It's funny how you remember things. Among the dozens of things that went wrong with the boat on this trip was a rather "shocking" random electrical current that surged through the boat's electrical system from time to time, with the voltage measuring between 120-400 volts. This was a bit of an issue, although each of us has a different memory as to why. In Michael's article, he seems to feel like the erratic electrical current problem had to do more with the electrified handrail nearly killing us as we came up from the dive platform. However, the main problem as I recall it was that the battery chargers were melting. I still remember the smell. Must be a perspective thing. Expedition leader – worries about keeping expedition members alive. Camera assistant – worries about keeping batteries alive. I do remember simply not ever touching the handrail when going down to, or coming up from, the dive platform. This was somewhat tricky since, as you are probably aware, wet dive gear is heavy with the added complications of lugging camera gear up and down….well, you get the idea. So yes, the electrified handrail was a problem. But as I said, in my mind, the melting battery chargers took priority. The crew of course were busy tracking down the source of the potentially fatal erratic current. Meanwhile, our captain came up with an amazingly creative way to solve the handrail issue.
This part of Indonesia is incredibly beautiful, above and below the water. The day started out just fine. By 7:08 am we were in the water off an island called Kakapia on a dive that lasted 52 minutes in water that was a balmy 83 degrees. It was an interesting dive because of the topography. Underwater, the little island was surrounded by a limestone wall that dropped down to a sandy bottom at 210 feet. Intermittently, pinnacles of limestone rose up from the bottom to within 20 feet of the surface, kinda like diving in castle spires. The visibility was over 100 feet. The tops of the spires were lifeless, having been subjected to repeated cyanide bombing as the locals pursued their need to feed their families. However, the sides of the limestone pinnacles were covered in sponges, soft coral fans and a variety of other colorful soft corals. It was stunning. I remember vividly hanging at 145 feet watching Michael photograph a soft coral fan. I could actually see the surface of the water. I'll never forget that image, which is good, because what I did forget was that I had 2 cameras along with me, one over each arm. While I was gazing serenely at the scene in front of me, Michael paused from his photographing long enough to focus on me. I had learned a bit of nuanced underwater photographer/assistant sign language in the previous weeks. I understood his question with stunning, breathtaking clarity.
"Where is the other camera?"
I looked down. I had one camera with me, its strobe arms bent cooperatively around my right arm. It was my left arm that caused me some concern. Although it too should have had a strobe arm crooked across it, it was empty. I must have been narc'd. However, having recently been responsible for the complete loss of a rather clock-stoppingly expensive strobe, I was less than eager to repeat the experience with an entire camera set-up. I dusted the nitrogen narcosis off my brain and looked down further and discovered what I sought….the camera, and its strobe arms, was headed to the bottom at an alarming rate of speed. I plunged down and grabbed it at 166 feet. At the end of the dive, I surfaced with the same number of cameras I had started with. It was shaping up to be a good day after all. We navigated to the dive platform and climbed up the stairs with their hostile handrail but at that moment the electrical current on-board was cooperating, so I was able to charge the batteries. Feeling successful, I headed up on deck to get some air as our captain motored the Baruna to another dive site.
A bit of background on our captain. He had spent years as a ferry boat captain. This made his complete disregard of diver safety more understandable, if somewhat troubling. He had a tendency to drop anchor in places that had good anchorage…regardless of whether or not the dive site was nearby. Then there was that magical night dive when, inexplicably, with 12 divers in the water to starboard, he decided to raise the anchor and re-position the boat. I remember wondering if he had suddenly hit on an idea to solve his onboard freshwater crisis by eliminating 12 of the people who were using it. He also had a habit of travelling from point A to point B in a straight line. Regardless. Maybe for ferries this is more efficient. However, on a dive boat with a 2 meter draft……
There were several of us up on deck in the bow watching the scenery. It was beautiful, with small tropical islands covered in deep green foliage and thousands of birds. This part of the archipelago is known for drastic, abrupt changes in depth as we witnessed in stunning real-time as the dark-blue channel we were in suddenly presented a reef scene instead. It was beautiful, but we watched with alarm as the actual details of the reef beneath the boat became clearer and clearer until it became apparent that we were going to high-center the Baruna on the reef unless drastic action was taken and fast.
Our captain recognized this as well. To his credit, he took action and threw the engines into reverse…abruptly. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief as the reef scene disappeared and was replaced by dark blue water. Dark blue water speckled with….wood? That seemed odd. Where did the wood come from?
I made a bee-line for the stern. What I saw there was at first confusing. The stairs leading down to the dive platform, with their aforementioned handrail, seemed to be missing something……or had perhaps gained something. I was looking at swirling blue water where there should have been a...........ah, yes, that was it. The dive platform at the bottom of the stairs. Apparently, the sudden reversal of the engines proved to be too much for the wooden platform, and it had snapped off the stern of the Baruna.
However, a creative solution to the electrified handrail problem had been found, and at least the grounding issue was solved. After all, with no dive platform, the handrail had nothing to ground itself to. I felt comforted that while our captain had not managed to rid himself of his pesky diver problem through lack of indoor plumbing, lack of freshwater, lack of understanding of basic diver safety requirements and an overabundance of electrical voltage, he had at least discovered a clever way of trying to keep us out of the water. Lack of a dive platform.
The majority of the sticks floating past us were not actually the dive platform itself, but rather the bits that fastened the platform to the stern of the Baruna. The platform was floating, mostly intact, a few meters away. It was retrieved, and hauled up onto the back deck and stowed….perhaps for future use.
Well, it was an exploratory dive trip after all. Maybe we could explore future dive sites by repelling over the side of the boat….with camera gear…..
Actually, like the moveable sinks in the cabin, the swirling water at the base of the stairs-to-the-former-dive-platform would set the stage for the next event. Truly, the dream dive of a lifetime.