San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ingenuity and the Strength of Ten

Snorkeling over a good reef is fun, but not a patch on scuba, where you get to make like a fish.

Although divers have been fooling around for centuries liberating gold from sunken treasure ships, it wasn’t until 1943 that Cousteau and Gagnan came up with the demand regulator, which freed the diver from having to rely on someone up top to keep the air coming.

So it was in the early ’50s when a group of us snorkeling on the pristine reefs off Tobago first heard of Cousteau and his Aqua-Lung, but being young, impatient and addicted to risk, we were not about to wait until it came on the market, and decided to make our own. One of us was a hospital orderly with access to high-pressure oxygen bottles with a pressure-reducing regulator that could be modified for our purpose, and I had the run of a machine shop, so we were in business.

Our first model, dubbed The Beast, looked not unlike the Aqua-Lung, except that it had a bladder held in a net between the two cylinders to provide neutral buoyancy, since the contraption weighed some 30 pounds even submerged, and a valve handle sticking out over the left shoulder to adjust the regulator. The Beast was held in a harness on the diver’s back and kept in place by sturdy plastic webbing with an ingenious quick-release buckle of my own design.

Oxygen under pressure is toxic much below 10 feet of seawater, so we filled the cylinders to 2,000 pounds per square inch with slightly oily air from the shop compressor, and tried it all out in the deep end of a swimming pool.

It worked perfectly, so next day we lugged it out to Buccoo Reef. I drew the straw for first try and donned the heavy Beast with the aid of three helpers. Then I confidently leaned back over the side of our dinghy and splashed into the magical world of scuba. The sensation of complete weightlessness was like a dream: to rise, breathe in; to fall, breathe out.

I pottered around the reef for a while under 20 feet of water. Then, while I was adjusting the regulator to breathe more easily, the bladder burst open, releasing a huge bubble toward the surface, and I dropped like a stone five feet to the bottom. No problem; I still had my air supply and my trusty quick-release buckle, until I suddenly found myself breathing water from the severed bladder hose. Even so, I remembered not to panic, held my breath, and confidently reached for the quick-release buckle, but it stubbornly refused to open. I knew then that I was a dead duck. I had no time to review my life in the accustomed manner before blackness descended on me.

Next thing, I awoke to find myself spread-eagled on the beach, being given the “kiss of life” by a large gentleman who hadn’t shaved for a week. The next day we recovered The Beast from the seabed and found the sturdy plastic webbing torn in two, although the ingenious buckle refused to release its grip. Subsequent attempts to tear the webbing without the benefit of panic all proved fruitless; at the cost of a couple of pulled ligaments, I had developed the strength of 10 when I needed it, and that, after all, is what counts.


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