What It’s Like

What It’s Like To Take An Unexplained Hit

illustration of diver receiving emergency oxygen

Steven P. Hughes

Bottom Line: Don’t Deny
Delaying treatment during the first few minutes could be the difference between a good outcome and a poor one.

It can happen to anybody. You carry two computers. They both say you’re OK. You didn’t have a rapid ascent, you didn’t go into deco, you’re hydrated, you’re rested, you’ve been deeper for longer before. But you don’t feel right after the dive. What gives?

In my case, I was diving on a three-day liveaboard trip in Southern California when I came up from a dive and immediately had moderate to severe pain in my upper abdomen, just below my diaphragm. I figured it was gas, upset stomach, anything but decompression illness. But the pain was followed shortly by my legs going numb and becoming paralyzed. I can’t be bent, I thought. I must have sat on my legs and put them to sleep.

I decided to tell the captain, who started me on oxygen right away and called the Los Angeles County paramedics stationed at Cat Harbor. Oxygen made me feel much better — so much better that I didn’t think I was hit.

The paramedics insisted I go to the chamber to be assessed. I did, and the consensus was that I had a Type 2 spinal-cord hit. After five hours in the Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber, I’m fine. No lingering symptoms.

From onset to administration of 0₂ was less than 10 minutes. From onset to the chamber ride was less than two hours. I’m convinced that quick response was the key to my resolving on the 0₂ initially and having no issues after the chamber ride.

Bottom line: Don’t deny. In my case, I told the captain I needed 0₂, but if your captain tells you — listen to him. That first few minutes could be the difference between a good outcome and a poor one. I’ve always been told the first sign of DCI is denial. I didn’t deny, and I turned out fine.

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What It’s Like To Be A Cave Diver

Illustration of Cave Diver

Steven P. Hughes

What It’s Like

To Be A Cave Diver

I swim through the veins of Mother Earth, exploring shadowy recesses inside the planet. The ominous portals of underwater caves repel most people, but I am attracted to the constricted corridors, squeezing through, relying on sophisticated technology for every sustaining breath. This is my workplace. Within the darkness of my office, life depends on a finite balance between fear and discovery. A bad decision at work could cost me my life.

Cave diving has been called the world’s most dangerous sport, as well as the edgy frontier of earthbound scientific exploration and discovery. Even with modern equipment and training, about 20 people die every year in the dark catacombs of water-filled caves.

As a filmmaker and photographer, underwater caves represent the ultimate challenge: creating art while monitoring life-support equipment at task loads that take my mind and body to the limit. Sometimes solo, and other times as a member of a scientific expedition, I must be entirely self-sufficient. There’s no Mission Control to solve my problems while I am blindly groping for a lost guide line in a zero-visibility silt-out or am pinned by the current, with numb hands barely responding, beneath towering columns of jagged, deadly ice.

Despite the risk, I’m like a kid in a candy store, working with biologists discovering new species, physicists tracking climate change and hydrogeologists examining our finite freshwater reserves. I’ve discovered grisly sources of pollution, the roots of life inside Antarctic icebergs and ancient skeletal remains of Mayan civilizations. It is a privilege to uncover these hidden shrines and share mysteries concealed deep inside our planet.

Want to follow in Heinerth’s footsteps? Learn how to become a cave diver here!

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What It’s Like To Be Caught in A Current Underwater

A Diver Struggles to Get Away from an Underwater Current

Steven P. Hughes


Diving in Belize took a scary turn for one diver.

Ambergris Caye was a short hop on a 12-seater from mainland Belize. Looking out from its eastern shore, my wife and I could see Belize Barrier Reef, a white vapor-trail line dividing the aqua lagoon from the darker cobalt-blue sea beyond.

In the lagoon fanking the reef is an area designated Hol Chan Marine Reserve, named by the Mayans for a channel that cuts through the reef. Shallow and teeming with wildlife, the reserve seemed an undemanding start to our dive vacation.

Visibility in Hol Chan’s aquariumlike habitat was excellent, so my dive-buddy wife was able to watch me from some distance as I wandered of toward the channel to take pictures.

When it was time to head back, she signaled me to join her. Swimming toward her, I became aware of the current for the first time.

I had been working against it all along but had been preoccupied taking pictures. The current was caused by an outgoing tide that fowed toward the cut behind me.

I struggled to make progress. At 73, I’m in great shape, but I started to tire.

I couldn’t overcome the surge as my legs began to give out. Worse yet, I soon started being pulled backward, facing the grim prospect of being torn out of control through the channel and out to sea. I was using air at an alarming rate. I had to do something quick.

As my wife watched helplessly, I dropped to the bottom, desperately clawing at the sand and grabbing fistfuls of turtle grass to pull myself along. I made progress one foot at a time, setting a course parallel to the reef and out of the main tidal stream.

Finally, I got far enough from the channel that I managed to escape the brunt of the current. I gave my wife a thumbs-up to ascend, and we bobbed up 30 feet to the surface, where we got the attention of the divemaster. With strong, young legs, he helped me back to the boat, exhausted but safe.

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Becoming the Shark Lady: The Legacy of Eugenie Clark

The Shark Lady Eugenie Clark with Sharks

David Doubilet/National Geographic Creative


When pioneer marine biologist Dr. Eugenie Clark died this past February, she had compiled a nearly 75-year legacy of scientific research.

Credit the New York Aquarium with Dr. Eugenie Clark’s lifelong devotion to fish. At age 9, she had an overwhelming desire to be in their world, and that pas- sion inspired her to become an ichthyologist, writer and explorer.
She wrote three books, 80 scientific treatises, and more than 70 articles and papers; she had four species of fish named for her. In 2014, after Clark was named Beneath the Sea’s Legend of the Sea, contributor Brooke Morton interviewed “The Shark Lady” for our sister magazine, Sport Diver. The following is an excerpt from that interview.

Favorite shark encounter?

I was out of the water, looking into the shark pen at Cape Haze Marine Laboratory (now known as the Mote Marine Laboratory) in Sarasota, Florida. I realized that our lemon sharks had learned to push the right underwater target to release food. We had trained sharks for the first time.

You sustained a shark bite while in a car. What happened?

I was driving to a lecture for schoolchildren. On the front seat next to me was a tiger shark jaw. Running late, I stopped abruptly for a red light and stuck my arm out to prevent the jaw from cutting the dashboard. Instead, the teeth sliced my arm. The students were most interested in the bite-mark circle.

Most surprising discovery?

I found that one fish, the belted sandfish, could change sex from female to male — and vice versa — in as little as 10 seconds.

How has the gender gap changed for female scientists?

Tremendously! When I started, I was one of few females in the field — and the only one studying sharks. Now there are lots of female students of elasmobranchs. The shift can be seen in professional organizations, such as the American Elasmobranch Society, which started out with one female, and now has more than 50 percent female membership.

Greatest accomplishment?

My four children, the many friends I’ve made in the diving world, and to have a small part in inspiring an interest in sharks and marine life in children.

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What It’s Like to Rescue a Dusky Shark

Divers Rescue Entangled Dusky Shark In Bahamas

Amanda Cotton

Dusky Shark Rescue

While in Cat Island, Bahamas, these divers helped to free an entangled dusky shark.

Leading a recent shark expedition at Cat Island in the Bahamas, I experienced one of the most extraordinary days in the ocean I’ve ever had.

Diving with silkies and oceanic whitetips, we were horrified to see a large male dusky shark arrive near the boat with a very deep wound around its head. We could see a large rope — presumably discarded fishing gear — tightly wrapped around its neck just behind the gills; one of its pectoral fins was pinned. The shark was incredibly skinny, with a disproportionately huge head on its emaciated body.

Everyone agreed we had to do something. This shark was dying a slow death. But it refused to come in close to the divers.

To our delight, the shark became more comfortable with us as the days progressed — the decision was made that we would attempt to cut of the rope.

Due to safety concerns, we asked our group of divers if they were willing to give up some in-water time so Epic Diving owners Vincent and Debra Canabal and I could attempt this rescue. The group agreed without hesitation and encouraged us to try.

Armed with surgical scissors and cameras, the three of us made our way into the water and were almost im- mediately greeted by the dusky shark, whom we later named Atlas. As it approached Vincent and me, Vincent was able to quickly cut the rope and pull it of Atlas as it rolled, allowing Debra to take photos of the experience. As this happened, the group on the boat erupted in cheers. It was truly a group effort to save this shark, and we were all thrilled to see it swim of, free of the rope.

In the weeks that followed, Atlas returned to Epic Diving’s boat again and again, showing signs of healing and improvement at an astonishing rate.

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