In the Midwest, where I grew up, we lived far from any ocean. Sure, we had access to the gorgeous Great Lakes, but no matter how vast they were, the Great Lakes were lakes. We never considered them to be anything like the great ocean. The true majesty of the ocean would not become apparent to me until I experienced not only its beauty, but its awesome – and life-threatening – power.
My first real ocean experiences were just like those of many other college students, semester break after a long winter. The sea is a great backdrop for the omnipresent quest for springtime romance and I was no different than the hordes of students descending on the Florida beaches. At that age, one rarely thinks about the potential dangers of ocean activities.
A few years after my spring break days, I was living in the Southeast Asian country of 7100 islands, The Philippines. In my third year in the tropics I became certified in SCUBA, at the urging of my closest friend, the political officer to the U.S. embassy in Manila, an accomplished diver with years of experience. With the enthusiasm of the new zealot, I spent many weekends diving in the South China Sea, spectacular waters easily accessible from Manila which contain an incredible diversity of coral life. Soon, I was invited to participate in the maiden voyage of a 75-foot dive boat owned by the producer and star of the Philippine equivalent of our 60 Minutes. Her goal was to document the damage to Philippine coral reefs from dynamite fishing, a destructive practice of using explosives to stun tropical fish for quick and easy collection. Local poor fishermen would collect the stunned survivors to sell on the commercial pet market. We had already taken one trip to photograph and record the devastation. The Philippine Minister of Agriculture used our report as evidence in his effort to ban such practices. This activity was a major contribution toward my election to The Explorers Club several years later.
The maiden dive voyage targeted a huge reef on the edge of the Mindanao Trench, well known for its sparkling visibility and biodiversity. We left at dusk; I have wonderful vivid memories of stars, people playing guitars, and a most tranquil departure. But around 3 a.m., our peace was abruptly shattered. Out of the night, the crew spotted a woman in the water, clinging to a single board. When we quickly hauled her out of the water, we were confronted with an even more dire emergency: she said the inter-island vessel she was on had capsized five hours before, dumping more than 200 people into a 6-foot chop with the tide receding from the land three miles in the distance. This woman had lost two sons, she told us, and scores of people were barely clinging to life in the dark seas around us.
Immediately our searchlights swept the turbulent waters and everyone on board was mobilized to assist the survivors. I was the only doctor on board and, though a recent graduate, I had extensive experience on ambulances and in emergency rooms. We spent the rest of the night searching for these poor people – we could hear them yelling for help, but it was nearly impossible to see them in the crashing waves. It was very eerie and you could not help but think of the voices as coming from ghosts.
The scenario still strikes me as a religious experience; we rescued 87 people that night, and every one of them survived. Especially sobering was coming upon a worthless lifeboat filled with 15 people, twelve of them children, chest deep in water. Several hung onto small ropes as they were tossed by the waves. The three adults had been passing an 8-month-old baby wrapped in a blanket – one adult would hold the baby aloft until he was exhausted, and then the next adult would take a turn. Several small children were barely hanging onto dear life.
Perhaps most disturbing, we soon found out the ship’s captain and purser had grabbed the ship’s safe and only functional life boat, abandoning their ship and passengers, violating one of the most fundamental rules of responsibility. It was a remarkable scene when we found them in the water and started to pull them to safety: the men got close and then realized that the ominous silence of the rescued passengers only spelled danger for them. I am sure they suspected they would be literally torn apart; indeed, the men cut the line and coasted off into the night. (We later learned the two made it to land and stood trial, although I never learned their ultimate fate.)
Fortunately, the worst injuries I saw were a few people nauseated from swallowing seawater, and a handful of lacerations. We were able to offload the patients and other survivors at the provincial capital early that morning.
Next morning, we made the choice to continue our trip, and we spent the whole day replenishing our supplies, purchasing what we could to allow us to dive as much as possible. Although limited to one cup of fresh water each day (to brush our teeth or wash our faces), the next three days were spectacular for the diving and camaraderie. Fortunately, a 110-foot square-rigged dive boat joined us and shared their supplies; we shared our fresh fish and had a great combined party on the last night. When we returned home, we learned our rescue had made the front page of the national newspaper. To this day, I can clearly remember the feeling of the power and unpredictability of the ocean, which one day took several lives, and the next granted me some of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen. The experience also got me thinking about how one prepares for such an event; it really was a catalyst for me to begin my activities in expedition medicine. Thus, the ocean and its grandeur as well as its treachery created a significant event that became a fork in my life’s road.