14 Umikumamaha ~ Getting in Deep


Phosphorescent sea life lit up when Kumai sank into the water. The quiet blue sparks slowly faded as she surfaced, put on her mask, and seated her regulator mouthpiece. She signaled her okay to the boat, then slipped below the surface.  Hawaii’s waters were warm by comparison to her Florida dives, but still chilled her on first descent.

During each pause to equalize her ears, she listened. The third pressurizing stop revealed a faint whirring, quieter than a boat engine, but growing in volume. Kumai dropped the rest of the dive to the 80 foot shelf. On one side of her was a shadowy hillside of sea life, rocks and coral. On the other side was a lightless wall of eternal water with unimaginable depths.

Dive lights from the first two divers lit up the shelf ahead, sweeping silver-blue whisks of light across the terraced structures. Hawaii was a steep mountain, including the habitats built on the hillside of this underwater volcano. Kumai swam to catch up while listening for the faint increase in propeller noise. Broken coral tinkled like watery windchimes in the gentle surge and combined with the percussive bites of parrotfish chomping on the formation.

JWAF000151One of the other divers shone his light back to check on her, blinding her for a moment. She kept a broader vantage point.  She would wait to turn on her light until theirs illuminated any form that differed from normal. Kumai signaled a thumbs-up. By how long they held their lights on familiar shapes, Kumai realized that her needed skill was familiarity with the visual field. If anything unusual from eighty years ago was to be seen under the coral, she would be the one to distinguish it from the natural surroundings.

They traversed the cliffs and ledges at a medium pace. From her following distance, Kumai watched their lights travel over mounds and outcroppings. The surge pulled them out toward the black of open water, then thrust them in toward blades of coral. A kite of grey shadow glided over her, startling her.  A manta ray swooped. She steadied her breathing, then looked up to see three geometric ghosts drawn to the divers’ lights. She pulled Peter’s dive knife from its sheath and tapped the tank behind her back to alert the other divers. They looked back to her, again with the blinding light, to see her pointing up to the silent mysterious visitors.manta

As their beams of light curved through open water back to the underwater slope, Kumai caught the glint of something reflective. It was near the forty-foot depth. The whirring of a small propeller sounded again and she realized what she had been hearing. Instinctively she emptied air from her vest and dropped from neutral buoyancy to the cliff face. She scooted sideways under an overhang, willing there to be no eels under the ledge with her.

The interlopers were closing in. By the time she tapped her tank again, the two newcomers had left their jets anchored at seventy feet and dropped down on top of Kumai’s dive partners. Kumai checked her glowing gauge and found she still had half her air. She eased her way closer to the encounter while tucking the gauge into her weight belt, face in, to hide any light. Their top-down surprise assault made any spear gun defense too close in range.

Her third diver, who had been leading the search without a light, turned back to assist. Kumai released the rock wall and swam at full speed toward what had become a fray. It was impossible to see, bubbles frothed white and blinded her like a driving snowstorm. Someone must have dropped one of the dive lights because everything was lit up, but nothing was clear. Then one of the attackers pushed out of the clouds of bubbles, his air hose cut and pouring out a stream of white foam. He retreated to his jet and headed for the surface. Kumai liked that idea and tightened her grip on the knife. Even if she accidentally cut one of her own diver’s hoses, they could surface safely.

Another diver broke free of the cluster, held a bleeding leg with a bolt shot into it, and kicked one fin for the surface. The bubbles cleared slightly. Kumai saw that the other attacker was still engaged, on the back of one of her divers. The intruder cut the diver’s air hose and whirled on the last diver remaining, the Maori.

lightbubblesKumai circled, uncertain how to get her approach on the wrestling, spinning men. If she cut the wrong hose, she would be left facing the attacker. Her strength wasn’t sufficient for that scenario. The men pushed away from each other, still locked by one arm each. Their backs turned toward Kumai. She reached down and grabbed both their hoses, jerking the regulator out of one guy’s mouth. With Peter’s knife she sliced the air hoses and pushed back from the cloud of air.

The Maori guy glanced at her as he began his survival ascent. The other guy started after him. Kumai reached out and pulled off the attacker’s mask. As a diver, she preferred losing air to losing visibility. He was now swimming blind. He tried to lash out at her with his knife but she had already kicked away. His knife slashed her fin and flew free of his hand as she swung in with the other fin. She whirled and gave him a swipe with the severed fin, slicing a stripe on his face with the cut edge of the hard plastic. He grabbed his cheek and kicked to ascend.

Kumai took a big breath then handed the Maori her regulator to buddy breathe. She pulled her air gauge free and looked to see that the pressure was down into the red. They swam, trading off breathing from her tank, and gathered the fallen equipment. Just before switching off the lights, they illuminated an unnatural straight edge in the mineral formations.

Kumai signaled to the Maori that she had seen something and that he should go ahead and begin his ascent. He nodded agreement, handed her the regulator mouthpiece, and pushed away. She turned on the dive light and worked quickly to free one boxy edge from the outcroppings holding it in place. Her air drew lean. She prepared her mind so that her body would hold a free-dive breath. Carefully, she breathed in her last lungful from the tank. This left some air to inflate her BCD for ascent later, which she would need if the box turned out to be heavy.

Now was her only chance to free this discovery and take it. Return to the exact spot would be impossible later. And the other guys might return before they could.

Holding her breath made her temples throb. The coral and rocks were loosening as she chipped away with Peter’s knife. One corner came free. It was an old metal box about two by three feet. The third corner loosened. Her lungs felt impossibly inflated, as if the air pressure increased with each second. She allowed a small trickle of bubbles to escape for some relief, but not so much that she would then gulp in for air.

Despite clearing away crusts of rock, the box would not budge. Kumai tried kicking it and almost passed out from the strain on her lungs. She wanted to breathe. In her mind, she pretended to recirculate the already-trapped air through her lungs, visualizing fresh oxygen. Small sparks danced in front of her eyes. Her ears whirred.

underwaterjetShe thought her head was buzzing as the diving jet slowed beside her. The Maori grabbed her regulator, breathed, then forced the mouthpiece on her. He tethered the box to the jet while she filled her lungs first with one small desperate breath then with a fresh long intake. He gunned the jet and the box pulled free. Kumai grabbed one handle, he the other, and they ascended. Gentle expansion of air filled her lungs on their rise up from the pressure of the deep. She let the extra bubbles trickle out her nose in a delightful stream of abundance.

At the fifteen feet mark, they again held their breath and paused for decompression, counting. When safe, they powered the jet to the surface and breached with great gasps for fresh air. The box bubbled up from the oily depths, making Kumai’s heart sink. The box wasn’t heavy enough to be containing anything.

Kumai said, “I signaled you to ascend, Sergeant, not to come rescue me.”

He activated his glow stick, smiled, and said, “I wasn’t thinking.”

And then…

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