by Michael Kingswood
Harry adjusted his lips around the hard rubber clenched between his teeth and inhaled. Dry air that tasted slightly of plastic entered his lungs with the corresponding click-hiss of his regulator.
Deep and slow, controlled breaths. Don’t draw down the tank too soon.
The mantra from his SCUBA instructors echoed in his head as he kicked forward and down, the fins on his feet propelling him smoothly, but not effortlessly, toward the multi-hued coral reef forty feet below.
Around the regulator mouthpiece, he grinned. This was his first dive as a certified Open Water Diver, and it was awesome. And he definitely did not want it to be over too soon.
Deep and slow.
The water was warm and crystal clear, allowing him to clearly see the reef and its environs, and its abundance of life. Fish large and small, of every color of the rainbow, darted around green and purple and red coral growths and anemones, and through swaying growths of seaweed. Or kelp. Or whatever it was called.
Farther out from the reef, larger fish swam, and…
Was that a shark?
Harry’s heart began to thump as he focused off to his left, saw the torpedo shape, the dorsal fin, the side-to-side movement of the long and graceful tail.
Definitely a shark.
He almost turned and swam back to the boat, anchored about thirty feet behind him and ten feet above, but then he noted the black markings at the tips of its fins, and he relaxed. A reef shark. Not dangerous.
And, now that he really looked at it, not all that large either. Cool to look at, but not something to worry about.
He descended more quickly, and began to feel the squeeze in his ears. Working his jaw, he swallowed, and both heard and felt the pressure differential relieve, but not enough. A quick squeeze of his nostrils through the flexible plastic of his mask and a puff of exhalation remedied it, though, and he was good to go.
The reef was closer now; the other five members of his diving tour had already reached the bottom and were fanning out, underwater cameras clicking away as they found items of interest. One of them was floating above the others, over the reef itself. He wore a bright neon green buoyancy compensator and matching swim trunks, making Harry immediately recognize him as Sean, the dive leader.
Sean moved his head left and right, and Harry assumed he was counting out the divers under his charge. When Sean paused, and then did a complete circle, only stopping when he looked up to see Harry still descending toward him, Harry’s suspicion was confirmed.
The leader’s long brown hair billowed in the water as Harry approached, and he pointed Harry’s way then raised his right hand, forefinger and thumb circling into the “Ok” symbol.
Inquiring whether Harry was alright.
Harry nodded and returned the “Ok” signal, and Sean nodded and gave a thumbs up. Closer now, Harry could make out a grin on his face before he turned around again to check on the others.
Harry bubbled out a little laugh as he saw which pair of the others Sean was kicking over toward in particular: the two early twenties, blonde, and stacked Yanks.
Hard to blame him for that. Harry wouldn’t have minded going there himself.
But right then, he was more interested in other kinds of fish.
He stopped kicking, but his descent continued. He was only ten feet above the top of the reef, and probably fifteen feet above the sea bottom, and he didn’t want to damage the reef by contacting it. He needed to halt his descent.
The analytical part of his mind rolled back through his diving instruction, and he decided the increased water pressure had compressed the air bubble in his BCD. That combined with the lead weights he had clipped around his waist was making him steadily less buoyant the further down he went.
He took hold of the inflation control button on his BCD and clicked. A shot of compressed air from his primary regulator entered the BCD, and he felt it expand against his sides and back.
His descent slowed, then stopped, and he nodded in satisfaction to himself. Piece of cake, as the Yanks like to say.
The top of the reef was a wash of color and life, and it was difficult to decide which little piece of it Harry found most fascinating. There was all so much to see and look at, the dance of life captivating, that for a few minutes he didn’t do anything, just watched and took it all in.
And not just the sights. The sounds of the ocean reef rushed through him. The subtle sounds of the water flowing, pushed along by the fish’s fins, or just the slow flow of the current. Chittering of some creature or other scurrying along or issuing a mating call.
