Depth Wish

The U.S.S. Wilkes-Barre lies deep. The ocean's surface offers no hint of her presence, only the clear blue waters of the Gulf Stream a dozen miles off Key West, like a vastly thick, indigo-tinted window with nothing on the other side. But there is something on the other side of this window, something so big it takes 250 feet of water to hide it A a hulking mass of steel two football fields long and eight stories high, broken in half but still sitting upright, as though steaming across the sandy bottom. Fish drift in huge undulating clouds above the remains, schools of jack, snapper, tiny baitfish, permit, African pompano, all swaying slowly to the rhythm of the currents. Somewhere down here in the dimness there are monsters: groupers the size of Volkswagens; giant, gape-mouthed moray eels; the occasional hungry visitor from even deeper waters who arrives for the oceanic equivalent of an all-you-can eat buffet. And swimming slowly through this strange bestiary are the most alien-looking creatures of all -- bubbling, beeping, bright lights beaming, wrapped in hoses and strapped to steel cylinders, humanoids from another world. Divers.

But they're not the divers you know from magazine ads for tropical resorts, those tourists floating blissfully through bright coral gardens. These divers are to that color-coordinated bunch as test pilots are to weekend aviators; to put it simply, they operate in an entirely different milieu. They go far deeper and stay down much longer. They leave the comparative safety of open water -- with its promise of a quick swim to life-saving surface air -- to probe the dark, labyrinthine interiors of shipwrecks and submerged caves. They venture to depths where pressure distorts the rules of respiration in new and lethal shapes, where the gases that have supported us all since birth -- oxygen and nitrogen -- can poison, intoxicate, cripple, or paralyze, and where a tank filled with enough air to keep a diver alive for an hour in shallow water can be breathed empty in a matter of minutes. They tend to know people who have drowned. Often they know details of these deaths most of us would rather not think about. Sometimes they have had to help recover the bodies. They carry extra tanks filled with special gas mixtures designed for the depths they plan to visit. They train with ritualistic intensity. And they plan and execute their dives with all the thoroughness of mountaineers making a winter assault on a tricky Alpine summit.

Ten years ago divers with the expertise and the desire to venture down to places like the Wilkes-Barre were rare indeed. With the notable exception of cave divers in North Florida and elsewhere, they had no consciousness of themselves as a group, and no inclination to talk to other people about what they did. One survivor of the period puts it this way: "You didn't want your neighbors to know that you were doing this crazy thing." Five years later, however, the number of divers had grown to the point that this crazy thing needed a name, and somebody coined the term "technical diving," using it to describe any diving done below the recreational scuba limit of 130 feet (20 feet above the top of the Wilkes-Barre's smokestacks) or in what are euphemistically called "overhead environments" (caves, wreck interiors, and so on). Today the worldwide technical diving community is burgeoning, and has spawned instructional agencies, a glossy magazine called AquaCorps, and an Internet E-mailing list devoted to serving its mushrooming membership. It even has its own annual global conference, created in response to a cold shoulder from DEMA, the annual dive industry megaconvention put on by the Diving Equipment Manufacturers' Association. Held this year in San Francisco, the conference -- dubbed TEK -- is now sponsored in part by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, about the most mainstream diving organization one can imagine.

Florida is for technical divers what Switzerland once was for mountain climbers -- the closest thing their small but rapidly expanding universe has to a center. Rooted at one end in the caves of the north, anchored at the other by the chain of deep wrecks that stretches from the Dry Tortugas to the Palm Beaches, and inhabited by a large population with plenty of disposable income, the state functions as a kind of giant laboratory for the development of advanced diving. In the warm waters, dive shops, and garage workshops of the Sunshine State, the evolution of homo aquaticus proceeds at a pace unrivaled anywhere in the world. For the people caught up in it, that process can be both exhilarating and terrifying. Simultaneously pushing the limits of technology, physiology, and psychology, they have discovered a surreal realm straight out of the cinematic nightmares of James Cameron or Ridley Scott, a weirdly beautiful place with a mean streak and a Darwinian agenda all its own. As ever, the rewards of exploration are great. As ever, the costs are terrible. As ever, there are those who will reap both.  

