Aquatic Angel: His Inspiring Water Rescue

Trapped underwater, a mysterious someone pushed me free.

Posted in , Dec 17, 2009

An artist's rendering of a pair of scuba divers underwater

It wasn’t a great day for diving.

Clouds darkened the horizon and eight-foot swells rocked our dive boat. There were nine of us on board, the captain, the dive master and seven divers. One woman was already sick from all the tossing and turning. Still, we were determined to go in.

We were off a remote island in the Caribbean, about 40 miles from the coast of Honduras. We’d come a long way, flying several different airplanes to get here.

For me, a diving fanatic from landlocked Wisconsin, it was one of my few chances to get in the warm, clear Caribbean and experience the beauty of God’s underwater creation. I wasn’t about to let a storm deter me. After all, storms are only dangerous on the water’s surface.

A wave sloshed across the deck and nearly sucked some of our gear overboard. We struggled into our wetsuits, pulled on our tanks and fitted our masks and regulators.

One by one we plunged into the water. Immediately the pitching and rolling ceased and I was floating delightfully on the surface of the swells. At a signal from the dive master we descended. All noise vanished. It was as if the storm didn’t exist.

Above, I knew slashing wind and rain would be pounding the boat. Down here the world was silent and huge, a cathedral of shimmering blue light and schools of fish darting around the volcanic rock formations we planned to explore.

We descended to about 65 feet. As I do every time I enter the water I felt a wonderful sense of being at home.

I’d been diving since I was 16, when strapping on gear and exploring the water’s depths seemed like the logical next step after mastering swimming and lifesaving. Of course in Wisconsin the only dive spots are frigid lakes. I could barely contain my awe and delight the first time I visited the Caribbean years later and plunged into bathtub-warm water so clear you could see every stripe on the tiny, multicolored fish flitting in and out of coral reefs.

I was hooked. I went to the Caribbean as often as my job selling real estate allowed.

I knew in the water appearances can be deceiving. My best friend in high school who’d learned to dive with me died in an accident with his equipment. That had kept me out of the water for years.

When I returned to diving it was with a powerful sense of just how much—and how little—human beings belong in the deep water. Dive too deep and the air in scuba tanks can become poisonous. Ascend too rapidly and gas bubbles in the body will cause acute pain and even death. The slightest hint of panic can make a diver breathe too rapidly, using up valuable oxygen.

The undersea world is beautiful. But it’s dangerous too, and I tried not to be too sentimental about it.

We swam through an underwater canyon flanked by 60-foot walls of volcanic rock. Grey light filtered down to the depths. We came to a tunnel, about 20 feet long, with light shimmering at the far end.

One by one we swam in, propelling ourselves with thrusts of our long fins. Out of the tunnel we ascended to our safety stop at about 15 feet, where we waited to avoid surfacing too rapidly.

When we finally broke the surface we saw the storm departing. The waves were half as high and bits of sunlight peeked through the clouds. We pulled ourselves aboard the boat to rest before our next dive.

The boat circled the island to another cove. The clouds were almost gone and so was any apprehension I might have felt earlier in the morning. We were exploring two tunnels on this dive. I couldn’t wait.

We pulled on our gear and dropped in. Down we swam into another canyon, passing a sea turtle scooping the water with thick, graceful flippers. The canyon walls deepened, rising to 40 feet.

Suddenly the divers in front of me stopped. We were at the first tunnel. One by one we swam in, feeling almost enfolded in the rock. We emerged and headed toward the second tunnel. This tunnel was longer and darker. I didn’t have a flashlight but the divers in front of me and behind me did. We swam forward in single file.

The tunnel was narrow, about four-feet high and four-feet wide. I swam carefully, not wanting to scrape the rock and kick up sediment blocking visibility. I found myself paying close attention to every movement.

The tunnel made a sharp turn to the left and angled up. For a moment we couldn’t see either exit. I felt the closeness of the rock around me, the distance from the surface. We swam up. The diver in front of me stopped, then swam free of a narrow opening—the tunnel exit.

I was very glad to see the exit but a little nervous at its size. I’m five-eleven, 200 pounds, bigger than my diving companions. The tunnel opening was small, with a nub of rock protruding from the top. Well, I had no choice. I couldn’t turn around in the narrow tunnel and there was a diver behind me, so no backing up. Remembering how important it was to stay calm, I swam forward.

I got my head out of the tunnel and suddenly stopped. I was stuck on something. I kicked my fins. No movement. I tried to push back but I had no leverage. Calm, Todd. I kicked my fins again. No movement. I saw the divers ahead of me crest a reef and disappear. Maybe the diver behind would realize I was stuck. But what could he do? Push my fin?

Calm, Todd. I noticed my breathing was getting faster. I couldn’t help it. I swam harder and harder, strained with my arms. I couldn’t resist the panic setting in.

I could see the surface of the water above. My whole body, my whole self strained to get to that surface. It was all I wanted. I breathed faster and faster. A voice in the back of my mind told me I was depleting my oxygen, but I was helpless to stop. I was panicking. I was going to die down here. It had all happened so suddenly.

I looked to the surface one last time and blurted a desperate prayer into my regulator: “Oh, Lord!”

At once a strange calmness came over me. My breath slowed. I stopped struggling. I gave into the possibility I would die in the mysterious underwater world I loved so much. I saw the beauty of that world, the danger, and for a timeless instant those opposites didn’t seem opposed at all. Life, death, beauty, danger, they all were part of God’s plan.

I was suspended in this moment of calm when I felt a strong hand push my rear end. I shot out of the tunnel like a cork from a champagne bottle. Bubbles fizzed around me. Had the diver behind me pushed? But how had he reached me? Feeling elated, I swam quickly to join the other divers. Never had the shimmering blue light looked so beautiful.

A short time later we surfaced and hauled ourselves aboard the boat. I turned to the diver behind me, a very experienced man who’d explored wrecks off the stormy coast of North Carolina. “Thank you so much,” I said to him. “I really thought I was going to die in that tunnel.”

He looked at me quizzically. “Thanks for what? I noticed you were stuck in there but I couldn’t reach you so I just waited for you to get free.”

I stared. “You didn’t push me?”

He shook his head. “Nope. Couldn’t reach you.”

He returned to stowing his equipment and I gazed out at the sea, now calm and blue.

Thank you, Lord, I thought. For beauty. For danger. And for your saving presence in your shimmering blue cathedral.

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