As children, we’re taught some very basic rules about physics. For starters, water is heavy, and bubbles go up. We learn about bubbles from a young age, starting in the bath tub. As we get older and become SCUBA divers, we learn that due to Boyle’s Law, as pressure is decreased, those same bubbles become larger and move more quickly to the surface (For more about Boyle’s Law, see Matt Welder’s blog post Boyle’s Law in Bubbles). We know this to be true because not only have we seen some basic graphics about it, we’ve all seen the direction our bubbles go, but what do you do when those bubbles don’t go up, but only seem to go down into the abyss?
First, a little history. I became a Dive Master and an Instructor in an area many dream about: The Great Barrier Reef. One of the best (and worst) things about doing my training there was that the conditions were almost always excellent. Crystal clear water, abundant marine life, and generally calm seas with rarely any current. An instructor in training couldn’t ask for more a more idyllic place to learn to teach.
When my time was up in Australia, I had hardly done any diving with any kind of adverse conditions. Visibility was almost always spectacular, I had never had to really swim against any kind of current, I thought I knew it all and had the bull by the horns. I had no idea how much I had to learn.
Fast forward a couple years, and I had just received a job offer to some of the best diving in the world: Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Known for manta rays, sharks, turtles, incredible macro life, and some of the most untouched diving in the world at the time. I was elated, and couldn’t wait to get over there. Before this, a bit of research was needed. After looking at the dive shops’ websites, trip advisor, and any other guide I could read, they all seemed to mention one thing in particular: Currents.
Surely, I thought, that it couldn’t be that strong. Those divers must just be out of shape, or not experienced, or shouldn’t be diving. I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous, but I figured it wouldn’t be anything I couldn’t handle. So, I packed up my gear, double and triple checked that everything was working, and set off for the long flight from London to Labuan Bajo.
I’m going to skip a lot of the fluffy middle bits, and get straight to it. My first dive was going to be at Manta point. I couldn’t be more excited. It ended up being an amazing drift dive, with mantas everywhere. The current gave me a bit of a shock, but it was a fairly easy dive. Next up, one of the best dive spots in the world: Batu Bolong.
Batu Bolong is roughly translated to “Hole in the rock.” The top of this reef sticks out of the surface, and in the top is a little naturally occurring hole. The dive site is basically in the shape of a mountain and sits in the middle of a very large channel. When the tide rises or falls, it sweeps around the outside of the site and forms eddies on the back side. Because of this, the dive masters informed me to stay on that far side and not wander too far to either the right or the left. Stay in the middle, and I’d be great.
Now either I didn’t quite understand what they were trying to tell me, or I didn’t listen. Everything started great. Easy giant stride entry, absolutely stunning wildlife and amazingly clear water. With the reef on my left and the big blue on my right, I started swimming. Starting at a depth of about 24 meters, I began a slow ascent to shallower water, simply enjoying this mecca of marine life.
As I continued, something all of a sudden didn’t seem quite right. I looked at my computer and I was slowly starting to descend. By this point, I was at about 10 meters in depth. I looked around and saw a sight I never thought I’d see. All of the bubbles leaving my regulator were going forward and then down. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes. I was in shock. Bubbles always go up, right? I then noticed all of the reef fish were swimming in an upwards direction. I looked back at my computer and I had dropped. 13 meters now. I began to swim as the fish were doing, upwards, but when I looked at my computer I noticed I was at 17 meters now.
I began to over compensate. I began to inflate my bcd to help my ascent. My heart was racing, all of my bubbles screaming down past the side of my body. 20 meters. Trying to stay calm I fully inflated my bcd. 25 meters. I began kicking as hard as I could, even using my arms which never actually helps. 28 meters. At this point I did the only thing I could think of. I reached out and actually grabbed onto the reef.
Touching the reef is something you shouldn’t do. You never know what you’re grabbing onto, and you will certainly damage it. I know I’m going to get blasted for doing it, but sadly, that’s what happened. I looked at my computer. 31 meters. I looked at my air. 100 bar. Half a tank. I looked down, watching as all my bubbles continued down. If that’s a sight you haven’t seen before, trust me, it will scare you to death.
I began to do the only thing I could. I started climbing my way up. BCD fully inflated, little by little I was making progress. At about 14 or 15 meters, something remarkable happened. The current started to slow. The tide was changing, or even going slack. My fully inflated savior suddenly wasn’t working in my favor anymore. I yanked my dump valve open and was relieved to see that my bubbles were going back in the direction they were supposed to: up.
I did an extra long safety stop, and finished the dive. Relieved to be back on deck, grateful that was the last dive of the day. I would dive Batu Bolong many other times during my stay there, but I was never in that situation again, always more aware of the conditions and my surroundings, always watching those bubbles, and always thankful they were going up.