For most people, when death comes for them, it is not a surprise. Most of us are reasonably old and we have an inkling that our time is possibly drawing near. Perhaps we have cancer or some other malady that has cast its shadow upon us.
Then there’s the sudden, unexpected death that sneaks up on us and carries us off like a thief in the night; unapologetic and quite satisfied.
Personally, I’ve used several of my nine lives already. A tire blowout at highway speed. Two different near misses on 9-11. How many times in the military? I don’t know. How many times had I almost drank myself to death?
Recently, I returned home from a cruise that took me to ports of call in Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Jamaica. One of the Shore Excursions I booked was a visit to Stingray City, a sandbar about 40 minutes offshore by tender. So, on the way out to Stingray City, I was chatting with some of the folks around me, trying to wrap my head around being in the water with Stingrays. The only reason I’d found myself in this situation was that this leg of the excursion was one activity while a “Swim with Dolphins” was the other.
After a 35-minute jaunt from the Dolphin Cove facility over open water, we arrived at the Stingray City site and the stingray wrangler briefed us. There were two exit points off the tender: the front ladder into about 3 ½ feet of water, and we could jump off into about 6 ½ of water from the side of the tender. As I have a pool in my backyard that I jump into regularly, I didn’t think anything of jumping into the water off the tender. Perhaps I should have.
I jumped off the boat and even before my head broke the surface, I knew something was dreadfully wrong. I could not get any air into my lungs! I could not take a breath, nor could I breathe out. I would imagine the look on my face was one of total fear.
The common “My life flashed before my eyes” never happened. Simultaneously I was thinking “Well, I’m gonna die in the ocean on a sandbar in 6 ½ feet of water. Shit!” and “Fuck this! I’m not done yet! I am NOT fucking dying here!” Finally, I was thinking, “I’ve got to get on board that boat and get my inhaler – NOW!!!”
Thank God, I was able to catch the attention of a guy standing a couple of feet from me who asked if I was OK. I somehow managed to say I couldn’t breathe. “Bill” guided me around towards the shallow part of the sandbar where I could now stand on my own in about 3 – 4 feet of water. I was still trying to breathe in, which I could not do at all. This also meant I still could not breathe out. Deep inside I was scared shitless because I knew I had to start breathing soon or I was gonna die, literally.
I did my best to remain calm and I started striding as best I could to the ladder on the front of the boat which was only about 6 feet away. I started climbing up on the right side of the ladder which seemed like it went on forever, and I was unapologetic as I somewhat obstructed those climbing down on the left. Still can’t breathe and the only thing I was thinking about is getting my hands on my inhaler, in my back bag on my seat. I finally reach my bag and secure my inhaler. I take 2 puffs and wait. Over the course of the next 3 – 5 minutes I begin to breathe; not very well mind you, but I am getting air into and out of my lungs.
After a while, everyone came back aboard and the tender began the 35-minute trek into the Dolphin Discovery facility. Now a storm was moving in so the temperature had dropped, it was raining lightly, and the wind was picking up. We finally arrived, secured life jackets, and were broken into groups. As we waited the storm moved in with sideways rain, and it was actually quite cold (to me anyway). The wind had blown the tops off 2 of the pop-up canopy tent shelters (which had no side panels, to begin with), and delayed the beginning of our time in the water with the dolphins.
I was still extremely tired from having tried so hard for those few minutes earlier to breathe. For those that do not have asthma, it is hard to conjure in your mind’s eye the extent to which an asthma attack of that magnitude will completely exhaust a person’s strength, including reserves.
After enduring my “Dolphin Swim” adventure in the cold and rain and in water that was the color of diarrhea, we began our journey by bus 30 minutes back to the shore to catch our tender to return to the ship. Now I had dried off the best I could but still, I was in a wet bathing suit and shirt, freezing on the inside and shivering. Once we reached the tender we had a 15-minute ride to the ship. Upon reaching the ship, I summoned every remaining shred of energy I possessed to traverse the last distance, finally entering my cabin broken, exhausted, and thoroughly vanquished.
I could not stop shaking and I was freezing cold on the inside: I had that hollow feeling one has when they are sick where if someone had blown on me I would have fallen over. I took a hot shower as my wife had our cabin attendant (God Bless you Aireen!) secure hot water so she could prepare coffee for me in our cold brew coffee maker.
After drying off and drinking some mercifully hot coffee, I again used my inhaler and then slept for five glorious hours…
…To be continued