Mya DeRyan was trying to keep her head above the frigid water in the Strait of Georgia, fighting off exhaustion and panic.
Naked and shivering, she had spent the last five hours watching the white spotlights from two B.C. Ferries vessels, Canadian Coast Guard boats and a Cormorant helicopter scan the inky black waters in a frantic effort to find her.
DeRyan didn’t want to be found.
The 52-year-old from Ladysmith is the woman who, on Oct. 30 at 5:45 p.m., removed her clothes and calmly jumped from the Queen of Cowichan ferry, halfway into its journey from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo’s Departure Bay.
In March, DeRyan went to the doctor to find out what was causing chronic headaches, abdominal pain and nausea.
She was diagnosed with a terminal illness and, skeptical of western medicine, DeRyan opted not to treat the disease. She wanted to die on her own terms.
DeRyan told her adult son, Darby Peterson, of her wishes and he was supportive. She had spent the summer and fall living with Peterson in Vancouver, which gave them a chance to say their goodbyes. The morning she boarded the ferry in West Vancouver, she left him a note that read: “My body hurts, my heart is full. It’s time. I love you.”
She posted a video on Facebook that announced her intention to die by skinny dipping in the ocean. As an artist who made her living by using the scales of dead fish to create prints, an ancient Japanese art form called gyo-taku or “fish rubbing,” DeRyan wanted her death to be the ultimate expression of her connection to the water.
But things were not going as planned.
DeRyan didn’t realize someone had seen her jump, which immediately triggered the ferry’s person overboard alarm. DeRyan saw someone toss a bright orange life ring into the water to mark the spot she entered the water.
She tried to swim away from the ferry to avoid being seen. DeRyan had left a note atop her pile of clothes stating she had a terminal illness.
Following protocol, B.C. Ferries staff informed Marine Communications and Traffic Services, triggering a massive rescue operation that unfolded over the next five hours.
As the darkness set in, DeRyan watched the search expand and was overcome with guilt.
She heard the helicopter whirring overhead, saw Zodiacs criss-crossing the water and the second ferry that stopped to assist.
“I could feel the intensity of the search, that crisis and the desperation to find me and I didn’t want to go in that way with that negative energy,” she said.
In those first few hours in the water, DeRyan had been lying on her back, meditating and doing a breathing exercise to stay buoyant. She focused on keeping her core warm so that the heat would circulate to her extremities.
But after almost five hours, she became so exhausted that she lost her concentration.
“I was breathing heavily, I couldn’t calm down. I was begging the universe to give me a log or something to grab onto.”
As if an answer to a prayer, a glowing orange life ring floated straight toward her.
“I have tremendous faith, but even this was beyond my comprehension,” she said.
Despite the numbness that took hold of her entire body, DeRyan was able to grab onto the life ring.
Given the amount of time that passed, coast guard crews called off the search. As a crew went to retrieve the life ring, they saw DeRyan floating inside.
The next thing DeRyan knew, she was being plucked from the water.
“I had to make the conscious decision to let them rescue me,” she said.
DeRyan was loaded into an ambulance and rushed to Vancouver General Hospital’s intensive care unit, where doctors worked to stabilize her and prevent her vital organs from shutting down.
DeRyan’s body temperature was dangerously low at 31 C, six degrees below normal.
The fact that DeRyan survived five hours in the icy waters shocked search and rescue technicians.
The maximum survival time in the Pacific Ocean, which ranges from 7 C to 14 C, is two to three hours, according to Parks Canada.
Cold water robs heat from the body 32 times faster than cold air and physical exertion speeds up the rate at which the body loses heat, according to the United States Search and Rescue Task Force. Swimming or treading water can shorten one’s survival time by more than 50 per cent.
Hypothermia creates symptoms that are similar to intoxication, sleepiness, slurred speech and confusion. Those symptoms, DeRyan said, coupled with the fact that she tried to take her own life, resulted in medical staff treating her like she was mentally ill.
“I heard all the speculation and judgment,” she said.
The most shocking news came when doctors told DeRyan her previous terminal diagnosis was wrong. She was in perfect health.
DeRyan was discharged from hospital after a week and is now back at her Ladysmith art gallery, reflecting on the life she was ready to end. She has received messages from all over the world from friends telling her how she has touched their lives and how much she is loved.
DeRyan is not religious, but does believe in a higher spiritual order. The factors that aligned to keep her alive in the water were signs that it was not her time to go, she said.
She said she wants to meet the rescuers in order to thank them for continuing to look for her. “They were so compassionate,” she said. “I felt their humanity.”
Peterson said his mother has always taught him that the mind has the power to heal the body. She owes her survival to her mental resolve, he said. “It’s a miracle as much as it’s the product of her attitude, her perception of the world.”