WE HAD SLOSHED AROUND in a barren expanse of open water for hours, and the afternoon sun was closer to the horizon then I wanted to admit. As daunting rain clouds approached, the oceans surface was an ever-changing steel-coloured canvas, devoid of hope.
Ten miles offshore in the Philippine Sea, I was floating with a group of eight other divers, at the whim of the wind and oceanic currents, trying to ignore the sharks below...
The day had begun just like many others in the tropical paradise of Palau, beautiful and calm. The waters surrounding the main city of Koror were glass-smooth, ideal for diving the island of Pelelius intriguing drop-offs.
Peleliu, known for its horrific World War Two history, lies at the southern tip of Palaus main archipelago. It is where the misnamed Pacific Ocean meets the Philippine Sea, generating hairy currents and swells. These strong oceanic currents often brought large pelagic animals up close to divers.
The group of eight divers I was leading had back-rolled into the water at Peleliu Wall, a dramatic, soft coral-festooned drop-off.
Drifting slowly, we stopped occasionally along the reef, watching clouds of lively reef fish dance in the light current. Gorgonians, anemones and sponges dripped from the vertical seascape as grey reef sharks patrolled the picturesque blue water.
While the divers toured Pelelius historic WW2 battlefields during the surface interval, I noticed that wind had begun generating small whitecaps.
The seas still looked safe enough, so on the groups return, we headed back out to the Peleliu Express for our second plunge of the day.

THERE ARE DIVES THAT ARE more consistent and more aesthetic, but the Express can knock even the most jaded divers socks off on the right day.
Great hammerheads, whale sharks, marlin and huge numbers of giant trevally are spotted on occasion, cruising the blue water just off the reef where numerous reef sharks abide. This site can be as exciting as any on Earth.
Current was obvious as the surface rippled near our drop-in position.
I briefed the group in detail on how imperative it was for them to stay together, in order to reach a particular spot along the plateau.
All but one of us back-rolled in as planned. The diver who didnt go wanted his tank changed, due to having only 2750lb of air.
Meanwhile, the rest of us were being pulled away from the reef edge, where we had to be, and onto the plateau.
The captain quickly switched the guests tank, but by then our floating group was well away from the edge of the wall. We might still have made it to the hook-in spot had we been able to kick hard against the current for a minute once we got down to the reef. That was wishful thinking.

SO THERE WE WERE, plopped into a screaming 4 knot current, trying desperately to descend and get back to the edge of the reef 16m below. It was a vain pursuit.
About 10 seconds later, I saw that this tack could never work, so we turned to drift with the current. We sped along the barren plateau, tumbling about in the ripping current.
We werent watching sharks, but everyone was flying in the river of water. Covering at least three-quarters of a mile in under 10 minutes, we were having a blast until the end approached.
Knowing that the reef was getting deeper and that there would be a strong downcurrent when we hit the edge,
I signalled for the group to ascend. All but two divers slowly worked their way towards the surface.
I was horrified to see this buddy team begin shooting downward as we sailed over the western edge of the reef. Six divers were heading up, while the other two were on their way towards Davy Joness hang-out.
I knew that the rapture of the deep was upon the two wayward divers, because no amount of tank-banging could make them aware of their situation. Leaving the other six divers up shallow,, I had to descend to get the other two, not a desirable thing to do in a strong downcurrent on the second dive of the day. At 40m, I finally managed to grab their attention.
It took the three of us several long minutes to reach 5m.
Luckily, the other six divers had stayed together. They were visibly relieved as we eventually joined them for a safety stop. We were all together, and I was confident that the boat would be there to pick us up within minutes.
My day-glo safety-sausage had been raised during the safety stop, but on surfacing I found no boat. As the swell lifted then lowered me, I turned around several times and eventually spotted it - at least a mile away.
Immediately it sank in just how far off the reef we were. Divers began to surface around me, and I was confident that within minutes our captain would notice our inflated signal buoys.
As the growing waves brought us up on the crests, we watched the boat moving back and forth along the edge of the now-distant reef. Minutes passed. The boat was getting smaller as the current brought us south-westward.
After floating for 20 minutes, and with no sign from the distant boat, the group began to get a bit nervous.

