The date was September 2, 2007 and it was 8 pm at night. I was on the southern end of the island of Maui at a place called Nahuna Point. My dive buddy and I were the only ones there and we were planning on diving on what was the second day of lobster season, or ula season as the Hawaiians call it. Nahuna Point has a reputation for the proliferation of lobster that populates the safety of the coral bottom and its enclaves. It has another dubious reputation, that being a place where rather large opportunistic tiger sharks or mano patrol at dusk and evening. We had heard that the year before, in the middle of the day, a tri-athlete swimming off Nahuna was bit in half by an estimated 15'-18' tiger shark. The violence and tragedy of that attack contributed to our pre-dive anxiety.
This was a night dive and we, including my dive partner who had never been lobster diving before, were quite aware of the inherent dangers associated with this type of scuba diving activity. We were prepared for our dive and had personally checked all our scuba equipment including our underwater lights, which are absolutely essential for this type of zero-light diving. There was a large moon above us, not a cloud on the horizon nor a breath of wind to speak of. The waters were a calm and comfortable 81 degrees Fahrenheit with not much of a surface current. Diving is a safe sport as long as you follow the rules of physics and always follow the Golden Rule: plan your dive and dive your plan. Diving at night requires a heightened awareness of your surroundings and the status of your gear. The night divers life is totally dependent on a limited air supply, and his vision is dependant on a single beam of light from an artificial power source. I had been diving professionally for over 25 years and was well respected as a very safe operator among my fellow divers.
The selected dive spot was a quarter mile off the beach and just beyond the Point at about 35-40 feet deep. The underwater landscape here consists of coral and includes sets of caves, actually lava tubes that open into the sea. Getting to the spot required an exposed open water swim on the surface half way to the dive site. After reaching the halfway point, we swam underwater, and while taking in the sights, I speared a rather large reef fish. The pierced fish began to bleed profusely from its wound and began attracting other hungry fish. My dive buddy informed me that he had lost our game bag while swimming out from the beach, a very unfortunate error, and while we didn't know it at the time, one which would set in motion the stage for a dire situation. I concluded that the amount of blood from the fish in the water precluded a continuation of the dive for obvious reasons. We returned to the beach, placed the fish in a cooler and then returned for that quarter mile swim out to the dive site. Through this set of unfortunate circumstances we had consumed most of our air supply. Due to our limited air supply, we concluded this would be an abbreviated dive. Our new dive plan was to drop down to the sea bottom and as rapidly as possible, grab a lobster and swim on the surface back to the beach.
As we descended to the ocean floor, I immediately spotted a trophy sized lobster perched in front of one of the cave openings. Unhesitatingly I closed my distance; swimming slightly above it, I attempted to seize it with my right hand. The ula anticipated my move and shifted left. I reached quickly with my left hand and it simply moved to my right. This is probably the reason why this lobster was able to grow to such dimensions: being able to avoid guys like me by using its superior intelligence. The almost comical cat and mouse game continued on as the ulu led me further and further into the back of the cave. The lobster was at least 10-15 pounds and I was not able to take my eyes off the prize. I gleefully imagined how the photograph of me proudly holding up the lobster was going to look on my mantle and savored the thought of how it would taste dripping in butter. Deeper and deeper into the cave I swam, matching the lobster turn for turn, oblivious to my surroundings, totally distracted by my daydreaming, down connecting tubes in hot pursuit until I came to a dead end in a side pocket, deep in the cave.
I had violated the #1 rule of diving. I had deviated from my dive plan. Suddenly I realized I was lost, disoriented and in big trouble. I immediately stopped and assessed my situation; of course, my dive partner would shine his light and the beam would lead me out. As I turned to my left, I saw my dive buddy directly beside me. Now consider this: who is the bigger idiot, the idiot who swims into the cave or the idiot that follows the idiot into the cave?
Using hand signs, I asked him if he knew the way out, to which he signed back an emphatic no. I saw the fear in his eyes, as they widened, reflecting his dawning comprehension that his dependence on me may have cost him his life. I attempted to remain calm as my fear increased and I began to panic. Realizing that staying clear-headed and methodically working through this potentially catastrophic problem was the only way we could hope to survive, I managed to suppress the panic. As calmly as possible I began to re-assess what had become our situation. I used the underwater light to examine the perimeter of the cave section we had found ourselves in and noticed the floor of the cave was made up of ground coral. If we moved too quickly, which we did, it would spin up like a Christmas snow globe and blind us. We grabbed each other's arms when this occurred and held on until the coral fog settled. I suspect we also held each other for dear life, trying to get a small sense of security in this despairing dilemma. The cave pocket we were in measured approximately 12' long by 7' wide, and had a 4' ceiling. We had just enough ceiling room to be upright on our knees when moving around (slowly now). The cave ceiling sloped and merged into the coral sand to our front, right and rear. There was only one way to exit the pocket. The way out (also known as the way we came into our tomb, so to speak) was to our left, and consisted of two tunnel tube openings, approximately 3' wide each. I checked my compass and derived that the way to the sea and thus freedom from the shackles of the cave was west. And to the west of us was a solid rock cave wall. By my calculations, of the two openings, the one to the right was closer to the sea and thus in the right direction to survive and the opening to the left was closer to the beach, which meant further into the cave and certain death.
