Contingency Plans

My hand twists the tank valve shut. She is visibly nervous. I watch her SPG drop 50 bar with each bubbly breath. The needle pegs at zero. Red zone. Out of air.

Slash throat.

She grabs her buddy’s alternate air source and tugs. It doesn’t budge. She jerks down again. Nothing. It’s snagged on her buddy’s strap.

Her eyes widen with panic.

My left hand twists her valve open. I can feel the air pulsing down the tubes to her convulsing lungs. “Okay?” I signal. She breaths deeply, rapidly. I lock my arms on hers and look in her wide eyes. “Breathe… breathe…” The bubbles slow. She’s shaking, but I’m not letting her go anywhere. Not until she’s ready.

“Okay,” she signals.

“Okay. Do it again,” I sign.

Our second attempt at the Air Depletion and Alternate Air Source skill from the PADI Open Water Diver course goes without a hitch. As we surface, she’s obviously a bit agitated. “I didn’t like that out of air thing.”

“It’s not fun, is it?”


“Good thing is, you should never have to use it. If you get in the habit of checking your air every few minutes and tell your buddy when you get to half-tank and low-on-air, there’s no reason you should ever run out of air. But it’s good to practice this skill so that in the unlikely event that is did happen you would be prepared. It’s like having Triple-A when you’re driving on a long road trip.”

Then I splash seawater at her with my hand.

“Hey, why are you doing that?”

“Your mask is on your forehead.”


“It’s a sign of panic. Remember? That’s a beer fine.”

She sighs sarcastically.

“That’s two for me at Beer O’Clock? C’mon, let’s go down and practice that skill one more time, and then we’ll go try and find the octopus living under the log.”

I watched reruns of the Jetsons as a kid and was entirely convinced that the 21st century was going to be nothing less than kickasstastic. Flying cars. Jetpacks. Soulless robot slaves. Hell yeah, Class of 2000, we’re the Leaders of the 21st century!

Lies, all lies.

So where’s my jetpack now?

My grandpa used to cut out newspaper clips of the lunar landings and space shuttle launches and laminate them. He gave them to me as gifts. I first spied the rings of Saturn through some dude’s telescope at a camp ground in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. I went to community college lectures on black holes and the formation of the solar system with my undoubtedly bored father. My childhood dream was to be an astronaut. NASA promised us a man on Mars by 2010. I flapped around the elementary school playground pretending to be that man.

I watch as a telecommunications satellite—merely a white dot against the moonless sky—flies in a straight path across Scorpio and the pearly smear of the Milky Way. Ripe seagrapes rustle in the branches of the nearby trees as a gentle Caribbean breeze sweeps off the dark water of Half Moon Bay. I am reclining on a dock 5m/15ft above sea level, staring at the unfathomable vastness that lies beyond the atmosphere of our water-covered sphere, and genuinely loving my life.

I will never set foot on the red planet. I doubt I will ever be wealthy enough to afford a flight in space. I find airplanes a bit unnerving. My childhood fantasy of being an astronaut is dead.

But every day, I strap into my personal subaquatic “jetpack” and cruise weightless through the unfathomable vastness of inner space. I have ventured—three times!—to 1500ft under the sea and come face-to-face with alien life. I have been fortunate enough to spend a majority of the last five years of my life exploring the caves, canyons, walls and shallows of Roatan’s amazing coral reef.

It’s my adulthood reality, and I love it every day.

scuba diving - Roatan, Honduras

A drop of water appears on my laptop screen. Then another.

I barely have time to shut my Mac before the heavens open up. West End High Street dissolves in to a muddy smear. Half Moon Bay shimmers like a pot of gold as the amber light of the setting sun glimmers and sparkles upon the rippling surface. Children wrestle in the golden waters of the shallows, their laughter piercing the air as lightning crackles across the sky.

Children playing in a rainstorm - Half Moon Bay, Roatan, Honduras

We retreat into the dive shop. The rainstorm whites out the bay. Oh well, crack the beers. There’s nowhere to go and nowhere we’d rather be.

Goldfinger is running the V-Planner to plan a Trimix dive on the Josie J shipwreck. 245ft for 15 minutes—long enough to secure the plaque he welded in honor of Marc Wesler (1971-2009) to the shipwreck. He prints off a sheet of paper and laminates it. “Dive plan and contingency plans,” he explains as he mounts them to his slate. “This dive shouldn’t be too hard to pull off, but,, you know, no taking chances.”