Billy Deans was a teenager when he first saw the Wilkes-Barre, not long after he and his father had moved to Key West from Daytona A "the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon," he remembers A in the wake of his parents' divorce. A veterinarian and avid skin diver, the elder Deans had chosen to rebuild his life in a diver's paradise. That was all the encouragement young Billy needed. Already he had improvised his own kid-size diving gear, cobbled together from household materials, and he was trying to figure out where he could get money for fiberglass and wood to build a shallow water submarine. In the aquatic environment of Key West, his underwater impulse went into overdrive. He quickly learned to use scuba equipment, completing the rigorous YMCA dive course at a young age. And he turned himself into an expert spearfisherman, spending endless hours developing the skills demanded of undersea hunters, learning to go where the big fish lived -- deep.

On the front wall of Deans's ramshackle shop on Stock Island, just north of the Cow Channel bridge to Key West proper, a faded photograph from decades past hints at the flavor of those days. The photo shows a wet suit-clad younger Deans -- looking much as he does today at age 38, small and muscular, his hair cut astronaut-short -- sitting on a giant jewfish pulled halfway out of the water. The fish's head is almost as big as Deans's whole body. Asked about it, he seems more rueful than proud. "Buffalo hunters," he says, almost wincing at the memory of his predatory days. "We were just a bunch of buffalo hunters."

Deans has bigger fish to fry now. His shop, Key West Diver, is the jumping-off point of choice for divers on their way to the deep wrecks of the lower Keys and the Tortugas. Behind its Keys-kitsch coquina-rock faaade (decorated with a salvaged propeller from a sunken Navy plane), Deans and his crew have put together a sort of poor man's inner space program. Marrying high technology and idealism with ingenuity and entrepreneurship, they've produced what at times seems like a bizarre cross between Cousteau's Calypso and Joe Bob's Dive Hut.

Out back by the dock, next to the four-foot-tall tiki-style statue of a frog with spear gun and scuba gear (the "Key West Frogman"), is the installation's mechanical heart, the complicated assemblage of valves, gauges, and pipes used to fill tanks with the proper mixture of gases. This mix panel, as it's called, is the product of Deans's 1988 meeting with a red-haired, dive-crazy Tennessean named Jim King, who would later become famous in cave-diving circles for single-handedly organizing and funding one of the most extensive deep-water caving expeditions ever mounted, the 1990 exploration of Eagle's Nest, north of Tampa near Weeki Wachee. But in the late Eighties, King was still in the process of refining his craft, and he had decided he needed to add wreck diving to his repertoire. Possessed of a large amount of cash and a Beechcraft King Air, he began making regular weekend pilgrimages to spend time with Billy Deans, by then generally recognized as the best of Key West's deep wreckers. Together King and Deans dove the Wilkes-Barre, a wreck Deans had virtually made his own in the decade and a half since a Navy explosives team had sent it to the bottom. They also snooped around the rusty hulk of the S-16, a World War I-vintage American submarine resting on the bottom in 255 feet of water. And they began A tentatively A to consider more extensive forays into the tomb-black passages inside the deep wrecks.

Among cave and wreck divers, what King and Deans wanted to do is known as "penetration." Any penetration at all exponentially increases the dangers of diving , removing light, adding obstacles and entanglements, disorienting the diver, and blocking lines of retreat to the surface. Shallow-water penetration can be accomplished in relative safety, but deep-water penetration adds additional, even more insidious, complications. As divers go deeper, they begin to run into problems induced by the increasing pressure of their watery environment. In order to allow a diver to breathe underwater, a scuba regulator supplies air at the same pressure as the water surrounding him. At 250 feet that air is eight and a half times the pressure of the air at sea level. For most sport divers, the air in scuba tanks is identical to the mixture of gases we were born to breathe, 79 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen. But take that mixture too deep and physiologically you become an accident waiting to happen.  

The dangers begin with nitrogen. Unlike oxygen, which the body needs for the chemical reactions that keep its cells going, nitrogen remains chemically unaffected by its arrival in the human respiratory system. If that nitrogen is highly pressurized, it will colonize all the body's tissues, dissolving into the bloodstream and taking up residence nearly everywhere. And in the process, it will mess with the diver's head.

