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The best things to write about are those which are most difficult, the ones that make your palms sweat remembering them. For me it was 30 years ago when a foolish decision found me holding my breath in a dark underwater cave without a way out.

I was living on Maui in the mid-80s; things were simple, no responsibilities, few bills and good friends. We loved to hike and explore the beautiful tropical island. Maui was different then, still relatively unspoiled by strip malls and traffic. We’d often meet at a place called “Paradise Fruit” on Kihei Road, a funky place with dirt floors and picnic benches, where they sold fresh fruit and smoothies to the locals. You could feel the moist ocean breeze and hear the surf just beyond the small parking lot filled with rusting junkers, surfboards strapped to their roofs.

800px-Waianapanapa_lava_tube_2A group of us decided to go to Wai’anapanapa caves, a state park near Hana. It is and was a very touristy spot, but a place none of us had been to. Hana is a tiny, remote town at the far end of Maui, about a three hour drive along a windy, mostly single lane road. Wai’anapanapa caves are a maze of ancient lava tubes that formed hundreds of thousands of years ago when the volcano was active. They have since filled with fresh water, which eventually empties into the ocean nearby. It is a spectacularly beautiful place, and like all areas that are overrun with tourists, if you explore just a little further than most people, you will find the truly magical part.

And that’s what we did. Most visitors jump into the first cave pool which is exposed to the outside and leave. The water is cold and that pretty much completes it for most people. But the caves don’t end there, not even close, they go on for miles into the bowels of the mountain, hundreds of large and small caves, connecting like Swiss cheese. The problem is the water is cold, and it is pitch black once you go even a short way into the maze.

cave poolOne of my friends brought a waterproof flashlight and another brought a pair of swim-goggles, those little ones that just cover your eyes for swimming laps. But just one of each, and there were four of us, so we had to stay together. Which was probably a good idea, one which I should have heeded.

We followed the first large cave into the dimness until we reached a dead-end. We had been told there was another large cave on the other side only accessible by an underwater tunnel. OK, scary and challenging. Andrew, my crazy friend, took the light and swim-goggles and disappeared under the water. He was back in a few seconds. “It’s easy, down a little, straight ahead and up, there is another cave with a large air pocket.” One by one we went through. It was not deep, only about four or five feet under the water, then up the other side. Now we were in a separate cave about 10 or 15 feet in diameter, with about five feet of airspace overhead.

It was fun to turn off the light and enjoy the intense blackness of the interior cave. But we couldn’t linger here very long. The water was cold and we were treading water, the bottom far below us. The wise thing would have been to go back. The wise thing…

It was Andrew again who dove down and looked for another path. He went down, this time without the light. He came back a few seconds later. “Hey there is an opening or tunnel and it is glowing with light.” We took turns looking, sharing the one pair of swim goggles to see what he was talking about. When it was my turn, I took the goggles, a deep breath and dove down.

underwaterMy hands get clammy and my heart tightens as I remember what came next. This was thirty years ago and it feels like yesterday. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling a terrible fear of drowning, that burning desire to breathe, but not being able to. It still haunts me.

I have never been afraid of the water and am a great swimmer; was on the swim and water polo teams in high school. I swam in the ocean in Maui regularly, was young and in good shape. But confidence can be our enemy, pushing us to take foolish risks with our lives.

I dove under. It was dark at first, away from the glowing flashlight in the cave above, and my eyes grew sensitive to the gloom. I spotted the glow of light that Andrew had seen about 15 feet below. It grew larger as I approached, the pressure of the depth causing my ears to pop. Once upon it, I realized it was indeed an opening, which must be another cave open to the sky.

Andrew had speculated the glow came from a cave with an open roof, a chimney he called it. Now looking at the dull green glow, I thought of that theory and decided to go in a few feet, take a look up as best I could and return to the others with my observation. We could decide if we wanted to do this together, perhaps holding hands, with a single leader as we only had the one pair of goggles.

I eased through the wide opening. The water immediately grew much lighter. Looking up at that depth through 10 or 15 feet of water gave me no clue to what was overhead. It was just blurry and brighter. I turned around to return to my friends, but my night vision was gone. I couldn’t see the opening in the darkness below and ran into the side wall. I had to make a decision quickly, fumble around for the opening, the right opening, or continue up into the light.

If there was light, surely there was air, right? So onward it was, into the unknown. The water was cold and we had been treading water in the cave, so the single gulp of air I had taken was nearly out. I had that awful feeling of needing to take a breath. I headed toward the bright green light, only it wasn’t up, but sideways. It was clearly a tunnel now that I moved forward, the semi-smooth walls of the watery lava tube visible on all sides of me. Gratefully it finally curved up, growing brighter and brighter, but also narrower and narrower, until my shoulders bumped first on one side, then the other and it became too cramped to pull with my arms.

My lungs screamed for air, and my mind raced in panic. The tunnel surely went to the surface to the light and air, but what if it was too narrow for me to swim through? Should I go back now, while I could still manage to turn my body around, force myself to swim into the darkness, all the while running out of air, feeling for an opening I hoped I could find; or risk going on only to be wedged into the narrow tunnel, quickly drowning when my body got stuck. With no time to waste on decisions, I went on.

The tunnel scraped my shoulders on both sides now, my arms ahead of me were now forced to stay this way as the tunnel was too narrow for me to bring them down to my sides. I was only able to swim on from the short strokes of my barely kicking legs.
I was out of air. I can’t know what it’s like for other people when they face the possibility of death. For me in that moment it was peaceful, an inevitability that removed fear. I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it. The single breath of cold damp air from the dark cavern far behind me was long used up and I was going to drown because of one stupid decision. I thought of my friends waiting behind, not knowing what happened to me, hoping they wouldn’t follow. I thought of my family and my brief life, was it really supposed to be this short. Oh well, better luck next time.

Warm air and blinding sunshine slapped my face; blessed sweet air that I gulped in great spasms. I had blasted through to the outside of the entire cave system, to the park and trails that surround it. A young couple who had been walking by, stared at me in surprise and wonder, a swamp monster who had suddenly burst out of a tiny pool of rotting leaves barely two feet across. What the hell.

escher puddleI stood there shivering and panting, realizing how close I had come to the end. Air and warmth soon refilled my lungs and damaged psyche. I was alive – am alive. I thought briefly of going back into the tunnel to warn my friends not to follow. But the thought of diving blindly through the rotting leaves into the cold darkness below overwhelmed me and I couldn’t do it.

Time is a strange thing, expanding and contracting at the same time. The whole experience was surely less than a single minute. I have no idea. It was an infinity in my mind, stretching and stretching into hours. I would never willing repeat the experience, but I’m glad it happened. I’m a little less afraid of death and a lot more in love with life because of it.