The Pillars of Evolution on Darwin Island were intermittently visible as I crested helplessly over each eight-foot wave, quickly shrinking in the distance as the strong current slowly carried me out to the open ocean. I hammered the side of my malfunctioning VHF (Very High Frequency) locator beacon with my fist in frustration, then turned my attention to the schooling silky sharks that had begun tightening their circle.
There had only been one at first. Then two. Then suddenly ten. The largest moved in for a closer look, bumping into me at a decent clip, and I repelled it to make clear that I wasn't about to be an easy meal. Not yet, at least. I couldn't blame them for expressing curiosity as I drifted past. Sharks are not the malicious, killing machines our species imagines them to be – like every other apex predator on this planet, they are survivors, doing their best to exist the only way they know how to. There is little to worry about if you can maintain eye contact with them, but I was busy holding my safety sausage in the air and trying to get my beacon functioning. Even then, they were far less of a threat than the three-knot current pulling me farther from safety at every moment.
I was quickly running out of options – if I continued to float helplessly, then I would be lost for sure. The only real chance for rescue without a functioning beacon would be to dump my camera, abandon my scuba equipment, and attempt the mile-and-a-half against-the-current swim back to Darwin Island. I knew that the odds were extremely slim, but it was my only hope.
The impossibility of the task ahead weighed heavy as I mentally prepared to unclip my vest. An hour had passed since my last attempt to operate the beacon, and I figured one final try wouldn't hurt – perhaps I would have better luck with the clarity provided by my impending swim. I took a deep breath, steadied my hands, and carefully replayed the sequence of button presses I knew should work. To my delight, they did. The antenna released, and the indicator light began to flash reassuringly.
My concern now was whether or not the VHF signal would reach the SeaLegacy 1 through miles of water and Darwin Island itself. Even if it did, the crew would only have my general location to work with, and the steep, rolling waves would make me difficult to spot. I held my device and safety sausage as high in the air as I could for over an hour before the roar of our small inflatable boat finally reached my ears. Thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment had been fried by saltwater spray as they pounded through rough seas to find me, but it was a small price to pay – I was safe at last.
The great reminder in all of this is the importance of staying calm during an emergency. There is a condition in the dive world we refer to as "perceptual narrowing," or tunnel vision. In a moment of panic, your ability to perceive the world around you can evaporate, and your likelihood of fumbling when a steady hand is key increases. This wasn't the first situation in which I had been at risk of abandoning my calm – from crashing my ultralight airplane upside down in an Arctic lake to momentarily becoming lost while diving under polar sea ice, a level head has saved me from disaster more times than I can count.
Despite the close call, many aspects of my experience were somewhat cathartic. I had time to reflect on all the amazing things I've seen and the beautiful journey I've had as I drifted along under that blue sky with only the rush of seawater for company. It was the farthest and longest I have ever drifted in over five thousand lifetime dives, and I feel very fortunate to be on a team with passionate and skilled people capable of finding me the way they did. I am also thankful for modern safety technology, without which I would not likely be sharing this story with you today.