Panama, Day 9

Today was the day we’d been planning quite some time for, the day we’d make a dive past the century mark! I know some of the readers of this blog will yawn at that number, but for myself and most of the divers on this trip, who are not deco-trained, any opportunity to further our training at depth is eagerly anticipated. The dive plan was laid out thoroughly, and Dr. Illife and Terrence gave everyone a few simple tasks to do at depth; they also cautioned us on the effects of nitrogen narcosis as depth increases, but all the students seemed to think, “We’ve felt fine at 90+ feet, how much worse could that extra ten feet be?” (I bet you can see where this is going…) Well, we did the dive, spent ten minutes at 110′, and then carefully rode our no-decomp limits as we gradually ascended the reef. Back on the boat, I was chagrined to hear of a multitude of minor problems that had occurred at the bottom–people forgetting to do some of the tasks, (which only involved giving our safety divers a time check at 5 minutes, a PSI check at 8, and then a “one minute until ascend” warning at 9 minutes,) or losing track of time, or even unintentionally breaking the strict 110′ depth limit we had set, and almost running into deco! I personally had felt no symptoms of narcosis, and had no problem completing the tasks mentioned above, but quite a few people appeared to have been hit in some small way. Terrence revealed that that was the point of this dive, and the tasks he and Dr. Illife had assigned; nitrogen narcosis does not necessarily manifest itself in obvious ways, but even at just past 100 feet it can have a considerable effect on a diver’s ability to function properly. I was glad to have passed the test, as it were; that dive was certainly an eye opener, and a reminder of the caution and alertness all divers must display whenever diving the limits of recreational scuba (and beyond.)

…But not all of today was about somber lessons! After lunch, while some of the group finished a rocky shoreline survey for the last research project, myself, Dr. Illife, and four other students went on a rain forest hike. We started on a sizable dirt trail, fording numerous streams as we viewed the wide variety of flora, but after about an hour the trail ended in a thicket of date palms, and we decided to bushwhack ahead and try to summit the large hill, or loma, that we’d already started to climb. The next half hour was a grueling experience, as we braved mud, entangling vines, spiky trees, and ants the size of my thumb (only slightly exaggerating,) but in the end it was worth it, for we made it to the top and had a stunning vista of Portobelo Harbor, Drake Island, and the Caribbean sea stretching out in front of us. The path down was just as challenging as going up–at times we had to use nearby vines as ropes and essentially rappel down the steeper portions of the loma–but the grins evident on our mud soaked faces when we returned to the trail made it clear that we had had quite the adventure. On the way back, we encountered a truck that had skidded off the trail, a group of young Panamanians splashing in a pool that, judging from their startled looks, mistook us for Los Diablos Blancos, and a passing flock of chickens, but we still made it back just in time for dinner! …Though we did have to clean up a bit, first.