Weighing the Risks and Rewards of Wreck Diving

| March 3, 2013 | 0 Comments
A diver explores the coral reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo, Fla. The reef system in the Keys is the only contiguous coral barrier reef in North America. Photo by Bob Care/Florida Keys News Bureau

A diver explores the coral reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo, Fla. The reef system in the Keys is the only contiguous coral barrier reef in North America. Photo by Bob Care/Florida Keys News Bureau

By Jennifer C. Olson and Ashley Olson

JENNIFER: My sister and I arrived at Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo an hour early. The shop guys at the computers were confused about why we checked in for our dive so early, but no matter. They directed us next door to a tiny pub, where we pounded iced tea and stared at each other. We were doing that silly thing grown women do when they each think the other is being a bitch—pout and stubbornly practice the silent treatment. In the photo I took of Ashley sipping through her straw, she looks annoyed. But, we were about to head off into the deep blue with only each other for guidance and protection. We had to be cordial. And, even when she is driving me nuts, high-risk situations are good reminders that I love her. She’s my baby sister.

Ashley completed her dive certification last spring, and I’d finished mine a year earlier—filling up my dive log with everything from night dives to wreck dives almost immediately. But, it’d been more than a year since I’d last donned scuba gear, and we were tackling a pretty extreme dive for a newbie paired with a diver who might or might not remember how to inflate her BCD. So, I was nervous.

She thought it was ridiculous. That’s why she was pissed off. But, until after our dive that day, I didn’t realize how much she underestimated the risk.

Still, we had planned this trip exclusively to scuba dive, and we chose the Florida Keys—aside from the area’s warm, clear water—for its pristine wrecks open for exploration. That day, we would dive the Spiegel Grove—on the 10-year anniversary of its sinking.

ASHLEY: My dive cert experience started with a United States Air Force Academy P.E. class, where we teased the underclassmen having swim class above us in the pool and played underwater hockey as our final class activity! Our teacher was an ex-special operations guy who did some crazy (and probably top secret) missions for the Army involving scuba. Academics are taken seriously at USAFA, so I had the essential knowledge down pat.

I completed my certification at Blue Hole in Santa Rose, NM, a lake 80 feet in diameter and 80 feet deep. The water is constantly circulated at a rate of 3,000 gallons per minute, which means it is fully circulated every three minutes, making the water almost completely clear. Blue Hole stays a constant 64 degrees year round. While there, I did four dives to complete the requirements for an Open Water Certification and looked forward to diving with Jenn ever since!

Because Jenn organized everything, I mostly tried to go with the flow and didn’t research much about diving in the Keys. I actually had no idea Jenn was so nervous for our first dive and thought she’d be fine since she got certified in the ocean. I guess I didn’t think through how dangerous diving can be so didn’t understand her nervousness and actually still don’t. I’d only been in a pool and lake so was a little uncertain about diving in actual open water. But I felt confident in my own abilities and knew we’d be with experienced instructors, so I wasn’t worried about our safety. Maybe I should have been a little more sympathetic, but sometimes it’s better to ignore feelings like that rather than talk about them because that only makes anxiety worse.

Besides, during our drive from Marathon to Key Largo, I wasn’t thinking about the dive at all. I was being an arrogant little bitch. Fresh out of the Academy, I felt like I was entitled to (what I imaged would be) a perfect life, but instead my life felt hard. I was tired of pretending like everything was perfect when it was obvious that my dad—ill with cancer—was not OK and that the long-term relationship that I wanted so badly to work out was falling apart. I was oblivious to Jenn’s apprehension about the dive.

Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO

Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO

J: Back at Captain Slate’s, we got geared up, asking for full wetsuits and making sure our fins fit just right. We tested our masks for secure seals, loaded up the boat, and checked our air gauges. On board, we realized that our captain was the dive shop owner and all the other passengers were certified dive masters—one was along for the ride and the other two were there for us.
Captain Slate started up the boat and we headed out over John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the world’s oldest underseas park, and toward the Spiegel Grove, which is six miles offshore. One of the guides showed us a map of the wreck and described what to expect. “Now at about 100 feet, we’ll see….” he was saying, but he lost me there. One hundred feet! The deepest I’d ever been was 82 feet, and that was on accident. My sister—who’d only ever completed dives at Blue Hole, New Mexico, and had been no deeper than 60 feet—was unfazed.

A: I was super excited to dive once we loaded the gear and met Captain Slate and our two instructors. I knew we were diving a wreck but didn’t know much more about it. I was stoked to learn that it was a former Navy ship that was sunk on purpose to create a coral reef and habitat for sea life.


J: “We’ll get about three martinis deep,” our guide joked, reminding us that we’d probably feel a little drunk while exploring the Spiegel Grove. Each atmosphere of added pressure distorts your thinking and reasoning abilities a little more. When you’re at about 130 feet, simple math—like rearranging the numbers 1 to 10 in backwards order—becomes supremely difficult.

I’m a lightweight and would certainly make regrettable mistakes with three martinis in me, especially on top of those gallons of iced tea I’d downed before the dive. So, I figured, it’s likely I wouldn’t even survive to regret the mistakes I might make while tipsy underwater.

Our boat sped over the giant, rolling waves while I focused on breathing to calm my nerves. Once, we slowed down to check out a large crate floating and hazardous, in my eyes at least, in the open water. The boat rocked back and forth while the captain looked and maneuvered around it.


A: Captain Slate assured us that these rough seas were normal. One of the instructors had been in the military (Marines, I think) so I was reassured of our safety. Still, I’m pretty sure they laughed at us when we told them what little experience we had, which should have clued me into how intimidating this ought to have felt. But I was oblivious to the risk and high on the feeling that comes before a new experience.

J: Then, we were speeding again. And our guide was rattling on about the American flag on the deck and the painting of Snoopy on the ship’s floor. When we arrived at the dive site, we circled it, looking for a buoy on which to anchor. There was only one other boat out there, and it was performing a rescue. Our boat was rocking madly again, and the guides were telling us to don our wetsuits.

A: I felt clumsy trying to squeeze into my wetsuit and walk around on the rocking boat, but our instructors helped us with our gear and made sure we had everything we needed.


J: I slowly worked mine over my hips, zipped it up partway, and then sat to gaze at the horizon in attempt to curb my seasickness. Captain Slate told me, “Come on,” and pulled my zipper to the neck. I tugged at it, keeping it away from my throat. “Don’t worry about that,” he said, hoisting me to my unsteady feet and strapping on my tank. I scooted to the back of the boat, breathed in through my regulator and scissor-stepped into the ocean.

A: I remember jumping into the water and grabbing onto the rope while Jenn jumped in after me. When I popped to the surface, I took out my regulator but instantly discovered why my instructor at USAFA made us keep our regulators in our mouths at all times. I gulped in a huge mouthful of salt water from a wave that crashed over my head. At that point, I could tell Jenn was a little unsure whether she actually wanted to do this. The instructor didn’t give us much time to think about it, though, because we started descending as soon as we reached to the line that’d lead us down to the ship.


J: My face in the water, I swam toward the rope. Once everyone was there and had signaled thumbs up, we deflated our BCDs to begin sinking. A guide was leading; Ashley was just above him and below me. The two others followed, hovering above me.

A: I remember thinking, We’re actually doing this! We’re so cool! I kept looking up at Jenn to see if she was doing OK and she was following along, doing just fine. The water was murky at first, but it became colder and clearer the deeper we went.

J: Equalizing was no problem. I swallowed and breathed to keep my ears clear. I was physically comfortable, now that the water has loosened the neck of my wetsuit, and familiarity with using my gear came back naturally. But I couldn’t see a thing.


