A group of divers, including Gentry Bronson, on a dive boat off the coast of the island of Utila, Honduras

Our dive crew and me (wearing a red and black wet suit) on a dive boat off Utila, Honduras, 1997 – Photo owned by the author

We were twenty-five feet underwater when we heard the fishing boat coming. A dive flag floating on the surface indicated we were below, so no craft was supposed to drive near us. But the whir of the engine was getting closer.

The other divers started going deeper to avoid the boat. Instead, Nina went up and I followed her. It was a dangerous decision. We should have been going down, too. The boat was coming closer and we were moving toward it.

I was twenty-four years old and Nina was even younger. We were in training for our Open Water Diver certification and she was my dive partner. Everything we’d learned at Alton’s Dive Shop was to never leave your partner, so I started up after her. It wasn’t smart.

Nina started kicking up using her fins and I began doing the same. Then, I heard clink, clink from our divemaster Joep. He was just below me and was warning us by tapping on his oxygen tank. Joep’s eyes were petrified saucers behind his dive mask.

It all happened quickly. The engine noise grew and Nina was only feet from the surface. There was nothing I could do but try to go back down as fast as I could. The rumbling engine sound became a roar as I nervously tried to get deeper. Time and the water became a blur.

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Nina and I had met while studying Spanish at an immersion school in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. She was a cute Scandinavian redhead who passed the time singing lilting Norwegian folk songs about trolls. One of her songs ended each refrain with a sweetly sung, “Ug, puff!”

I convinced her to travel with me to Honduras and learn to dive.

We’d arrived on Utila a week before. The westernmost island in the Bay Island chain. A series of three Honduran islands in the Caribbean along the world’s second-largest barrier reef. The perfect place for young backpackers like us to learn to scuba.

I was pickpocketed in San Pedro Sula, so when we arrived in the port town of La Ceiba, I was even more broke than when I’d begun my travels from Mexico City a month before. Thankfully, I still had my passport and enough Honduran lempiras to book passage to Utila and find a cheap place to learn to dive. But I was watching my centavos.

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In La Ceiba, the ferry to Utila had already left, so we searched up and down the docks for a different way to cross. As we looked, a fisherman with skin leathered by the sun approached us. His name was Lopez, and he asked if we wanted to go to Utila on his skiff boat. With no other option, we agreed to take Lopez’s tiny boat across the sea.

The small skiff skidded and bounced over the beautiful, blue water of the Caribbean, and we grabbed the sides as massive sprays of seawater pelted us. We were sopping wet, but Lopez was dry and smiling brightly as he piloted the boat, speeding northward.

As we slid along the water, I looked out. Three dolphins jumped and played alongside us. Their backs arching and bodies leaping told me I had made the right decision to learn to dive on Utila.

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We arrived and pulled directly up to a dock that belonged to Alton’s. We were greeted by Joep who said it was $160.00 USD to get dive certified, and that also paid for a week-long stay in the huts built on the docks overlooking the Caribbean. Since we were already there, I thought it was serendipitous, and we decided to stay.

Each light blue hut was covered in a tin roof, painted lime green inside, and sparsely furnished with two beds and a fan. Nina and I shared a rustic hut.

Sunset at Alton's Dive Ship on the island of Utila, Honduras

Sunset at Alton’s Dive Shop on Utila, Honduras, 1997 – Photo by the author

Four other young travelers were staying and learning to dive at the shop. Adrian and Chris from Seattle, Dan from Montreal, and Matteo from Florence, Italy. We quickly became friends while we sat inside a wooden shack and learned the basics of diving.

Our first day was consumed by watching VHS videos, studying laminated dive planning charts, reading Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) handbooks, and answering quizzes with tiny pencils. Our dive instructor, Jake, was younger than all of us, but he had a serious demeanor while he scrawled on the blackboard and made sure we were attentive students.

At night, Jake, Joep, the rest of the aspiring divers, and I went out drinking. We walked down the one narrow road that ran the length of the island through the jungle. A half mile from the dive shop, we got seats at an outdoor bar on an uneven wooden dock overlooking the Caribbean. There, we drank Salva Vidas, ate baleadas (a traditional Honduran food made with flour tortillas, refried beans, cream, and cheese), and listened to reggaetón music until it approached sunrise.

Joep was a sarcastic blond Dutchman, and at the bar, he told us, “Don’t worry. Diving gets rid of your hangover. It’s the oxygen.”

But I learned that knowledge didn’t help much when we were in the classroom in the morning with puffy, red eyes and headaches.

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After several days of classroom study, and beer and baleada dinners, we did a couple of easy dives in the ten-foot shallows near shore. We got used to breathing underwater, and how it felt to take our gear on and off during the gentle surges of the sea.

Then, we were ready to head out to do our first real dives. First, dropping down to forty feet. Then, to sixty feet.

