In case you’ve ever wondered about what a scuba diver’s worst nightmare is…
Well, probably something like this: ascending after a dive in the middle of the ocean with no dive boat in sight. It’s like one of the Open Water movies coming to life with you in the leading part.
Now, imagine this scary and uncomfortable scenario not during day time, but at night, when everything’s dark, plus you’re caught in a raging storm. Yep, that’s a real diving nightmare!
I’m going to tell you the story of my worst nightmare in my scuba diving career and how it shaped me as a diver and person.
It was May 2017, and I was in the middle of my Divemaster training in the Philippines. At the time, we had a Swiss AOW student at the dive center, whom we dived with for a couple of days to complete his course.
On that particular day, two dives were scheduled, one of them in the morning (a deep dive) and one reef dive in the afternoon. Both dives went smoothly. We saw loads of marine animals, including several turtles, nudibranch, lionfish and puffer fish. It was a beautiful day.
While on the way back to the dive shop, the other Divemaster suggested doing the night dive that day instead of the next day. He told us that the weather and wind conditions were supposed to change the next day and that it would be safer to complete it on the same day. We were tired but feeling okay, so the Swiss guy and myself agreed to get some refreshments and further equipment so that we could go on the night dive that evening.
Shortly before sunset, we made our way back to the boat. We jumped in the water maybe 100 m offshore and started our night dive. The sea was very calm, the sun had just set, there was hardly any wind. We descended and had a beautiful dive with lots of magical sightings. It had been one of the best night dives ever.
About 30 minutes into the dive, I noticed a bizarre dripping sound that reminded me of rain. However, I told myself that it would rather be unlikely since the weather had been perfect when we started the dive.
Since we were all good on air, we extended our dive time to over an hour until we finally ascended to do our safety stop. Now, we realized that it was indeed raining at the surface.
I ascended with a remaining 50 Bar in my tank after a good 75-minute dive.
At the surface, it was raining cats and dogs. The waves were strong. And the powerful currents carried us away. We were caught in a storm.
Whenever the waves were at a low point, we tried to look for the dive boat while gasping for breath. The boat was supposed to pick us up and get us back to the resort from where we entered the water.
However, there was no boat. There was no light. There was salty water everywhere, in my eyes, in my mouth, in my nose. The Divemaster decided to descent again in hope for the storm to pass. So, we descended again with the remaining 50 Bars (the AOW student only had 30 Bars left!).
After a couple of minutes of cluelessly waiting and drifting underwater, we ascended again. The storm got even worse. We were floating in the darkness, we had no idea where we were. We used our flashlights to shine and send signals to our dive boat, which we hoped was nearby.
I started feeling nauseous as a result of the waves and the constant movement. Fear was beginning to spread through my body. At that point, the Divemaster still thought the boat was coming for us and that they probably didn’t see us because of the high waves.
Drifting with the current, we suddenly reached a buoy and managed to hold on to it. That was indeed a saver because otherwise, the currents would have carried us out into the open sea.
We were holding on to the buoy for what felt like hours. (It must have been something like 20 minutes). In the meanwhile, we were wearing our masks again and breathing air through our regulators. The waves were strong, we were tired.
Pictures of the Open Water movies started to pop up in my head. However, they soon became pictures of myself fighting for my life, alone, in the darkness. I realized that I was in distress, even started to question my abilities as a Divemaster Trainee. Then, at some point, all those thoughts were replaced by sheer desperation. I didn’t want to die today. Not here. Not now. Not on this island. Not in the Philippines where people don’t really care about death, where my body might not even be searched or found.
When the dive student’s tank was about to run out of air, and the storm had not yet passed, I suggested using our last remaining energy to swim to the coast, which we could vaguely discern in the distance. Still confident that the dive boat was going to pick us up, the Divemaster decided to stay. He also explained to us that the risk to get injured while exiting the water on a reef with sharp edges is pretty high. I get that, I really do. But what was the alternative?
We were struggling to hold on to the buoy while rain was whipping into our faces and the strong waves were rocking our bodies.
I knew that if I had been the group leader on that dive, this would have been the moment that I’d have decided to take the risk to swim towards the coast and exit on the reef while it’s still physically possible for all divers.
I knew that, realistically, the boat was not going to pick us up – it was dark, they wouldn’t have seen us, the waves were high, we wouldn’t have been able to even get on board. I knew that our only chance was to swim to shore. I even considered doing it all by myself but didn’t dare because I thought I was not good enough of a diver to assess the situation correctly.
