Sunday Journal: A prayer answered in the darkness

Scuba diving was one water sport I had always yearned to learn. But raising my daughter alone left me with little time or money to engage in such adventure. When she was a senior in high school, I met Tom, a former naval officer and licensed pilot. His taste for adventure paralleled mine, so we pursued our scuba certification together.

Diving took us on many underwater excursions. We soon had our own equipment and continued to expand our skills. With enough additional training and classes, we were proud to be certified as master divers.

Tom, the more cautious diver, occasionally curtailed my explorations by tugging on my fin to prevent me from going into the nooks and crannies of Florida's many underwater limestone caverns.

One Saturday we went to Blue Grotto near Williston, south of Gainesville. There, I became what we termed a "dumb diver" by breaking the first rule of scuba: "Stay With Your Buddy!"

Though Tom usually led our underwater excursions, I decided to lead this time. As I swam down into the dim cavern, I suddenly noticed the visibility became more difficult. Although I carried an underwater flashlight, my surroundings were pitch black and I couldn't read my gauges to check the depth or the air remaining in my tank. With fresh batteries before the dive, I couldn't understand why my light wasn't working. Aiming the lens of the light directly into my eyes I detected a small, diluted speck of luminescence. Aghast, I realized that the flashlight worked, but I had stirred up several feet of silt, making visibility impossible. For several seconds I swam in circles, keeping my regulator tightly clenched in my teeth.

Struggling for control, I knew that keeping a calm, level head and breathing regularly were essential to the prevention of panic underwater. Tom and I were to be married underwater on a reef in the Florida Keys in less than a month. I pictured him alone on the dive boat saddened by my absence. I saw my daughter without a mother. I prayed, thanking God for allowing me to be calm and asking for help in finding my way out of this potential underwater grave.

Disoriented and unable to see, I was not even certain which way to swim. Finning upward I scraped my head on the limestone ceiling. Be careful, I thought to myself. Bad time for a concussion. I swam lower while reaching my gloved hand out to the side. My fingers found the convoluted surface of the cavern wall. Slowly, I worked them up the wall toward the ceiling hoping that there was an opening through which I could swim. As my fingers inched along the wall near the top of the cavern I felt a tug on my hand. Thank God. Tom is trying to pull me out of the dark.

Again my head scraped the cavern roof. I guessed that there was no overhead exit, but I continued to slowly let my fingers creep along the jutting limestone. Once more, I felt the tug. Grateful for the assistance, I swam on hoping soon to see sunlight at the cavern's entrance. Finally my fingers grasped the edge of the opening and I pushed myself into the huge pool of sunlit water. My depth gauge, now visible, showed 73 feet. Looking around, I remained a bit confused. I did not see Tom. I expected him to be at the cavern's entrance.

In the distance I saw flashes of blue. Knowing he wore a blue wet suit and fins, I quickly swam toward him. We embraced at 30 feet, did our 15-foot, three-minute safety stop, and emerged to the surface of the chilly Florida spring.

Tom said that he was initially irritated after I disappeared because I did not keep him in sight. Then he swam the proper path to the bottom of the 100-foot cavern, searching everywhere for me, and his irritation turned to worry. When I finally saw him, he was on his way to the surface to seek help.

I told him that I expected to see him when I emerged from the black abyss; he had guided me to safety. But he said that I had descended so quickly that he never saw me slip behind a rock and into the deep crevice.

I know I did not imagine the tugging at my hand. Disoriented, it was all I had directing me toward the safety of the cavern's exit. I am convinced divine guidance led me to the light.

Susan M. Weatherby, a veteran of Pinellas County schools, wrote this story a few months after her dive; she passed away in 1998. Her husband, Thomas E. Harvey, submitted this story.

Sunday Journal: A prayer answered in the darkness 12/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 2:24pm]

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