuart and Sven, watching my Best Mate try to return to the water. There’s a comical aspect to it, if I don’t think about just how serious is proper training. Equalisation slows his descent, but finally he’s a complete novice with cycle-spiralling legs as he follows Sven. Bunaken is dramatic. One second you are over coral in less than two metres of water at high-tide, then BOOM! a thirty-meter plummet straight down the wall. It’s phenomenal. It means there’s no easy spot for Stuart to go through his diving skills again. It’s a struggle and I sympathise, even whilst I take some inadequate snaps on my Olympus Tough compact camera. Quite cool though to be able to take any photos at all.
Over the next two weeks it becomes pretty clear Stuart and diving are not a flawless match and the idea of an Advanced Open Water and few deep dives is replaced by easier shallow fish and coral dives, beers on the balcony, the odd packet of Indonesian kretek cigarettes (for the unique taste), and spending time together.
Ali is nominated as ‘our’ Divemaster and excellent he is. Poor Stuart though. He’s now got two very experienced Divemasters fussing over his every move. The poor guy can’t get time on his own to sort his own shit out before Ali and I swim up and take-over.
So we do specific Stuart-In-Control dives and let him go. As best we can. Easiest way for me to let go is to go deep, leaving Ali in control. It’s calm, clear and beautiful. What can go wrong?
Following my decompression stops, which require me to hang around twelve meters for a while, I’m above the group admiring a turtle when I realise my legs are trying to rise above my head. Oh Boy, an up-current. A STRONG up-current. Stuart posts the following on Facebook …
“So there I was, swimming along at around 12m depth, watching a turtle, when I found myself going up … fast! Too fast for safe decompression and totally not part of the dive plan. Ali, the dive master, signalled to get to the reef wall. I reached him just in time, feet/fins up, head down, trying to purge all remaining air in my BCD (vest). Got a hold of Ali, and a piece of the wall’s rock, but my body and legs were still caught in the up current.
Max, also a dive master, reaches us. Helps me (the novice!) get closer to the wall. It was a struggle. Respirator gets pulled out at one stage. Reach out grab it and get it back in my mouth, air being an essential commodity. Found a comfortable position and waited.
Could see other divers below us avoid the scene just in time, as they had been trailing behind. Not everyone was so lucky, as others were also in the same predicament. The current eased and we reassessed. Five minutes of struggle had burned through half of my remaining air. Max and I ascended to the 5 metre compulsory decompression stop (for 3 minutes) before surfacing. ‘Terrifying’ was the description from one of the other divers.
Thanks mate, I’ll shout you a beer following this afternoon’s dive. Let’s hope it’s less dramatic!” – Stuart, FB 10 April
Thirty-three responses later ranging from “Didn’t like that last post” through “Sounds horrific!”, “Massively scary” to “And that’s why I’m never diving again!” with the useful advice of “Take up knitting” and but a single forlorn “Great excitement!”, Stuart responds:
“Hey guys, thanks for your comments and concern. I’m with highly experienced divers, and have learning (sic) heaps, including dealing with currents. The next dive was calm and serene with giant clams, butterfly fish, moray eels, stone fish, more turtles, two big crays hiding under a ridge, coral, coral, coral and some buoyancy practice while doing the decomp. Now sitting with a Bintang, having just watched the sunset over a volcano. Wish you were all here!”
“I guess you can stay then – just stop freaking me out!! xxx” – Fiona, Stuart’s Partner, for some reason expressing concern.
“More people die falling out of bed than from diving. All part of the adventure 😉 Dive On!” I point out, trying to be helpful.
”I am not reassured Max – this is the second strong current incident….if anything happens, I’ll hold you responsible and you know how scary I can be!! I think I’m scarier than falling out of bed….but I’m glad you’re both having a good time x”, Fiona posts.
”Worry not, I/we look after him well. He’ll return enriched, but safe”, I reply, finally beginning to understand that it may just sound more dangerous than adventurous to most people.
Stuart never really got super comfortable underwater, but he was on the way. If he did weekend’s diving a few times per year he’d be back into it. I hope he does.