The divers onboard guessed visibility was at about 30 feet, which is maybe unusual in the Keys, but none of them were concerned. I, on the other hand, am the sort of diver who needs to see pretty fishes and inhabited shipwrecks as distractions from the anxiety I have over total reliance on my equipment and my capacity to operate it. Still, I kept breathing and looking for signs of the ship. I knew that I’d be able to complete the dive if I could just glimpse the wreck.

At 50 feet, we crossed a knot or buoy in the line. When our hands had reached the other side, our leader gave us the A-OK sign, meaning I had to signal back and indicate my condition. He turned to Ashley; she signaled OK. They both turned to me.

A: I looked up at Jenn to make sure she was still close and saw that she had that panicky look in her eye but was signaling OK.

J: Interpreting in the straightforward way those signs are intended, the other two dive masters took off to get below us so they could snap photos and capture the moment when we’d view the Spiegel Grove for the first time.


A: They continued down without us, because it seemed like we were doing great and would be following right behind them.

J: But I wasn’t done signaling. I felt fine, except I couldn’t see the wreck and wasn’t motivated to continue. The risk loomed more massive than the ship that I couldn’t even see, though I was already 50 feet underwater.


A: We were in the middle of a school of very large barracuda that looked potentially threatening but like they were trying to ignore us.

J: I wasn’t confident that I’d think and act rationally at 100 feet, where there’s no immediate bailout option—like there is on a bouldering problem or a technical mountain biking trail. I wasn’t up for visiting a place I couldn’t safely escape in a second, since there was no telling what I’d do. My rationale would be unpredictable.

A few of my dive buddies have shared horror stories, describing instances when their equipment seemed so burdensome they wanted to tear it off while deep underwater, shed the suffocating tanks and masks and insulating layers with no regard for the fatal consequences. I wasn’t ready to experience that sort of freak-out while three martinis deep with my little sister there to see it occur and possibly, helplessly witness my demise.


I decided not to continue the dive.

Before Ashley and our guide could go on, I jutted my right thumb up toward the surface, as my left hand grasped the line. That means, basically, “I want to go up.” To me, it meant, “I want to find the surface, breathe non-compressed air, and sit on that nausea-inflicting boat—not here, risking my life for an experience I am too anxious to appreciate and may not even survive.”

A: After her OK sign, Jenn motioned to ascend. I thought she was just mixed up, but our instructor caught on quicker than I did.

J: I tried smiling at Ashley, to let her know I was fine and that she should continue and enjoy herself. The attempt was unsuccessful, with my mask blocking my encouraging eyes and my regulator preventing an upward lip curl or exposed teeth. It just confused her.


The dive master understood though. He took hold of my arm and held his other palm toward Ashley, as if saying, “Stay here.” Then he swam with me to the surface.

A: He was grabbing her arm to stop her from swimming straight up like she was trying to do and asking me to stay put. So there I was, 50 feet under the surface and clinging to a rope, surrounded by fish big and menacing enough to eat me.

J: I watched as Ashley’s fins kicked in the murky water and got farther away, fading then disappearing completely. I thought, I shouldn’t be leaving her.

A: Surprisingly I remained fairly calm, and before I knew it the instructor was back with me.


J: When we reached the waves, he signaled OK and I signaled OK, then he sunk under again to be with Ashley. I prayed he’d find her again so she’d swim through that wreck, see alien-like fish, and be stunned speechless by the experience. I prayed she’d get hooked on diving and be forever hungry to discover more of that underwater world.

A: We swam a few more feet down and the ship came into view. I was amazed at how big and dark it was. It was kind of awkward really, because all the instructors were staring at me to see what I would do. Unsure what to do, I just swam along one edge of the ship, admiring it. At one point, I scared myself while trying to turn around and glimpse the instructors but bumped the ship with my tank instead and made a loud clanking noise.


