“ABOARD THE HI’IALAKAI NEAR KURE ATOLL—Back in 1986, 19-year-old college dropout Richard Pyle was 75 meters deep in the clear waters off Palau, pursuing a small pink fish with red tiger stripes, when he noticed it seemed hard to breathe. His pressure gauge showed plenty of air in his scuba tank, and at this depth, far below where most scuba divers dare to venture, Pyle was certain the fish would be a species new to science. He caught the fish in his net, then headed up.
When he reached 55 meters, though, he couldn’t breathe at all. The needle on his gauge, which had apparently been stuck, plunged to zero. Pyle did a rocket ascent, exhaling so his lungs wouldn’t burst from expanding gas. As he breached the surface, he was seeing stars, a symptom of shallow-water blackout. He gulped a few breaths and managed to holler to an eminent ichthyologist waiting aboard the boat: “Jack, take a look at this fish!”
Because of Pyle’s rapid ascent, nitrogen bubbles within his bloodstream and tissues had ballooned in size, tearing flesh and nerves. He had decompression sickness—the bends—and further mishaps delayed treatment. By the end of the day he was paralyzed, unable to control his arm, legs, or bladder.