His regulator, sending air to his lungs, and the bubbles of his exhalation.
Metallic tapping as one or another of his fellow divers made a sound to draw someone else’s attention, or carelessly bumped into something.
It all flowed over him, and he couldn’t help but just bask in it for a time.
But after a bit, a single blue fish—he didn’t know the species—darted past in front of him, slipping around a bit of coral that rose out from the reef proper almost like one of those cacti he’d seen pictures of from the American southwest. Harry followed it with his eyes, and then realized he was kicking slowly to follow it completely as it dashed around, moving slowly over toward the edge of the reef.
That little guy was having a ton of fun, wasn’t he?
The fish reached the edge and darted below. Harry moved to follow.
The bottom was farther down on this side of the reef than it had been on the side he’d initially approached from. He paused and moved his depth and air gauges in front of his mask. 2/3s of his air supply remaining, and he was at 45 feet. At that depth, he had at least another half hour to go before he reached the limits of the dive tables. And anyway, his air would run out first before he had serious decompression concerns.
But peering down, toward where the blue fish was still hurrying away, the bottom had to be a good twenty or thirty feet further down.
Harry didn’t recall how long the dive tables said he could stay at that depth; and anyway he was only rated for sixty feet; if we wanted to go deeper than that, legally, he’d need to get his Advanced Open Water certification.
Sixty feet it was, then.
Harry kicked downward, following that fascinating little fish, and glancing at his depth gauge a bit more often now. He pulled up just before reaching his depth limit, and watched as the fish continued down. But then it stopped, almost as though it had its own maximum depth limitation.
Or maybe it realized it was out from the protective screening of the coral atop the reef.
For whatever reason, it reversed its course and began to ascend. But it kept moving away, so Harry followed it. He didn’t notice that the seabed was rising along with the fish until the little blue guy rose up past Harry’s head, and he looked back down to see the sandy bottom just a few feet below him again.
Harry blinked, then turned and looked behind himself. From this new angle, the deeper area alongside the reef was a depression that almost looked like a semicircular crater. Weird.
Harry was about to turn to continue following the blue fish when another something new caught his eye.
About ten feet back on the way he had been swimming, and the same below him. The reef, nearly vertical the entire way back he had come so far, broke off abruptly. What was – ?
Harry swam away from the reef a few feet, and the new structure came more fully into view. He blinked, and exhaled deeply in surprise.
The reef had a fairly large gap in it, down at its base. Almost like a cave.
Now, that was interesting.
It was only a few feet deeper. Harry glanced at his gauges again. 1/2 of his air tank remaining, and he was right at 60 feet.
Ah, screw it.
He kicked down and forward, giving his BCD another pump of air as he went, and halted at the cave opening.
And it really was a cave. About five or six feet wide, and the same tall at its highest point, it led straight back into the reef. The sunlight filtering down from above illuminated only a few feet inside, but it looked like it went in a good ways.
Harry had a diving light tied to the wrist of his left hand. He flicked his arm to bring it around and grabbed onto it, then turned it on and shown it inside. It looked like the cave, and he couldn’t think of this structure as anything but, widened a ways in.
What kinds of cool structures and critters might lurk in there?
His mind immediately went to a Moray Eel. They tended to hang out in nooks and crannies, tubes and the like. And their jaws could take your arm off no sweat.
But this was way too big a structure to be one of their homes. Harry breathed in again. Deep and slow. Then he nodded to himself and kicked forward.
The water seemed to cool as he passed beneath the reef’s canopy and he entered the cave structure. Just his mind playing tricks on him. But the illumination definitely faded quickly; that was no mind trick, and he quickly became thankful for his light.
He paused for a moment in his kicking, and found himself sinking again. He hit his BCD inflator, but still struck the bottom. Sand bloomed around him, and he shook his head in annoyance. Hitting the inflation valve a second time, he found himself rising again, slowly. A couple quick kicks and he was off the bottom and moving forward again.