Marc Wesler, 30 March 1971 - 13 June 2009

(Marc Wesler, 30 March 1971 - 13 June 2009)

“No kidding. Unlike other shops.”

“What? Are they diving the J again?”

“Yeah man. I was diving the other day off Black Rock and as we leveled off at 110ft over the Josie J, I saw something white below me. Two freakin’ divers swimming around the wreck. Single tanks. No surface support. “


“Yeah, I was pissed off. They were doing it right in front of my customers too, ya know? What the hell am I supposed to tell them when we get back on the boat?”

“That they’re idiots.”

“Well that was pretty much what I did. I just hate seeing this crap going on again. These kids are going to get themselves killed and it’ll make the whole island look bad.”

“Yeah I know. I want to post a sign on the wreck that says ‘If you can read this and only have one tank then FUCK OFF!’”

“But then I saw a manta ray.”

“No way.”

“Look, pictures.” I open my laptop. “About seven feet wide, gliding right at me as we ascended up from the wreck. Insane. I lost 20 bar as I screamed and pointed. The whole group saw it.”

Manta Ray - Black Rock, Roatan, Honduras

“I hope it comes around when I’m putting this sign down there.”

“I know dude. There’s been crazy stuff around here this week! Sharks, eagle rays, tons of turtles. I saw an octopus sitting right out in the open today. And I found that encrusted computer keyboard at 130ft on El Aquario. It’s great—except we’re just missing the customers.”

“No shit. This paycheck is gonna suck, eh?”

“Say goodbye to the high season.”

We tacitly acknowledge our collective disappointment. My eyes drift to a weathered political cartoon on the wall. In faded black and white, four commie macaws screech in unison: “Restore the Dictator in Honduras!” The computer monitor portrays the burning façade of the El Heraldo building in Tegucigalpa. Poorly translated English reveals that supporters of ousted Honduran President Mel Zelaya have hurled Molotov cocktails into the newspaper company’s headquarters. Just another day in post-coup Honduras.

“Got any back-up plans?” I ask.

“Just these.” Goldfinger slaps the dive slate around his wrist and flips through the contingency plans. He drags deep on his cigarette. “Guess I can go weld for a while in Canada. I just don’t want to leave. You?”

“No idea. I wasn’t planning on leaving. Not yet. Not this way.”

My adulthood reality is coming to an end.

The one-two punch of the global economic recession and Honduran constitutional crisis has KOed the tourism industry on Roatan. In light of the world economic downturn over the last year, West End businesses were faring well. The dive industry was down about 20-25% on 2008’s numbers, but there was still an ample supply of incoming customers. Recession or not, it was shaping up to be another mind-blowing summer of diving and fun.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, the Honduran government couldn’t figure whether to impeach or overthrow their elected President. On 28 June 2009, they decided to do a spectacularly sloppy job of both. Early that morning, the Honduran military arrested President Mel Zelaya in his underwear on the doorstep of his Presidential estate, stuffed him in a plane, and sent him into exile in Costa Rica. The Congress authorized his purported resignation papers and instated his successor, Roberto Micheletti.

Sounds like a coup d’etat right? Well, sorta.

Mel Zelaya, destroyer of dreams

The military acted under the orders of the Supreme Court and with the support of the Congress (in which Zelaya’s own Red Party held majority). Roberto Micheletti, the Speaker of Parliament, Red Party member, and next in line in presidential succession, took over the interim government. The military immediately transferred power to the Congress—still controlled by Zelaya’s Red Party—and life continued peacefully for a few days.

Word of the supposed coup d’etat spread across the AP wires. While the interim government worked to maintain peace in the wake of the transition, the American news networks erroneously labeled footage of pro-Micheletti peace marches as pro-Zelaya protests, recycled old news clips of Hurricane Mitch battering the Honduran coastline, fabricated statistics of popular support for the ousted President, and did their absolute finest to scare the piss out of any American (who, until he turned on CNN, didn’t know Honduras from Atlantis) away from ever setting foot in my tropical paradise. Needless to say, diving vacation reservations disappeared overnight.

It’s a “coup” that could only happen in Honduras.

In the wake of widespread international condemnation—including suspension from the OAS (Organization of American States), termination of funds from the World Bank, and calls by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban Presdient Fidel Castro to reinstate (by force if necessary) Zelaya immediately—the interim government remained steadfast in denying Zelaya reentry to Honduras. The Supreme Court outlined its case against Zelaya: that his proposed referendum for extending presidential terms beyond four years was a violation of the Honduran constitution; that he defied a unanimous vote by Congress forbidding the vote by leading his followers to forcefully retake the voting ballots from a Honduran air force base; and that he was constitutionally obligated to step down immediately. The interim government was resolute: If Mel Zelaya attempted to enter the country, he would face immediate arrest. The Archbishop Cardinal of Honduras pleaded with Zelaya not to return, warning that his presence could cause a bloodbath.