The gas will have much the same effect as a general anesthetic, and as any specialist in the field will tell you, anesthetic effects vary from person to person. But for most people the effects of nitrogen narcosis begin just past 100 feet down, mounting steadily as depth increases. At 250 feet it can be quite difficult to keep yourself sufficiently in touch with reality to find your way out of a wreck A or even to want to find your way out of a wreck. And while the diver who manages to get back to open water (either through luck or prior experience with narcotic navigation) will find that ascent from depth clears his head, it also activates another quirky property of nitrogen: its tendency to form bubbles when a sudden pressure drop allows it to come out of solution in the blood. Like champagne in a just-opened bottle (as the classic example has it), the tissues of a diver ascending too quickly will seethe with bubbles. Blocking the flow of blood, finding their way into all kinds of physiologically inconvenient locations, these bubbles induce the painful, sometimes crippling, sometimes deadly condition known as the bends. The deeper you go, and the longer you stay, the more nitrogen your tissues must expel while ascending A and the more slowly you must rise in order to minimize the formation of nitrogen bubbles.

Back in the late Eighties, King and Deans had planned to go very deep, and they wanted to stay there long enough to explore a very large, very complicated, and very dangerous artifact. Doing the math, they found that if they breathed air A high-pressure, intoxicating, nitrogen-laden air A a reasonable amount of time spent in the wreck would force them to spend an unreasonable amount of time decompressing before it was safe to surface, on the order of several hours. It just wasn't worth it. If they wanted to get into the wrecks, they were going to have to breathe something other than air.

As absurd as it may sound, that was a perfectly reasonable proposition. So-called "alternative breathing media" had been in use almost as long as people had been breathing underwater, and plenty of practical information was available about their use. There was nitrox, for example, a nitrogen-oxygen mixture with a higher oxygen content than that of normal air. It was just coming into use by mainstream divers; in fact, Deans had already experimented with it for faster, safer decompressions. Unfortunately, nitrox wouldn't do for really deep work because nitrogen is not the only gas that can cause problems at high pressures. Too much oxygen also can be toxic, and the effects are dramatic. Typically, a scuba diving victim of oxygen poisoning goes into convulsions, spits out his regulator, and drowns after inhaling water. At a depth of 250 feet, increasing the oxygen mix could be suicidal.

With these factors aligned against them, Deans and King might have simply decided to opt for sanity and forget about the whole deep-wreck project. Deans, in fact, had his doubts about the concept of "alternative breathing media"; he wasn't sure exotic gas mixtures were worth the trouble. But King remained enthusiastic. There were other alternatives. One of them involved the use of helium as a replacement for nitrogen, a practice pioneered by Jacques Cousteau. However, fiendishly long decompression times removed any advantages "heliox" might have offered Deans and King. But another innovation, a mixture called "trimix," seemed to hold the most promise. Best of all, it was already being tested by a North Florida deep caver named Parker Turner. A visit with Turner in Tallahassee and a few cave dives confirmed the two in their decision: The trimix combination of nitrogen, helium, and oxygen was what they wanted. They mixed it and they dived the wrecks, again and again and again. Trimix, it turned out, was the key to Davy Jones's locker.

Today Billy Deans teaches other people how to use trimix in a tiny, makeshift classroom off the back of his dive shop. One entire wall is taken up with a floor-to-ceiling drawing board and projection screen, on which Deans diagrams dives and jots gas law formulae like a high school chemistry teacher gone haywire. Teaching, in fact, has become Deans's prime motivation; occasionally it seems to verge on obsession. And given the stereotype of the deep diver as daring explorer or mystic seeker, his preoccupation with the academics of diving seems odd, especially in light of his professional resume.  

Known in some circles as "Dr. Deep," Deans was instrumental in some of the earliest mixed-gas scuba surveys of the Union Navy's ironclad Monitor off the coast of North Carolina. Two years ago he was part of a four-diver team that penetrated the sunken cruise ship Andrea Doria near Nantucket, searching for A and finding A two 700-pound mosaic friezes by the Italian artist Guido Gambone, among the most sought-after treasures of a luxury liner described in its heyday as a floating art gallery. And last year he led the dive group that recovered nearly 12,000 silver coins from the Spanish brig El Cazador, lost in 1784 en route from Veracruz to New Orleans.