After a few minutes of wandering, the guide led me under the bulkhead where several of the ugliest, fattest fish (hog fish) I’ve ever seen were hanging out. There were barnacles growing on the ship, but I was surprised at the lack of coral. Also, colors look unusual down there, so everything is different than you expect. Little fish swam along with us, but the bigger ones froze and tried not to be seen. After swimming outside of the ship, we went inside through a hole cut in the side of it and swam through a very narrow hallway. We saw what I imagined was the old dining hall and several smaller rooms. But the most awesome thing was a painting of the ship’s mascot, Snoopy, on the floor of one of the hallways. It seemed like fate to me because Snoopy has been the mascot of several of my AF squadrons, so he has a special place in my heart.


J: I knew Ashley would be just fine. Captain Slate kept his eye on me as I swam to the back of the boat. It was tipping in the waves, but he expertly pulled be aboard. I took off my gear and sat staring at the horizon, trying my best not to get sick. The captain told me that bailing was smart and that it was okay I didn’t continue. “I knew we shouldn’t have brought open water divers out here without knowing them first,” he said. But it didn’t make me feel like a dunce.

I’m not sure if he was unaware of my sea sickness or if he was trying to distract me, but Captain Slate told me about his many decades of experience diving, his passion for it, his need for water and exploring beneath the surface. He chatted about the life choices he made to realize his dream and expressed confidence in his decision, the evidence of which is his successful business and remarkable reputation in the Keys. He contentedly snacked on Goldfish crackers while I tried focusing on his words and on the horizon. But, when my stomach finally had its way, he went to the front of the boat while I yakked off the back.


A: My air was running out quickly, so as soon as we finished the swim through it was time to go up. I was disoriented so followed the instructors blindly toward the anchor rope. As we made our ascent, we passed through that same school of barracuda.

J: I was there dangling my feet off the end of the boat, letting them get soaked with each swell, when Ashley arrived. They just popped up out of the water, regulators wheezing and eyes blinking. Their tanks make light metallic noises when water splashed them. I got out of the way while they climbed aboard.

A: I was glad to see Jenn chatting it up with the captain, safe and sound. I could tell she was disappointed in herself. I think it’s better to know your limits so you don’t get hurt trying to do something you shouldn’t be. I was stoked about the dive but felt bad being too excited because I didn’t want to hurt Jenn’s feelings.


J: My sister’s face was bright. She’d undergone a total transformation from the moody woman she’d been that morning. It’d been years since I’d seen her express that sort of surprised elation and wonder. Knowing that Ashley had a good time and that our trip there was worthwhile, even just for this one experience, was a fabulous relief.

A: I felt ravenous! Diving takes a lot out of you and breathing that weird air makes your stomach feel strange. But I had such a good time that I wanted to buy all the dive equipment that ever existed so I could take pictures of my own underwater and plan dives with my friends. I wanted to wait a few hours and do the same dive over again so Jenn could see it too! I felt bad that she didn’t feel like she could do it because I had confidence that she could have done it. But it also takes guts to say no to something you really want to do that makes you uncomfortable.


J: The worries that halted me that day seem excessive. But I feel they’re reasonable.

I was disappointed in myself for quitting the dive but knew it was the right decision. I was a relatively inexperienced diver who hadn’t been diving in more than a year when I was trying to dive an advanced wreck. Even though we’d taken care and brought along dive masters who could handle almost any situation, I doubted that going into the deep was a good choice for me then. It’s okay.

Later that week, Ashley and I had two more dives planned, both off Big Pine Key (fla-keys.com/lowerkeys). We’d dive the Adolphus Busch one morning then a low-key reef—which was literally called Looe Key—after that. I was less nervous this time. Though I didn’t know much about the Adolphus Busch, except that it was more beginner-friendly (but not necessarily much shallower), I felt more confident in my ability to use my equipment, was more mentally prepared, and had a fresh memory of the wonder on Ashley’s face after diving the Spiegel Grove. Visibility was slightly better that day, too.


A: Our dive on the Adolphus Busch was different because we were with a group of 6-8 other people and only one instructor. I actually felt more sketched out about it, but Jenn was determined to do it.