The currents at Bunaken do play havoc with the divers, especially macro divers coz you have to hold position to stare at that tiny critter. And it’s hard in even a mild current. If, on the other hand, you simply let go and drift along the wall it’s a lot of fun. Then again, come a canyon with the tide going out funnelling huge volumes of water out from the shallow plateau around the island then your bubbles go down and you have to know how to deal with it. It freaks a lot of people. Same when two currents meet at a point. Strong. And down. Or strong. And up. Either way … Strong. Experience counts and even then currents command respect and a careful approach. We are terrestrial animals and the force of moving water can be overwhelming even at low velocities.
One benefit of Stuart is of course videos. He’s an aspiring video-film dude. A mini-web-series he’s been involved is on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEP7aeQe2ck8bi0PLiRHQc9B8_Pu6ANtM , with the website www.quadrocollective.com.au/get-prepped/
So he makes a small video of Panorama and diving:
I really enjoyed Stuart visiting and was sad to see him go. Back to my strange little world of few creature comforts in a culture and country that’s not mine, my friends a zillion miles away. I am gonna have to work out why I do this to myself. In the meantime … more diving. Of Course!
Lukas and Denis turn up. A German couple, working winter season in Switzerland, friends with Sven, Divemasters. They take over coordinating and leading the dives, freeing Sven to run his business. We go diving. They talk about eighteen meters, frog-fish and pygmy-seahorses. I get the distinct impression they don’t comprehend what I mean when I ask them “Do you mind if I go a bit deeper?”
Forty-seven and a half meters happens really quick. No equalisation issues, no funny fuzzy discomfort. Just straight down. Fifty is but two and half meters away. A face suddenly appears, looking somewhat anxious, doing crazy hand signals that I interpret to mean, like “WTF ARE YOU DOING?” followed by a demand to rise and level out at the all important Level 18. Lukas. Bemused I comply.
Back on the diveboat Lukas and Denise are huddled together at the stern disconcertedly smoking looking at me with tiny daggers in their eyes. Hmmm … “Can I have a word with you?” Lukas finally asks.
For the next ten minutes they tell me the panic which rippled through the group as Lukas, Denis and Ali all vainly try to get my attention as I plummet ever deeper. They tell me about dive profiles, levels, sticking together, buddies and so on. My ostensible buddy Laurence, a Frend PADI Instructor dutifully followed me down until I swept past his comfort zone and he abandoned me. I didn’t even think about him, let alone the rest of the group. I am getting my butt kicked.
How to respond? Telling them the group only panicked coz they panicked is not going to endure me to them. And it is clear they did not get my ‘Do you mind if I go a bit deeper?’ question. I agree with them, whole-heartedly. For they are, according to PADI, totally right. I broke the dive-profile. Then I explain why, why eighteen meters staring at the same spot with five other divers just doesn’t do it for me, and that I knew where they were and they obviously knew where I was, and whilst I appreciate there is a risk, the risk that something will actually go wrong is pretty small, and so on and so on. I also explain that I clearly did not explain what was likely to happen before the dive.
The mood lightens, we become buddies and we agree that I’ll plan with them what dive I wanna do. Which, if you think about it, is pretty amazing. To have a dive-resort willing to plan with me the dives I want to do. And Lukas, the lucky sod, is now my de facto Divemaster. Lukas, it turns out, is not a fan of macro either.
The dives take on a familiar pattern. Lukas, Denise and Ali focus on getting the dive groups organised. Since Denise isn’t fond of deep diving she and Ali lead the shallow ones. That done Lukas then asks me “So what do you want to do today?” and we’d discuss thirty-meters, check everything is OK, then thirty-five, OK?, then forty, forty-five. Turns out Lukas experiences mild narcosis, his head swimming. Occasionally I feel some discomfort but most times I’m feeling really good. Still, I, we, have not done fifty. Time for fifty.
I talk to Sven, who’s own tales of deep diving along the walls dwarfs my intentions. I’m thinking of Fakui to Ron’s on the western tip. To sweep down, bottom out at fifty then swim to Ron’s. Lukas is in for it. Laurence, my French dive-buddy, also.
I go through the safety protocols. Narcosis is a real and present danger. Each one in the group is responsible for everyone else, frequent eye-contact and OKs imperative, if any problem develops we as a group respond collectively, follow the dive-computers, ensure we do the decompression stops.
The diveboat drops us at Ron’s. A perfunctory OK, we descend keeping close, going through the OKs as we pass thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five and eventually fifty. Then start our ascent. We swim, lazily finning our way through amazing worlds of fish coral canyons crevices open sandy areas tightly convoluted coral labyrinths, on and on pointing out anything of interest to each other checking everyone is OK. On and on.