But as Deans himself is careful to point out, he is not really an explorer. In the world of technical diving, the explorer is in a class by himself, a zone specially reserved for the likes of North Florida cave-diving demigod Sheck Exley, who drowned last year in a Mexican sinkhole while trying to break his own 881-foot trimix scuba depth record. Or people like Exley's partner, Jim Bowden, who set the current 925-foot record on the same dive that killed Exley, and who plans to return this year to try for the sinkhole's bottom A measured at 1080 feet. Or trimix founding father Parker Turner, killed in a 1992 cave-in at Indian Springs, near Lakeland. Or someone like Dr. Bill Stone, leader of the expansive explorations of Florida's Wakulla Springs and the San Agustin Sump in Mexico, who found contemporary scuba technology so limiting he designed and built his own high-tech rebreather system that lets him stay underwater up to 24 hours at a stretch. Or Deans's friend Jim King, ruler of Eagle's Nest and holder of the 650-foot saltwater scuba depth record, a man fond of paraphrasing Nietzsche's remark that when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. Drawing the distinction between himself and King, Deans says, "Jim can lean out and look into the abyss if he wants. I'll stand back and hold his safety rope."

In his cautious approach to his trade, Deans has something in common with at least one other technical-diving pioneer: his business partner Tom Mount, president of the Miami-based International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers. The largest of several groups involved in teaching and certifying technical divers, the association was founded a decade ago by government diving science expert Dick Rutkowski upon his retirement as director of diver training for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1990 Rutkowski brought together Mount, Deans, and Maine wreck diver Bret Gilliam (who has since departed to found his own outfit, Technical Diving International) as the core cadre for what he hoped would be nothing less than an underwater revolution. The rumblings of coming change in the diving world had been audible throughout the Eighties: the growing popularity of nitrox (a direct result of Rutkowski's research for NOAA), the increasing gravitation to specialties such as cave- and wreck-diving, and the appearance of trimix all seemed to herald a radical redefinition of the scuba diver's traditional territory. Rutkowski wanted his group to be at the forefront of that redefinition, and with that in mind, he picked Mount -- a grizzled veteran of military, commercial, and research diving -- as his point man.

With his gray beard and deeply lined features, the 56-year-old Mount puts one in mind of an aquatic version of Star Wars's Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Jedi-divemaster image is reinforced by his manner. He moves fluidly and speaks softly and quickly, as though trying to pack as much information as possible into each breath. His fondness for meditation and visualization techniques as aids to instruction and performance is well known in the technical-diving community. And though his frank faith in the powers of the mind provokes snickers from some divers, a surprising number join in when he breaks out his guided meditation tapes. If you want to go the places Tom Mount goes, you want whatever help you can get. You want the Force on your side.

Mount has been training divers longer than many of his current students have been alive. He believes himself to be the first person ever to teach cave diving on a regular basis, beginning in 1962. From the perspective of 1995, those days seem almost unimaginably primitive, a time before the availability of scuba equipment now considered essential for even basic open-water divers A submersible pressure gauges, buoyancy compensators, and additional "octopus"-style regulators. Cavers braved the dark without knowing precisely how much air they had left in their tanks, controlled their buoyancy with their breathing, and counted on their buddies to share regulators in the terrifying event of an out-of-air emergency deep underground.  

After enough of them drowned, they responded with technological innovations (the buoyancy compensator and the octopus both originated in the cave community) and rapid evolution into one of the most highly trained, seriously operational group of divers in the world. Practices that worked were elevated to the status of unbreakable commandments, a sort of cave-diving catechism. The rule of thirds, for instance, dictated that divers turn back as soon as one of them exhausted one-third of his air supply. Protocols were developed for handling safety lines, which had a nasty habit of entangling divers. Back-up lights became mandatory. There were conventions on the placement of extra regulators so that an out-of-air diver wouldn't have to hunt for an emergency air source. Special swimming techniques were created for various underground conditions (easily disturbed silt, strong current, narrow passage, and so on). As the new way of thinking caught on, cave-diving accidents dropped dramatically. The learning curve was steep. Eight or nine deaths per year in a tiny, tight-knit community can have that effect.

Tom Mount played a significant role in creating the mindset that evolved out of cave diving's dark ages in the Sixties, the direct progenitor of today's larger technical-diving culture. He was somewhat more an explorer then, with an eye on the record books and less resistance to the draw of the deep. Mount's friend Dr. Ron Samson, the ex-Navy SEAL who is medical director of Mercy Hospital's diving-medicine center, remembers hearing Mount and his comrades talk about dives into the cavernous blue holes of the Bahamas in ecstatic, almost religious terms. "They had an altar down there and everything," he says, chuckling. "They used to bring the initiates, the novices, down to the altar." But constant attrition takes a toll on even the most adventurous spirit. Recalls Mount: "My best friend, Frank Martz, died on a dive that I had a really strong feeling about A that if we went in the water, somebody would get killed. I couldn't figure out why, so I didn't stop the dive. There's a photo of Jim Lockwood and Frank in the water on the last dive Frank made. I went in the water ten minutes later and I went north passage and they went south passage, and I actually knew someone had died about 30 minutes into our dive. It was kind of a mixture of relief and regret at the same time, relief because it wasn't me or my dive partner and regret because [the death] was beyond a shadow of a doubt. We were both doing exploratory dives that day, I was just going a different way than he was. And his death upset me because we were such good friends, and we'd dived so much together, and it was kind of like he was invincible. And by him dying it made it very obvious that I could die."