J: Though this dive shop was less attentive, it actually made for a better scenario. We were plain and simply expected to complete the dives successfully, feel lighthearted about the outing, and just enjoy the day. On the boat with us were four middle-aged men and two shop guys—one to dive with us, the other to captain the boat.


People were fishing near the dive site, but we waved and told them to move along. Then we anchored, pulled on our wetsuits,checked our air gauges, and fell overboard into the water.

A: We all descended as a group and followed the instructor around the wreck, looking at the fish and the old ship.

J: Ashley and I signaled OK to each other and started the descent, and we could see the boat before long, so I focused on that instead of on my anxiety. The middle-aged men were gung-ho about the whole thing, and it showed in their techniques. One reached out to touch plants, fish, and parts of the ship. Other almost knocked out my regulator with his fins while swimming above me. As each pair explored on their own, Ashley and I gave each other thumbs up often, but this time it meant, “Cool!” instead of, “I want to go up.”


A: I don’t actually remember much about the ship itself. I remember they wanted us to do a swim-through, and Jenn had that panicky look again, so we decided not to do it. The rest of the dive went smoothly and we made it back to the surface together without any problems.

J: During our safety stop, the teeniest fish did circles around the rope, hanging out on the line with us, too. Thanks to a good experience this time, we were all smiles on the way to the next dive site.

A: The reef dive was beyond awesome. I’ve never seen anything like it. There were so many fish and colorful coral and anemones and things that I don’t even know a name for.


J: One of the middle aged men partnered with us at that site. All the other guys were buddies, and he was a loner.

A: We lucked out because he had been to Looe Key several times and offered to guide us around the reef. It was perfect because we could just swim and look at everything and not have to worry about where we were or how to get back to the boat. I never would have been able to keep track of our location. We swam with huge tuna, blacktip shark, hog fish, and millions of brightly colored exotic fish.

J: He led and we followed him up and down the fingers of the reef. He’d point out notable fish and gesture at fire coral so we wouldn’t touch it accidentally. Ash and I were born and raised in the high desert, where colors are muted, not electric like the ones in the sea. So, if our jaws could’ve dropped and still hung-on to regulators, they would have.


A: I love diving. It’s frustrating because you can only stay underwater for what seems like one minute. If I could have it my way, I’d stay down there for hours at a time. I now understand the dangers of diving, though. If I had been alone, I would have not understood Jenn’s hand signals of distress and would have gotten lost down at 100 feet both times and also on the reef. Experience is priceless and, if you don’t have that, you should pay someone who does have it to go with you. It’s worth it!

A: Sister relationships are hard to handle sometimes. I want Jenn to think I’m cool and she wants me to think she’s cool. But, secretly, we each think that we’re cooler than the other.


J: We’re just different, not better in any way than each other. Because of our independent rationales, we approach experiences differently and so things occasionally pan out in opposite ways. I need a sense of security and familiarity to feel safe, while you are more daring and thrive on challenges in the unknown.


A: Everything you do in life that’s fun has some risk associated with it but, if you manage that risk correctly, the rewards of the experience far outweigh the risk. Learning to use your gear and preparing your body can make a risky activity worthwhile. If the rewards surpass the risk, experiences that don’t go exactly as planned or that are only fun in hindsight make for the best stories and the tightest bonds.

J: We both felt wonder and delight our discoveries that week, and we both felt safe. Together, we enjoyed the rewards of planning, practicing our skills, and preparing for an adventure together.


We had luck diving the Spiegel Grove, with Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center in Key Largo and doing a morning dive on the Adolphus Busch, with Innerspace Dive Center, in Big Pine Key.

Category: Out There

About the Author ()

Also called "Editor Jenn" at Women’s Adventure, Jennifer Olson learns as much from you as she hopes you learn from the magazine and this website. Playing with magnetic poetry on her refrigerator helped Jennifer develop a philosophy by which she still lives: “If you publish a cliché, go explore real inspiration." Visit me on Google+

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