Now, where were we?
We left off with our increasingly desperate boat load of scuba divers scanning the waters of the Pacific Ocean around Lehua, off the coast of Ni'hau, some 17 miles from Kaua'i, Hawaii, looking for a missing diver, Doug. Our captain had enlisted the crew of a nearby charter catamaran filled with snorkeling, picnicking tourists, the only boat within miles, to help in our search. Wisdaughter and Wisdoc and I were sitting with Doug's newlywed wife. Dive masters, including my son Wisdomie, had been down several times scouring the dive site and down-current underwater spots.
A couple of hours had passed since Doug had disappeared—at around 10:00 a.m.—on what was to have been the first of three dives that day. That was when we spotted the Coast Guard helicopter, bright red, above. I pointed it out to Doug's wife, and she seemed relieved. Hope had arrived. Circling low, it could cover far more territory than our two boats.
Shortly thereafter, a rescue boat made its way across the channel from Kaua'i, a two-hour journey. This was sometime between noon and 1:00 p.m. And for the next hour or so, the helicopter and three boats executed a co-ordinated search of the waters around and down-current from Lehua. But, as the moments wore on, our hope in locating Doug waned. I knew that, and Doug's wife knew that.
Around 2:00, we got word that the tourist catamaran had to abandon the search and return its passengers to Kaua'i. The crew offered to transport us back. Our boat could not give up its search, but there was nothing much the rest of us could do. Wisdomie and I talked about staying aboard the dive boat, he because of his rescue diving prowess and I, I just thought I could be of comfort to Doug's wife. She, however, convinced me to go ahead. She thought about coming as well, but decided she needed to stay with the dive boat crew—even though hope was fading.
We put our towels and cameras in garbage bags, cinched them tight, held them above our heads, and one-by-one swam across to the catamaran. I was the last one into the water. I gave Doug's wife a hug. She cried for a moment on my shoulder. I was at a complete loss for words. There was nothing I could say that wouldn't be false or trite or even hurtful. I simply held her for a moment. I could not begin to understand what she was feeling.
At last I had to go. I jumped in. The water felt soothing and cool after four plus hours in the sun. The swim across was not as easy as it sounds. As the day had worn on, the convection effect of the heat had made the swells much higher. Climbing aboard took some effort and, more importantly, timing. You don't want a large metal ladder to come crashing down on your head or to yank you up out of the water when you're trying to grab ahold of it. But, once aboard the luxury craft, we sped across the waves back toward Kaua'i, leaping from peak to peak.
The crew offered us free sandwiches, beer, and drinks. The kids were famished and were grateful. Two sips of a soda did nothing but make me queasy. It was the first time all day I'd felt that way. My attention had been on other things. I hadn't had the luxury of being seasick. Besides, a number of people on the boat were green around the gills, lying around with their heads in buckets. Power of suggestion, I guess.
I have to say, the crowd on the dive boat was definitely a different group than the picnickers on the cat. Most of the picnickers were significantly overweight, whereas the diving group collectively did not seem to have a whole lot of body fat. I was by far the oldest and least fit—and I'm a runner. People go on vacations for different reasons. My family likes to be adventurous, to explore and do things that challenge us. Others want to be pampered.
Wisdoc and I sat in a sort of stunned silence the whole way back. A person in our little group of divers had died. His new bride had lost him just like that! He'd drifted away on a current while they were under water, and she'd never seen him again. She'd never see him again. I couldn't get the image of her shell-shocked face out of my head.
And what's more, it might have been the very same current that had pushed me down below my group, then swept me back up to the surface before I knew what had happened. Had I dodged the same fate?
It was a grim realization. A grim two-hour ride back to Kaua'i contemplating something that seemed unthinkable. And unthinkably sad.
I don't think it hit the kids quite as hard right then, though I was certain it would at some later time. They were regaling the crew and a couple of the younger folks on the cat with the story of our day.
I was grateful to the crew for offering to bring us back. It was the sort of courtesy all the local boating companies would normally extend to each other. It was professional.
