Swimming toward a steep rocky shelf, we film unstable lava rubble upon which a fresh lava worm is rapidly descending. Below us is a sharp incline upon which lava boulders are tumbling down each side of a pillowing lava worm. A large area of lava debris slides, quickly becoming a minor avalanche that plunges rumbling loudly into the dark depths below.
We descend capturing on film a huge smoking boulder that narrowly misses us. It tumbles down from above fully two yards across. Weeping jets of steam and laced with fiery red cracks, it looks like a falling meteorite burning its way through a fluid atmosphere. Bob and I separate as it bounces between us then somersaults over a shelf, and disappears into the deep blackness below. Wisps of debris floating in the water slowly dissipate in the wake of its furious passage.
The water visibility keeps changing. The surging water sweeping us back and forth is disorienting. Then we see a faint glimmer of red glowing at a depth of 60 feet. Swimming down we find a lava tube over a yard in diameter. It pauses on a ledge. A black crust forms, and then the leading edge of the lava tube bulges outward. The crust splits open like an alien egg hatching as a cascade of molten rock spews in a fountain of thick liquid fire. We follow the weaving tube as it plunges downward. The water contacting the super-hot lava worm causes implosions and explosions that shoot out bone-rattling shock waves. The concussions visibly move the dive mask against my face. The increased water pressure at depth magnifies the shock waves to a painful level.
I am just below the leading edge of the lava worm when I see something moving desperately. It is a large lobster with a blackened and singed tail, fleeing the hot lava. Determined to save it, I exhale, letting the reduced buoyance carry me down. I am reaching out for the injured lobster when—something alive brushes up against me!
My heart surges as the image of a tiger shark, common in Hawaiian waters, cuts through my mind. Fearfully I turn my head to see a large predatory eye just inches from my faceplate. The animal attacks! I feel its body sliding against my shoulder and arm as I swiftly pull back my hand from the lobster. A huge mouth opens and snatches the lobster. Powerful jaws crush down as the lobster’s tail beats frantically. Then the huge predatory fish half-swallows the four or five-pound lobster and bites it in half. It goes through a swallowing process then snatches the other half and glares at me.
It is a large Mahi Mahi, four to five feet long. I have never seen one underwater before. Unalarmed it stares at me, neither of us are a threat to the other. It’s metallic-green streamlined body glistens in the dull light as it moves away patrolling ahead of the lava worms looking for more injured prey.
At the hotel, we are ecstatic to discover the film intact inside the camera. Our celebration is dampened by massive sinus headaches caused by the violent shock waves beating against our skulls at depth.
We have many spectacular days diving with the molten lava. However, our final dive proves to be almost fatal, it is one of my closest brushes with death with the Cousteau Society.
Bob and I are filming two large lava tubes at a depth of 80 feet, when a massive shockwave erupts out of the darkness below slamming into us like a hydraulic sledgehammer. A deep rumbling comes up from the dark depths. Something large is moving. The hardened lava rubble upon which the tubes are crawling begins to shake violently and then tumbles downward. A landslide rips the tubes apart spilling lava that spreads rapidly. The whole face of the shelf slides downward in a jumbled cascade of black rock and red molten lava.
Bob and I swim toward each other, when from beneath us comes the heavy rolling thunder of an enormous avalanche. A deep black thunderhead of debris rushes upward from the depths, sweltering heat washes over us. The spilling rocks and debris before us accelerates downward as the black rising cloud engulfs us. Without conscious thought, Bob and I wrap our arms around each other with the 35mm movie camera between us. We are lost in absolute blackness—then a massive undertow pulls us irresistibly downwards into the mayhem below. The plunging current pulls us down tumbling and spinning in complete darkness and vertigo. I hear and feel terrifying sounds beating against us. Boulders are colliding with head-crushing force and rocks grind against each other. As Bob and I tumble down with the landside, we pass over wave after wave of billowing heat. I imagine rivers of lava passing just beneath us.
Finally, the turbulence slowly subsides. Bob’s arms shift, so I know he is okay, yet we are lost in darkness, not knowing up from down. I free one hand, place it against my faceplate, and lightly exhale, the escaping bubbles are leaking out the side of my mask. I orient us towards the surface as we begin to swim upwards. It takes three long minutes to struggle back to clearer water. I quickly check my depth gauge. Bob and I were pulled down to an astounding depth of 135 feet. Far above us, I see our other divers hovering.
We retreat as a group to Russell’s boat. At a depth of 30 feet, I motion for the other divers to go up, but shake my head at Bob and hold him at depth. He nods; we need decompression.
They say that a diver should never memorize the dive tables. I consider that absolute foolishness. In a dangerous situation I want every edge. I do not know the decompression schedule we must follow, but I can easily determine a serious safety factor. During the long decompression, I think how much I love this job. So yeah, I’m an adventure hog.
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