“You focus on the one thing,” Herbst says. “You don’t focus on the dive anymore. The one thing becomes everything. And I think with Dave it become the body, the body, the body.”
At 4 A.M. ON SATURDAY, January 8, Shaw and Shirley rose in the dark to prepare for the dive. It had been a rough night for Shirley. The previous evening, as he was changing the battery on his new Hammerhead controller, a wire snapped. Without the unit, he wouldn't be able to make the dive. Shirley was devastated. Shaw felt deeply for his friend but was prepared to proceed without him. He put Shirley and Peter Herbst in touch with Juergensen Marine, the Hammerhead manufacturer. At 9 p.m.—the cutoff time he had set for himself—Shaw went to bed. With the help of Juergensen, a soldering iron, and some tinfoil, Herbst managed to jury-rig a fix. The Hammerhead powered up, and Shirley was a go again.
In the gray predawn light, Shaw and Shirley began the ten-minute drive to the hole, listening to iPods to relax. Shaw had bought two in Hong Kong, loaded them with mixes he called Deep Cave 1 and Deep Cave 2, and given one to Shirley as a gift. (Shirley's favorite tune for the ride to the crater was Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love.") At the water, they started squeezing into their drysuits. Knowing how long he might be underwater, Shirley added an adult diaper to his ensemble. The rest of the team—the support divers, the police divers, the paramedics—assembled as well, and the rocky, uneven ground around the surface pool became crowded, dive equipment spilling over every flat surface. Verna van Schaik, 35, a South African who had set the outright women's depth record of 725 feet at Bushman's in October, settled in with a large sheaf of dive tables. Shirley had asked her to run the dive as surface marshal, and van Schaik, who has magenta hair and a dolphin tattoo on her right ankle, was hoping she was going to have an easy day.
At 6:13 a.m., video camera whirring quietly on his head, Shaw shook Shirley's hand, said, "I'll see you in 20 minutes," and ducked into the dark waters of Bushman's Hole. A few minutes later, Theo and Marie Dreyer made their way to the water's edge. They had come late so that Shaw wouldn't feel any additional pressure to bring Deon back.
Shaw dropped quickly, letting the shot line squeak through his fingers. He hit the bottom in just over 11 minutes, more than a minute and a half faster than he had planned, and immediately started swimming along the cave line. As soon as the corpse loomed ahead, he pulled out the body bag. Then he knelt alongside Deon and went to work. He almost certainly could feel the narcosis kicking in. The helium and reduced nitrogen of his trimix would have limited the effect, but it was probably still as if he had downed four or five martinis. He had been on the bottom of Bushman's Hole, at 886 feet, for just over a minute.
Thirteen minutes after Shaw submerged, Shirley got the go signal from van Schaik and dropped toward his rendezvous point with Shaw, at 725 feet. Approaching 500 feet, he looked down. The water was so clear he could see Shaw's light almost 400 feet below him. It was about where he expected it would be, in the region of the shot line. There was only one problem: The light wasn't moving. Shirley knew instantly that something had gone very wrong. By this time, more than 20 minutes into his dive, Shaw should have been ascending. Shirley should have seen bubbles burbling up as Shaw vented the expanding gases in his rebreather and drysuit. But there was no movement. No bubbles. Nothing but a lonely, still light.
There is no room for emotion or panic in the bowels of a dark hole. Shirley stayed calm, his actions becoming almost automatic. Shaw hadn't signaled for help, but Shirley would be going to the bottom. A motionless diver at 886 feet is almost certainly a dead diver, but it was Dave Shaw down there. Shirley had to see if there was anything he could do, or at least clip Shaw to the shot line so his body could be recovered. OK, here we go, then, he said to himself.
At about 800 feet, deeper than he had ever been, Shirley heard the slight, sharp crack of enormous pressure crushing something, and then there was a thud. He looked down: The Hammerhead controller on his left forearm was a wreck. Without it, Shirley would have to constantly monitor the oxygen levels in his rebreather and inject oxygen into his breathing loop manually. It was a full-time occupation, an emergency routine at a life-threatening depth. Shirley was certain that if he went down to Shaw he would join him for eternity. He got his rebreather back under control and started back up the shot line, flipping through the alternate decompression profiles he was carrying with him on slates. He was facing at least another ten hours in the water. After a few minutes, Shaw's light was swallowed by the darkness below him.
BACK ON THE SURFACE, van Schaik and the crowd around the hole had no idea what was going on far beneath them. Twenty-nine minutes after Shaw had gone under (and about six minutes after Shirley had seen that his light was not moving), support divers Dusan Stojakovic, 48, and Mark Andrews, 39, started their dive to rendezvous with Shaw at 492 feet. As they closed on their target depth, they realized there were no lights coming up, and no sign of Shirley or Shaw. Their plan called for them to wait two to four minutes. They stayed for six. Then it was time to go. "There's no heroics in this diving," Stojakovic says bluntly. "You dive your plan."