And then he emerged into the larger area past, and he pulled up short, surprised.
It was a natural formation. Obviously. But it was also almost completely round, and partially illuminated from light seeping down from a small rift in the coral overhead. But aside from that rift it was almost a solid formation above, and for a second Harry felt like he was swimming beneath a domed rotunda somewhere.
That was a silly thought, of course. But he couldn’t shake it.
Then a shape moved past his face, and Harry recoiled, sudden adrenalin flooding his system even as he recognized a clownfish. But from so close, it had for a second appeared much larger than it really was.
He thumped up against the wall of coral behind him, and his tank made a distinct clank from the impact. Harry shook his head. Dumb. He needed to be more careful.
He’d also floated upwards a bit. He hit the air release from his BCD quickly, and a short trail of bubble announced a smidgeon of air leaving the vest.
Harry began to settle, and he panned his light around. Wasn’t much else to see here, except…
An irregular shape to the left, and on the other side of the area, drew his attention, and Harry kicked over. It was a rock.
It had to be a rock. And yet…
He stopped before it and found himself settling onto the sand. Sediment puffed up as he landed, but he paid it no heed. That rock was… It was a little too regular to just be a rock.
Images of pirates and treasure chests flashed through his mind, despite him intellectually knowing that pirates had never plied these seas. Or if they had, they were few enough that there was no record of them having done so. And even if they had, how would a chest from the days well before SCUBA gear have come to be here, in a natural cave inside a reef, dozens of miles from anywhere?
He shook his head, castigating himself for his foolishness, but he still couldn’t help but reach out to take hold of either side of the rock.
His gloved hands closed over purchase points, and he tugged upward, willing the cover that he was all but certain did not exist to open.
It didn’t. But he did lose his grip and float upward. He hung there in the water for what felt like forever but was really just a second or two, then he slowly descended back to the sea floor, and more sand puffed up around him as he settled.
Harry shook his head, disgust welling up within him. This was stupid, and he was an idiot. And though this cave was cool, he was done with it. Time to get out of here, and also time to start thinking about heading back up to the boat.
More sand stirred up as he pushed himself back up off the seabed, and turned around.
The water was filled with sand.
His light reflected off the particles, thousands of them, suspended in the fluid. He looked left, then right, then up, and all he could see was sand entrained in the seawater. It obscured his view completely, and he forced down a surge of annoyance.
Too many times bouncing off the bottom; he’d stirred up much more sediment than he’d thought. And though it would eventually settled back down to the bottom, it would probably stay suspended for a while.
No worries, though. He’d just go back the way he came.
He kicked himself forward.
And had to twist himself around quickly to avoid plowing head-first into a wall of coral. What the – ?
He turned around, and only saw suspended sand. The rock he had been messing with was gone. All points of reference were gone. And though he thought he’d turned around enough to get back to the entrance, clearly he hadn’t. How the hell was he supposed to get out of there?
He spun around and kicked forward again, but again found only a coral wall.
Annoyance became fear, and he got a sinking sensation in his gut. His breathing came faster, and he realized he was beginning to burn through his air; he was sending up a near continuous stream of bubbles, so quickly was he inhaling and exhaling.
Have to calm down. Stop, and figure this out.
First thing. Air. He looked at his gauge again, and his heart sank.
Less than 1/4 of the tank left. He was getting down to his reserve level, where the regulator would make the draw more difficult to warn him his air was running out, and he needed to get to the surface asap.
But which way to the surface? Which way out of this cave?
Harry berated himself for being a bloody idiot. Cave diving had its own qualifications associated with it. He knew that, but he had just forged on in, blindly. And now…
Now he was going run out of air and drown, sixty-five feet beneath the surface on his first qualified dive ever. And they probably would never find his body.
Blast it, it wasn’t fair!
He would have snarled, if the regulator mouthpiece hadn’t been clenched in his teeth. To hell with that; he was getting out of here.
