Shared Solitude of the Underwater World
Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
There’s Something About the Sea.
I woke to someone shaking my shoulder. Marshall was telling me to get up, to hurry or else we would miss it. I was still groggy from the night, but considering it was Marshall waking me up and considering I liked him a lot, I followed his instructions, rolled out of my bunk, clambered up the wooden ladder, and emerged from below deck, wiping my eyes with balled-up fists in an attempt to appear more awake than I actually was.
The smell of the sea and the salt hung in air, a light breeze softly brushed my skin, and the beginning of a bright sunrise was apparent on the horizon. Marshall and I laid on a cushion on the bow and stared off the starboard side of the sailboat, watching the midnight blue sky fade into day as the light on the horizon seeped into the surrounding darkness. It was a yellow sunrise, a soft yellow, nothing harsh like the orange-red-pink sunrises you sometimes see. The rocking of the boat in synchrony with the rise and fall of the rolling waves was calming, and as we sat there, I could feel myself drifting away. I breathed in the air, inhaled the salty sea spray deep into my lungs, because that’s the kind of air that makes me feel alive. The air amongst the ocean isn’t stale and dry like the air back home. It’s new and full of flavor and saturated with the weight of possibility. There is nothing more freeing than looking out across the water into a vast expansion of nothingness except sea and sky.
Marshall nudged me with his shoulder and smiled. I thought he was cute and charming, and I felt lucky to be in that spot, in that moment with him watching the day begin, and I wondered if he thought that about me too.
Within the hour, sounds of shouts on deck, the whipping of sails in the wind, the clanking of chains, and the lowering of an anchor filled my ears as the twenty-odd people onboard greeted each other goodmorning and expressed their excitement about another day filled with diving. It was late December, New Years Eve if we’re being exact, but cold weather and time ceased to exist in the Bahamas. The sun was always shining and avoiding storms was something of a sport; you could see dark clouds and the outline of rain from a distance and just sail around the bad weather. It wasn’t hard to find a reef or an island basking in the sun’s rays.
We were on a sailboat, maybe 65 feet in length, a week-long “scuba cruise” called BlackBeard’s where we were promised 5 dives and 3 meals a day. We were about halfway through the trip, and had already done wreck dives, shark dives, a blue hole dive, and a rather unique dive we coined “the Washing Machine” which was, for the sake of description, basically a replication of Crush, Marlin, Dory, and Squirt’s ride down the EAC on Finding Nemo. I was excited for today though, because today we were going to do a dive I had never done before, a wall dive.
After breakfast, everyone geared up in wetsuits (even though the air was warm, the water was a little chilly, especially in the morning) and set their freshly-filled tanks up. I ran through the list in my head, checking my gear and air to make sure everything was working how it should. Tank filled to 3000 psi and knob turned all the way to the left, half a turn back to the right. BC inflated slightly so you float a little when you jump into the water. Regulator and back up regulator both working, no leaks. Fins and booties on, mask defogged, weight belt with 6 pounds of weight. Dive computer and air gauge easy to reach and read.
Loaded down with gear, I waddled in my fins to the side of the boat, got the go-ahead from the dive instructor, and plunged into the water waiting for me 5 feet below the deck.
The sunny sky and shimmering ocean surface transformed into thousands of tiny underwater bubbles, encompassing me in their spiraling swarm of foamy white. Despite the barrier of my wetsuit, the chilly water woke me up as my head went under, and I was surprised as the water worked its way into the empty spaces between my skin and the neoprene. The air in my BC propelled me from the bubbles’ grasp, and I popped through the surface, placing my fist on top of my head to signal that I was alright. I waited for Marshall, my dive buddy, to jump in, and our two friends, Starky and Desher, who followed. We met and circled up, kicking our fins slowly beneath us to stay afloat. Once we made sure everyone was ready, we lifted our power inflator hose above our heads, pressed the button to let the hissing air out of our BC’s (the power inflator hose is used to control inflation and deflation of your buoyancy compensator), and casually sank into the depths waiting for us.
The World Waiting Beneath.
Diving has this incredible quality to it, something I call shared solitude. When under the water, I’m in my own world, lost in thought, unable to speak. I’m only focused on what’s around me, what’s going through my head, and the shallow, Darth Vadar-y sound of my breathing. But I’m kind of a walking (swimming) contradiction. I like to be alone with my thoughts. I like to experience things without having to talk to anyone else. Just me and the world beneath the water’s surface. But, I don’t like to be completely alone. Diving is too beautiful an experience to not be able to share it with someone.
When you’re diving, you can’t physically talk. All you can do is point, use hand signals, and drift together side by side in some kind of understandably joint isolation, each lost in your own spectrum of thoughts, occasionally finding your way back to each other, paths crossing with the mutual excitement over a tunnel through the coral or a passing sea turtle, but mostly exploring and enjoying the reef and the marine life solo; a unique shared solitude.
