That time I had to buddy breathe in Bali
It was our thirteenth dive on the tranquil northern coast of the island of Bali, our last before we left for the smaller confines of Nusa Lembongan to the east, when my dive buddy and I ran into some issues that left us shaken. We’d been diving in Tulamben for four days and had done the USAT Liberty wreck enough times that we were done with it and were redoing another pair of favorite dive sites accessed via a jukung (a traditional Indonesian boat adapted for use as a SCUBA launch): Embral and Palung Palung. We were with a guide who shared a first name with one of our favorite characters from the printed page and the silver screen: Arya (as in Arya Stark ((played by Maise Williams in the HBO adaptation)), one of the longer-living children of Eddard Stark). We took our guide Arya’s name, as well as the fact that we’d had two of our best dives thus far in Bali at these sites, as good signs, omens pointing towards good times.
When we dropped into the water at a little after 8:30 in the morning on our first dive at the Embral dive site, the water temperature was a little warmer than a couple of days ago (82 degrees Fahrenheit/ 27 degrees Celsius). Visibility wasn’t quite as good as the other day, the current was a little more pronounced, but we were lucky and Andrea spotted and got some decent video of a white-tipped reef shark. It circled around below us for a little bit before taking off, showing the delicate, fluid beautiful powerful grace sharks have packed into their streamlined bodies. Sharks make even the most agile free-divers look like bumbling, stumbling drunks the way they effortlessly move through the water.
It was a relatively short dive, ending at something like thirty-three minutes of total dive time, with lots of really gorgeous coral, formations unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in the Caribbean. According to one of our guides later on Lembongan island, a Scottish marine biologist named Andy, the reefs around Bali are home to some of the widest range of biodiversity on the planet.
We reached a maximum depth of 96 feet (29 meters) on the first dive. There’s a lot of great small macro marine life to see in Indonesia, there are literally thousands of different species of Nudibranch in a rainbow of colors.
We were looking for a Pygmy seahorse that had been spotted by a couple the other day. With our expectations set fairly high, we were slightly disappointed that we didn’t see a pygmy seahorse at Embral, but we decided to keep looking for one at our second dive at the Palung Palung dive site.
It was a little over two hours later when we dropped into the water again with our guide Arya from the extremely narrow, smooth wooden traditional Indonesian jukung boat just a quick ten minute ride up the shore from the USAT Liberty wreck. This time, we spotted a pygmy seahorse at depth, a delicate wee little thing that looked like a rough current would rip it to pieces. This must have been at about the deepest point of our dive, somewhere near 87 feet (26 meters). We were all excited about finding the pygmy seahorse, although to be fair, I think I was more concerned with and worried about causing damage to (or possibly destroying) the seahorse and it’s delicate environment than anything else. Andrea got some video of the pygmy seahorse, but she was also cognizant of needing to leave this delicate creature unchanged by our encounter.
After that we started ascending, following the reef up, feeling like we accomplished something special, holding the memory of the tender pygmy seahorse encounter like a flickering candle flame in a guttering wind. It wasn’t long before my Suunto Zoop dive watch started beeping: altering me with the ASC Time warning that I was ascending beyond the recommended rate of 30 feet/9 meters per minute (or two feet/0.6 meters per second). At this point, I’ve logged something like forty dives and it really humbles me to admit this, but I didn’t know exactly what this error meant … I thought it was saying that we were going up too fast, so I signal Andrea and she’s got the same warning on her dive computer. At that point, we’re both showing 3 minutes of ASC Time.
We signal our guide Arya and eventually show him our watches and when I see his eyes kind of bug out behind his mask when he sees the warning, I start to panic a little bit inside. But Arya signals not to worry and to follow him so we level off and follow close to our guide. I’ve still got well over 50 bar of pressure left in my tank, but every time I inhale the pressure on my gauge drops to zero and all I get is an initial straw-like sip of air that immediately cuts off. While this is happening I’m watching the ASC Time warning on my dive computer continue to rise until it shows 10 minutes. By then, even though we’re at a relatively shallow depth, I’m starting to panic, with my brain freaking out every time I try to inhale. I don’t think to try my secondary stage, instead I point to my gauge as I inhale, then signal out of air to Arya.
I take my guide’s Octo and inhale deeply, feeling such utterly indescribable relief as a flood of air rushes into my lungs that I don’t notice Arya trying to get my attention. He’s telling me to take the octo out of my mouth, but I shake my head, no way I’m taking it out now, I need this to breathe properly. Arya smiles and pantomimes, indicating that I have the mouthpiece of the second stage in my mouth upside down. Reluctantly, I take the mouthpiece out and fit it correctly inside my mouth, then take another deep breath of air. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more welcome inhalation in my life. It felt like salvation, tasted sweeter than any air I’ve ever had.
I ended up needing to buddy breathe off Arya’s octo for something like ten minutes. It was at least ten minutes of ASC time plus another three minutes for the required safety stop. By then the three of us are floating together holding hands in a tight formation at 15 feet / 4 meters, watching our dive computers, waiting for the warnings to expire. Breathing out of Arya’s second stage felt like doing backflips on a balance beam a hundred feet in the air without a harness.
I’ve never had to buddy breathe before and I felt ashamed of myself, but what I learned from the experience is if you have any issues with your equipment, especially if it’s rental equipment, speak up immediately. I noticed the pressure gauge had been fluctuating a bit on the first dive at Embral, but I didn’t think it was a big deal and I didn’t want to cause a fuss since we were boat diving without backup equipment and would have had to return to shore and then go back out, and plus I was being conservative with my air consumption, signaling our guide whenever I was close to 50 bar /750 PSI. Only, what wasn’t a big deal on the first dive became a problem on the second dive -- because of the ASC Time warning I started breathing a lot more frequently and a lot deeper. And the psychological factor of watching my gauge dropping down to zero with every breath, coupled with the fact of knowing that I was going to have to stay down another fifteen minutes, almost sent me into a panicked state.
In hindsight, there might have been an issue with my regulator, it can’t be ruled out since I didn’t even think to try my second stage, but it could also have been simply that the valve on my tank wasn’t opened all the way. I didn’t think to check whether the tank was completely open when we got to the surface, to be honest, I was simply happy to be breathing on my own. I did mention the problem to Arya and made sure to tell the rest of the staff about the problem. The same issue happened to another diver when we went to the USAT Liberty wreck earlier in the week, only he noticed on the shore that his pressure was dropping and he made them change out his regulator, which alleviated the problem. Takeaway being, even if it’s an inconvenience, even if you don’t think it’s a big deal because you really want to dive, make sure to address any issues you have with your equipment before you are in the water. And make sure your tank is all the way open every time.