Small Hope Bay Lodge on the island of Andros had sunken beneath the horizon, without a hint of disturbance to the vast blue water and sky. The lulling motion of the waves and steady hum of the motor had seemed, almost hypnotically, to ease our tensions over the past forty minutes, but as the captain throttled back, I felt my heart edging slightly upward toward my throat. As a group, we had dived together many times, on old wrecks or coral reefs, feeding morays and groupers, exploring the cave-like structures of mushroom corals and examining whole textbooks worth of marine life. None of us, however, save the dive masters, had ever gone as deep as we were about to go. The night before and again that morning, the dive masters drilled us on safety protocol. What we were about to do could easily kill us.
The divers busied themselves with their gear, instinctively seeking comfort in the routine of checking respirators and valves, spitting in their facemasks and then smearing the spit around the glass with an index finger. This act seemed oddly vulgar next to the technology of the scuba gear. We could send humans to the moon or plumb the depths of the sea, yet, after all this, we were still no more than smartly outfitted apes. Surely, someone could invent some sort of spray-bottle solution to prevent fogging on the glass of a facemask, and probably, that person could make a fortune, but not on this crowd. They’d laugh at the lack of pragmatism. Spit works fine, and you never forget it on the kitchen counter. Some diver long ago figured out human saliva works as well as anything to keep a facemask from fogging, and so the habit stuck.
Because of its weight and sheer bulk, scuba gear isn’t something you just throw on. Getting into gear requires a little finesse. Most of the divers rested the scuba tank against the side of the boat and squatted down to sort of climb backward into the harness. Having accomplished this, each then fastened his or her own weight belt, calibrated to compensate for body composition and yield neutral buoyancy in salt water. Then came the flippers, and each diver checked his or her buddy’s gear, making sure the valve that allowed air from the tank to the respirator was open. Then each diver placed the big rubber diaphragm of the respirator between teeth and lips and took a breath or two, just to be sure—nothing like falling into the sea and sucking on a dead hose to reinforce safety protocol. With the boat anchored, each of the divers in turn dropped over the gunwale, falling backward to avoid dislodging face mask and respirator from impact with the water.
One of the greatest dangers came from the very thing that would keep us alive—the air in our tanks. Nitrogen constitutes about 78% of the air we breathe. At atmospheric pressure, breathing nitrogen is harmless, but at 182 feet, each breath takes in the equivalent of a room full of air. At that pressure the nitrogen entering the lungs is forced into the diver’s blood in huge quantities, causing a narcotic euphoria known as nitrogen narcosis—or in diver lingo, “being narc’ed”. The group would only remain at 182 feet for about five minutes—to stay any longer would put so much nitrogen into our blood that we would need to decompress on the way back to the surface—lingering for long periods at different levels to allow the nitrogen to leave our blood and not form the tiny bubbles which can cause the bends.
Our objective was an ancient beach about three feet wide, along a cliff face that continued more than a mile down into an abyssal trench, known as The Tongue of the Ocean. The Tongue of the Ocean is one of those places where the subduction of one tectonic plate beneath another plunges the ocean floor to depths two-legged creatures cannot fathom. That’s where we were going. I was still struggling to get my head around the idea that, at the height of the last Ice Age, so much of the Earth’s water was locked up in snow and ice that sea levels were that much lower, but that tiny beach 182 feet beneath the ocean’s surface marked the sea level for a time during the Pleistocene Epoch.
Falling backward off the boat requires a little faith. It’s not natural to allow yourself to fall in a direction you cannot see. It always reminds me of one of those trust-building exercises, where the person is supposed to allow himself to fall and be caught by the group. I always imagined myself failing that exercise, unable to let go and trust the group. The sea caught me, as always, and I drifted weightless in a swarm of bubbles in the warm Bahamian water. After a few pulls on the respirator, I settled into a rhythm and nearly forgot that taking my life breath from a rubber tube was at all unnatural.
The group gathered about twenty feet beneath the surface, and here we got with our dive buddies, reaching out to touch one another’s shoulders in a safety routine we’d practiced many times before, and then we proceeded to follow the first dive master straight down. I had to swallow every few feet, pushing air into my inner ear to offset the greater and greater pressure on my eardrums. A second dive master followed the rear of the group.
About midway to the bottom, forty-five feet below the surface, the dive master directed our attention to his white plastic clipboard. On it, he had written “BARRACUDA” with his red underwater marker. This was how the dive masters communicated underwater, and his exaggerated gestures pointed out the three fish, lingering just on the edge of our vision—still, pike-like, watching. Not only did the water become cooler as we descended, but the presence of the barracuda subtracted further from my warmth. We’d been in the water with them many times, so I didn’t fear attack. Rather, it was the indifference of their being that chilled me. They were neither good nor evil, but wholly void of emotion. To look into their eyes, it was impossible to imagine they felt any fondness toward us. They reflected our affections like hollow skulls. And their they watched us, always just at the edge of our vision and always head on, pointing their narrow bodies like daggers toward us, never allowing a glimpse of a profile, just head and eyes and teeth, with fins projecting, like sentinels of a watery underworld.