This dive was no different, and I found myself lost in my imagination while I floated past large coral heads at a depth of 40 feet. I had Marshall in my sight, he was off to my right, about 10 feet away, lazily kicking his fins and paddling his arms like a dog or something. Starky and Desher were behind us, fooling around with the GoPro as usual. I couldn’t be bothered with their leisurely pace, I was in search of the wall.
It came up quickly. One second the sandy ocean floor was beneath us, merging with greenish coral heads, and the next second, it dropped off, sharply, into nothingness. I hung over the edge, frozen, unable to grasp the infinite depth to which the ocean seemed to expand. I was suspended between worlds. On one side there was life, vibrant life, impossibly colorful coral heads and plants that seemed to be of another world. Bright orange anemones, neon lavender flora, blue and yellow and green angelfish, red fire coral, striped clownfish, and un-nameable creatures and creations consumed the side of the wall, drifting back and forth with the ocean current. And, on the other side, there was nothing but ocean, empty and full at the same time.
A brown and white-spotted eagle ray waved its wings past me, arching over the edge of the wall and beginning its descent to who-knows-where. I followed it, my mind overwhelmed, unable to absorb all the beauty and mystery around me. I descended, headfirst, down the wall, half expecting a large open mouth filled with sharp white teeth to shoot up at me from the darkness below. But it never did.
I reached 130 feet too soon. That’s the deepest you’re allowed to go. It doesn’t seem that deep when you’re down there, the surface looks deceivingly close, just sitting there shimmering above you. Once, on another dive, I didn’t believe my depth gauge when it told me I was at 130 feet, so I went a little deeper. And then I started to feel kind of light and loopy – classic nitrogen narcosis. But here, on this dive, I stopped at 130 and stayed there, floating close to the wall, looking up and down and side to side, trying to take in all the life and color.
The most shocking though was when I turned around, away from the wall, to face the side of nothing but ocean. I’ve never seen such blue. Royal blue. A blue that expands into forever. Its like closing your eyes and seeing black, but instead you see blue. It’s frightening and freeing at the same time. Frightening because, you know, what could be out there? And freeing because, well, what could be out there? But I guess that’s how curiosity works.
The infinite blue made me feel very small and very big at the same time. Again, I expected a huge sea monster to just dart out of the vast and mysterious blue, with me unable to stop or avoid it. But when I looked closely, focusing on the blue right in front of me, I could see a slew of tiny organisms. They were all orangey-tan, no bigger than a fly or some kind of really small bug. Some of them had long strands of tails, some had wings that flapped insanely fast, and some were encased in a clear, filmy bubble. I wondered if each organism was an entire ecosystem and if I was some giant they saw in their sky.
The sound of clinking metal on metal snapped me from my daze and made me look up. Marshall, Starky, and Desher were about 50 feet above me, tapping their pressure gauges and then making hand gestures that cut across their throats. Ugh, getting out of air. I checked my pressure gauge. It read 2000 psi. UGH. Its always annoying when your dive buddy is a guy because they go through air way faster than girls do. I don’t really know why. Bigger lung capacity or something. I guess I’m used to it by now, though, because most people, even girls, go through air faster than I do. Its because I breath through my teeth, shallow and very, very slow. I could be underwater for probably over an hour, pruned and dehydrated, and never hit 500 psi (the “lets start heading to the surface” point).
Despite my internal opposition, I couldn’t stay down there alone, so I gently kicked my fins to my friends, making sure not to rise faster than my bubbles. We met and rose to 20 feet, stopping there to do our 3 minute safety stop. Without getting too technical and going into too much detail, a safety stop is to give your body time to adjust to the decompressing air in your system. If you shot to the surface after breathing the compressed air from the tank (at a depth greater than 30ish feet), your body wouldn’t be able to absorb the oxygen properly, and small air bubbles would form in your joints and blood. That’s called “the bends”, and it’s a diver’s worst nightmare. Well, one of them. Safety stops are still cool though. You can float there or swim around some more or do some backflips if you get really bored. We did all of those.
When the 5 minutes was up, we floated the rest of the way to the surface. I always liked and hated that part. The light gets so bright, the sun’s rays tempting you to kick as fast as you can to get above the sea. The water looks so clear above you, sloshing around over your head, the surface getting closer and closer until the top of your head finally breaks through, you can inflate your BC all the way like a giant balloon, and you get to take in big gulps of the moist, salty air. But at the same time, that means the dive is over, which is something I never really look forward to.