Well, no cowboy worth his ten-gallon hat can turn down a dare like that, y’reckon?


Mel’s first game of chicken took place in the skies above Tegucigalpa on 5 June 2009. As a metallic bird bearing the mustached ex-President circled the airport, trucks and soldiers filled the landstrip to block his return. Pro-Zelaya protestors clashed with the military and the first bloodshed of the coup was drawn as a bullet pierced 19-year-old Isy Obed Murillo Mencía’s skull. I got drunk as hell on rum as I suddenly found myself an unexpected prisoner in a beautiful beachside condo when the cops screamed down the West End High Street declaring an immediate curfew.

I woke up the next day to cotton-candy clouds illuminated in the morning light overhead, the subtle jackhammer of a hangover in my head, and the country I have called home for nearly five years in turmoil. My stomach was tangled in knots from a night of anxious sleep tempered only by mass quantities of alcohol. I staggered out into a world of uncertainty.

The following day, as Costa Rican President Oscar Arias volunteered to mediate the crisis between Zelaya and the current Honduran administration, I volunteered to return to bed and sleep away the previous night. I awoke shivering in a bed soaked with my own sweat. What the hell? I changed the bedsheets and returned to sleep. Forty-five minutes later and it’s the same scenario. Okay, this ain’t right. I retreat to the comfort of my hammock. Thirty-minutes pass and I’m doubled over in cold chills. The beeping thermometer in my mouth confirms my fears: 102F. This ain’t right at all.

It lasts a week. The doctor’s say it’s a bacterial infection. Feels like the last time I had dengue to me. Every exhausting day is followed by an even more hellish night. I awaken from fever-induced nightmares to find my mattress thorough saturated—both sides—with my sweat as I lay trembling in the fetal position.

Dawn breaks to the sound of roosters and diesel generators. My electrical fan sits motionless as the room temperature rapidly rises. RECO (Roatan Electrical Company) is an angry god who must be appeased by throwing virgins into the volcano every so often or he will banish us to the darkness. Unfortunately we have neither volcanos nor virgins on Roatan, so RECO spills his wrath out at the most ungodly of hours. Too tired to read and too weak to think. I swelter in my hammock, lost in fuzzy memories of the past, accompanied by the island soundtrack of children playing baseball in the street.

In high school I worked as a lifeguard for four insanely boring summers. When the teeny-bopper brats I was supervising broke pool rules, we would put them in “time-out” and make them watch their peers splash in the water as they sat on the pool edge. (This was opposed to my preferred method of punishment: waterboarding. It’s not officially torture, and it’s equally effective on spoiled children as it is on terrorists.) Inevitably, one of the little bastards in timeout would sneak a leg, foot, or even a toe in the forbidden water, stare me directly in the eyes, and tacitly dare me to blow my whistle. It was a silly game of chicken.

Zelaya played his second second silly game of chicken on 24 July 2009 when he decided to stick his big toe across the Honduran border for thirty minutes. Like a whiney eleven-year-old stuck in time-out, Zelaya glared at soldiers of his own supposed army from the demilitarized zone between Honduras and Nicaragua and dared them to resist his triumphant return. He then returned to the safety of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s arms, sucking on his thumb with one hand whilst flipping the bird with his other towards his ousters.


The weeks wane on. When I finally find the strength, I venture into West End to buy some fruit from the produce trucks. The effects of the coup are apparent: the Dionysian fever-pitch lifestyle that typifies our summers in Roatan is replaced with the somber flu of uncertainty; the beaches are vacant; the dive boats are empty; the restaurants, deserted. As Mel Zelaya courts the OAS and Hilary Clinton with his version of the coup, a barrage of international travel advisories slapped against Honduras slowly asphyxiates the Bay Islands.

The downward spiral is accelerating. Mel Zelaya is urging his supporters to boycott and disrupt the upcoming presidential election in November, insisting that, due to the coup, he will remain the Honduran president even after his elected term has expired in January. Civil unrest mounts on the mainland: there have been sporadic outbursts of violence, a handful of strikes, and a few more deaths.