The decompression stops we tick off one after then other until finally Lukas is at fifty-bar remaining and we ascend to five meters for the final decomp stop and when Lukas hits thirty bar remaining we all surface.
Exclamations of euphoria and unbridled joy erupt simultaneously. “One of the best” repeatedly. It’s really nice to hear they enjoyed it as much as I did. The dive worked, worked damned well and we all very much enjoyed it. Oddly it turns out only I actually went below fifty. Laurence bottomed out at a personal best of forty seven, whilst Lukas made fort-five. Finally someone else at Panorama understands the allure and appeal of deep multi-level dives. Finally.
Timeline recent days …
30 April – glands on neck swollen. Energy disappears. Bed and hammock become favoured haunts. Diving ceases. Given throat and anti-cold lozenges by Marion.
01 May – Anthony Joshua completes training session on kidneys.
02 May – muscles, particularly on my back ache incessantly, from the bus which ran me over last night. Only leave bungalow for food, a major effort.
03 May – aches mostly gone. Tap is inserted on my nose and all my sinuses filled with non-viscous slime. Sleeping horizontal creates weirdest headache due to pressure building in sinus cavities from slime accumulation.
04 May – constant refilling of sinus cavities. 8362 tissues used so far. Today. Given 2 rum-cokes by Lukas but do not attend the party I can hear on the beach. Denise gives me ‘cocaine for sick people’: a vitamin c, caffeine paracetamol bomb. Marion gives me 1000mg vitimin c tablets.
05 May – tap removed from nose. Some sinus discomfort remains, muscle ache all but gone. Energy still waaay down. I feel better.
Yes, a flu from/in a part of the world which does flues in style, think H1N1, SARS, H2N2 …
First cold/whatever in over 4 years. It’d been steadily progressing its way through the village. I’ll be glad when it’s gone.
Well that really killed the ‘Let’s Do The Deep Dive Again’ enthusiasm following the last dive.
Six days later I finally make a party where they ply me with so much alcohol I’m in bed again for day seven, albeit for different reasons. Day eight I’m wondering if I can do a dive. In three days I leave.
Lukas is up for a dive. I can see hunger in his eyes. The deep-dive adventure bug has taken hold and he wants fifty and I’m his best chance of getting it. And he too leaves in three days.
We plan an afternoon dive at Gela Gela, smack in front of the dive-shop. I’ve no idea how I’m gonna go. I’m weakened, not sure about my ability to equalise, not sure about my susceptibility for narcosis at shallow depths. Correspondingly when Lukas asks “What do you want to do?” I tell him “Let’s get to fifteen and see how it is. I doubt I’ll be going much deeper”. That’s fine, reportedly there’s a frog fish at fifteen meters. Great. Let’s go look for a frog fish.
The dive-boat drops us at the start of a small canyon that descends through the wall before plummeting forever. It is perfect to glide over. Feeling no discomfort I don’t bother with fifteen, nor twenty, and keep going, easing at thirty but still descending. Forty comes and goes and I finally level out at forty-five. I feel OK, do a quick check to see if Lukas is OK, then dip down and pass fifty-one. We ascend long and slow, swimming lazily around until we surface. Lukas finally got his fifty, he’s all smiles. Fuck the frog-fish.
The last day’s diving is at Bunka a couple of hours away. Only Sven, Lukas, Denise and myself do the trip. Easy colourful and shallow diving. Lunch on our own private white sand beach where the dive-boat crew cook fish direct on the fire. Spectacular sunset as we approach Bunaken.
Fifty-five days in paradise, forty-three dives, and a lot of fun. Now, back to reality, back to Australia and what comes next.
First, a few days in Bali. To relax. After all the ‘stress’ of chilling out in paradise.
Panorama Dive Resort, Bunaken 8 May 2017
PS: by far this was the most difficult blog to write. Just went on and on and on, wandering all over the place. Tiny and not so tiny sub-plots all with their own unique joys and sorrows. Like getting money to pay Panorama and my bank, predictably, cancelling my card. Like getting decent internet. Like the daily, nightly table-tennis tournament. Like village life when there’s no TV. I’ll repeat: NO TV. What does a village do? It’s a soap-opera in its own right and a way of life we could truly do with bringing back to our highly connected yet disconnected lives in the ‘Minority’ or ‘Developed’ world.