Everyone was lined up by the 3-rung metal ladder at the back of the sailboat, bobbing up and down in their inflated balloons, lightly holding onto the rope cast behind the boat so as not to float away with the current. We put our masks on our heads like you would use sunglasses to hold your hair back, and we removed our fins, lacing our wrists through the straps to make climbing up the ladder easier. Marshall was next in line, followed by myself, then Starky and Desher. He began handing his gear up to the dive instructor on board before hoisting himself onto the ladder. The dive instructor asked where his mask was. Marshall looked surprised, taken aback by the question, and I could see realization flood is face as he looked down to his left, down into the water.
I pulled my mask from the top of my head, not bothering to brush away the loose strands of hairs from my forehead, and thrust my head into the water, following Marshall’s panicked gaze of where his mask might be sinking. Sure enough, about 15 feet of the wall, Marshall’s mask was making the plummet, disappearing into the abyss.
I acted impulsively, maybe out of the instinct you get when something falls and you automatically outstretch your hand to catch it, or maybe out of some sort of desperation to impress everyone on board and prove myself, or maybe just out of a lack of better judgment. I knew Marshall losing his mask would suck. They probably had shitty, secondhand masks on the boat, but a shitty mask can ruin a dive with water constantly seeping in and the lens always fogging up. I watched as the mask sank. It was pretty far beneath us and showed no signs of stopping. I knew there was no way Starky or Desher had enough air to make it down and back. I was a good swimmer. I had a lot of air. I could do it, I could get the mask.
I threw my fins at Starky, let all the air out of my BC, and dove, headfirst, to begin my desperate chase after the mask. With no air in my BC and 6 pounds of weight on my belt, I was able to get well under the surface without any trouble. I kicked and kicked, but I didn’t realize how much of a difference fins make. I wasn’t going nearly fast enough to catch the mask in time. It got farther and farther beneath me. I trudged on, pulling the water past me with powerful strokes from my arms. I was well past the top of the wall now, so at least 40 feet down. But the mask was still at least 20 feet beneath me and getting farther every moment.
In a split second a million thoughts ran through my head. Why did I do this? How dangerous was this actually? How long would I need to decompress? Doing two deep dives back to back is something you’re not supposed to do. With a 130 foot dive, you’re supposed to spend at least 2-3 hours on the surface before another dive. Would I get the bends? Would I get something worse? I was at 60 feet now. I had to make a decision. I had to either swim like hell, swim as hard as I could, and get the mask, or I had to call it quits and start my return to the surface, empty-handed. I made the decision before I could rationalize the consequences.
I kicked as hard as I could, adrenaline fueling my legs, pumping through my veins. I paddled my arms in big sweeping bursts of motion. Breast stroke was always my strongest run on swim team. When I was 8. I was frantic, pushing myself, sucking in deep, heavy breaths of the dry, compressed air. My breathing silenced all thoughts other than mask, mask, get the mask. The darkness was flying up at me, the light blue at the surface morphing into royal blue melting into black. But the mask was getting closer. I was closing the gap. I could do this. I could get the mask. I could reach it. I outstretched my hands, extending my fingers as far as they would go, gave one more powerful kick, and coiled my fingers around the strap of the mask.
I floated there for a minute, suspended in the water, clutching the mask close to my chest, and tried to return my breathing back to the shallow breaths I normally take. I was at 92 feet. I slowly added a spurt of air into my BC and began floating to the surface, letting exhaustion sink in and the fear I refused to feel in that last stretch overwhelm me. I thought what I did was pretty stupid. But hey, I got the mask. At 30 feet I took my safety stop, and I swear I stayed there for 15 minutes, just to be extra safe. I could see the distorted figure and bright bathing suit of the dive instructor at the back of the boat, looking down into the water, watching me. I wanted so badly to kick to the surface and get this little escapade over with, but I hung there at 30 feet, resisting the urge. I thought of how alone and small I was and it was kind of different this time, with no other divers in the water. It didn’t scare me, but I didn’t particularly like the feeling either. Of being completely alone. Of not having the safety net of a dive buddy.
When I finally emerged from the depths and scrambled up the ladder the dive instructor asked me how deep I went. I lied and said like 60 feet. He shook his head and told Marshall he was lucky. I just shrugged and kind of half smiled. I was happy I got the mask, even if I don’t really know what made me go after it. I was happy with how quickly I reacted. My dad always reacts to things so quickly, without even having to think, and his reaction is always the right one. But I wondered if my reaction was the right one, especially for a mask, something people lose all the time, something so easy to replace.
That night we had a bonfire on a beach. We anchored next to a random island and drank rum punch to bring in the New Year. Marshall and I sat in a hammock hanging between two palm trees and watched the white full moon rise over the water. He thanked me for getting his mask, for the thousandth time. I playfully punched him and told him not to worry about it. I looked at the moon’s reflection in the water, wanting to dive again, wanting to get lost amongst my thoughts and the reef, wanting to return to the place where I feel I truly belong.