The morning of the first accident dawned sunny and bright. It was just after dawn, and the scorching Cayman Islands’ sun was already warm on my shoulders. Before starting to load my gear onto the Maddy, my stepfather’s dive boat, I pulled on an old silver dive skin left over from one of the annual documentaries filmed by the Madelyn Anderson Russo Institute for Ocean Exploration. My name—Finola Fleming—was emblazoned in fluorescent pink letters down the right leg.
I was still in the first month of my new job and trying hard to make a name for myself. After finishing my doctoral coursework in oceanography, I’d rejoined the family business—the ocean exploration institute we call RIO for short—as marketing director and principal underwater photographer, work I love. Mostly because it requires me to dive every day.
My stepfather, Ray Russo, and his lifelong dive buddy, Gus Simmons, were sitting in the twin captain’s chairs waiting for me to finish loading up. Today, they were training for a deep apnea dive that we wanted to include in this year’s RIO documentary. My assignment was to film some of the training.
I tucked my dive bag under the bench along the side of the 36-foot Munson dive boat that had been custom made for Ray back when he was a champion freediver and a world-renowned treasure hunter. Despite years of hard use in every ocean on earth, his boat still gleamed like new. Ray made sure of it.
“All set, Ray,” I said when I’d put my tanks and photography equipment away.
Ray gave me a devilish grin. “Is that all you’re bringing, Fin? You sure you don’t need any more stuff?”
“Maybe another camera, a change of dive skin, some lip gloss?” added Gus.
“Women never travel light, do they?” Ray said. “What is all that stuff?”
Gus chuckled. “I don’t know, Boss. But there sure is an awful lot of it.”
“Don’t need it…,” said Ray.
“Don’t want it,” finished Gus.
Ray and Gus both laughed, and I laughed along with them.
After a lifetime of friendship, the two men were so close they often finished each other’s sentences, and to watch them dive together was like watching a single organism perform. I had been diving with them since I was a little kid, and they had trained me and taken care of me all that time. My heart swelled with love for them.
We moored the boat on the rim of a flat reef that dropped off into a vertical wall that went more than two miles down. Ray used a small portable winch to lower a heavy metal plate on a guide rope marked in ten meter increments. They would use the rope as a visual scale while they practiced.
Apnea diving can be tricky. Nitrogen narcosis, also known as rapture of the deep, can mess with your mind, making you forget which way is up. It helps to have the rope as a guide.
“Ready?” Gus asked.
Ray nodded. “All set. Let’s suit up.”
Ray and Gus wouldn’t be using any gear except a small face mask and an aluminum noseplug while they made a series of progressively deeper breathhold dives. No scuba tanks full of life sustaining air; no fins for propulsion. Nothing but their frail bodies against the cruel ocean depths while training to freedive to 330 feet.
Down that deep, it’s dark. It’s cold. And it’s lonely.
Not to mention treacherous.
Since Ray and Gus would be in the water all day, they pulled on thick neoprene wetsuits for warmth. Before stepping off the Maddy’s platform, they strapped dive computers to their wrists to track their depth. The powerful computers were just a little bulkier than a regular wristwatch, but they were technical marvels. My stepfather loved technology almost as much as he loved diving.
I entered the water to videotape their first dives. After filming their entries and exits, I’d have accomplished my assignment for the day, and I planned to spend the rest of my time working on the storyboard for a new promotional video I was planning for RIO.
“Let’s start easy. Just 132 feet,” Ray said.
Gus nodded. “You go first.”
“One of us is up when the other one is down, right?” Ray said, repeating the safety rule for apnea divers. Although I wasn’t a breathhold diver myself, I knew the rule’s purpose was to make sure if the diver underwater ran into a problem, the diver keeping watch on the surface could come to the rescue.
In theory, at least, that’s the way it works.
While Ray floated on his back, calming his mind and body, sipping air in preparation for his dive, I sank beneath the waves to get in position for filming. When he was ready, he made a head-first descent, using his powerful arms and bare feet to propel himself straight down. He was sleek, fast, and focused. A perfect visual for film.
At sixty feet, the ocean took over the work. Ray went still and relied on his body’s own negative buoyancy to pull him down. I followed him until at 132 feet, his dive computer beeped. He turned and headed for the surface, kicking hard to break the ocean’s hold on him. Shortly after he passed sixty feet, positive buoyancy propelled him to the surface with no further effort on his part. I followed him up, still filming.
He broke the surface and removed his mask. “I am okay,” he said, while making the diver’s traditional hand on head sign. This was the required protocol in competition, and the custom looked good on video. Ray was always well aware of the impression he made on camera.
For fifteen minutes after Ray surfaced, Gus studied him with care to ensure he wasn’t suffering any ill effects from the dive. This was an important part of the after-dive procedure. The prolonged lack of oxygen sometimes makes divers forget how to breathe when they surface after deep apnea dives.
Once Ray’s breathing normalized, Gus prepared for his own descent. I filmed him too, and like Ray’s, his dive was perfect. Easy, even for Gus, who wasn’t as experienced as Ray. But then again, these 132-foot dives had been a mere warm-up.
The human body needs time to adapt to freediving, and divers sometimes worked for months or even years to increase their tolerance by just a few feet. Soon Gus would be fighting to master every additional foot of depth, but for Ray, reaching the goal was a simple matter of reacclimating himself to the sport he’d once dominated.
Their next dives went to 140 feet. At these depths, divers were no longer visible to watchers on the surface. The designated safety diver above relied on the dive’s elapsed time to decide whether to intervene. I climbed back aboard the boat to work on my video’s storyboard while Gus and Ray kept diving.
By noon they’d progressed to 230 feet. Although Ray had gone much deeper on past dives, this was close to the maximum depth Gus had ever achieved. “One more dive before we break for lunch?” Gus said.
“Sure thing. I’m starving,” Ray said. “I’m going to 260 feet on this dive.” He inhaled several times and then disappeared under the water.
I checked my watch when he surfaced. Ray had been underwater for over three and a half minutes, still well under his personal best time.
Ray removed his mask. “I’m okay. In fact, I’m fine, and I’m more than ready to eat. No sense in waiting any longer than we need to for lunch since we’re all starving. Fin can keep an eye on me. Why don’t you dive now, Gus?”
“Okay, if you say so. I’m gonna try for 260 feet too.”
“You sure? We’re not competing here.”
Gus grinned. “We’re always competing, my man. And if an old guy like you can do it, I can do it too.” He floated on his back for a moment, then swiveled beneath the water.