Friday, February 10, 2012

Death From Below: A Fish Story

Nice fishy

I come from a family of animal lovers.  My sister is a renown Dog Whisperer.  When we were younger I watched her commune silently with a large black Newfoundland Retriever.  Twenty minutes later, she and the dog lay on the ground clutching each other and having a good cry.  My brother has always had at least three species of animals in his house at any given time.  I watched him let his pet cockatoo named "Pretty" eat peanuts directly from his mouth. Everybody thought it was cute.  I thought it was disgusting and the potential beginning of an outbreak.  My wife at one time kept seven dogs under our roof in a high-rise apartment in central Bangkok.  When she wasn't cooking omelettes for the dogs, she was walking to Sukhumvit Road and buying food for them from the Bangkok street vendors.  She said their favorite was "chicken ass." Both the dogs and my son seemed to love it.  The whole family was on a pricey five dollar a day chicken ass habit.

Have to buy your Chicken Ass early.
Popular favorite.
I think animals are cute and interesting and I like watching them on Animal Planet (especially on Shark Week). I do not, however, have "human love" for them. It is just not in my DNA.  I've struggled with this personal inadequacy for years and finally accepted it.  I'm a people person.  I'm not an animal person.  My father once brought home a Basilisk lizard when I was eleven years old.  It was fun watching him run across the living room on his two back legs (usually smashing into the wall and knocking himself out), but we never really connected on a personal nor emotional level.  

The speedy Basilisk.  Fun to watch,
but we were never best friends.
Animals can pick a non-animal lover out of a line up within moments.  They can smell disdain and indifference.  In the civilized world this really isn't an issue.  You are rarely forced to acknowledge an animal you don't want to deal with.  When you move around the globe, indifference is no longer an option.  They are watching you.  You are watching them.  Dominance or territorial sharing has to be established.  Failure to respect this law of nature can be dangerous.  There will be consequences.

Macaque Monkey
"Sure I'm cute.  Lets see how cute I am when I'm hanging
off of your ass."
I live in Central Indonesia, in one of the most pristine natural environments in the world.  Aside from the big pit producing gold and the large machinery needed to get it out of the pit, "we're in the jungle, baby!" This jungle is highly populated, but humans are the minority species.  Last week I took a two mile run through the neighborhood.  At the homestretch, up a steep hill, I saw a group of ten Macaque monkeys at the edge of the trees on the side of the road .  I was tired and thirsty.  I only wanted to get home without confrontation.  Usually the Macaques scatter when people come by, but as I was highly outnumbered (and feeling like the odd homosapien out), I was not confident predicting their behavior.  I picked up a handful of stones and tossed them onto the road in front of me.  The monkeys screeched and diffused into the trees.  All  but one: the Alpha Monkey.  He stood about two and a half feet tall with round powerful shoulders and looked like one of those guys from Jersey Shore after abusing anabolic steroid abuse.  He grunted, crouched down on all fours and looked me straight in the face.  He was in pounce on the trespasser mode. Suddenly I had decisions to make.  The ramifications of these decisions went through my head like the ripples from a stone thrown into the murky stream next to the monkey. Option A:  I could stop, stand my ground and fiercely eyeball the monkey.  We hadn't established dominance yet, but he was way ahead of me on this one.  If this risky strategy failed, I was dealing with, at best, a monkey bite.  Monkey bites are something I was hoping to avoid in this lifetime.  Monkey bites mean immediate medical care and prophylactic rabies treatments.  Unfortunately the only rabies Immunoglobulin available to me, best case scenario, would have been an hour's ride away by helicopter on the island of Bali .  While I enjoy a trip to Bali now and again, I'd prefer it under different circumstances.  Option B wasn't much better:  I'd ignore the monkey and push forward on my run.  Option B had flaws:  One, I'm a terrible runner.  Two, this was uphill at the end of a two mile run and I was already sucking wind and cramping.  Three, the monkey was clearly in better physical condition and had not eaten pizza and beer the night before.  It was clear that I was this monkey's bitch if he wanted me to be.  My only hope was that he didn't know this yet and was only protecting his little piece of jungle.  I put my head down and kept running, but gave him as wide  a perimeter as possible.  I clutched the remaining rocks tight in my hand knowing I'd only get one good throw on the run if he came after me. Luckily he just stood his ground as I ran away.   He kept grunting out something that sounded to me like "Little bitch."

