Here in Dahab, on the Sinai peninsula in Egypt, I sit in a cafe that has a wifi connection and work and answer emails while sipping mango juice and looking out on the Gulf of Aqaba and the coast of Saudi Arabia across the water.
Last night, I did the final dive in my advanced open water certification, with a very kind and competent instructor named Rose. Earlier in the day we had done a deep dive to 30 meters (about 100 feet) in a canyon north of the town of Dahab, and also an “underwater naturalist” dive, to a place called the “eel garden” just around the bay in town.
At the eel garden, we glided over a sand bed where “garden eels” poke their heads up, their tails tucked into holes in the sea floor. They feast on plankton in the current and duck into their holes whenever potential predators, or divers who get too close, swim near them.
The sea floor had an eerie, surreal quality of light, and I first thought I must be experiencing Nitrogen Narcosis, the drunken-like effect of nitrogen buildup in your blood. It was, as the young folks say, “trippy.” But it was all a trick of the light: the azure blue of the deep to my right, and the sun’s reflection on the sand, coupled with the reef and its own shade of blue to the left (and the magnification of the prescription lenses in my dive mask), made this faerie landscape with its hundreds of eels, and their young hovering above them, seem completely “other.”
I began this dive course on a strange note. I realized that I didn’t feel nearly as confident in the water as I had before when diving in groups. I figured it was some kind of anxiety at being asked to perform various tasks for the certification. When so much attention is focused on me and how well I behave, I get incredibly self-conscious. Instead of visualizing myself gliding peacefully around the reef, breathing gently and easily, I had visions of every possible way I could kill myself through my own stupidity.
When you’re stressed out on a dive, you tend to breathe much too quickly and blow a lot of air. That means you have a much shorter dive. My bottom time on these dives was very short compared to previous dives.
When Rose and I talked, during our “naturalist” training session, about how afraid people are of the creatures in the sea, Rose asked me which animal I feared most in the water. I said “other humans.” But I think I was really fearing myself more than anything.
What are a redneck’s last words? “Hey, y’all! Watch this!”
Or humanity’s last words: “What does this button do?”
Or my own potential last words, garbled into a scuba regulator: “Fifty meters! I thought it was 50 feet!”
Still, I had an amazing time once I calmed down and got under the water. The canyon was beautiful, and the eels were spectacular. And in the afternoon, as we debriefed and discussed what our final dive would be, Rose’s boyfriend, who’s a dive master for another shop, said he was doing a night dive, and would I like to do one, too?
Rose flinched a bit, admitting a dislike of the dark. But I was intrigued by the idea. She agreed to take me, and we suited up at dusk, a full moon hanging above the eastern horizon like the very thing poets often write about. We carried flashlights and walked to the dive site. There’s an excitement in the fear of the unknown, but once I was under water, I was immediately calm. My breathing was gentle and easy. I shined the light into cracks and crevices, and Rose found crabs and shrimps, a feathered starfish, and scorpion fish, highly poisonous critters with grumpy, pouting faces that mimic rocks on the bottom.
There were several other divers in the water and it looked like a scene from an outer space movie, with everyone floating in their own pool of light from their flashlights. I looked down at my air gauge and saw that I had used very little in the first 15 minutes of the dive.
As I scanned the area around me, the beams of light in the dark water, and the faint glow of moonlight from above, I envisioned deep sea exploration, and how, in the permanent darkness, robots with lights peer into unknown crevices, seeking new and curious lifeforms and geological formations.
* * *
Early in my career, I had the pleasure of being part of expeditions that produced live television broadcasts from exotic ocean locales as a way to get students excited by science. The JASON Project, as it was called, was the brainchild of marine geologist and explorer Robert Ballard, the guy whose team found and explored the wreck of the HMS Titanic, and who was part of the group that developed the remotely operated vehicle called “JASON” after the Greek guy with the famous Argo and its Nauts.
JASON was also the namesake of the project that would use the JASON ROV and others like it to explore and discover while youngsters watched via remote TV at museums across North America. On one of the expeditions, in the Galapagos Islands, I was a young associate producer and tape editor on the advance team, preparing for the arrival of the television gear and scientific stuff (including the little ROV, dubbed Jason Junior, that first peered into the Titanic, getting those iconic images of the spiral staircase and chandeliers covered in algae).
But as we waited at the islands, sleeping on little yachts (mine was called The Amigo), and biding our time meeting tortoises and snorkeling with sea lions, the barge that carried all of the gear ruptured at sea.
The barge slowly took on water, and began listing. Eventually, the tug carrying it had to cut it loose. It sank a hundred miles or so from the Ecuadorian coast, in a mile and a half of Pacific Ocean water.
The pressure at those depths will crush everything on the barge like an aluminum can under a foot. The only thing designed to withstand that pressure was the Jason Jr. robot. But a salvage mission to retrieve the little guy would be much more expensive than rebuilding a new ROV.
That left us without ROVs and TV cameras. But the show must go on, as they say in this business of show. So the team scrambled, new ROVs and portable television gear were assembled in the states and flown to Guayaquil. It all arrived at the little airport on Baltra island, in a Ecuadorian C-130 cargo plane, just in time to re-assemble it all and go on the air. They moved the hosts to Atlanta, so I had very little to do in the Galapagos, and was sent home soon after the broadcasts began.
But that gig was my first international passport stamp since a class trip to Spain when I was 14. And it was the first of dozens more international trips in a very fortunate and thrilling producing career.
Why do I bring this up now?
Well, my experiences with the Jason Team led me to a greater interest in the sea, and after them I was determined to learn to dive. I did that, on a little island called Utila off the coast of Honduras, in 1996 (I see the guy who ran the dive shop where I got certified to dive is now the mayor of the island). And for the past ten years or so, have done sporadic dives whenever I was in a good diving region long enough, and with enough free time, to enjoy a dive or two. Last fall, I did eight dives off of Sharm El Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
But that sporadic history meant that I had short bursts of diving followed by long stretches, sometimes years, between dives. Not the best way to keep your skills sharp and stay in practice. That’s partly why I wanted to do the advanced course, to pick up some new skills and refresh the old ones and, hopefully, pick up the pace of diving as I continue my life’s adventures.