But when he tried to swim forward again, again he was stymied. Just floating sediment impeding his vision, and then a sudden stop at a wall of coral.
He turned round, and tried again, making his best guess as to the direction of the entrance passage.
His heart was pounding in his ears, and he couldn’t get enough air to fill his lungs. Every breath was an effort, and came only in short gasps.
As he reached the wall yet again, he looked down at his air gauge.
It was at the reserve.
Damn it, this couldn’t be happening. The cave wasn’t all that big. He ought to be able to find the way out easily. All he needed to do was –
It came to him then, and he felt like a complete moron. Reaching forward, he pressed his hand against the wall. Then he turned to the right and kicked himself slowly in that direction, being sure to keep his hand on the coral as he went.
He tried to tell himself that each kick brought him closer to escape, the surface, and limitless air. But the back of his mind reminded him each breath brought him one gasp closer to the last of the air in his tank. Already, it was an effort to get even an incomplete breath.
His lungs were beginning to burn. He needed to stop, get a good breath, and then he could –
His hand slipped off the coral. For a second, he thought he had kicked himself too far away from the wall. But no, it was the entrance passage.
Harry didn’t hesitate. He turned into the tunnel and kicked for all he was worth, drawing on the air from his flask with all the force his diaphragm could muster as he went.
The silt in the water began to lessen….
And then he was out. It seemed like he shot out of the cave’s mouth, and he wanted to shout for joy. But then he tried to draw breath, and nothing came.
A look at the gauge told him everything. The tank was completely empty.
Harry looked up. The surface was only sixty-five feet away, but it might as well have been a mile. Or two. He was out of air. All he had left was what was in his lungs, and he couldn’t even inflate his BCD to help get him up to the surface.
He began kicking upward, desperately, his hands fumbling for the quick release on his weight belt. If he could just –
It was off, and he felt like he was a rocket, he shot up so quickly.
He began to feel a pressure inside his lungs, and his eyes widened. His training came back to him, and he forced aside the impulse to hold his breath. Exhaling for all he was worth, he prayed as he ascended that he hadn’t waited too long to start. He’d heard of gas embolisms, and never wanted to experience them.
What had the instructors said, the way to avoid them?
Go up slower than the bubbles.
He forced himself to slow his ascent even as he also forced himself to breath out.
He’d never breathed out so much before. It seemed he must be getting to the end of the air in his lungs, but still there was more to let out.
And all the while, his instincts screamed at him, “No! Breathe in, you idiot!” and he began to feel the growing existential panic that he knew came from excessive carbon dioxide buildup in his bloodstream.
He had to keep exhaling, but if he didn’t get a new breath soon…
Harry’s entire body was shaking. He must take a breath. He must. Take. A.
He broke the surface, and the sudden feel of air on his skin, and the direct sun on his face, was so foreign to his experience the last several minutes that he almost didn’t know how to react for a second.
Then he spat the regulator out and drew in a long, deep breath of blessed fresh, warm, and salty air.
He held it for a second, then let it out explosively, and fell to coughing.
There has sat, floating, held up by his BCD, for several minutes. Just grateful to be breathing, and to have escaped the trap of that cave. He kicked himself for an idiot. Thanked God for his good fortune to get out. And just generally soaked up being alive, despite it all.
Finally, a sound intruded on his consciousness, and he turned in the water. He saw the dive boat, about a hundred feet away, and the other divers in his party on deck, looking anxiously in his direction. Someone was in the water, swimming toward him. From the long hair, it had to be Sean.
He reached Harry’s side and came to a halt next to him, treading water. He had his mask on, but not his snorkel. His expression was deeply concerned.
“You alright, mate?” he asked.
Harry nodded, but couldn’t bring himself to say anything. He just gestured for Sean to lead the way back to the boat, then he kicked after him.
One thing was for certain. He was never going into a cave again.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: