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A Ghastly Occurrence in the Celebes Sea

The sun rose on Semporna in the same way that Lady Madonna must have looked at the children’s stockings needed mending, and the Sim City 2000 theme rang out from my cell phone, propelling us downstairs for the SCUBA Junkie English breakfast, included as a bonus feature with the accommodations. On the way down, however, we were sorry to be informed that there would be no vacancy for that night, and that we would need to unload all our belongings from the room, trusting them to a ruddy corner underneath the stairs. This was somewhat stressful, and we decided we might well mitigate the situation by eating first.

The coffee was free, hot, and strong. Good would be a stretch, but sometimes plentiful will do here on AsiaWheeling. The breakfast consisted of a mismanaged flow of fired eggs, which appeared at irregular intervals gleaming greasily in a bent aluminum pan. Next to that pan were two similar pans, containing room-temperature, cloyingly sweet baked beans, and slightly less than room temperature recently un-canned chicken franks.

The toast was hot and fresh though, as long as one was able to battle through the crowds of zombie-like 25-year-old Australian and Dutch people, freshly pried from bed and distantly working to resuscitate themselves for the day’s diving, and actually secure a slice. We did so quite effectively, probably because of our training in Jakarta traffic. We were soon quite full of this mediocre slop, our moods lifting due to the introduction of caffeine, and back in the room packing our things.

Once we had packed our stuff up completely, Scuba Junkie informed us that they had misspoken, and that indeed they would have a room for us that night. We rejoiced and asked whether it would be the same room we had just had. “No, no, sir. Please leave your things here and we will show you the room when you return.”

Scott and I silently thought to ourselves, for not the first or last time, that had we been unlucky enough to have chosen to take Malarone during this trip, this type situation would have distorted and inflated into a gut-clenching, terrifying ordeal. Thank goodness  for the doxycycline, which allowed us to simply agree and make our way to the boat to Sibuan.

Aboard, David sprang into action, outlining the skills that we would be learning. Among those important for today’s dives were buoyancy control, recovery of the regulator (the device that delivers air to the diver), breathing from a malfunctioning regulator, out-of-air drills, underwater removal and clearing of the mask, and swimming while breathing through the regulator without use of the mask at all.

The sun was shining something more like Lucy in the sky with diamonds by the time we reached a small island by the name of Sibuan.  Sibuan, we later learned, meant “sunburn” in the local dialect. The island was aptly named, because except for a few coconut trees, it was almost completely devoid of shade. It was, on the other hand, a paradise of clear blue water, vibrant reefs, and it sported a little village inhabited by a local ethnic minority which for lack of a better word, I will humbly refer to (as the locals do) with the term “Sea Gypsies.”

The Sea Gypsies are mostly of Philippine descent but often hold no passport whatsoever. They have established communities on the many small islands that dot the Celebes and Sulu seas, and make their living fishing, farming seaweed, and occasionally trafficking untaxed imported cigarettes and booze smuggled in by pirates from the Philippines.

The Sibuan Sea Gypsy settlement was small, and the women covered their exposed skin with sand, which clung to them creating a kind of gritty sun protection and perhaps even played the roll of a kind of make-up (by all means, dear reader, please let us know more about this use of sand in the comments).

It is now that I must pause the tale to recount a relevant experience that took place before AsiaWheeling was even a glimmer in Scott’s and my eyes. It took place in a cold and dark, but wondrous place by the name of Bates College in the land of Maine. I was kneeling at the bottom of a swimming pool in this place, surrounded on all sides, and for some feet overhead by cool blue chlorinated water. I was breathing from a regulator, and peering through a mask at a much younger David Miller. He had a large red beard at the time, in which he buried his regulator. We knelt together at the bottom of this pool, staring at each other, sucking in dry mechanized squirts of air, and exhaling plumes of bubbles, which quickly departed for the surface.

David signaled “OK” and I responded. He raised his hand, gesturing to me in the way one gestures to the musical guest after he or she has been introduced. I took another deep breath from the device in my mouth, and reached up to remove my mask. As water poured in, I felt in enter my nose, forcing its way up to where contact with the softer membranes of the interior began to produce pain. I began to panic, and snorted little squirts of water into my nose, and eventually into my lungs where they made me cough. By now, all alarms in my system were firing, millions of years of evolution chastised me for breathing water, my eyes burst open in the stinging chlorine, and I could see David, a blurry ghost before me. My breath through the regulator was painful and punctuated by squirts of water into my unprotected nose. With a final shaking inhale, I replaced the mask, clearing it of water in one savage snort, then commenced a furious fit of sucking and coughing into the regulator, attempting to clear my lungs of that from which I could not breathe life.

David signaled a worried looking thumbs up (the signal for surfacing), and I responded with something unintelligible, jetting to the surface, and pulling myself to the pool side. There I lay, coughing and exhausted, and under the grip of a splitting headache, brought on by the great stress of the experience I had just had below.

Five years later, at Sibuan Island, off the coast of Malaysian Borneo, I was diving again for the first time since that ill fated day, and I had just reached that very skill that had reduced me to a pain-stricken weakling on the side of a pool somewhere in Maine. I was  making progress, though. I had been able, with some difficulty, to clear a partially and even a fully flooded mask, even taken small sips of air through the regulator with a filled mask, though under significant duress. Now it was time to remove the mask. I had attempted to do so earlier in the day, and found myself unable to, each time rising to the surface, pale and shaking, struggling to control my breath and the shake in my voice.

It was now or never, it seemed, as Scott had completed his demonstration of the skill some time ago. I needed to keep the mask off for 30 seconds of breathing, followed by another 30 of mask-less swimming in order to move forward. Shaking and nervous, I plunged into the sea, allowed by self to sink to the bottom and knelt there, awaiting courage.

Scott and David looked at me, with matching tufts of blond hair waving patiently in the sea. We stared at each other and blew bubbles. And then, harnessing the most mild uptick in confidence, I reached up and first fully flooded then removed my mask. The water began to work its way into my nose, and as I sucked bits of air through the regulator, the water level in my nose would rise up to the edge of the tipping point, sending huge surges of fight-or-flight chemistry into my body. My hands were violently shaking now, and my ability to control when I drew a breath was tenuous and demanded all the focus I could muster.

I sat there, allowing the sea and the bubbles of my own breath to crawl along my face, eyes mashed shut, and praying that time would elapse with all haste toward the point at which David would tap my forehead to indicate the experience would be over. It seemed like ages. I waited at the threshold of my own self control. I coughed into the regulator, and somehow snorted and drank down a gulp of seawater though my nose. My heart hammered in my chest, and blood rushed in my ears. Then, finally, I felt a touch on my forehead.

I smashed the mask back onto my face and cleared it with a painfully intense burst of air which was something like a cough, which escaped in equal parts through the nose and mouth. I opened my eyes to see David, staring at me with two big thumbs up, miming an underwater round of applause. He signaled to me to ask if I was okay. I signaled yes, but something was wrong. My heart was beating even harder than before, and my head was beginning to hurt, beginning to hurt really bad. I felt weak. I signaled to David and Scott that something was wrong, calling a return to the surface.

As soon as my head broke the surface, I felt like someone had driven an ice pick into my brain. I had not experienced a true migraine since I was in high school, but that was certainly what was happening now, and a bad one at that. David tried to calm me down, but all I could to was struggle toward shore. “I need to lie down, I need to get to the beach,” I clamored.

On the beach, I pulled myself onto the sand, and began to roll around, searching for a position that might cause some relief from the pain. Scott and David were clearly both alarmed. And though I told them to keep going, they called an end to even their portion of the dive.

I spent the next couple of hours sprawled on a number of surfaces, from time to time struggling to my feet and wandering to a new location on Sibuan, the sunburn island, searching for relief. The ice pick burned white in my skull, and the pain was making me dizzy and nauseous. Eventually, I spotted what looked like a woodshed, covered by a slanting roof, and protected from the sun by a great patched piece of advertising tarpaulin. I stood up once again, against the pain and nausea and made my way toward the shelter. In the woodshed, I was finally able to find some relief in sleeping for a moment, but quickly awoke to David’s voice.

“You can’t just wander off without telling anyone.” He was right and I apologized. The boat with the other SCUBA divers had returned and they were having lunch on the beach. I told David to go eat, and began to search again for departure from reality when I noticed I was not alone. It seems that the children from the sea gypsy village had discovered this strange writhing white guy tangled in a half undone wetsuit in their woodshed. They did not say a word, but gathered around me in a kind way. Looking at me curiously, and smiling warmly whenever I made eye contact with one of them.

I struggled to make some small talk but the effort pushed me over the edge, and I sprang from the shed, barely able to make my way to some sandy underbrush before I became quite violently sick. I hobbled weakly back to the shed, savoring that bitter relief that accompanies such events, and rejoined the kids.

My condition improved steadily as the day wore on, but for obvious reasons my SCUBA tutelage was put on immediate suspension. I wandered the coast of the island, and chatted with a French couple that was snorkeling there, while Scott and David initiated the final dive for that day.

Back in Semporna, the mood was contemplative as we mulled over what to do. It was finally decided that the following day would be a break from SCUBA, giving us some time to plan next steps.We feasted that evening on crab, which we selected from a tank of large specimens at a local Chinese eatery, and returned to Scuba Junkie to find that we were invited to return to the very same room that we had been asked to vacate that very morning.

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  1. Jill Schneider | February 19th, 2010 | 2:08 am

    Woody, this is the first time I’ve felt compelled to write a comment after reading one of the posts. That sounded like one of the most horrific experiences one could have. I hope you’ve recovered with no (or at least minimal) brain damage. I guess future postings will expose the level of damage, if any. Truly, this sounds like something Kurt would have been capable of in his 20s. Must be those Schneider genes. Have fun, but please be careful. – Nervous Jill in MadTown, Wisc.
    BTW, I’ve turned several of my globetrotting friends onto AsiaWheeling. They are very impressed with the itinerary.

  2. Alex Visotzky | February 19th, 2010 | 6:36 am

    Sounds like scuba diving is not for Mr. Schneider. I’m sure you’ll be able to find similarly harrowing experiences to make up for it along the way.

  3. MCS | February 19th, 2010 | 9:19 pm

    I’m still getting over the fact that this promised “David Miller” is not, in fact, the New York-based freelance drummer.

  4. Mark/Dad | February 19th, 2010 | 11:59 pm

    I was very glad to have heard an abbreviated version of this well before this post–it was still very hard for a parent to read. I don’t know if such tendencies are inherited, but it sounds like a task I would not have completed even as well as you, Woody.

  5. Woody | February 20th, 2010 | 9:41 am

    @ Alex Visotzky
    You put it so eloquently. And thanks; I am sure I’ll be able to keep myself occupied with other things… like wheeling.

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