The sun started to set on yet another day of grueling physical training in the Naval Diving Unit (NDU). As exhausted as I was, we had one more activity before our batch could head back to our bunks and rest for the night. We marched to the podium by the beach, to prepare our equipment for the night dive.
It was our batch’s second-night dive. I had a good grasp of how the operation would flow. All we had to do was to dive in pairs and navigate around the ‘dive playground’, and get back to the shore.
The ‘dive playground’ is a training area in the sea just beside our camp. It consists of a network of underwater rope anchored to the seabed. This is also known as a jackstay dive. Depending on the tide, the deepest depth could range from 10 meters to 18 meters.
As night falls, we geared up and had our dive brief. I discussed with my dive buddy and we agreed that I would be the boss diver (the navigator) and he would be the float diver (the diver who handles the dive buoy, a buoy that is attached to the diver and is used for communication with those above water).
A few pairs went ahead and soon, it was our turn. We briskly made our way down the steps to the beach with our dive equipment on. Upon hitting the sandy beach, we sat down and put on our dive fins and mask.
After a final check by the dive instructor, he gave us the okay gesture and asked if we were ready.
“READY!” me and my dive buddy yelled as we both signalled an okay gesture back.
With a pat on our backs, we got up and waddled towards the waters.
The sea was pitch black and eerily quiet. I slowly submerged myself into the water and felt the bone-chilling cold pierce through my dive suit. I had never been fond of the cold.
I edged towards the start of the jackstay, fully submerged myself underwater and grabbed the rope tight. Tugging my buddy line twice (a 1-meter long rope between the pair of divers), I signaled my buddy to come closer as he started to unravel the dive buoy.
We commenced our night dive as I began pulling on the ropes to move forward. Slowly, we descended deeper, and illumination from the podium faded away. After pulling for a few seconds, it became so dark that I could not see anything, not even the rope I was pulling. I had to rely on my sense of touch to feel for the rope and continuously pull forward.
Sliding my hands across the rope, one after another, my hands worked like a pair of pistons pulling me deeper into the void of nothingness. My dive buddy was gliding above me while I guided us forward while occasionally clearing the pressure in my ears using the Valsalva maneuver.
Knowing that the entire night dive will end late, I picked up the pace and began pulling the ropes faster, hoping that we will finish earlier.
Soon we reached the first junction and I proceeded to go straight as memorized from our countless day dives.
Everything was going well… just as planned.
We then reached the second junction, where we were supposed to turn right. I stopped over the junction and traced my hands across the ropes, making sure that I was actually turning right. I tugged my dive buddy and we continued moving forward in the same formation.
I mindlessly pulled the rope as I glided forward underwater. It has been approximately 30 minutes since we started the night dive and this stretch was the longest among the various sections.
All of a sudden, there was a sharp jerk. I immediately stopped, as it felt like I was caught between something.
I felt around with one hand and felt another diver on my right. It appears that my dive buddy and I have caught up to the pair in front. Because the pair in front were positioned side by side, our lines intersected.
My dive buddy floated down to check out what was happening while the pair in front started to move again. As soon as the pair in front moved off, there was another sharp jerk. It became apparent that the diving lines between us and the pair in front were entangled.
I could feel random tugs coming from various directions, pulling me away from the jackstay. I clung on tightly to the jackstay with both hands as losing it would almost guarantee that I will never be able to find it again in this pitch-black sea.
Without warning, the diving regulator (breathing apparatus) and dive mask I was wearing came off.
Time began to slow down for me. A thought flashed across my mind.
Am I going to die here?
Before I realized, I had already instinctively closed my eyes and held my breath.
There was another problem.
I was being dragged up as my dive buddy and the pair in front were trying to swim to the surface. It felt exactly like the scene in Spiderman where Spidey pulled 2 lines to prevent the ferry from splitting.
As much as I wanted to just rush up to the surface, I knew at the back of my mind that holding my breath while surfacing would result in pulmonary barotrauma (a collapsed/tear in the lungs). Especially when I was somewhere in the middle of the ‘dive playground’, where the bottom depth can range from 10 meters to 18 meters.
With every ounce of will to survive, I maneuvered my legs and crossed them with the jackstay in between, freeing up my hands.
While still getting yanked upwards and holding my breath, I calmly placed my right hand on my back and traced the hose outwards, away from me.
I retrieved the diving regulator, stuffed it into my mouth and purged the water out before taking one big breath.
It felt as though I was sucking my soul back into the body…
After catching my breath, I placed my hands on top of my head and to my surprise, my dive mask was still floating around with the strap at the back of my head. I put my diving mask back on, purged the water out and opened my eyes.
I released the jackstay and ascended slowly to the surface.
Upon breaking the surface, I saw my dive buddy beside me and the pair floating nearby. We inflated our buoyancy compensator and waited for the rubber dinghy to come over.
We clung onto the rubber dinghy when it arrived and the dive supervisor onboard checked if we were okay… Thankfully, everyone was alright.
The dive supervisor attempted to disentangle the diving lines, but it was so badly entangled that he gave up after a few minutes. There was a look of bewilderment on all our faces as we were amazed at how many knots there were and how it could possibly form in that short span of time.
The dive supervisor told us to cling onto the side as we were then towed to shore.
When we reached the shore, the dive supervisor recalled all the divers using an underwater dive speaker and called off the night dive.
The whole batch of trainees was punished together for screwing up the night dive and all of us had to bear crawl around the parade square.
As the whole batch was crawling around the parade square, wondering what had happened, I am just grateful to have undergone enough training to remain calm in this life-threatening situation and making it out safe and sound.