Scuba Feature

The late-October sun was still asleep as Lawrence Allen and Tania Figuerola set out for the Keys and talked about things that only lovers know. They discussed their relationship, how in a giddy seven months they had reached profound depths of intimacy usually reserved for characters in romance novels. And they reveled in the possibilities the future held. How, in a matter of months, with Allen's two children in college and Figuerola's own divorce well in the past, it might be a good time to start a family of their own.

Since their chance meeting at an American Cancer Society fund-raising party, the two had been inseparable as they explored their new relationship and Miami. Allen, then 47 years old and a personal-injury lawyer, and Figuerola, a 31-year-old ultrasound technician at Larkin General Hospital in South Miami, found in each other a common desire for new experience. Where a night at the movies would satisfy another couple, Allen and Figuerola would trot off to a psychic fair or spend a night in a lighthouse. "We were also really into fitness," adds Allen. "She would do aerobics five times a week, I work out about four times a week. We were an active couple."

This thirst for adventure and physical activity led the two on their early-morning expedition to scuba dive from a charter boat off Islamorada. Allen was newly certified, having taken a six-week scuba course at Miami-Dade Community College. The Islamorada dive was to be his first dive since his certification, and Figuerola's third in the six years since her certification.

The lovers' conversation only briefly touched on the dive ahead, but Allen was slightly apprehensive about it. The previous week Figuerola had joined him during his final two certification dives and fumbled some basic techniques. Not only did she have buoyancy problems and take a long time to enter the water, but she also experienced two bloody noses because she had trouble clearing her sinuses. "Going back in the boat, I was mad as hell," remembers Allen. "I said, `Are you nuts? You need a refresher course! I'm not going to dive with you until you take a refresher course!'"

During the week, Figuerola took a private class with an instructor, whom Allen phoned the following Saturday. According to Allen, the instructor told him Figuerola was "petrified" to take off her mask underwater and hadn't been allowed out of the swimming pool until she did it. However, the instructor reassured Allen that Figuerola was otherwise competent and should go diving as soon as possible to reaffirm her skills. With that encouragement, the neophyte divers immediately booked the diving trip at Lady Cyana Divers dive shop in Islamorada, and headed south the next morning for the 7:30 dive.

With rented equipment from Lady Cyana Divers, the pair joined about seventeen other divers, including Figuerola's refresher instructor, Don Stelzen, aboard the Lady Cyana III dive boat. Stelzen was taking a group of dive students on their open-water dive for certification. A 25-minute ride brought the boat to Davis Ledge, a 25-foot-deep, 400-foot-long swathe of coral and a popular dive spot for boats out of Islamorada. Having been apprised of the water conditions by the captain - surf temperature 82 degrees, slight southerly current, one-foot swells - the divers splashed in two by two and disappeared into the azure depths. Figuerola and Allen took their time donning their dive equipment and were the last in, several minutes behind the others. "I'm trying to be super calm about everything," Allen explains. "You want to act like you know what's going on. When you go diving you don't want to look like a fool."

Their dive began poorly. Only this time it wasn't Figuerola who was having problems, it was her partner. Because Allen was wearing a new full-body wet suit for the first time, he had incorrectly calibrated the amount of weight he needed for his weight belt and was unable to submerge himself. An unsympathetic captain refused to give him additional weight for his belt, he says, and Figuerola had to pull him down by his leg.

Once at the bottom, Figuerola and Allen were alone and headed off in a random direction, with Figuerola holding Allen by her hand so he wouldn't float to the surface. Twenty-five minutes passed quickly as the two novices swam along the reef wall, pointing out coral and fish to each other.

Suddenly, Allen recalls, the divers were caught in some underwater turbulence that knocked them together clumsily and disturbed their tranquil perusal of the reef. "We got shoved to one side, then shoved the other way, and I'm getting nauseous and feeling weak and I'm ready to throw up," remembers Allen. He checked their air supplies: Figuerola's had depleted from an initial reading of 3600 pounds per square inch to nearly 1000 psi, while his gauge read 700 psi, down from 3200 psi. Still, Allen figured he had plenty of air to get back. With hand signals, they agreed to head back to the boat, although neither knew in which direction to go. Figuerola inflated her buoyancy compensator - an inflatable life vest - and Allen, because of his natural buoyancy, simply let go of his girlfriend's hand and drifted upward.

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Kirk Semple