In a little too deep

Deeming himself a dive master, John Davies hung his credentials on the warped door of one of Roatan's many leaning sheds. An Aussie transplant, Davies had come to Honduras for a big dose of easy street.

But easy street can hold the occasional pot-hole. Island living and its excesses had not been kind to Davies. Wear and tear showed up in his enhanced girth, deep ruts along his face and the constant hack of tired lungs.

Still, Davies was hanging in there, and he'd achieved some notoriety in local circles. He was a force on the barstool, and his ability to go deep and stay down on limited air was widely respected.

But Davies' skills did not translate well to the surface. Without tanks or fins, he was a little edgy for my taste, reminding me too much of the lost pilots of the Telluride Air Force, a group of hang-gliders spaced out after too much time with too little air.

We crossed paths only because my new job required a dive certification. Davies was inexpensive, and apparently a damn good diver. He opened our sessions with a bizarre warning.

"I've been diving on everything from pot to heroin. I don't recommend any of it. There's enough already down there."

My first trip underwater with Davies lent credence to the warning. There was no need to alter the mind. The drop beneath the greens of the Caribbean surface opened the doors on its own.

Wonder filled my eyes, and the colors, shapes and creatures seemed to laugh at the hard realities of the surface. After a few moments, the tempered glass seemed to vanish. Hoses and tanks became barely noticeable. It was total immersion.

Fluted, iridescent sponges stretched well overhead. Clown fish danced between the venomous tentacles of anemones. Green morays twisted effortlessly through the deeps, presenting fearsome appearances but little threat.

A look over my shoulder revealed the euphoric Davies. He hung there suspended, barely tapping into his tank, hardly breathing. I assumed he was sharing these sights, pretending it was also his first time down. Closer inspection revealed that his eyes were sealed shut, a wide grin surrounding his regulator.

We spread that euphoria through the rest of that week, visiting a handful of reefs, diving on a wreck and reaching a low point of 80 feet below the surface. We schooled ourselves in the dangers of nitrogen narcosis, the high (or low) that lingers in our tanks, learned about the horrors associated with going too deep, drank warm rum and feasted on Honduran shrimp.

During those salad days, I was specifically warned about the "Call of the Wall," the mysterious urge to follow a reef's edge to the bottom. The draw was allegedly irresistible, steadily pulling hapless souls down into the ocean's emptiness. Strong arguments against the urge included tales of divers summoned by the call only to run out of air. There they stayed, weighted down by lead, likely grinning in that watery grave for all time.

A couple days later, we closed in on the edge of the wall, a vertical fall that dropped into the blue-black of obviously extreme depth. Habit had me poking around near the top, checking out the reef's crannies. But I was also beginning to burn out on the top. Sponges and eels had become too common. There was mystery in depths.

Approaching the edge of the wall, I figured I could safely descend to 80 feet and satisfy the urge. Blowing out my air kicked off the equivalent of an underwater free-fall. Allowing my arms and legs to twist and flail with the descent, I intently watched as that wall passed by. I was crashing in slow motion, falling to the next level in a steady descent through dark and colder waters.

Sheltered in a bubble of safety, I became comfortably obsessed with that trip down. Constantly watching the wall and the bottom, I neglected my depth.

The bubble burst only after Davies came into view. Dropping rapidly, his eyes were no longer closed, the wide grin was gone and his finger was tapping his depth gauge.

I caught on quickly and looked at mine 130 feet and still dropping. Wake up! My eyes, attention and momentum rapidly shifted toward the now distant sunlight.

Back on the surface, Davies helped me unshoulder my then-empty tank. Fully expecting harsh words, I hung my head and began to apologize. There was no need. Davies was grinning again.

"You got a little taste of the deep there," he laughed, as he handed me my certification.

As I eyed the card, Davies added, "Say, why don't we go diving some time?"

Will Sands



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