Australia :: June 1994 - March 1995

Subject: Anaconda II (Part I)
Date: September 12, 1994 20:10

4:11 Mount Elliot National Park (Townsville), Queensland :: 8 SEP 94

Scuba is one of those pastimes that can be pure hell in preparation. You're on the brink of exhaustion from doing 2 to 4 dives a day for the last 5 days and a little head-weary due to the 2 meter swells that rocked even the 30 meter Anaconda II sailing yacht with its 70 ton keel; you have to put on that still wet wet-suit in the brisk 20 knot wind that's whipping up the white caps; breakfast keeps tickling your esophagus. All you really want to do is go back to your berth and sleep the whole thing off.

Things really get ugly while you cling to the bobbing zodiac's pontoon trying to manage the unwieldy gear covering your body: 12 pounds of lead belted to your waist; enough air to fill a walk-in closet compressed into an aluminum can strapped to your back; the buoyancy control device (BCD), an inflatable vest, splints your thoracic vertebrae like a backboard; fins to make Bozo jealous assure that foot purchase is out of the question. And you grope about your unfamiliar bulbous form trying to keep track of mask, snorkel, regulators, gauges, underwater camera so that when the divemaster says, "1-2-3 GO!" you will be ready to plop back first into the surging ocean. You anticipate the disorientation of bubbles, limbs and gear as 8 masses of bulging equipment hit the water simultaneously. You know that shortly the cold salty ocean will rush in to the wet-suit and even the clammy chill now dominating your senses seems preferable to that.

And then it happens, and you are in. Bobbing at the surface you still feel like a gangly mass. It doesn't stop there. You experience instant chill. Salt water is in your mouth. Hastily you signal the divemaster a bald-faced lie, "I'm OK," and find your buddy because all you want to do, now that you're in the water, is get below the surface.

20:30 Mount Elliot National Park (Townsville), Qeensland :: 8 SEP 94

And once you are there, even just a meter down, all the previous ugliness fades to insignificance. Descent is like crossing a portal between realms and psyches. You are no doubt still chilled, but who cares? The air you now breathe is dry, filtered, tasteless and often accompanied by salt water-so what? Diving is one of few endeavours displaying this trait. When you dive, nothing else matters.

9:48 Cardwell, Queensland :: 12 SEP 94

I've always loved being in the water. It's the extra degree of freedom water allows; I fly in three-dimensional space for as long as a held breath permits. Scuba frees me from the necessity of surfacing, from holding my breath till my capillaries burst. More significantly, modern scuba gear provides the apparatus to control buoyancy. Divers often refer to the sensation of "weightlessness" that buoyancy control allows in water but I find this a misleading representation. Besides, the reality is better than "weightlessness." To explain this statement requires some technical information and a little physics.

PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) dive manuals express the "weightless" sensation as "neutral buoyancy," meaning neither sinking to the bottom (negative buoyancy) nor rising to the surface (positive buoyancy). An object is neutrally buoyant when its volume displaces an amount of water equivalent in mass to the object's own mass. A scuba tank filled with a closet-ful of air sinks not just because the tank is heavy but because the compressed air in it is denser, has more mass, than the volume of water it displaces. If you attach a large empty bag, something like an uninflated Buoyancy Control jacket, to the tank valve both will sink since empty BCDs are also denser than water. However, let a little of the tank's compressed air expand into the BCD, perhaps just two lungfuls, and suddenly the whole lot will bolt for the surface. As the air escapes into the BCD it expands and the volume of water the inflated BCD now displaces becomes much heavier than the combined mass of BCD, tank and near closet-ful of compressed air and so we achieve positive buoyancy.

After achieving neutral buoyancy using a Buoyancy Control jacket, divers fine tune buoyancy using their natural BCDs, their lungs, and this is where all the fun starts. I don't use the expression "weightlessness" because buoyancy control provides the real kick in diving. Without a single fin stroke, you can ascend a meter in a few seconds on a deep breath slowly exhaled. It's a blast to fin along horizontally to the edge of a coral bluff, purge your lungs and drop over the edge in a head-first dive. Out at the reef we drifted at 12 meters while a two or three knot current swept us past 40 meter columns of coral.

The kicker is, diving can be learned to a reasonable degree of proficiency in 5 easy lessons by nearly anyone of reasonably sound health and psyche. There is no faster or easier route to nirvana. It took me a decade of skiing to achieve powder Zen, where you crank turns in the deep stuff with rhythmic fluidity, grace and ease, an unvocalized mantra of swoosh in a space of unconscious physical sense and reaction that becomes an all-consuming conscious experience. Moving through water gives me much the same sensation. With the first pool lesson came the realization that I didn't have to bob back to the surface gasping for air at the end of every breath.

Later that day when Robin, the instructor, asked me what I thought of scuba I responded, "Why did I wait this long?!" She knew exactly what I meant. Robin is a fish out of water. On earth she's an ebulliently frenetic bundle of energy, tiny and too slim. In the ocean she becomes another creature altogether-quietly powerful, in control of herself and her environment and downright sexy. At the end of the course, after getting to know her earth-bound self a little more, I suggested to her that she seemed more centred in the water. She looked at me with a big grin, "Yeah, I love it down there." I knew exactly what she meant.

I seem to have left out the reasons that most people sight for their love of diving: the underwater world. It's truly an alien and fascinating realm, one I can explore for hours on end, but it's flying through the medium itself that really grips me. Perhaps it's not something you can properly explain to a non-diver, or to a person who doesn't get a head rush just from looking at 1000 vertical feet of untracked hip-deep powder.

Continued in Part II

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --