Logging Hours in Shallow Water

by Kimberly R. Kelly on June 7, 2011

It is October, and we have just recovered the body of a young man, drowned in now-placid water. The falls are not terribly deep, but today, they prove deep enough.

“Hey,” the tan and balding lieutenant says to me, “thanks for your help today.”

“No worries,” I respond. “Any time. I’m not a diver, but I’d be glad to help whenever you’ll let me.”

He nods. “We always need shore help. Talk to your lieutenant.”

Training and dive log: 11 hours

***

It is December, only two months later, and I am back out on the water. This time, a large lake in the rural community just west of my home. The team gathers there every December, diving the cold muddy waters. They dive off the dock, into the murk, and pull all the detritus that has fallen since the last December: ranger gear, radios, boat batteries, fishing poles, cell phones, tackle boxes and frequently, six packs of beer, still secured in their plastic rings.

I sit on a wooden bench that is softened by a small thin pad that doubles as a flotation device. The boat rocks gently, and I snap photographs of the divers. The sun reflects from the water, warming my face, but it is not enough. The breeze is brisk, biting, and I’m glad for the heavy Kevlar vest that I wear. The ceramic and steel plate nestles against my heart, trapping body heat.

The divers slowly make their way back to shore, and the small motor on board sputters to life, so as to follow. It is time for the real reason, real purpose of the day: the team holiday party and gift exchange. Families have arrived on shore, waiting, gifts in their arms, warm dishes for the potluck. I have no one, save a dog, waiting at home.

I made a cheesecake, traditional New York style. It is heavy, silky, beautiful and topped with dark, rich, juicy Morello cherries. I live in a small one-bedroom granny flat with a temperamental stove, given to fits of hot and cold. I alternately worry that the cake will collapse, undercooked, or shrink, overcooked. Or, worse, both … It turns out perfect and luscious.

Carefully, I place the cheesecake on the buffet table, among the gingerbread cookies, the fruit ambrosia and other offerings. I make my way to an open seat at one of the tables; I am still so new that I am learning names, attaching to the right faces, right rank.

No sooner do I sit down than do two deputies, special enforcement detail, our SWAT team, pick up the cheesecake and two forks. They walk away with the entire cake, and devour it, just the two of them. To add insult to injury, the heavier of the two, flat-top and mustache, wipes his finger across the now empty cake form, licking it clean.

The lake is now as clean as the cake form. Trash has been appropriately disposed of. Batteries and waterlogged radios lay on the deck, draining, while lake staff inventory them, checking serial numbers against their clipboard, so the appropriate insurance forms may be submitted. The oxygen tanks are back in stow on the dive van, waiting refill, and neoprene suits hang over truck beds and tailgates, dripping dry. People laugh, eat, back slap, enjoy. I am part of this team, and it feels good.

Training and dive log: 8 hours

***

My quadriceps and hamstrings scream, cramping. My breath comes in quiet rags, panting hard, as I stretch my arms and hands high above my head.

“You can do this,” the handsome blond dive instructor calls to me, encouraging. “You can do this, come on, only a bit more.”

I roll my eyes at him, but keep treading. This is the most difficult part of the endurance test, and my hands, arms must not touch the water. Lungs and legs only, and long, interminable, hour-long minutes. I keep treading.

The final decision had been made a few weeks before: for liability reasons, all members of the dive team must be appropriately certified by a nationally recognized and accredited dive school. After proficiency certification in open water, then dive rescue, evidence recovery, underwater investigation, more. Further, all members must be sworn; I’ve already completed the academy, been issued badge and weapon. All that remains is this unending tread.

“Time!” the dive instructor calls, clicking the stopwatch, arms raised in the air. Victory! I swim to the edge of the pool, throw the weight belt up to him, and pull myself onto the concrete, exhausted.

Victory.

Training and dive log: 4 hours

***

The Pacific surges and sways, and even through the thickness of my hood, I can hear the low swish of kelp. We are approximately 18 feet below the surface; the dive master is off to my right, pointing. Fish dart here and there, but here a small orange Garibaldi makes his stand, protecting his territory. I can hear him, barking, a popping sound, as he scolds us. The dive instructor extends his right leg, fin out, at the Garibaldi, and he clamps on the tip, shaking like a dog. I laugh, and accidentally suck in water. Choking, sputtering, I clear my regulator, and the dive master laughs at me.

We practice clearing regulators, clearing masks. He motions for me to drop my mouthpiece, and we practice rescue breathing, sharing the one source of oxygen. He nods; I’ve passed the skills. Time to move on, and he motions with a crook of his finger.

I learn to navigate underwater, using a compass. I learn how to take my vest on and off. I learn not to panic, when my oxygen tank is secretly shut off.

And, I learn to keep an eye out for falling rocks. This has never been mentioned anywhere in my texts, or the PADI videos. No one, not even the dive instructor, tells me that rocks may fall from the sea above.

That is a lesson I learn, instead, from a small, silky sea lion. He darts to and fro, slipping in and out of the kelp, out of my line of sight, disappearing into the dark jade of the Pacific. Quick and fast, he speeds past, scooping the rock from the sandy floor, racing back to the ocean’s surface, and drops his rock again. A game, and an amusing one, as long as one doesn’t get hit on the head.

Training and dive log: 11 hours

***

We are in the pool, the whole team. The instructor has spent two days in a classroom with us, slide projector showing proper procedure, underwater diagramming, ghostly white bodies floating in the deep. My book is filled with scribbled notes, highlighter ink, pages dog-eared to important sections. There are other specialists from other agencies that have joined us. None of us have a big enough team, enough people to support the course on its own, so together we come to learn, train, dive.

Into the water; I must perform all of the same skills I completed in the ocean: in and out of the buoyancy vest, shared regulators, navigation, emergency clearing of masks and breathing apparati. Then it is the obstacle course.

The pool is filled with suspended tires, tennis court nets, a weighted body. Debris intended to trap, snare, kill a recovery diver — meant to kill me, if I am not careful.

“You will do the entire course, timed,” the instructor bellows. “If you pass, you will then repeat the course. You will be dark. And it will be timed.”

The first time, we will be allowed to see what we are doing. The second time, we must do it blind, face masks blocked, to simulate many of the conditions we will work in.

I am paired with the blond man, the dive master. I am young, and have no expendable income; dive lessons are expensive. But I have horses, and he wanted to learn, so we have traded dive lessons, hour for hour, with horse lessons. Win-win, and we develop an easy friendship. I am glad to be diving with him today.

We complete the assigned tasks, quickly, quietly, competently. When the course is completed for the second time, we break the surface and offers a “high five.”

“You’re a recovery diver,” he says.

Training and dive log: 13 hours

***

We are required to make monthly team trainings and dives, but that is not enough to remain proficient. Personal dives, if accompanied by a team member, are counted toward training, experience, hours.

It is easier and more efficient to swim, underwater, than to fight the tide at the surface. We are at 60 feet; the light filters from the surface, but the darkness looms closer. Small white objects float, iridescent, glowing dully, and move with the surge. I look questioningly to the dive master; he pulls his slate, and with a pencil, writes “squid, spawn.”

We are at the lip of the undersea canyon, and it is dark, so very dark. I shake my head at the dive master; our team has a 100-foot hard deck, and I’m not experienced enough to go beyond that.

Suddenly, my mask skews, and my hood contracts. Turning around, I see the dive master grinning, and with one hand, I feel for, and find, a large starfish. The dive master has put it on my head, and it has locked on, tight, pulling neoprene and hair.

I carefully work the starfish free, and right my mask and hood. The dive master is doing something, I cannot see what, as he lays on the floor, swaying with the unseen waves. He turns his face to me, and offers a hand — lying, flat, round, is a small piece of sandstone, and he has engraved “Diver Kim” into its surface.

“Diver Kim.”

Training and dive log: 7 hours

***

The deputy stands on the edge of the rock outcropping, peering into the pond. “I’da know,” he says, shrugging, “s’posed to be in there.”

The man that’s supposed to be in there, is not supposed to be in there. A migrant worker, here illegally, is from a nearby camp, high in the hills. This pond serves as a place to get water, bathe, socialize. Beer cans litter the shore, some aged and faded, some new, and probably the cause for our call today.

A single pair of denim jeans lay on the shore, dark, with a hand-tooled leather belt. The man’s name has been stamped into the belt. It serves as his only identification.

“You goin’ in ta get him”” the deputy asks.

I grin, as I pull my uniform shirt taut against my belly. I am five months pregnant, and do not fit in my wetsuit. “Not today,” I say. “Bit of a buoyancy problem.”

“Anyone else comin’?” he asks, looking around.

“On their way,” I say. The dive van is slow and clunky to begin with. Add in the rugged road leading into this location, and it will be longer still. No matter, as other dive team members begin to trickle in.

One man ambles up the path, heading to me, to the deputy, offering hellos. He’s been with the team for a very long time, incredibly experienced, unflappable, quiet. He has earned the nickname “Body Magnet,” as he seems to have the most finds. He is halfway into his wetsuit, a Farmer John only. No need for more than that. A quick assessment, briefing, and he is snugging his face mask into place.

Wading into the water, he settles onto the battered Boogie board, snorkel tucked into the band of his mask. Gliding softly across the surface, he makes his rounds, slow and methodical. It is not long before he stops, paddles back, body tense, and his hand dips into the water.

He is found.

All the steps are taken, process and procedure followed, and soon, the man’s body lies on the shore. Flat on his back, clad in leopard-print briefs and gray athletic socks, his lips are blue, and rigor has begun in his arms. He has thick, black, luxuriant hair, and a full mustache. I take his picture, and I wonder about him. All that I know is engraved on the back of his belt. Who is, or rather, who was he? Did he have a family? How many times did he cross the border, seeking work, better pay, a better life? All he wanted was a bit of relaxation, a cerveza with friends, and a dip in the pond. All for naught.

The dive van has not arrived, and therefore, there is nothing to place his body in. I reach into my backpack, and find my emergency shelter. Heavy orange plastic, and I slice the sides open, flat, like a sheet, and we slide him, carefully inside. He is not overweight or large, but the dead always seem to weigh more.

The van arrives, and soon after so does the medical examiner. He will be taken away, recorded, a statistic in a file somewhere, but our work here is done.

Training and dive log: 5 hours

***

The weather is cool, and the skies dark. Grey. Threatening rain.

I am off the shores of La Jolla, dipping in and out of the cove. To my south, sea lions frolic in the Children’s Pool. To my north, Great Whites pup in the artificially warmed waters off San Onofre’s nuclear plant. I have no agenda, no schedule today. Just be in the water.

I am approximately 15 feet from the surface when I notice it. I’ve never seen it before. Rain. Rain as it falls on the ocean’s surface, plinking, causing small circles to appear. I lay on my back, suspended in the surf, watching the rain spot the glass above me.

It is beautiful.

Training and dive log: 4 hours

***

The family stands on the shore. This lake is large, enormous, and serves as an Olympic training site. The young couple, however, only came for a bit of relaxation. Time alone, together, so romantic …

Until the oar slipped its lock, and floated away.

The young man, handsome, strong, jumped into the water after it. His impact caused the boat to slide away, and the oar even further. He could not swim, and his girlfriend, his love, watched in horror as he bobbed under, and again, and then one last final time.

The dogs are scenting the water, trying to triangulate for the divers. The media has started to arrive, setting up their cameras on the shore, on the docks. I try to avoid them, and am directed to keep the family safe from the news crew.

I sit with the young man’s mother. She has flown here, and waits in suspended animation.

“Is he cold?” she asks, hands clasped in her lap.

“No, ma’am, he’s not cold,” I say.

“It’s just so dark down there,” she murmurs.

“We’re doing everything we can to find him,” I assure her. And we are, and we do, for the next three days. We suspended operations after a diver, tired, at depth, embolizes. His partner saves him, brings him to the surface. They are transported to the emergency room, placed in a chamber.

I am part of the crew that attends to him, to them both, and my focus is on them.

But the young man’s mother still waits, silent, watching, as the helicopter flies away with my team, and patrol cars stream from the parking lot.

“Will you come back?” she asks.

“I’m sorry,” I apologize. We are out of resources. The risk has become greater than the reward. I explain that we will continue to search the shores, that he should eventually come to the surface on his own.

“Oh,” her voice is small. “When he comes up on his own …” and she trails off.

“Yes?” I ask.

“When he comes up on his own,” she tries again, “you can do CPR, then, right?”

This poor woman. This poor boy. My heart rends for her, and her arms lift to me. I stand on the shore, and embrace her.

Training and dive log: 12 hours, and the night is not over yet.

***

The Sheriff stands at the podium, while the emcee reads the proclamation.

“Without the assistance…” and our names are read. The diver who embolized will survive, although due to increasing pressure from his wife, he will resign from the team. It is too dangerous, and she is afraid. The diver who pulled him from the depths, the same diver who pulled the migrant from the pond, stands on the stage, as a medal is placed on his chest. I stand with the rest of my crew, as our names are called. We are awarded our own recognition, letters of commendation, a shake with the Sheriff, photographs taken.

***

The helicopter, an MD-Bell 500, painted deep blue, black, and white, hovers over the reeds. The rotor wash beats heavy and hard, bending the tall grasses, and sending hard ripples across the lake.

The boy’s body has indeed, finally, come to the surface. It has taken longer than anyone would have imagined. The heavy deputy steps from the bird, foot on the skid; he is the same deputy who walked away with a cheesecake some years before, and now pulls the body to shore.

A mother can now say good-bye.

Training and dive log: 2 hours

***

A mother says hello, smiles, and waves at her baby, blinking widely at the heavily chlorinated pool water.

My own children, now almost eleven, almost nine, splash and play. The girl likes to pretend she’s a mermaid, a dolphin. Right now, she’s lunging at her brother, jaws wide open, pretending to be a Great White.

Two years ago, they were dragged to swim lessons. The boy was hesitant, afraid, but his Papa insisted. The girl could not bear it, and cried much of the lessons, until the frustrated coaches sent her to sit on the sidelines. The Papa complained about the cost and wasted time; I held my breath. I’d already voiced my objections to the whole thing, to begin with, but some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

Last year, we made our way to the local pool and water park. Joining as annual members, we could come, escape the heat, play, explore. Slowly, Monday by Monday, the summer slipped away, tans darkened, and the children became more confident.

We joined again this year. Two Mondays ago, the Girl placed her face in the water. “I’m weady,” she proclaimed, and slipped under the surface.

And she did what none have done on any of our missions: she came to the surface. Triumphant, grinning, spluttering, “I did it! I did it!”

The yellow-covered dive books, mission logs have accumulated over the years. Entries. Dives. Notes. Pictures. Bodies. Missions. In the ocean, in any of the multiple lakes, ponds, creeks, falls.

Last November, facing the increasing pressures of growing children, shrinking time, a need to earn enough to support us all, and so much more, I sat, tears in my eyes, and typed my letter of resignation. I filed away the yellow-covered logs and placed the pictures into my desk. The letters of commendation, medal of meritorious service hang on the wall, in the dark of my rarely used home office. Two weeks ago, my badge was returned from the jeweler, newly emblazed with silver, engraved “honorably retired.”

And like so many days in the past, I am back in the pool, treading water, kicking, breathing, diving to the bottom.

The Girl waves from the shallow end, jumping, and holding air in over-inflated cheeks. The Boy swims to me. Body long, lean, brown from the sun, cheeks red from the excitement, swims to me.

“Mama, Mama!” he calls. “Wait for me!”

And I tread, waiting.

These are not hours I can log; there is no mission book, no training that must be learned. Instead, as I tread in these shallow waters, gazing at my two children as they splash and play, I realize, this may be my most important assignment ever.


Wilderness search-and-rescue vignettes from two long-time professionals, Kimberly R. Kelly and Dave Baldridge, alternating bylines every month. 'Point Last Seen' is a common SAR term used to describe the last known location of a missing subject.

Kimberly R. Kelly is a retired law enforcement underwater investigations and recovery specialist. She has been working in search-and-rescue for 18 years. She is currently working a human remains detection dog in Colorado and serves as the Commander of an international search-and-rescue team.

Senior Correspondent Dave Baldridge was the first managing editor of POWDER Magazine. He lives in Albuquerque, where he volunteers for search and rescue missions with his border Collie, Tadc.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Beverley Daniels Holland June 10, 2011 at 12:55 am

I was there due to Kimberly’s wonderful gift of sharing with words.

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Dennis Beauford June 11, 2011 at 12:52 am

I enjoyed “Logging Hours in shallow Waters”it was interesting and very well written. I would enjoy seeing more articles written by Kimberly Kelly.

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Chuck Melvin June 14, 2011 at 2:37 am

Very well done, as always! Thank you for sharing.

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