We checked our air pressure gauges and my air supply registered 400 pounds pressure per square inch (psi). When your air pressure is that low, it's like breathing air through a straw, which compounds the urge to panic. As I inhaled and exhaled through my regulator I could hear the sound of pressurized air moving through it; I could see the precious exhaled air bubbles rise past my mask and hover above on the ceiling of the sea cave. My dive buddy checked his pressure and it registered 900 psi. He is a smaller man and has always used less air than me on previous dives. My problem was that I was so scared, with my heart pounding and leaping through my chest, and anxiously inhaling and exhaling a limited air supply, that I was loosing control of my emotions. I was unable to make a decision as to which tunnel exit to take. If we took the right side tube and got lost, there would be no time to recover. If we took the left tunnel and got lost it would produce the same unhappy result. It slowly dawned on me, the deep hopeless realization, that we were not getting out. After all I had been through in my 55 years of life, all the high-risk activities that are inherent in my career in law enforcement, would all end by suffocation; my friend and I would drown in this claustrophobic and dark place, our bodies never to be found. The looming panic intensified as my dive partner turned to me for guidance and direction.
I checked my air supply again and it now registered at 250 psi. Nature instills in us a strong instinct for survival. My next somewhat less than heroic thought was to survive by crawling on my dive buddy's back taking his regulator out of his mouth by force thus drowning him, thereby extending my life an additional 10 minutes. I am amazed that when under pressure I actually contemplated murder to survive. I shudder to think what I would be capable of doing should I be cast adrift at sea with no food and in a boat loaded with people. I get hungry just thinking about it. Suffice it to say, I did not act on that urge, though I seriously contemplated it. The feeling I experienced was as close to the feeling the condemned man would have on the gallows as the noose of the rope was placed around his neck and the hood placed over his head. The utter despair and paralyzing fear is incredible. I looked around the cave one final time, shone the light to every corner and knew we were alone and the end was near.
Then, at the very end, with no hope left and almost no air left in my tank, the thought came to mind that I should pray, and I did. I asked my Jesus, "If you are real, reveal yourself to me now". That was it, nothing more, no promises to change nor pleas to be spared. I then glanced to my right, as I had done numerous times already, and saw to my surprise, a large green sea turtle, or honu, right next to me. It was huge, so large that it was virtually impossible that I could have missed seeing it. The honu is not a creature that would have snuck into that cramped area with humans equipped with underwater lights. Humans do not attract turtles they repel them. The thought came that if God had sent this messenger disguised as a turtle, it would know the way out. I climbed on the back of the turtle, my tank scraping the ceiling of the cave, and waited for its reaction. It suddenly lifted very gently off the bottom, not even disturbing the coral sand, and started to swim towards the two exit tubes with my dive buddy following us. The turtle then turned to take the left tube, the tube that was away from the safety of the sea. My mind raced and urged me to get off this thing now and follow my instincts, but the spiritual side of my mind urged me to trust the turtle and hang on. The turtle made another left turn after clearing the tunnel and then turned right and right once more and then I could see the moon shining through the water. We were out and on the surface as I waived farewell to my new honu friend. I checked my air supply and it was at 0 psi. My dive buddy looked at me and said, "Do you know how close that was; and where did that turtle come from and how did you think to get on the back of that thing?" He didn't know how close it really was for him. We swam the quarter mile back to shore on the surface, talking, laughing and never thinking about tiger sharks or anything else that lurks beneath the surface. I realized that we had God's protection and I felt completely safe. We reached shore and simply sat there on the beach gazing out to sea under the stars and moon. We didn't speak, but we both knew we had cheated death. Fortunately, through God's grace, we were to live another day to see that beautiful moon in this tropical paradise.
When I got back to my home in Kihei, I opened a book on Hawaiian lore. The book opened to a page telling about the ancient Aumakua of the Hawaiians. These Aumakua are considered guardians, ancestors or agents sent from God to guide the lost ancients to safety. These Aumakua would appear, at rare times, in the form of turtles or honu.
I know where my Aumakua came from and make no mistake about the fact that by a miracle we were spared. It gives new meaning to the old adage, "There, but for the grace of God, goes I".