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The boat left straight from the dive shop, and Joep drove with a Cheshire Cat’s grin as wind and spray blew. Everyone’s faces looked nervous but excited to begin our first real descent.

We jumped in the water and our gear was thrown in after us. We put our gear on at the surface. Then, we checked in, gave each other thumbs up, released the air on our inflators, and began submerging. My ears gave me trouble on the way down, but after some adjustment, I figured out how to clear my ears, relax, and float into the watery universe.

As the surface slipped away, I watched the blue world open up. A beautiful, surreal world. An environment that looked like a setting drawn by Dr. Seuss. It was like being an aquatic astronaut on a different planet, but I immediately felt at home.

Kelp moved through the water as if it were being blown by a breeze. The reef systems were packed with colors of all hues. Green, blue, violet, and red exploded. And life was everywhere, swimming and living in the reef and hiding on the sandy bottom. We saw massive schools of fish, sea turtles, moray eels, sting rays, puffer fish, nurse sharks, and octopuses.

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As a completely new diver, I was still a frenetic fish in many ways. I used up my air too fast from excitement and moving too much, and I thrashed more than necessary to move forward or stay in one place. I was envious of Jake and Joep who could just float in mid-water. Sitting in one place completely relaxed.

After a few dives, I realized that I could fly and hover. Breathing in meant I would go up and breathing out meant I went down. Choosing to go up ten feet was as easy as breathing in and giving a kick. Being underwater was the most meditative place I’d ever been. I was at ease deep beneath the sea.

Divers moving on a dive boat in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Utila, Honduras

Divers in action on the Alton’s dive boat in the Caribbean off the coast of Utila, Honduras, 1997 – Photo by the author

I was infatuated with the sport right away, and I wanted to get all the PADI certifications available. But on our final training dive, I needed to survive and not be hit by a fast-moving fishing boat. The boat that was driving at Nina and me.

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In the struggle to get down and away from the engine’s roar, the seconds passed like minutes. I realized that I could be hit by the boat and its slicing propeller at any moment. I got several feet down and my body was facing the sea floor when I turned to look back up at the surface.

I saw Nina above me and the boat coming at her. She must not have heard Joep’s warnings because she continued to go up. The water was churning and her body was in line with the boat. Closer and closer until it was on top of her.

I heard a loud clank! It echoed through the water. Then, the boat slowed. Nina was floating nearby at the surface.

I checked myself to see if I was okay even though nothing had touched me. Then, I felt Jake grab my arm and point up. His eyes were angry and scared. I felt silently scolded like a little boy in a mute world.

Careful not to go up too fast and get the bends, the whole group of divers made our way to the surface. I scanned for blood in the water as we went up.

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When we got to the surface, Nina was there, bobbing and smiling.

“Hello!” she called out nonchalantly in her sing-song voice.

The wind blew across the water and it was choppy. There was an eerie and tense quiet as we took off our masks and took our regulators out of our mouths.

Jake turned to Nina and asked urgently, “You all right? What were you doing!?”

Nina was silent.

Joep swam over to the fishing boat and harsh words could be heard. While Joep yelled at the fishermen in Spanish, we all loaded our gear and ourselves onto the boat.

Nina the redheaded Scandinavian on the surface after a scuba dive in the Caribbean near Utila, Honduras

Nina in the Caribbean Sea after a dive off the coast of Utila, Honduras, 1997 – Photo by the author

As we started driving back to the dive shop, I saw Jake and Nina talking but their words were drowned out by the engine. Nina lowered her head more the longer they spoke.

When they were finished, I got close to Nina and asked, “What happened?”

Nina said, “The propeller hit my tank.”

She looked scared and realized she had come inches from injury or death. Had I continued to follow her to the surface, I might have been seriously hurt myself.

“You’ll be okay, Nina,” I reassured her as the sun dropped heavy into the late afternoon.

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Nina didn’t dive again after that. She packed and took the next ferry to the mainland. I never saw or heard from her again.

The near-accident rattled me, but it also made me even hungrier for the excitement of the sea. The danger of the depths. I was all consumed and I didn’t want to stop diving.

I stayed on Utila for another week along with Dan, Chris, Adrian, and Matteo, and we all got our Advanced Open Water Diver certifications from PADI. Jake and Joep also forgave me for my dangerous stupidity.

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The ocean became my home, and I became a lifelong scuba diver, surfer, and waterman. The close call of that day became a valuable memory. Death had eluded me, but the brush with disaster was a constant reminder to always be aware when I was in or on the sea.

Days after Nina’s departure, I was night diving. Then I was dropping to 130 feet and staring down at the continental shelf plunging into the darkness of the deep ocean.

As I looked into the big, blue oblivion, I was calm and flying and free.