For The Record, Episode 1: Unexplored Depths
[tape recorder clicks on]
Statement of Gary Webster, regarding a dive gone wrong. Original statement given January 23rd, 2020 in Glasgow. Audio Recording by Amelia Ritter, head interviewer of the Magnus Archives… [with a tone of disdain] Outreach Project.
It was about three years ago that I was hired to help survey Loch Ness. They were searching for the monster, of course. I was never a believer, but it paid the bills and an inland dive with hotel rooms and a city within easy driving distance beats being stuck on a boat with the same handful of people any day.
Mark Gadsby was my dive partner that day, we weren’t close but we’d worked together on a nature documentary in the early 2000s and I knew he knew what he was doing.
Most of the time I find myself diving in warm, shallow, clear water, often coral reefs, either because the colourful wildlife gets good viewing figures or, between big shoots, that’s where tourists want to take a guided tour. This was different.
There are three very important things about Loch Ness that I understood intellectually but I didn’t really Know until that day, it’s cold, it’s dark and it’s big. Next to the great lakes and the like it’s hardly a blip, but on a human scale it’s over 20 miles long, two thirds the depth of the deepest scuba dive of all time and with more water than every lake in England and Wales put together. Even before you leave the boat, when you’re out in the middle you can feel the abyss longing to suck you down. It’s almost exactly like that momentary sensation of missing a stair, but dragged out over hours and it’s not just you that’s about to fall, the whole boat feels ready to plunge.
For some reason the cold catches people off guard, water takes a lot more energy to heat up than air does and the hottest Scottish summer couldn’t hope to scratch the surface of that much water, past the first few meters it never goes above five degrees.
The soil around there is full of peat that leaches out into the water, which not only reduces visibility to about a meter if you’re lucky, you have to be in contact with your dive partner at all times, it also turns the water in your torch light blood red.
I said before that the world record scuba dive was about two thirds the deepest part of the loch. We weren’t going for a record. Safety recommendations for trained divers say to stay above a hundred meters, less than half of the record, so that’s what we were going for. I clipped on my end of the buddy line, Mark attached his, we checked our instruments and went under.
I fell fast from the boat to the water, I can’t be sure over such a short distance but after what happened I swear I was being pulled down by more than gravity.
We swam along the lakebed as it sloped downwards, no monsters to be seen. No fish either that day, just me, Mark and the petrified corpses of trees that had been down there for goodness knows how long. Usually on dives this deep, you can feel the pressure, but it’s not so bad because most popular dive spots are clear, you can see that there’s space around you. Here though, the murk and sediment in the water made it feel like I had been buried alive, miles from the surface, miles from any humanity, hopelessly trapped in something so much bigger and older than I could ever comprehend. If I had been diving for pleasure I think I might have turned around there and then, but my need to maintain my professional reputation (and get paid) pushed the fear away and the line to Mark started to pull me forwards. The ground continued to drop away until I could see nothing but water below us. Mark had drifted away from me slightly by that point, all I could see was the rope of the buddy line disappearing into the red-tinged darkness. I wasn’t looking at the line when it happened, I was casting my light and my camera around for any signs of a great fin or the curve of a monstrous neck, not that I thought anything would come from it, but it was in my contract.
Then I felt a jerk downwards on the line, followed by the float in its centre drifting back above me. I started pulling on the line to get to Mark, check if he was OK, but I just ended up reeling in the whole line, with nothing on the other end.
The proper thing to do on losing your buddy is to look around briefly for them, and then surface for help. But then I would be alone in the cold, empty darkness for the long, torturous minutes it would take to surface responsibly. I had to find Mark or I knew I would be swallowed whole by the incomprehensible mass of the water. So I swam down, and down, and down until time and distance and direction had lost all meaning. In hindsight I don’t know if I was even moving beyond just flailing my limbs, because if I was swimming for as long as I felt like I was I should have hit the bottom hours before I did.
Evidently hitting the bottom was enough of a wake up call for me to unclip my weights and fill my buoyancy compensator. I was too shaken to swim, so I let the buoyancy carry me up. Looking back now I can’t even say with any certainty whether the largest part of me believed I would ever feel the air on my face again, if there really was any surface to reach. In that moment I felt so small, so far from others like me that I half thought that I had always been down there, that the world beyond the Loch had been nothing more than a fleeting dream of a world where I mattered.
I don’t know how deep I was when the pain started, but I was unconscious before I hit the surface. I woke up in the ambulance, an oxygen mask over my mouth and nose. I was told I’d been found at the surface by one of the rescue divers with an empty air tank and one of the worst cases of the bends anyone present had seen. Luckily there were no long term complications and I was home by the end of the following week.
They never did find Mark though, I don’t suppose they ever will. You can hide almost anything in that much dark water.
Obviously follow-up on this statement has been difficult, given the majority of the action takes place 100 meters below the surface. Even Jaime and Nisha’s daytrip to Inverness didn’t manage to turn up much. What we do know is that the dive in question occurred, that a Mark Gadsby participated, did not resurface and has never been found, undoubtedly tragic, but not unprecedented in a body of water this size. Mr. Webster is also recorded as taking longer than planned to resurface, although not the several hours claimed in his statement. Mr. Webster was rushed to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness with a severe case of decompression sickness. I’m told he was lucky to avoid significant permanent damage. Additionally, Jaime’s report to me about their findings contained no less than five instances of the word ‘freezing,’ despite the temperature being at best a tertiary element in this statement. I can’t wait to return to London.
[tape recorder clicks off]
This episode of For The Record was written by Tom Chaney, edited by Tom Chaney and Talia Sand, starred Lizzie as Amelia Ritter and used sounds from Freesound under a creative commons attribution nonCommercial license, for full accreditation, see the show notes. To be kept up to date on new episodes, submit your statement or to get involved in production you can follow us on Twitter @ftrecordpodcast, on Tumblr at fortherecordpod or view our website at fortherecordpodcast.co.uk. Stay safe, take care, and don’t be afraid.