LUCKILY, ACTION WAS TAKING PLACE in Peleliu and back in Koror, 30 miles away. Having intimate familiarity with the sea, our captain had known that the dive was in jeopardy from the start.
He had wisely made radio contact with the dive shop and let it know that we were missing. Barely 60 minutes had passed since we had descended, and he had already been on the radio.
The weather continued to worsen as we bobbed like corks in the growing choppy swell. As our boat disappeared on the horizon, the seriousness of the situation sank in.
Then, as we popped up on another swell, another boat appeared, then another! They were definitely searching for us. We could see half a dozen boats at a time, but all were on the edge of the horizon and, disconcertingly, none seemed to be moving closer.
Psychologically and physically, this was a difficult situation for everyone. Obviously, the people drifting, waiting and wondering, were going
through a personal hell. The weather had taken a turn for the worse, and we were being driven west into the Philippine Sea.
The seas were rough, no rescue boats were in view any more and conversation had stalled. Everyone was cold.
The boat captain and everyone else searching were trying to grasp what was happening. Uncertainty clouded everyones mind, putting further strain on the already dangerous situation.

AFTER FLOATING FOR AN HOUR, I got curious and glanced down to find the expected pack of ghostly sharks below. The vastness of the open ocean offers precious little prey, so any possible food item is investigated by predators.
Surprisingly, no member of our party was too agitated by these silky sharks, though they were acting like vultures, constantly circling and fraying our nerves. Though they never came within more than 3m of us, the sharks were just another worry.
Between looking for potential rescue boats, watching for sharks and trying to keep warm, there was time to talk. It was a good group to be with. They hung together, followed what direction I gave, and proved a humorous bunch.
To keep spirits up we told jokes, though they didnt seem so funny after the first hour. Laughter can last only so long in this type of situation. After three hours at sea, our witty banter had disappeared.
After floating for another 30 minutes, someone thought he heard a plane.
A moment later and all of us could hear the distinct sound of a whining single-engined Cessna. The sound grew louder, and finally we saw it. Ive never seen a group of people waving so energetically and enthusiastically. Lo and behold, it began cruising to the east of us, flying low between the islands of Peleliu and Angaur. It was searching!
After 15 interminable minutes, the aircraft was finally closing in on our position. It banked several miles south and began flying north again, on a path that would take it over our heads.
Our safety sausages were waving, strobes blinking, arms splashing and people yelling, but the plane flew straight over us and kept going until it disappeared from view. There was a moment of confusion, as there seemed no way the plane couldnt have spotted us. But it failed to return, and our high hopes of rescue were dashed.
The aircraft moved off onto another search pattern after that. We watched as it grew smaller in the sky to the east, where clouds were heading towards us. In the west, the sun was heading towards the horizon.
I was not relishing the thought of spending the night drifting further out to sea, and further from hope.
Long, silent minutes went by before we heard the plane once again. Our luck was in - the pilot finally spotted us and began circling above our location. We had been found.
The nearest boat was a giant liveaboard, and its smaller tenders had both run out of fuel during the search. So now we were stuck trying to get aboard a 33m-long vessel in big swells.
This was probably the most dangerous endeavour of the entire adventure. The only way up for us was at the ships stern dive platform - but the stern was being heaved 2m up and down by swell.
As the vessel pulled into the wind, one of the crew threw a tagline out for us to hold. Then, each time the stern sank in the swell, the ships crew would pluck someone from the water.

THIRTY MINUTES AFTER THE SUN HAD VANISHED below the horizon, I was pulled from the water, shaking with cold and exhaustion.
Radio calls were made, notifying everyone that we were all accounted for. If the group had become separated, it would have been disastrous.
As mild shock settled in on all of us, we could barely register how close we had come to floating into oblivion. It was New Years Eve and we were alive, safe, a little the worse for the wear, but out of the blue water.
Heading home, I stared at the deep sea, so vast, mysterious and undefined, that had almost claimed our lives. Its depths continued to hold some vital key to my own spirit.
Time plays tricks on the mind and, looking back, it seemed that we drifted for much longer than we actually had. Later I learned that we had been spotted, a needle in a haystack, in the dark water on the planes last pass.
The harrowing affair turned out well in the end, with no-one physically hurt, no-one lost or dead. The experience provided us all with a glimpse of how tenuous, fragile and significant life is.
The challenge was to rise from this incident and to use it as a learning tool. Our lives cut through deep, uncharted waters, but diving allows me to delve into those depths in every sense.

The scene at Peleliu Wall, but the divers werent around long enough to appreciate it.
Dont look down - Silky Sharks were moving around beneath the group.
Ethan Daniels