After Martz's death, Mount decided he'd better take his premonitions seriously. Fifteen years later an eerily similar event reconfirmed his faith in his instincts and his commitment to maintain high operational standards. Set to go on his first trip to the Andrea Doria, regarded at the time as the Mt. Everest of wreck diving, he got that same bad feeling. This time he didn't make the dive. But Billy Deans and his best friend John Ormsby did. Ormsby drowned inside the sunken cruise ship.

It's hard not to think about dead people this morning, watching Tom Mount's student Steve Knox get ready for a training excursion into the caves of North Florida's Ginny Springs. Not because there's anything ominous about the atmosphere of the beautiful blue-green springs -- well, anything besides the large warning signs at the entrance to the water, which remind visitors that "Divers Have Died in These Caves." No, it's Knox who's responsible for the spooky atmosphere. As he squeezes into his dry suit, he's relating his family's 145-year history in the British funeral industry. "Knox's boxes, that's what they called me in school," he says cheerily. "Knoxes for your boxes, we do the very best."

Knox might joke about offering coffin discounts to his dive students back home, but he's deadly serious when getting his cave kit in order. On the picnic table in front of him, he's got two tanks, two regulators (the one that will go in his mouth has an extra-long hose; it's the one his buddy would go for if they had to share air), a buoyancy compensator specially designed for use with double tanks, a nitrox dive computer, two lights (main linked to a waterproofed lantern battery that will ride on his back, backup on his harness), two safety lines on reels, a pair of fingerless gloves, a compass, and a knife. As he dons his gear, he snugs everything to his body in such a way that it will create a minimum of drag while he swims and yet remain instantly accessible if needed. "Into caves," he deadpans as he takes the weight of his tanks on his back. "Boldly going where no man with a brain would go." Then, holding his swim fins in one hand, he kisses his wife and ten-month-old daughter goodbye and slogs the twenty yards to the water.  

A few minutes later Mount and his other student, Australian diver Mirja Denlay, join Knox for a last check before submerging. Standing chest-deep on a shallow ledge, they go over each other's equipment with care, testing regulators and making sure they can reach air valves. Finally satisfied that everything is ready, they head off single file, already using the silt-free frog kick they will employ inside the cave. Their destination lies about a hundred yards downstream, where the clear water of the spring meets the Santa Fe River's tannic-brown flow. A tethered orange float marks a deep, oval depression in the rocky bottom. About twenty feet deep, split lengthwise by a pair of large tree trunks, this feature is known as the Devil's Ear. As the divers pass over its edge, they turn their lights on and descend past the sunken trees, dropping slowly through a powerful upward flow before frog-kicking straight ahead into the current's shadowy source. The Devil's Ear swallows them easily. In a matter of moments, only a few quick-rising bubbles remain to show that they were ever here. Somewhere below the riverbed, they have begun a descent that will take them more than 1000 feet into the dark and twisting corridors of the Floridan aquifer, bottoming out about 100 vertical feet underwater and underground.

Fifty minutes later the divers are back, their arrival announced by the alien-sounding beeps of their computers, clearly audible underwater outside the cave. The three of them then begin their decompression by hanging off the submerged tree trunks wedged near the bottom of the Devil's Ear, languidly breathing a special gas mix until they are ready to return to the surface about twenty feet above.

Afterward, reviewing the dive with his students in a nearby picnic pavilion, Mount dissects their performance detail by detail. Outside of a few minor foulups, such as Knox's jammed safety-line reel, only one thing really bothers him. On the way out, trailing Knox and Denlay, Mount turned off his light and waited to see if the other divers would notice. They didn't.

"You just let me die in the cave," he says gravely, pausing to watch horrified expressions spread across his students' faces. Then, after a few moments of silence, he lets them off the hook with a sly grin. "I usually die at least once in every cave course."

Next time they'll remember.

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