The true tragedy of the coup lies in the starving stomachs of the country’s largely impoverished population. Internationally isolated from much-needed foreign aid and investment, the people of Honduras face a long hard road to economic and political recovery—and this road will be strewn with the corpses of several thousand Hondurans, whether from violence or starvation, before the final destination is reached. The constitutional crisis will undeniably define the future of Honduras as a sovereign nation/ Unfortunately, the Honduras government(s) has done an amazing job of screwing it up thus far.

Meanwhile, the Caribbean paradise of Roatan continues life as usual: peaceful, beautiful, relaxed, quiet– but despondently deserted. West End is a ghost town (though arguably the most beautiful ghost town on the planet). The bars are half-full with the same familiar faces every night—familiar, but more weathered, and there are fewer as time passes. The rainy season looms and a mass exodus of expatriates is underway. “I’m leaving tomorrow” is suddenly not a lie of Roatan.

It’s the best laid plans of mice and men. Mel Zelaya just shot Lenny in the back of the head.

“You gotta want it! What do you want?”

“Jack! Jack! Jack! Jack!” I shout.

Dr. Jekyll stares me down from across the table. “Forget about it. Not gonna happen.”

“Jack! Jack!”

“Here we go.”


Goldfinger turns the river card. Five of hearts. My heart falls.

“Two pairs queens-nines beats your jack-nines. Show me the money!” Dr. Jekyll cackles.

I reluctantly push the rest of my chips across the table. “Son of a…”

“Hey, good game,” Dr. Jekyll says as he shakes my hand. “For a loser. Now get me a beer.”

I only get two strides towards the beer cooler before my Open Water student intercepts me bearing two cold Salva Vidas in her hands. “I think I owe you these.”

“Ha! Thanks, I had forgotten, but I’ll take ‘em.” I hand one beer over to Dr. Jekyll and take a hearty swig on mine. “How’d you like the diving today?”

Peacock Flounder

“I loved it! That turtle was so friendly! And what was that weird flat fish? White, kinda the size of a pancake…”

“Peacock flounder. Really cool fish. Masters of camouflage. They can change their colors and patterns to match almost anything.”

“No way.”

“Seriously. I saw them in Greece on these black and red sand beaches, and their colors perfectly matched whatever surface they were on. Wild stuff.”

“So what are we doing tomorrow?” she asks, finishing her beer.

“Another video, a few more skills in the bay, and then our second Open Water dive. We get to practice the alternate air source ascent one more time.”

She rolls her eyes. “Do we have to do it?”

“Yes, it’s an important skill.”

“I hate that one. I don’t like depending on other people.”

“Down there other people are the only thing you have in an emergency. Most of the time you don’t have to depend on them—it’s just all about the fish. But should something go wrong… well… then your buddy is your lifeline.”

“But what if the hose gets caught like it did today?”

I pause to take a swig of my beer and think. I had never encountered that problem before in my previous 200 Open Water classes, and quite frankly I am still bothered that it occurred. Good thing I had my hand on her tank valve the entire time—a safety practice passed down from my IDC five years ago but never needed until six hours ago—or else it would have been much worse. Then I notice her scanning my eyes as if reading my entire inner monologue, remind myself that women have telepathy, and spin an answer as best I can. “Then you do a CESA.”

“What’s that?”

“The Controllled Emergency Swimming Ascent. Remember doing it today?”

“Which one was that?”

“Where you swam a long way going, ‘Ahhhhhhhhhhhh…’”

“Oh yeah.”

“It’s like a back-up plan for your back-up plan. We’ll practice a real one tomorrow at the start of our dive.”

“Cool. So, what are you up to tonight?”

“Not drinking.”

“Next you’ll say I love you.”

“At this rate, probably,” I reply, finishing my beer.

“Look!” She points towards the bay.

Martian Sunset - Half Moon Bay, Roatan, Honduras

The beach is bathed in a Martian glow. We walk onto the dock to watch the last crimson sliver of sun vanish behind the rugged outline of retreating thunderheads. To the south, bolt lighting streaks down across massive thunderheads accumulated over the Honduran mainland. Land crabs, their alien eyes independently pivoting in all directions, scurry horizontally across the rain-pocked beach. Like Neil Armstrong taking his famous small step, I leave a line of footprints on the sand as I stroll to the water’s edge. Under a pink sky, Half Moon Bay looks like an oily smear of otherworldly liquid. Is this the shore of Titan’s liquid methane seas?

Or is this just my adulthood reality fading away with the sun?

