IMG_5318San Pedro Nolasco Island, Gulf of California, Mexico. The place where I could have died.

Water has always enchanted me. I adore swimming and I love everything about the ocean, even the sharks. I attended Sea Camp my senior year of high school, and ever since, I had dreamed of becoming a scuba diver. Many years later, when I worked for the University of Arizona, the recreation center offered a scuba diving course, with several sessions in the pool and a trip across the border for the open water certification.

I leapt at the opportunity, even though it meant finding a babysitter for my twin boys, who were in preschool, and piling into a van with the instructor and a bunch of college students I didn’t know, who were much younger that me and in better shape than I was. The trip started out great—a few hours’ drive to where the live-aboard boat was docked, and then a ride out to San Pedro, where we’d dive.

The island was a barren rock in the middle of the sea, several hours from the marina. Sea lions lounged on the boulders at the base of San Pedro, and we could hear them barking at night. During our dives, they would swim with us, zooming over our heads. I also saw a moray eel and all kinds of fish. It was an incredible experience.

Our first few dives were without incident. We knelt on the sandy bottom about twenty feet underwater and practiced clearing our masks. We increased our depth during each dive, practicing navigation skills and hand signals. In between dives, we took a couple of kayaks and explored the island. The sea lions would swim right up to us, popping their heads out of the water to check us out. Finally, it was time for our most challenging test: sharing air.

The exercise is simple. You take a breath from your regulator and pass it over to your dive partner. Your partner sticks it in their mouth, takes a breath, and gives you the okay signal, showing that they’ve got air. Then you reach back and grab your backup regulator, stick it in your mouth, press the purge button, and voila! You’re breathing again. No sweat.

We’d practiced this exercise in the pool at the university, and the hardest part was psychological—not panicking while holding your breath. I was mentally prepared for the challenge. What I wasn’t ready for was an equipment failure forty feet below the surface.

I was partnered with my instructor, and the first part of the exercise went as planned. I took a breath and handed off my regulator. He stuck it in his mouth and gave me the okay signal. I reached over, grabbed my second regulator, and stuck it in my mouth. Then I pressed the purge button.

Instead of air, I got a mouthful of saltwater. I might have been able to spit it out, if I hadn’t been so caught off guard while trying to hold my breath. I swallowed the water and pressed the button again, desperate for air.

Nothing but seawater. My lungs burned, and I began to feel light-headed. I swallowed the water again, staving off panic. I tried once more, pressing the purge button…but there was no air. I swallowed yet another mouthful of saltwater. Detached from my growing horror, I thought, “Oh. This is how I’m going to die.”

I pressed the purge button one more time, and finally, there was blessed air. I gave my instructor the okay signal, and then a thumbs-up, communicating that I wanted to go to the surface. When we reached the top, I ripped the regulator out of my mouth and took a deep breath. It felt amazing to simply breathe.

I dove again soon after the incident, even though the saltwater I’d swallowed made me want to vomit. I was worried that if I didn’t, the fear I’d experienced would dominate me. I couldn’t let that happen.

Scary as not being able to breathe was, it made getting my certification even sweeter. Now I know what to do if my purge button sticks. Rather than swallowing a mouthful of seawater, I should have spit it out and started for the surface at the first sign of trouble. The incident was terrifying, but I learned an important lesson.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2015


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