Panic immediately set in. We’re lost. Deep down I knew this wasn’t the right way. We made a wrong turn. It just felt wrong. Why the heck didn’t I stop him earlier? This network of caves had gotten increasingly more complicated, and now, the walls were closing in making it even more difficult to move with any speed. Stupid. Stupid. I should have stopped him back there. I should have stopped him when I had doubts the first time…or the second, or even the third time. He was so sure of himself though. He always is.
I checked my gauges. 1200 PSI. 15 minutes…tops. Stop. We have to stop. STOP SWIMMING, I wanted to scream. But I couldn’t. All I could do was bang on the back of my tank with the tip of my dive knife. Sound transfers easier underwater than it does on land, and, since you obviously can’t talk while you are 60 feet underwater, the only way to communicate or get someone’s attention was by banging. So I banged. Loudly and panicked, and more than once. I banged until he turned around, and then, I banged some more. I was so mad. How could he have gotten us lost! How on earth can he have gotten us lost 60 feet under the water in a cave network none of us had been in before. Didn’t he know what might happen? We said we’d take it slow. Wasn’t he paying attention? This never happens when I lead. Never!
He turned around and I raised my arms and shrugged my shoulders while shaking my head to see if he knew where we were going. He raised them as well. It was clear now, seeing his face that he was as panicked as I was. Great. Just great. We really were lost. I pointed to myself. I’m leading. I pointed to myself again, and he nodded. I’m leading.
1000 PSI. I swam faster. Hurry. You’ve got to hurry. But not too fast, slow your breathing. Save your air. 10 minutes left…tops. What a moron. How could he, my best friend of 11 years get us lost. The entrance, we’ve got to find the entrance.
I turned left into another tunnel that opened up into a small section containing more tunnels. It didn’t look familiar. Nothing looked familiar! How many times did we turn? Think. Think. Twice, maybe 3 times? Why didn’t we put out any glow sticks. We always put out glow sticks before.
I checked my gauge again. 800 PSI. We’re going to die. I’m going to die with my best friend of 11 years because he got us lost in a cave, in the middle of the Caribbean. I should be tanning. I should be playing beach volleyball right now. I should have led! I should have led. What’s dying like, I wondered.
I turned right.
They say that drowning is very calming. That it’s easy for your mind to accept. The water just sort of fills your lungs, and then you pass out. Nothing to it, right? Wrong! The anticipation, the anticipation of what I’m feeling right now! The panic. That’s not calming. The choking, and gagging on water, feeling your lungs fill with liquid instead of air, and trying to breathe and absorbing that liquid but choking on it instead. It can’t be calming. The drag on your regulator as you take that final sip of cool air, as it fills your lungs for that last time. I’d felt it once. In training. And I never want to feel it again. I can’t die. We won’t die. Swim faster.
600 PSI. The entrance. I need to find the entrance.
I turned left.
We were swimming faster now, more panicked. I’d never gotten this low on air before. I could already feel the drag of the air through the tank. My gear was heavier now. I was less buoyant. Kicking my legs was more work. Speed up, but breathe slow, slow your breathing. We’re almost there, I know we are. You’ve never been lost, I said to myself. Never. I should have led. My mind flashed back to the surface. To the Captain on the boat. Surely they’re wondering where we are by now. The dive was to last 40 minutes and its been 50. Would they send a team to look for us? Would they send it too late? Surely they already sent it. No. They didn’t send a team. There was no team. It was just us and the Captain. Maybe a mayday call…maybe…as long as the Captain of the small chartered boat didn’t doze off while he waited for us to return.
400 PSI. I looked back. It was helpless. We entered the small opening in the caves again. The room with the other tunnels. I’d been taking us in circles. Circles! How the heck did we get into this mess? These caves would have been beautiful to explore if I knew where we were. If I wasn’t low on air. If I wasn’t 60 feet below the ocean. At least I recognized this place. I signaled to him by tapping my hand with my index finger to see how much air he had left. He signaled back holding up three fingers. He had 300 PSI.
Quickly, we swam towards another tunnel on the right. The stalactites that hung down at the entrance to the small underwater tunnel were beautiful. This used to be above water. I wish it was above water now. I wonder what my parents are thinking right this moment. What they’ll do when they hear the news of my death. I didn’t want to imagine. I don’t want to picture my mom falling on her knees as my dad tries to catch her. Fainting out of shock. I don’t want to picture the funeral. Where would it be? Who will come? Does it really matter? I always thought I would die doing something heroic. Not getting lost in a cave! Why the heck did I come down here! Adventure! Stupid. So stupid. My tank scraped against the walls of the tunnel entrance as I swam underneath the stalactites. This tunnel was a tight fit. The walls were narrow at first, but then opened up a little bit and rose ever so slightly. It was just another tunnel, and it didn’t look familiar at all. The entrance. I need the entrance!
Frantically, I turned left.
200 PSI. 2 minutes…tops. Just two more minutes to find the entrance. What a story this will be to my parents. I’m never diving again. Ever. I swear. Just let me out of here, please God, let me out and I won’t do any of this again. I won’t even drink or curse. I promise. Please let me out. The air dragging across my regulator was firm and full of resistance. As I take another drag of air I close my eyes. I want to enjoy breathing. I never thought of it as a privilege before: to breathe. As my lungs fill, I do my best to hold my breath before slowly letting the bubbles seep out through my lips. I’m not ready to die, I told myself, I’m not ready to die. The bubbles rose and squeezed through one of the crevices in the limestone. We aren’t going to make it.
I checked my gauge. 100 PSI. He was banging on his tank with his dive knife. It was loud and frantic. It was panicked. He was out of air. Just holding his breath now. I don’t want to look at him. I’m not turning around. Keep swimming. Keep swimming. I don’t want to see his face. He banged again, louder this time. He wanted to look at me one last time. He probably wanted to tell me he was sorry. Forget him. You’re all alone now. Just keep swimming I told myself, don’t look at him. Keep swimming. It’ll only make it harder if you look. You don’t want to know what he’s feeling. Just as the banging stopped, I took one final drag from my own regulator. I only got half a breath. So this is what it feels like to drown, I thought.