Special to The Washington Post
By Remar Sutton

Little Apple Bay, Tortola, British Virgin Islands—The past three weeks have brought the arrival of a Caribbean summer, with all its wonderful changes, but out of the blue, summer also brought my scariest personal moment in years—out of the blue-black waters of the nighttime sea, to be specific.

I have been a devoted scuba diver for over 25 years. The first time I sank below the surface, I fell in love with the sport. In the right waters (clear, fish-filled, and/or topographically interesting) scuba diving is absolutely magical, even for new divers.

Many fish make friends with people quickly, if you approach them gently. I've spent lots of hours floating aimlessly by a pair of magnificent Queen Angel fish (they mate for life). Grumpy fish make interesting companions, too. Wrasses, no bigger than a fingernail, are so territorial and brave they think nothing of charging you like a bull if even your finger approaches their home or family. I've made over a thousand dives, and my feeling for the sport is distilled in a thought that first occurred as I sat on a rock formation sixty feet down under: I don't worry about anything down there. After settling into a dive, I can't even force myself to worry. The silence, the beauty, is just too intense to allow peripheral thoughts about problems topside.

That's why I decided at the last minute to go on a night dive with friends to the Wreck of the Rhone some days ago. I was tired, and worried about business matters, and I rolled off the back of our boat into the black water with great anticipation, without the slightest worry, as casually as you would open a closet door.

But as I began to sink in the eighty-foot deep water, alarm bells started ringing in my head: My vision was blurred; I couldn't read my gauges without great concentration. Then my flashlight suddenly dimmed out. I looked up and down but couldn't clearly see the blinking strobe light just ten feet over my head on the boat hull, couldn't make out the divers waiting on the bottom for me, their lights sweeping the ocean floor.

I began having trouble breathing. Stress makes breathing harder under water, which of course can create more stress. At that moment, I thought about surfacing, anxious and uncomfortable. But I had never aborted a dive in my diving career, didn't want to be embarrassed, and continued to push myself down, my vision more blurred than ever. And then for the first time in my diving life as I hit mid-water, with the ocean floor four stories below and the surface just as far above, vertigo hit me with the violence of an explosion. I'd never before felt fear like that. I began to hyperventilate, a very dangerous thing to do when you are breathing through a tiny hose. Divers are always taught to look at their depth gauges when they undergo vertigo attacks, treat the depth gauge as reality. I did that, and with great effort and more fear than I know how to describe, began to kick towards the surface. When my head popped into the night air, I was breathing very heavily.

All this had taken only two minutes and nineteen seconds, according to my dive computer. A few minutes later, my dive buddy surfaced to make sure I was okay. When I waved assurance with what I hoped was calm aplomb, he headed back down to the wreck.

As the most experienced diver in the group, I acted nonchalant about this incident when all the divers surfaced at the end of the dive. Oh, I was just tired, I said. Oh, I was feeling a leg cramp, I said. No big deal. In reality, the incident scared the hell out of me and made me rethink my approach to diving.

First, a sense that the rules didn't apply to me when it came to diving had nearly gotten me in big trouble. Diving had become so casual to me (falsely buoyed by unconscious pride in long experience, not to mention advance certifications) that I hadn't even thought to check my gear—the most elemental rule of diving. I had jumped in the water with an old mask on my face, not the powerful prescription mask that lets me see clearly. I also hadn't checked my dive flashlight or any other "secondary" equipment.

My blurred vision underwater distracted me so much that I then forgot to reset my regulator for underwater breathing rather than surface breathing, which brought on my initial respiratory problems.

Second, I was reminded that growing comfortable breaking the rules because nothing has gone wrong doesn't make it safe to break the rules. The opposite is true. As we break rules and get away with it—a diver not checking his gear but diving safely anyway, again and again—we tend to break more rules, a nice formula for catastrophe.

The analogies for health and fitness are nearly too obvious for me to point out, but I want to mention a few less obvious ones. To begin with, my near-accident was entirely preventable and so unnecessary. I also brought it on myself. But even though I brought it on myself, the consequences if I had been injured or killed would have fallen on the people who love me. Their lives would have been turned upside down by my mistake. That bitter thought flashed through my mind at the worst instant during the dive.

Similar thoughts are why a lot of you are trying to get a grip on your health and your life, even when inertia keeps telling you "no, just break the rules a bit more." We don't want others to be forced to deal with the consequences of our inaction. And that's why you need to visit the Conch web site today:

  • We've posted a great page on walking clubs and events available to you right now in the Beltway area. Hey, tomorrow night, June 18, there's a great early evening walk sponsored by the D.C. Area Volksmarching Club. About five miles, and you can bring your dog!
  • We've put up links to other great walking sites, including the Post's superb "Psyched to Hike" page.
  • We've finally got the Conch Discussion Board operating! You can post your own stories, find training partners, meet fellow Conchs for Beltway events.

Me, I'm going on a night dive, a bit nervous and a lot less cocky now. You can bet I'll check my gear twice.