The dive masters each carried two tanks, where the rest of us each had only one. On a dive to the same place a few years before, one of the divers, no doubt under the influence of nitrogen narcosis, kept on swimming down past the 182-foot level. Evidently, in his euphoric state, he was happily unaware of his fast-approaching death. Had the dive master not followed to his rescue, risking his own life, the man would have never opened his eyes to sunlight again. In fact, all any one would have been able to tell his next-of-kin would have been something on the order of, “he’s gone.” The man quickly ran out of air, but the dive master had the extra tank and was able to save the errant diver by buddy-breathing, sharing his respirator back and forth with the man. Both the dive master and the wayward diver had to decompress because they had gone too deep. This involved hours lingering underwater, with fresh air tanks shuttled down to them, as the nitrogen bubbles slowly worked their way out of the men’s bloodstreams.
At just above ninety feet, the group paused to gather again, hovering over another ancient beach of white coral sand, much like the one we’d left behind on the island of Andros. It seemed a little spooky that we were able to hover now above what had once been dry land, where air-breathing creatures like ourselves had lived and walked. The dive masters quickly counted heads as everyone reached out to touch the shoulder of his or her dive buddy, and we were moving again, this time horizontally, three meters above the sea floor.
Even in the unbelievably clear Bahamian water, visibility was such that I didn’t know we were at the edge until the sea floor fell away, and I saw nothing but an indistinguishable depth of blackness below. There’s something unnerving about the Continental Shelf. The first time I found nothing beneath my feet was in a farm pond. I panicked as my lungs gasped water, my brain seized and my limbs took over, but in the panic, I found firmness, really only a foot or two beneath where it should have been, and I launched for the sky. I coughed water for some time after, but at least I knew that the bottom was there. I would know that from then on, and so I lost my fear of swimming in deep water. But this was different. At the edge of the Continental Shelf, the black maw of the abyss gaping beneath us, I realized what I could not have realized before—that our dives to 60 or even 90 feet, although serious in their own rite and potentially dangerous, were only play. Though we could certainly die there with a careless break from protocol, we still had a continent beneath us. We could see it, and if we hovered too close, our flippers kicked it up to cloud the water and blur our vision.
There’s nothing natural about swimming upended, downward into blackness, leaving the continent behind. It’s just wrong. But we knew something awaited us, something terrifying yet intriguing. Every instinct of my body told me to right myself and swim toward the light, but there was something compelling about the darkness, and I followed the others downward. As we dove, deeper and deeper, our objective, the ancient beach, seemed less and less significant in the realization of just what we were doing, and where. Here we were, deeply enveloped in the volume and immensity—tiny frail creatures, never meant to be there. And why? Why did we feel compelled to go there?
When the dive master finally signaled that we’d reached our depth, my dive buddy had to point out the tiny ancient beach along the cliff face. But I wasn’t interested in that. What drew my attention was the space around me, the blackness beneath, the unimaginable volume and depth. The cliff next to which we hovered provided the only perspective, but even it disappeared into obscurity below. The light from above only a vague blue now, I knew that I was hopelessly deep. If any part of my breathing apparatus should fail, with out the help of others, it would be pointless to even attempt the surface.
There suspended in the immensity, I had to chuckle a little inside at my own vanity, my petty concerns, my trivial pursuits, my ephemeral life. Vaguely aware that I was maybe a little more than a little narc’ed, when I caught the whiteness at the edge of my view, I turned to see the dive master trying to communicate with his clip board. I might have found the jolt from my musing mildly annoying if bother had been a possible emotion, which I’m fairly sure it wasn’t, with that much nitrogen ramming into my bloodstream. I was already grinning behind my respirator when I read “CHICKEN FISH” on the white board. It sounded plausible enough—I’d heard of parrotfish, hawkfish, even goosefish—but when I followed the line of his pointing finger, what I saw was a rubber chicken tethered to a piece of black coral.
Who ever had thought to bring that rubber chicken to the abyssal trench in the Tongue of the Ocean not only had to be a connoisseur of nitrogen narcosis but also must have already experienced every thought and shade of emotion then overwhelming me. I’ve never known, before or since, anything more hilariously appropriate than that rubber chicken swaying from a piece of black corral at thirty fathoms. The regulator-muffled peels and bubble swarms told me the other divers found it fitting too.
We had gazed into the abyss, and it’s probably presumptuous to imagine that the abyss trifled to look back into us, but if it had, the one saving grace it might have found amid all the sentiments and musings of our incredibly narcissistic species would have been that rubber chicken. I could see myself at a meeting after my death, the Holy Reviewer reading down the litany of my life: “Blah, blah, blah. Self-centered, self-aggrandizing, boring… Oh, wait a minute—It says here you liked that rubber chicken at thirty fathoms. I liked that too!”
I turned my back to the cliff face again, gazing out in three dimensions, savoring the volume, the blackness and depth, feeling my own insignificance in the midst of it, against the backdrop of nature’s majesty. I felt like a snowflake fallen on wetness, my whole being dissolving to mingle with the water that held me. I felt the very essence of self bleed away. The experience was at once awesome, terrifying and the happiest emotion I’d ever felt. Edmund Burke once wrote that when we contemplate the vastness and almighty power of the sublime, “…we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated….” At that moment, I understood what Burke was talking about, but not only that, and here is the scary part—I also understood why that errant diver had kept on swimming down past the point of no return.
At that moment, I felt a hand take hold of my own, and then another grasping my other hand, and I found myself in a circle of euphorically narc’ed divers, dancing on the tips of our flippers, like giant ungainly bullfrogs, over the abyss. There we hovered for some time, hand-in-hand, laughing, suspended—between the surface and the depth, between the light and the darkness, between past and future, between birth and extinction—against all probability.
And we danced.