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Headline: Low Anxiety
Subhead: Getting Narked In Belize's Great Blue Hole
By Gil Zeimer

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an account of narcosis -- and violation of recreational depths. While we can state clearly that this diver exceeded the 130-foot/40-meter recreational limit, we also know he isn't the first person to dive that deep in the Belize Blue Hole or elsewhere. Cold-water divers take off for the trip of a lifetime every day, diving in the Caribbean, forgetting how deep they can venture and still see the surface.

This diver tells us he was "narked", high on nitrogen, in a way. Ultimately, it could have caused him greater harm, but he was fortunate. He stayed with his dive buddy and made a safety stop; and when he ran dangerously low on air, he borrowed his friend's second stage and eventually surfaced safely.

He recovered rapidly from the deleterious effect of nitrogen narcosis, despite his ventures well beyond recreational limits (to 150 feet) and the fact he had experienced the narcotic effects of compresses air at depth.

Still, there were factors to consider. He refers to being able to spend only eight minutes at 150 feet because of the rapid air consumption. This is off the tables. U.S. Navy Tables have a maximum time of five minutes (including descent time) at that depth without requiring decompression. He would have realistically had about two to three minutes at depth. For the record, DCIEM Tables give seven minutes without required decompression stops, and Royal Navy Tables don't allows 150 feet without two required decompression stops for a total of 10 minutes at depth and 10 minutes of deco.
-- Eric Douglas, Manager DAN Training Program Development and
Reneé Duncan Westerfield, Editor

The Story:
What's round, midnight blue, 1,000 feet/308 meters wide, and over 400 feet/123 meters deep? The Great Blue Hole of Belize, one of the world's foremost dive destinations. It's a spectacular underwater cavern where I got "narked", ran out of air, and broke my watch 130 feet/40 meters below the warm Caribbean waters.

When I went to Belize in 1986, I was a relatively new diver. With only about 20 shallow dives of depths of 30 to 60 feet/9 to 18 meters under my weight belt, I'd never before experienced nitrogen narcosis.

Then I got narked two days in a row.

The first day was the one before the GBH dive. Our liveaboard's divemaster tested our group's depth readiness with a trial dive to 140 feet/43 meters. We were that deep for only about five minutes so I didn't get the full effect.

To illustrate nitrogen narcosis, my dive certification textbook shows a cartoon of a male diver trying to kiss a fish with the regulator in his hand. I didn't do that, but I did feel fuzzy mentally, like I'd just woken up from a deep sleep or had quaffed a few beers.

The second day was the most perilous.

The next day the narcosis wasn't just more pronounced. I felt fear for the first time in my underwater experience. In rapid succession, I felt anxiety about the depth we were attempting, the uncertainty of what being narked would bring and, finally, true danger when I eventually ran low on air.

Going to Depth
My plunge into the GBH began by snorkeling out about 300 feet/92 meters over a shallow shelf to conserve air. Once over the middle of the Hole, I descended. At 50 feet/15 meters, I experienced a thermocline, where 80 F/26 C degree water was above an invisible horizontal line and far cooler 65 F/18 C degree water lay below.

Inside the cavern, everything seemed fine at first.

At about 130 feet, I looked up at spectacular 20-foot/6-meter tall stalactites and, looking to my left, could see the awe in my dive buddy's eyes. I peered down past my fins into the black void that 's over 400 feet deep. Because I knew I could only stay at this depth for eight minutes (because of the rapid air consumption from increased water pressure), I constantly checked my bottom time and tank level. We sank past 150 feet/46 meters, then ascended to about 120 feet/37 meters.

My breathing was regular. My eyesight was fine. My ears were clear. My equipment was problem-free.

But I wasn't.

On three occasions, I raised my wrist towards my face to read my watch's minute hand. It first read 10 minutes past the hour, then five minutes before the hour, then 20 past. My watch was broken, but I didn't realize it. I was experiencing nitrogen narcosis.

Being "narked" gave me a slight wobbly feeling -- mentally. Physically, I felt god, but my thinking processes were hazy. If I was shallower, I could have shaken my wrist and noticed my minute hand had broken because of the depth (it was warrantied to
150 feet), but I couldn't apply this logical thinking until I surfaced.

What else could go wrong? I was also low on air.

It was time to return to the boat. By then, we only had 10 minutes of bottom time, but I noticed I was dangerously low on air -- for the first time ever in my dive life. At an average depth of 135 feet/42 meters below the surface, I'd used my air five times faster because of the increased pressure.

As we took our five-minute safety stop at 10 feet/3 meters, I gave my dive buddy the "low on air" hand signal, and he loaned me his second stage for those five minutes and during the additional five minutes of ascent.

Once we broke through the waves, I quickly switched to my snorkel to conserve my buddy's air. We climbed back on the boat. As I wrote notes into my dive log, I began to feel lucky that I'd escaped a possibly perilous situation.

What did I learn?

Getting narked can be hazardous to your health -- it impairs your judgment and
masks any potential problems you may be experiencing. It taught me to respect the ocean, to conserve my air more on descents, to pay stricter attention to my air supply rather than my bottom time, and to be more aware of the side effects of fuzzy logic. Plus, in the 14 years of diving since then, I've never run out of air.

About The Author
A DAN Member since 1988, Gil Zeimer of San Rafael, California, still loves the Blue Hole of Belize and dives more carefully these days.

What does the Great Blue Hole look like?
From the air, this dive site looks like a dark blue spot amid a shallow aquamarine sea. Located 50 miles/80 kilometers east of Belize City and a few miles west of Lighthouse Reef, it's amid one of the three major atolls along a 185-mile/296 km barrier reef, the Western Hemisphere's largest. Ever since a Jacques Cousteau special years ago, the GBH cavern has become a tourist magnet that's become Belize's most famous dive site.

Originally a cave, the roof fell in some 10,000 years ago as the land receded into the sea. This almost perfectly circular hole is over three football fields wide and over 400-plus feet deep.


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