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Fear and Awe: Diving The USCGC Duane

As excitement and fear coursed through my body, the last thing I saw before I submerged into the water were the thumbs down signals from the other divers in my entourage.

With a full exhale, I grasped the mooring line alongside the others and pulled myself hand-over-hand into the depths.  The guide and a couple of other dive teams were below me, and just behind me was my dive buddy and boyfriend. The line felt large in my hands and was difficult to grip as I continued downward toward the goal, some 100 feet below: the deck of the USCGC Duane. It would be my deepest dive yet, and my first without an instructor by my side.


Diving the USCGC Duane Wreck, near Key Largo, Florida, USA

At some point while descending the line, I looked up and realized there was little if any discernible difference between what was above me and what was below.  The murky blue was completely enveloping me on all sides.  There was neither a land or object reference in sight and my bubbles moving upward were the only definitive indication of the surface’s location.  While some part of me was thinking “This is cool!” I felt my breath quicken and my heart rate increase as panic threatened to set in. I gripped the rope in what could only be considered a white-knuckled grasp, not that anyone would have been able to see the colour of my knuckles at that depth. I kept my mind on my limited training. Then I decided to stop my descent and focus solely on my psychological issues.  “Just breathe,” I told myself, “Focus.”  I took slow, deep breaths while deliberately trying to quell the rising panic that stemmed from the disorientation I was feeling. I recognized this fearful feeling, it was an old friend. In fact, conquering my fears was something I deliberately sought to do. “I can do this,” I told myself. “I CAN do this,” my internal dialogue continued to repeat with each calming breath as the intense and conflicting emotions and desires triggered a tear to fall from the corner of my eye and slide down the inside of my mask.

Within a minute or so, the panic had retreated and I realized I’d come out the other side. After turning and giving my buddy the okay signal, I resumed my descent and caught up with the diver in front of me.  A feeling of exhilaration ensued, as is normally the case after I conquer a fear. I was ready, I wanted to see this ship – my first large wreck dive and my first deep dive, all wrapped up in one. I was proud of myself and my confidence blossomed in the wake of my triumph. But no sooner had I put the panic to rest than I noticed that the downward movement on the line in front of me had come to a sudden stop.  I looked straight in front of me and learned why. There was movement there – a large, solitary marine animal of some kind. I held tightly onto the line. This time I knew I wasn’t alone in my fear.

We watched and waited as a body emerged from out of the murky blue. The side-to-side movement of its tail gave the animal away as a large shark, even before we could identify exactly what kind. I had seen reef and nurse sharks before but this creature, I knew, was neither. The animal was a good five or six times the size of any shark I’d seen (or so it appeared). Its mouth was relaxed in a partially open position that revealed the jagged teeth within. In life, there are occasional moments where you face a potential adversary against which, you realize, you have no chance of winning. And in those moments – as in the one I was currently experiencing – you just hope that that potential adversary decides to carry on its merry way. Since I’m still here telling this story, it’s obvious that this large and beautiful beast didn’t choose me for its next meal. The shark came within a few yards of me and the six other divers who were dangling helplessly on the line, then abruptly turned around and swam away. I don’t even recall breathing the entire time, but I must have. I know, at the very least, that I let out an exhale of relief as I watched the shark’s tail disappear into the blue.  To this day, I’m still unsure what kind of shark it was since I was pretty new to diving at the time. But based on its size and the shape of its mouth, I feel pretty sure that what we’d seen was either a bull shark or a great white. I realize now, after many more years of experience and education in the water, that the shark’s presence among us really wasn’t that much of a threat. At the time however, of course, it felt like a pretty big deal.

With the second panic situation behind me, I resumed my downward movement with the others toward the deck of the Duane. Within a matter of moments and emerging literally from the blue,  I could see the crow’s nest of the ship and, shortly thereafter, the entire span of the wreck. Seeing that ghostly structure emerge from the depths is one of the most memorable and surreal moments I’ve ever had underwater. It took my breath away and from that moment on I was hooked on wreck diving.  The next thing I knew we had dropped onto the deck of the Duane, where we kneeled to check our air and other information.

I was excited and a bit apprehensive as I followed the divemaster and others around the ship. We looked at decks, rigging and portholes and I tried to imagine the ship dry and above water with dozens of people milling around on it. I imagined the human life that must have played out on the ship, with men running around on her decks, climbing the mast and peering from the very portholes that lured my eyes. Now, of course, it was the marine life that was calling the ship home and nibbling at the coral and algae that enveloped much of the structure.  In my mind, I could hear the Jimmy Buffet lyrics to “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” singing “Mother mother ocean…in your belly you hold the treasures few have ever seen.” I continued the dive in awe until we eventually had to call it for reasons I’ve already detailed in another article.

Suffice to say, the Duane was and remains one of my most memorable dives for more than one reason, both of which have now been recounted. Even though my experiences on this wreck had their difficulties, scares, and potential disasters, this is one dive that has taught me so much about myself, the ocean and diving in general. I can’t wait to get back down on the wreck again to more fully explore it so many years later – and with so much more training and experience under my belt.