We all have anecdotes to tell of things that happened during dive trips. The aft deck of dive boats ring loud with divers competing to outdo each other with unusual experiences retold. Approached by a publisher to write a scuba diving edition of their Amazing Stories series, I was vain enough to think I was the man for the job. After a meeting with the book editor of Wiley Nautical, the reality dawned on me. They wanted sixty to seventy stories and I had a deadline of only six months. A moment of failure in my own self-belief ensued. Could I do it?
I got the deadline extended to nine months, sat down at my computer and steamed into the job. One month later, it was more or less done. It seems that twenty years traveling and diving full-time had furnished me with enough tales and all I had to do was to send copies of the stories as remembered by me to the actual combatants, for them to check the details and correct any misunderstandings or memory failures I might have had. I am pleased to say that with all but a couple of exceptions every person involved was more than helpful and I am indebted to a lot of people, all featured whether by name or anonymously in the book.
Those that were less helpful wanted to claim ownership of the particular event concerned, which of course is not possible. Even those that preferred to remain anonymous, for reasons that become apparent when their stories are told, proved very co-operative.
I am commercially minded. I knew that nobody would want to read the autobiography of a nobody so I wrote the stories in third-person and although I was present, witnessed or was actually involved in most of them, I am not present in the book. It reads better that way. However, it does mean that I know that all the stories retold are true.
There are sixty-five of them in this first volume. Already I have thought of another thirty for the sequel, should this first project prove successful as far as the publishers are concerned. They cover things that happened in almost every part of the globe. Picking one at random cannot really represent the whole book because each story is so different. However, here goes:
Recently, on vacation on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, I heard retold a story by some divers that had grown in drama and magnitude in the way these stories do, but I was amused to listen because I had been involved in the original event almost twenty years previously. In fact I was to blame for it. This is what really happened:
A quick thinking instructor saves the day after an unexpected attack by a conger eel.
Wham! A great thick silvery eel, around six feet long and with a girth like telegraph pole, hurtled out of the feeding frenzy and hit the girl, kneeling innocently on the sand, full in the face. Instinctively, she had turned her face away and caught the teeth of the monster full in the right cheek. Blood and subcutaneous fat gushed from the hole, along with some bubbles of air. She was unable to inhale from her scuba regulator because of this leak in her face and was instantly in danger of drowning.
Thinking quickly, the dive guide dropped the camera he was holding and shot over to her immediately. It was obvious what the problem was and he closed up the hole in her cheek with his right hand while gripping her securely by her straps of her equipment with the other. He knew what he had to do.
They started to ascend. It was obvious that she didn’t really understand what had happened. They had 33 metres (107ft) to ascend at around 10m (30ft) per minutes in order to avoid the complications of decompression sickness. That’s more than three minutes. It was a long time.
He was aware that should she suddenly start to panic, she might struggle to strike out for the surface, and holding her breath she might be in danger of rupturing a lung, although with a hole in her cheek her airway would be open and that would be unlikely.
Gripping her tightly and holding that cheek closed, he never lost eye contact with her. The three minutes ascent time gave him time to think over what had happened.
In the centre of the channel that separates Mallorca at its south-westerly point from the dramatic island of Dragonera, there lies the sunken remains of a wooden fishing boat. It isn’t much of a wreck, just a mess of broken wood, torn nets and a small diesel engine with its transmission. If it were on the land it would have amounted to nothing more than a pile of rubbish, something that you might pass at the roadside. Underwater things are different.
The seabed of the channel is a featureless sandy desert. The current gently pushes along through the gap at Punta Tramontana and gradually fades at the channel widens toward the seaside village of San Telmo, now known as Sant Elm. This pile of junk represents the only habitat around and had become a magnet for the Mediterranean marine life that needed somewhere to hide during the daylight hours.
Predatory scorpion fish lay in wait for the unwary black chromis fish that flitted around the wreck like so many bees. As many as forty moray eels would hide amongst the broken spars and netting that formed the wreck, gulping down oxygenated water like so many silently barking dogs. Mediterranean morays are snake-like in appearance. The dive guide used to call it his snake-pit dive.
More fearsome were the conger eels. These muscular animals have thick silvery bodies, with massive heads and a mouthful of teeth. They rarely show more than their head from the cavities they hide in during daylight hours, with big yellow and black nocturnal eyes staring defiantly at anyone who dares approach. Here things were different.
The dive guide regularly took along a screw-top jar filled with fresh sardines on dives here and was in the habit of carefully offering them one-at-a-time to the biggest eels. It had to be done with care and concentration but the result was that these eels would slither from the safety of their hideouts and swim round in open water like so many airborne silvery pythons, a very spectacular sight indeed. He’d save the event for the last dive of a series so that visiting divers would go home with something special to remember. So what went wrong this time?
One day, the dive guide found himself escorting three attractive girl divers and after they’d experienced the snake-pit dive that morning, they pleaded for the chance to do it again before they left the island to go home. One of the girls had asked if she could feed the ‘pussycats’.
Men have a failing in that their judgement can often become impaired when it comes to dealing with attractive young women. He agreed. After all, it would give him the opportunity to take some pictures with his underwater camera.
So once again, later that day, they were down on the seabed at 33m (107ft) deep with their boat securely moored by anchor, at the surface above them. They were ready to feed the eels. The main difference was that it was late afternoon and one of the girls was going to do the feeding.
Eels hunt at night and so they become quite aggressively hungry by the end of the long Mediterranean summer day. When the divers knelt by the wreck in preparation for the staged eel-feed, several of the bigger eels swam out to meet them. The girl was obviously daunted by the prospect and, taking the lid off the glass jar, shook all of the fresh sardines in one mass out into the water. This precipitated mayhem. Any element of control had been lost.
A gaggle of snake-like morays competed with half a dozen massive congers to get their share of the bounty. Congers cannot hover in the water. The must swim round but because of the writhing nature of their swimming action, it’s difficult to anticipate where they are heading next. It was a feeding frenzy. It was like an aerial snake pit and something that even Indiana Jones had never had to contend with.
One girl retreated several metres upwards to view the mêlée from above. Another retreated to watch from further away, kneeling on the sandy seabed. The girl with the now empty glass jar seemed mesmerised by what was happening. Her long hair was flowing around her face, driven by the turbulence generated by so many swimming eels. The dive guide went over to her to drag her from the obvious danger of so many snapping mouths.
It was at this moment that a single big conger eel had broken away from the pack and attracted by the silver metal front of the kneeling girl’s regulator had tried to grab it, obviously confusing it with a silver sardine, and biting her face instead.
The three-minute climb from seabed to the surface seemed to last a lifetime. Once they made fresh air, it became apparent that the casualty was unaware of what had actually happened. She felt as if she had simply been punched in the face. The dive guide played down the situation and got her into the boat, breaking out the first-aid kit and getting her to hold a dressing against the wound. The other girl divers retrieved the dropped camera and made their way back up to the boat too. It was a quick drive to the Red Cross station for antibiotics and stitches. The girl was left with a small crescent-shaped scar on her cheek and a story to tell years later that nobody believes!
Amazing Diving Stories – Tales From Deep Beneath the Sea, by John Bantin is published by Wiley Nautical ISBN 9781119969297. You can buy a copy through www.undercurrent.org bookshop.