5 Responses to “Contingency Plans”

  • #1

    Scuba geek,
    i think you spend far to much time poking your nose into busines that does not concern you!
    what people do in there own time is there busines,especialy if they are experienced certified divers and how do you know that they only had a single tank, when the stage could of been strapped across the stomach, where from your depth you would not of seen it.
    its people like you that cause the problems in the scuba comunnity!
    in any case unless you have exceptional vis you cant see the jose j from 110ft so you are probably deeper than you should be with your customers! also if you were behind or above the other divers it means they were there first, so they were not doing anything infront of your group, you took your group to them!
    all in all i think you sholud keep your mouth shut and even try holding your breath. you might just black out, in a pool even better, oops you allready did that right! or try poseing as medical staff and buying nitrogen oxide to sell to your fellow divers, who then proceed to breath this gas from latex ballons while hyperventalating, for the result of passing out and convulsing, oops you people allready did that too. so if you want to talk about being responsable, try it yourself on the land first.

  • #2

    Sounds like I touched a sensitive nerve with someone!

    So first, the facts: the viz WAS exceptional on that day– over 40m/130ft, in fact– so yes, I could clearly see the other divers below. We even have pictures to prove it! Maybe the dive group did have a sling tank, in which case, good, that’s pretty responsible. But did they know their turn pressure? What was their contingency plan if they exceeded their bottom time? Did they even have a bottom time? Or were they just following the magic numbers on their computers?

    I was following a standard dive plan that I always do on Black Rock– max depth 33m/110ft, swing out along the garden eels, pass wide around the bulge, swim out over the Josie J, and then ascend up to 15m/50ft for the next level. I didn’t “bring” my group “to” the other divers; I just followed my standard profile and happened to come across a the scene on the Josie J.

    I don’t fault divers for wanting to explore the Josie J, but I do fault them for irresponsible dive planning. The top of the Josie J (50m/165ft) is barely do-able as a bounce dive without incurring massive deco (and it IS beyond the recreational dive limit). The bottom of the wreck (60m/210ft)– where I saw the divers– is outside the oxygen toxicity limits for air (1.6 ppO2), so it doesn’t really matter IF you have a sling tank when the gasses in BOTH tanks are toxic at that depth. That’s trimix territory, period: anything else is cowboy diving.

    If you would like to discuss the safety hazards of oxygen toxicity, mandatory decompression, gas emergencies at depth, extreme narcosis, or any of the other many things that can kill you– and quickly!– when doing wreckless deep diving, please come talk to myself or Monty at Coconut Tree Divers. We’ll be more than happy to teach you how to mitigate these dangers through proper planning, training, and equipment. We’ll even let you take a standard tec rig in the bay for a spin– for free!

    So yes, I will continue to stick my nose in “other people’s business” when said business affects the professional scuba diving reputation of West End. If someone dies here doing a stupid dive, the headlines won’t read “[insert name here] dies”, it will read “Roatan Dive Instructor Dies.” Bad news for this whole community, and grossly selfish of the people participating in the dive for forcing the community to shoulder the burden of their irresponsibility.

    Lastly, you will notice that I deliberately avoiding naming either dive shop or divers I saw on the Josie J. This is deliberate. I am not out to flame people, just to draw attention to dangerous behaviors in the community. Your attacks, however, were personal– not to mention wrong. It was Monty, not I, who blacked out during a breath holding competition; I rescued him from the pool. I had nothing to do with securing or distributing the nitrous oxide balloons at the old (thankfully closed) FUBAR. Essentially, we’re looking at two counts of libel against you, and let me assure you that the Roatan Municipal frowns upon defamation of character charges.

    But that’s okay, I’m not going to press. I figure that simply by allowing your comment to appear on my website I can provide my readers with a clear comparison between a professional dive instructor and a wreckless dive cowboy and let them choose with whom they would rather dive. Thank you for being the latter.

  • #3

    I like cowboys!

  • #4

    Well kids,I am a cowboy.And I’m stuck in Colorado,and my dive gears in Atlanta. And all y’all are down there in paradise. Talkin’ bout wreckless cowboys. At a hundred ten feet,no less. Damn. No such thing as a wreckless diver. Just a complacent one; cause nothing bad really ever happens,til ya take that first big drink. Take care of your island and each other. And leave all the bitchin’ to the mainlanders. Your in paradise,ferchrissakes. So am I;just a little too dry for my tastes. Hope to see ya down there b4 I die. Atta girl Leanna. Ya got good taste

  • #5

    Thing is boyos, if those two single tank divers without surface support do get themselves in trouble, who is going to have to respond to it? Not really fair is it?

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