However, at some point, the Swiss guy looked at me and told me that he’d come with me if I swam towards the coast. That’s when I could see the fear in his eyes. I realized that it was not just me who got caught up in the thought that we might not make it out of the water alive that night.
When we both decided to take the risk, the Divemaster also ended up joining us. And not just that, he started bossing around and making pointy-headed remarks. Today I know that he probably didn’t act like that on purpose, he was just super scared as well.
We took all our strengths and backstroked towards the reef. I don’t know how long we were swimming for, but I remember being surprised at the rather short distance we only had to cover until we reached the reef.
Exiting the water was energy-sapping. I had hardly any strength left to pull myself up on the reef. The currents were strong, and I fell down multiple times hoping and praying I would not cut myself open on the sharp edges of the corals. In the end, it was the Swiss guy who helped me up. He took my fins and weight belt so I could wade out of the water while the waves were crashing down on us.
There were we. On the beach. In the sand. Exhausted and alive.
I felt both like crying and laughing at the same time. The Divemaster ran off to get help leaving the Swiss guy and myself behind at the beach with all the equipment. It was then that I realized that I was in shock. Still pumped with adrenaline and extremely relieved but in shock.
However, the story doesn’t end here.
When we got back to the resort where we entered our boat, both the boat and crew were not there. We looked for them everywhere. Used all the flashlights available to shine at the bay. They were not there. Nobody knew where they had gone or if something had happened to them in the storm. We couldn’t reach them on their phones.
In our dive van, we drove back to the dive shop to see if they were there – they were not. Rain was still pouring down, there was hardly anyone on the streets. Determined to find our crew, we grabbed new wetsuits and a couple of items we might need (first aid kit, ropes, more flashlights) and went back to the resort.
At the resort, they managed to contact one person aboard the dive boat. It was a member of the resort’s staff who wanted to spend her night off on the boat with the Filipino crew. I don’t know if it was destiny or just a coincidence, but she was on board that night, and we were able to get in touch with the crew through her cell phone.
To cut a long story short, we found both the crew members and the boat at Tambisan, about 10 km north of the resort and the dive site where we entered the water. They had to anchor in the shallow waters of Tambisan Reef after they were caught in the storm, drifted with the current, couldn’t pick us up and weren’t able to drop anchor in front of the resort.
What This Experience Taught Me
This night dive situation pushed me to the edge of my own abilities and made me realize how close to death one can sometimes get.
After such a borderline experience, there are usually three possible outcomes: it either destroys you (because you end up dead) or it continues (e.g. you develop PTSD) or it makes you stronger. However, the third option is only possible if you process what happened, and integrate that experience into your life.
My partner is a psychologist, so I was in good hands and managed to work up the whole traumatic experience. I went on a couple of dives afterwards where I particularly tried to replace that night’s (surface) memories with good experiences and, eventually, not only had a great time diving in the Philippines but also completed my Divemaster training.
Most of all, this extreme situation taught me to be grateful. The storm could have been even worse, I could have hurt myself while exiting on the reef, or my dive buddies could have been in greater distress.
I’m also very grateful for the way the situation turned out, for my life that now allows me to have more experiences, both good and bad.
It is with hindsight that I am also grateful for everything that I could learn from the experience, especially the things that will help me in my future diving career.
First, I am now well-aware that weather conditions (in unknown regions) may rapidly change without warning. It is essential, especially before a night dive, to consult local authorities regarding weather conditions.
Second, if YOU feel like you’re in an emergency situation, it IS an emergency. And that means you are allowed to resort to all kinds of measures that help you survive, for example, get rid of your weight belt if that helps you float at the surface more comfortably, even if it is not your own. I considered dropping mine, but didn’t want to get in trouble with the dive center as it was rental equipment. If I had taken off my weight belt, it would’ve been a lot easier for me to hold on to the buoy, to swim to shore and, especially, to get out of the water.
Third, it is crucial as a dive operator to discuss protocol and procedures for situations like these with the crew on a regular basis, so that everyone in the team knows where to go and what to do. If we had asked the Filipino captain once about his protocol in a storm, we would’ve known that he would steer the boat to a shallow beach and that he’d not be able to pick us up. Hence we wouldn’t have waited over 30 minutes in the water until we finally decided to swim to shore and exit the water on the reef.
I’m sure that if I ever find myself in a situation like this again, the way I’ll make decisions will be significantly influenced by my experiences.
Have you ever experienced a diving nightmare? What was your scariest situation as a diver? I would love to read your stories in the comments! 🙂