When animals attack:  Soi Cowboy
Almost two years ago I had just come off an incredibly busy period of work and travel.  In a two month period I had worked in America, Northern Vietnam, Ukraine and finally, Southern Vietnam.  I had not even bothered to empty my suitcase inbetween.  When I'd finally finished the trip and arrived back home to Bangkok, I was exhausted.  I had worked hard and I was feeling the need to play hard.  I was craving a vacation that had adventure and beer involved, but did not require submitting corporate reports about it at the end of the journey.  It occurred to me that it had been a long time since I'd taken advantage of the natural resources in my own adoptive, if not native, country.  Southern Thailand has some of the most beautiful SCUBA diving in the world.  Immediately after the 2003 Tsunami, the one that decimated parts of Indonesia and Thailand, I had taken a diving trip to the Similan Islands just off of Phuket in the South of Thailand. I stayed on a live-aboard diving boat for three days. The diving was epic.  The water was warm and crystal blue with one hundred feet of visibility.  I did nothing but eat, drink and chase fish for three straight days. The trip was so much fun that I'd planned on going back at least once a year.  It was a no-brainer of a trip--a one hour flight  from Bangkok and another thirty minute drive from the airport.  I've spent longer times in LA traffic just trying to get home after work.  But here it was 2009 and I was so busy traveling and working that I'd never been back.  It was time.

Making friends with the locals.
I called a friend who was working as a Divemaster in a local Phuket diving shop and booked a hotel on Patong Beach.  In less than a day, I was there.  Such is the beauty and ease of moving around Thailand and one of the reasons people keep going back even after Tsunamis, military coups, near-civil wars and horrific floods.  When Thailand is not in the midst of a natural or unnatural disaster, adventure can be literally accessed in minutes.

The next morning I awoke early and headed to the boat.  It was a perfect winter day for diving.  The temperature was almost 90 degrees (32 degree C), the skies were clear and the Andaman Sea was calm and blue.  The first of three dives would be a wreck dive just off the coast.  Since most of the divers on the boat were in a beginners diving class, the dive master and I headed off on our own.  It was great to be back in the water.  If you've never SCUBA dived before, you cannot understand the sensation of peace and calm under the sea.  You float effortlessly and glide with the currents.  The only thing you hear is your own breathing and the sound of bubbles in a hypnotic and serene rhythm.  Your heart rate slows down and there is a perception of peace and calm that you can never achieve on land...............until things turn to shit.

I've been diving since 1982 and have always been a bit of a cavalier diver.  I've done things you are not supposed to do.  It's exciting to get as close as possible to the creatures under the sea.  I've chased and ridden on the backs of poor, docile sea-turtles, traumatizing them for my own thrills. I've poked at gargantuan Stingrays and laughed as they startled and sped away leaving trails of Stingray shit behind them.  I've stayed down too long, run out of air and have gone deeper than I was supposed to. Worst of all, I grabbed the tail of a twelve foot Caribbean Nurse Shark and let him drag me through the ocean for fifty meters trying to shake me loose.  I was young and I was stupid.  In retrospect I can now see that it was only a matter of time before a little payback would come my way.

The Titan Triggerfish.  Pretty......................nasty!
We'd seen some beautiful fish on this dive, big and small:  tiny orange Clownfish, Coral Groupers, Batfish and my favorite, the Oriental Sweetlips (I'm not making that up).  We'd gone to a maximum depth of sixty feet and  at nearly forty minutes into the dive it was time to start safely and slowly heading to the surface.  I looked ahead in the sand and saw a big fish circling a small island of coral and pecking at the surface.  He was bright yellow, about three feet long and oval shaped.  He was darting around the coral furiously like someone does when they've lost their wallet or keys.  He was beautiful. We had a couple of minutes left before starting a mandatory decompression stop so I decided to get a closer look.

When I got within a few yards of the big beautiful fish the dive master saw where I was heading.  He screamed to me through his regulator."NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
Too late.  The fish made a bee-line, jaws open, straight for my head.

The business end of a
Titan Triggerfish
This fish, I would find out later, is called a Titan Triggerfish.  To me, forever, he is The Psycho of the Deep.  Imagine a fish fiercely territorial, as big as a small child, with a mouth full of chisel-sized teeth and a jaw big enough to clamp down across your entire forearm  .  Now imagine him with the rational behavior of a man on a three day Crystal Meth binge.  I was dumbfounded.  I could not believe I was being attacked by a pretty fish.

