Fresh off shallow dives in the crystal clear waters of Taylor Pool, a dozen scuba divers took to Roosevelt Lake recently for their first deep dive into the lake’s dark depths, all hoping to avoid nitrogen narcosis (getting drunk underwater).
The divers, officers and firefighters from around the state, including Tonto Basin Fire and the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office, were part of a scuba diving certification class put on by the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. Master diver Sgt. John France helped lead the event, keeping a watchful eye on the trainees, most of whom had never dived in such depths.
From the rocky shores of Roosevelt, France watched as the group loaded up their weighty gear, donned their thick dry suits and checked their regulators.
France said this would be the first time many of the divers could experience the condition, similar to that of laughing gas found at a dentist office.
“But the purpose of it is to get them used to it, the darkness, the limited visibility and the effects of depth, which everyone reacts to differently,” he said.
Earlier in the day, the team set up several orange buoys west of the marina. Deputy Wayne Dorsett towed the divers out to the buoys, steering the boat in reverse as the divers held onto to ropes attached to the bow. Once out, each diver traced a line attached 80 feet to the bottom of the lake where blackout conditions meant divers could barely make out their gauges. Each diver then traced a rope stretched along the bottom of the lake 200 feet toward shore.
The divers worked in teams, one tracking their direction and the other time.
Several experienced divers monitored their progress using in-mask communications, making sure none strayed too far from the line or to ask if they started feeling loopy.
The effect of the depth in relation to narcosis is known as Martini’s Law, France said. After the initial 60 feet, each additional 33 feet is like drinking a martini on an empty stomach.
If any of the divers started feeling weird, there was an easy cure: go up.
Luckily, “no one complained of narcosis, nor did we spot any symptoms from anyone at depths of 75-80 feet,” France said.
For law enforcement search and rescue divers learning how to safely search a lake is crucial training.
Most of the time dive teams are called out for one reason — recovery. Recovery of vehicles, evidence and bodies.
And most recovery missions take place in silted lakes like Roosevelt where visibility is zero and water temperatures are chilly.
France and Dorsett said they’ve been on countless recovery missions.
The most recent at Roosevelt was searching for the body of a man who went over the bow of a boat while riding with friends.
No one in the man’s party reportedly saw him go over so rescuers had a large search area to comb through.
Using a grid technique, divers went back and forth across the bottom of the lake until they found the man’s body.
The students in training learned how to conduct a similar mission.
In all, students earned 30 specialty certifications, ranging from full-face mask, dry suit, altitude, night/limited visibility, underwater navigation, deep dive and computer diver.
“This was truly an advanced open water diver training event.”
For firefighter and EMT Nikki-Jo Asmundson, the only female diver on the team and non-officer, dealing with tragedy is part of the job.
But she is grateful to have the skills to help people and make a difference, especially since she nearly didn’t make it out of high school.
At age 13, Asmundson was kicked out of school and put on parole for various transgressions. Being from Tonto Basin, the only place she could volunteer was the fire station.
“Luckily, Fire Chief Gary Holt took me in and put me to work,” she said.
She slowly learned the fire trade and for the last 17 years has worked with Tonto Basin Fire and now Houston Mesa Fire as well.
Three months ago, Holt suggested she try the dive team, again pushing her to advance and learn new skills.
Asked if she was nervous for the day’s deep dive, Asmundson, 30, said not at all.
“We have backup plans on top of backup plans, so it is a matter of telling your body that it is OK, you are not going to die,” she said. “It is all mind over matter.”
For Dorsett, learning to scuba dive came much later in life. After serving 27 years with the Flagstaff Police Department, he retired, got bored and started a new career with the GCSO. At age 53, he decided to learn scuba.
He has since helped locate half a dozen bodies, 10 vehicles and even a motor home during his five-year stint on the dive team. Then four years ago he hung up his fins and now helps the team from the boat, offering support services.
Deputy Scot Martin, with NCSO, said after snorkeling he knew he wanted to go deeper. He was excited when the opportunity to train for the county’s dive team bubbled up.
“It sounded like fun,” he said. “I love being underwater.”
France thanked Walmart, Bashas’, Safeway and the Tonto Basin Market for donating lunch supplies for the week and volunteer posse member Kenny Murchison for barbecuing. Other volunteers included lake patrol staff Dorsett, Deputy Nudson and sergeants Brian Havey and D. Newman. France said he was especially thankful that the upper administration had given the go ahead for the seminar, which “we hope to make an annual event.”