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August 12, 2011

What About Bob?

Ten minutes into our boat ride from Lahaina to Molokai, our dive master shepherded me and 12 other divers into the boat’s cabin for our pre-dive brief. One person remained—a man appearing to be in his sixties, sporting white stubble, tattered tan shorts and a blue shirt. “Should I grab him,” I asked. “Nah, that’s just Bob,” the dive master replied before drawing circles on a whiteboard representing two pinnacles that jutted from the ocean two miles off Molokai’s East shore. “Here is where the scalloped hammerheads are,” he said while drawing a big X.

My attention immediately shifted from Bob to the hammerheads. They’re the reason I woke up at 5 a.m. on my vacation and braved a 45-minute boat ride in six-foot swells. About those swells—the Pailolo Channel separating Maui and Molokai is one of the roughest channels in the world, and it was living up to its reputation. The six-foot swells tossed the boat side-to-side like a pendulum making it difficult to focus on the brief and stay dry.

Suddenly, a loud thud rang from the back of the boat. Everyone spun around, fearing a tank had fallen from a rack and crushed their gear. Bob was in the middle of the boat’s deck, wearing a camouflage wetsuit, wrestling with a rebreather. Despite the swells and waves that littered spray across the boat, Bob had managed to gear up. But he wasn’t done. He waved over our dive master, who quickly clipped a bright yellow tank to his waist, and then handed him a camcorder in a large Gates housing. With all his gear, Bob looked more like an astronaut than a diver. Just then, the boat pulled up to the pinnacles and idled. One giant stride later, Bob was gone. The boat’s crew shouted, “Bob’s away!”

Who the hell is Bob? Unsatisfied by the answer the diver master had given me earlier, I scrambled up the ladder to the captain. “Bob is Bob,” he said. I was beginning to think the crew had something against me. “He’s been diving this sight twice a week for the past year,” he said. “He’ll meet up with you guys at the end of your dive. You can interrogate him then.” Pleased that I’d uncovered some info about Bob, I headed down the staircase to prep for my dive.

One hour later, I was back on the boat, without Bob. “I thought you said Bob would meet up with us at the end of our dive,” I said to the captain. “Yeah, your second dive.” Bob’s rebreather didn’t expel bubbles that frighten hammerheads and it allowed him to stay down for hours at a time.

Nearing the end our second dive, Bob appeared. He was hovering behind a ledge preparing to ambush a camera-shy, five-foot-long barracuda. As we boarder the boat, I overheard Bob talking to a dive master. “I’ve never been so close to a hammerhead,” he said, sporting a grin from ear-to-ear.

“He likes chocolate chip cookies,” a dive master said. “I’m sorry,” I replied. “Bob, he likes cookies.” I immediately made a b-line for the cookie jar, snatched two and then approached Bob. “Would you like a cookie,” I asked. He looked up and said nothing. “Would you like a cookie,” I repeated. “You’ll have to speak up,” he replied. I thrust the cookie towards him. “Oh, thanks!”

With my peace offering accepted, I began hurling questions at Bob: How close did you get to the hammerhead? Are you an underwater filmmaker? Why do you dive the site so frequently?
“The shark got so close it almost swallowed my camera lens,” he said, cracking a smile. Slowly but surely, Bob opened up.

At one point, he casually mentioned that he’d been a black coral diver “a long time ago.” A jewelry store owner had told me earlier in my vacation that black coral is rare and extremely difficult to harvest. It grows at depths exceeding 200 ft.—exposing divers to several potentially deadly hazards like nitrogen narcosis and tiger sharks. To say that black coral diving is dangerous is an understatement, and back then Bob didn’t even have the benefit of modern dive technology and mixed gases.

Then I asked the inevitable question: What was your most dangerous dive? Bob took a bite of his cookie, seemingly reluctant to indulge me. Perhaps he didn’t want to talk about close calls or maybe he’d had so many that he needed time to choose which story to tell me. Bob swallowed, and then dove into his story.

He was 45 minutes or so into a dive around 180 ft. when he went to flip the J valve to access his reserve. But when he reached back, he couldn’t feel the hanger. He removed the tanks from his back to take a closer look and discovered the hanger was gone. 180 ft. down, 45 minutes into his dive with an empty tank and no way to access his reserve, Bob removed his belt and bolted for the surface. When he porpoised, the boat crew immediately tossed him a tank with a regulator attached to it. Bob descended to 100 ft. to decompress. At that point, it became clear to me why Bob was hard of hearing. He should have died that day, but he didn’t. “Someone was looking out for me,” he said.

Some of his friends weren’t so lucky. Some were killed by decompression sickness and air embolisms, one was attacked by a tiger shark and others simply didn’t return from dives.

The next day, I stopped by Bob’s Front St. shop, Whaler’s Locker. The store offers sun burnt, tropical shirt sporting tourists jewelry, most of which comes from the sea. It’s as much a museum as it is a jewelry store. Bob’s daughter was working behind the counter. Making small talk, my girlfriend Carolina mentioned that I’d been on a dive boat with her father. She said divers frequent Whaler’s locker boasting that they’d dove with Bob, which annoyed her. “They didn’t dive with my dad, they were on a boat with him,” she said.

Since we passed her test, she began to tell us more about Bob. Surprisingly, he’d stopped diving altogether several years ago. It wasn’t until she invited him to “tag along” for an open water course that he got back into diving. After completing the open water course, Bob took several more courses and eventually purchased a rebreather. His daughter had considered purchasing one too, but decided against it when she read the manual that accompanied it. “Every other word was WARNING,” she said. “That thing has 100 ways to kill you.”

Two days later, I left Maui and a crew of filmmakers arrived. They were putting the final touches on a documentary about black coral divers and needed to interview Bob. He told me that he was apprehensive about the film because he hadn’t told his family much about his experiences black coral diving. “I guess they’ll know now,” he said.

Posted by jroualdes at August 12, 2011 09:20 PM


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