You hear people describe an awkward man as a "fish out of water."  Ironically, I was that man in the water.  The fish was moving deftly and deliberately.  He was lunging at me and backing away just as quickly.  I could near his jaws and teeth click as he tried to take a bite out of me.  I swung my arms clumsily and wildly to  spin my body around and put my flippers in his face.  If he was going to bite something, I preferred it to be my legs for some reason.  I was hoping to keep my face, hands and other vital parts near and dear to me as far away as possible.  He was relentless.  I thought he would get tired of terrorizing  after a few runs at me, but he had nothing better to do.  After a long minute I my legs and arms started to cramp and I realized I was hyperventilating.  I was still thirty feet below the surface.  I remember the thought coming into my head incredulous that this is how I could actually die.  The dive master, experienced with this mongrel of a fish, came over and finally drew him away.  He calmly and bravely kept the fish at bay with his own fins. As we slowly backed out of the fish's territory, the fish moved on.

Now my head was pounding and I could feel my heartbeat in my throat.  Intellectually I knew I had enough air in my tank. I had to stay at this depth long enough to do a decompression stop and keep myself from getting the decompression sickness called "The Bends."  I breathed as long and deep as I could and tried to calm myself down, but no matter how much air I took in, I felt like it was not enough.  My legs cramped more, my head started to pound and my chest hurt.  I felt like I was going to drown and headed for the surface.  When I got there, I pulled my mask and regulator off.  I breathed hard and floated on my back.  I saw the diveboat nearby, but I could not make enough sound for them to hear me.  I shut my eyes and felt the hot Thai sun on my face.  My chest was aching like I'd run a marathon and there was no way my legs would support me.  I stayed on the surface bobbing with the rhythm of the waves for a few minutes and felt the lactic acid pains finally drain from my muscles.  The dive master broke surface next to me. I panicked for a second worried that the Triggerfish followed him to the surface.  He could be eyeing my floating ass for one more bite. 
He was this goddamn big!  Maybe twice that big!

"Are you okay, mate?" he said in South African. 
"Yeah. I think so.  Jesus Christ  That was fucking horrible."
"Titan Trrrrriger," he said in South African again. "Verrrry nasty. Verrrry territorial.  They'll bite rrrrright through to the bone  Best to give them a lot of space.  Do you think you are bent?"
"I'm not sure.  I mean I don't think so.  Let's just get on the boat." 

Once onboard I checked myself over.  My head felt better, my lungs were working fine and my fingers and toes weren't tingling.  Close call, but I didn't feel "Bent." I decided to keep diving.  We still had plenty of day left and I didn't want to miss two more precious dives before going back to port. There's nothing worse than sitting on a dive boat while everyone else is diving. It's like driving to Kilimanjaro and watching people climb from the base. It's depressing. The next two dives were only shallow dives.  I'd just take it easy. 

I spotted a handful of Titan Triggerfishes on the next dives, but steered clear like a little girl running from a bully. I didn't need to be bitten once to be twice shy. 

An experienced Divemaster has two considerable responsibilities. First and foremost, take the diver out and get him back safely. Second, guide the diver through the best local pubs the night after the dive. In Phuket they both commitments are taken seriously (although finding a good pub in Phuket is really like shooting Triggerfish in a barrel).  After the fifth pub I stopped counting. I was at least fifteen years older than the other divers in the group, but my pride  would not let me be the first to bail out on the night.  Eventually my brain started writing checks my body could no longer cash so I slipped away and I staggered home. 

My hangover arrived at first light and woke me out of a restless sleep.  I ate some Ibuprofen, drank a liter of water and went back to sleep.  A second day of diving was not in the cards.  I'd take a well deserved rest and fly back to Bangkok in the late afternoon.  

By the time I got to Phuket International Airport I still had the Mother of All Hangovers.  I attributed it to age.  I can't handle my hooch the way I used to.  Best leave those long nights of poly-alcohol abuse to the kids from now on.  A few exotic beers are enough these days for this aging nightlife veteran.   Once in Bangkok I figured  a few good nights of rest would put me right back in the game.  But this hangover went turbo.  The next day I was the worst combination of shaky and stupid.  I was having difficulty putting a few good thoughts together.  When my right leg muscles started twitching uncontrollably I knew this was no hangover.

I was "Bent."

There are three basic, non-negotiable rules for the "Bent":  Don't dive if you're Bent.  Don't booze   if you are Bent. And  absolutely, definitely, certainly don't fly if you're Bent.  I'd hit the trifecta bad behavior for the "Bent."

Fucking Fish.

The "Bends," also known as Decompression Sickness, is classified into two types:  Slightly fucked and completely fucked.  Since I was still coherent, I figured I was in the midst of the first type.  I needed more information on this disease since I was foolishly doing my own diagnostics.  I called the guy who you call who knows about these things :  Shane B from Kalimantan (Borneo).  One year before, I'd worked as a doctor at Shane's  mining site on the Eastern coast of Borneo. He ran the local Kalimantan diving club there off of a big boat called The Barracuda.  Shane is a tough-as-nails Aussie who's logged more time under the water than many species of fish in Kalimantan.  Rumor had it that he'd even begun to develop rudimentary gills. He gave me some good advice, having been through more Type one Decompression Sicknesses than he could count.  He also had that typical tough Aussie "its-not -a-machete-wound, its-only-a-scratch" view of illness.

"Ahhhhhh, I wouldn't worry about that much, mate," he said, "I once had the bends so bad me eye popped straight out of me head and pointed up at the sun."
"What did you do?"  I asked.
"Ahhhh, mate, just modified me sunglasses, put a cold beer on it and went back to work.  It got better."
I went straight to the hospital.

Decompression Chamber:  Actual size
There's really only one definite treatment for the Bends:  the decompression chamber.  I spoke to the Thai doctor who ran the diving medicine program at Bumrungrad Hospital.  He was ex-Thai Navy and seemed to know what he was talking about.  I'd have to get in the chamber for two to five hours per day for five days a week and then see how my symptoms decreased.  Not the best way I could think of spending a week in Bangkok, but it had to be done.  I had a patient years ago who had to get treatment in the chamber.  He remarked that every time he got a treatment the side-effect was a strong erection.  I figured I'd go in with my Iphone and a book, get a little light reading in.  I'd make an intellectual day of it while I decompressed and got a boner.  The nurse took me into the room with the decompression  chamber.  My nightmare continued.

Damn Fucking Fish.

I'm fairly average sized for a white guy.  Not too big, not too small.  The only decompression chamber at my disposal was built specifically for a small Thai Navy man.  It was a glass cylinder about six feet long and only as wide as an automobile tire.  Even worse, the only thing that could go in there was me.  Anything else could potentially ignite a fire due to the   high oxygen concentration inside.  So it would just be me and my thoughts and my thin, potentially boner-exposing hospital gown.  On the bright side, I could see a television out of the right side of the tank, but I'd have to watch Thai soap operas since that is what the staff was watching.  Personally, I'd rather go another round with the Triggerfish.

You will now be subject to three
hours of Thai soap operas.
I made it an entire hour in the chamber before the panic attack started.  In retrospect maybe being in a chamber the size of half a phone booth was not the best thing for a man who nearly drowned and suffers from claustrophobia.  As I hyperventilated, pounded on the glass and yelled "get me the fuck out of here" the doctor politely told me to calm down because I only had three more hours to go.  That was not going to happen.  It still took another gut-wrenching five minutes to open the chamber door because the oxygen has to be slowly  released or it could have sucked my ear-drums straight out of my head.  Longest five minutes of my life, so far.  Once I was out and toweling off the drenching sweats, the doctor suggested that I try again with a little sedative.  I suggested that I'd need an entire week of general anesthesia and a lifetime of therapy.  Thanks for the attempt, doc, but I'll call you when I'm ready.  No way was I going back in that chamber.

I called around to every Bangkok Hospital to find a chamber large enough for a claustrophobic whitey, but there was none.  Apparently Thai people have no problem with simulated glass coffins for long  numbers of hours.  I opted to go with my own treatment and took high doses of B vitamins, did daily yoga, got lots of rest and drank only the occasional exotic beer.  It took almost four months, but eventually the symptoms insidiously went away.  Unfortunately the panic attacks did not go away and they seem to like to inconveniently occur in the middle of helicopter rides over the jungle and ocean.

It's been over a year since that fish attack and I haven't gone back to diving.  I live five minutes off a pristine coastline in Indonesia and it's killing me not to check out it's depths.  I'm almost there. When I'm ready, I will return to Thailand and dive the Titan Triggerfish infested coast off Phuket Island.  When I do it, I will be armed and loaded for bear.  I'll be looking for a little payback.

Start frying up the garlic.  There's a feast a'coming.

A little tasty payback.

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