One thing that bothered me about the boat ride, and more specifically about some of the people on the boat, however, was the pervasive attitude that they had been cheated out of their picnic and snorkel excursion. They complained to the crew and looked at those of us who were exhausted, dehydrated, and demoralized like it was our fault that their pleasure cruise had been disrupted. They seemed to resent the fact that their boat had had to join in the search for a missing, presumed dead, diver. They were insisting, even in our presence, on getting their money back.
It was an unfathomable attitude to me. Someone had died. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. No one around for miles. And they resented their crew doing what, frankly, the laws of the sea required them to do. Assist.
And besides, you've seen the pictures in the first couple of posts in this series, this is one of the most beautiful and remote places on Planet Earth.
The crew did their best to calm tempers of their clients. They told us, the diver refugees, they would be returning us to a different port than the one from where we'd embarked. Someone from our dive company would meet us at the pier.
It felt like this ride would never end. And it felt like this event would overshadow our entire vacation time with my son and his girlfriend in Hawai'i. It was supposed to be a joyous time. We only get to see Wisdomie a couple times a year. But how do you go on after such a day? How do you enjoy your time together with this hanging over your head? Well, for one thing, you try to appreciate every moment you have with family and friends. And that was the sort of resolve I knew would I would have to summon the rest of our time there—if I could climb out of the dark place in which I found myself on this boat ride.
We arrived back at Kaua'i around 4:30. We'd gotten on the boat that morning at 5:30. It was a long day. At the pier, we were met by a couple of young women who counted heads, showed us where to rinse off and where we could use the restrooms, and huddled us into a corner as the picnickers hiked single-file back to their shop, I presume, to bitch and moan some more. We were glad simply to be back ashore.
Once we were alone, though, one of the women gave us the news: They had found Doug! Unbelievable! How? Where? Was he alive? What happened?
We were incredulous. Hugs. Tears. High fives. All of it. The relief was palpable, like a huge dark cloud had lifted from our collective heads all at once. Like parole. And we all knew it.
Apparently, Doug, like me, had indeed gotten caught up by some sort of rogue current sweeping down the vasty Pacific from the Aleutians. But instead of going down current, as you would expect, he found himself on the back side of Lehua, facing the northside beaches of Ni'ihau. He didn't see anyone, but he didn't panic. Instead, in the leeward, current shadow of Lehua, swam across the narrow channel to the Forbidden Isle, which is where the dive boat eventually spotted him. Apparently, on a whim, and against any sort of common sense, they'd decided after we left to explore the back side of the island. And that's when they spotted him. He'd laid out his dive gear on the beach and was waving his sausage in the air waiting to be spotted.
What's more, the woman told us, when the dive boat came to shore to pick him up, with the helicopter hovering overhead to make sure he didn't need to be taken to an emergency room, they were greeted by a contingency of locals who were apparently brandishing spears. Ni'ihau, recall, is off limits. You have to get prior permission to go there, and apparently the locals thought some tourists were invading their private beaches. All was explained to everyone's satisfaction, and Doug and his bride were re-united.
Here's the newspaper story of the incident if you care to read it..
We never saw Doug. And we never saw his wife after we swam across to the catamaran. I'd hoped we would run into them on the island at some point so I could tell them how happy I was for them. I would love to've bought them a bottle of celebratory champagne and, yeah, toasted their marriage. But it didn't happen.
That evening, our family treated ourselves to a nice dinner out. No one felt like cooking or grilling. We were all emotionally wrung out. After all, we'd spent roughly 6 hours in abject shock and grief, only to have the whole thing vanish into joy and relief in an instant.
And it was Wisdoc's and my anniversary—27th! Thanks for asking.
As tired as we were, we all stayed up late into the night after dinner, talking, watching a rerun of Game of Thrones, and, quite simply, not leaving each other's sight.
More snaps from Kaua'i (click to embiggen):
|Na Pali Coast|
|Endangered Monk Seal lounging on a public beach|
|Into the clouds|
|Near Poipu at sunset|
|Out toward Na Pali|
|View from the Na Pali coast trail|