As a boy I often traipsed through a mile or two of woods, rod in fist to get to a fishing hole, but I had no real interest in catching trophies or frying-pan fodder. Hauling up something from pond or lake depths —that’s what made the summer heat and humidity, the biting flies and the long trek, worth it. Bodies of water fascinated me, particularly as a flashing lure or a struggling fish materialized, seemingly out of the murk itself.
Wading in streams and overturning rocks was another favorite pastime. I sometimes caught a crayfish on these barefoot expeditions, jarred it, and sent it with a cascade of brook water into my aquarium. I watched the miniature lobster scuttle along the bottom and dig itself into neon-colored gravel, but I wasn’t quite fulfilled as a voyeur. I wanted to moonwalk the tank’s underwater habitat — never mind that ten, glassed-in gallons couldn’t have fit much more of me than my feet.
My classmates daydreamed about flying; I fantasized about breathing underwater. I disappeared into The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau the way gamers dive into their Xboxes. My father had a TimeLife series on biology and natural history. Again and again, I took down one called The Sea. I never tired of gazing at its foldout page, a panoply of the finned, the tentacled, the alien. My gaze was particularly drawn to the ugly: deep-sea fish with cavernous mouths, teeth as ragged as stalagmites, and tiny bio-lanterns dangling on antenna-like appendages.
Freud’s concept of the oceanic, “a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling of something unbounded, limitless,” made it into an essay I wrote in grad school, by which time I had read Jung’s theory that fishing in dreams symbolizes an intuitive attempt to dredge up something from our inner, archetype-strewn deep.
In 2000 I relocated to Istanbul, where I wound up teaching English. Three years later, a colleague finally called me on my oft-professed desire to be reborn as Aquaman, and said he knew a good diving instructor. I promised him — and myself — I’d go that summer.
Erman Akarsu docked his boat in Bodrum, a resort city on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Almost as impressive as Bodrum’s collection of white walls, blue doorways, and flat roofs is its enormous Crusader castle. Abandoned after Suleiman the Magnificent took Rhodes in 1523, the castle gazes out on coastal hills and glittering sea.
Erman had lived in Australia for a number of years and spoke excellent English. Like the dentist whose surname is Smiley, his last name held an intimation of his future: Akarsu translates to Flowing Water. He was a patient teacher and a lively talker. “There are two kinds of people on this boat,” he told us minutes after we had left shore, “those who pee in their wet suits, and those who lie about it.”
His boat was about 35 feet of wood planks finished to retain their natural color. The Mediterranean in which it bobbed was a vibrant turquoise but was not as warm as it looked.
I learned to set up my own equipment, practiced breathing underwater without a mask, and memorized charts that stipulated how long you could be at a particular depth without danger of narcosis.
On the third day, we “tadpoles” went out with the experienced divers to complete our training. We headed south, the seafloor about 20 feet below us. At some point I became aware the divers in front of me were slightly harder to see; their dark suits didn’t quite show up so well. Something had changed. I looked down and watched the tawny bottom disappear — it just ended. Straight down there was nothing but a lightless abyss. A vacuum yawned under my ribcage and my breathing intensified. No one had warned me about the dread of no longer being able to see bottom or the loss of nearly all sense of direction.
Gradually, the panic subsided, and I acclimated. There was nothing but the water itself and the divers in front of me. Below was unending black and above, diffuse illumination. Yet the longer I swam without the reassuring sight of land, even submerged land, the less it bothered me. I finished my fourth and final training dive without peeing my wetsuit.
Erman signed off on my papers, shook my hand, and told me I’d get my PADI open-water certification in a few weeks.
I moved back to New Jersey at the end of the summer. My PADI ID was mixed in with a heap of mail I’d had forwarded to my sister’s address, and took it with me to Florida. My mom and stepdad, Walt, lived in New Port Richey, about 20 miles north of Tampa. On the ride from the airport, I stared out at the Florida flatness, at a sky much bigger than New Jersey’s, at trees bearded with Spanish moss. Lugging my bags to the guest room, I glanced around Walt’s den and spotted the TimeLife series I’d paged through as a kid, including The Sea, crowded on a shelf.
The next day, I picked a diving outfit from the Yellow Pages more or less randomly.
Around six in the morning on a Saturday in late September, Walt drove me to the marina. The Sea Fox had two captains, Captain Maddox and Captain Diane, a husband-and-wife team. Five other divers had signed on for the trip.
The boat bounced over choppy waves for almost half an hour on the way to the first dive area. As we approached our destination, a woman walked around the boat muttering, “I never get seasick, never.”
“This is the gulf,” Captain Maddox said. “It’s not like a roller coaster, it’s like a washing machine.”
We idled to a stop. Captain Maddox, who was also our divemaster, pulled on a wet suit with a ragged hole in the thigh. “You can take shells as souvenirs,” he announced, “just make sure nobody’s home.” He looked at me and gestured toward the equipment. “You’ve got a tank with your name on it.” (My name was literally written on a piece of tape stuck to the tank.) “Here’re your hoses. Jump in when you feel like it.” He pulled down his mask, adjusted it, and leaped overboard to secure the anchor.
I looked at the equipment but couldn’t figure out, despite my training only two months earlier, what to do first. A more experienced diver, seeing the stricken expression on my face, offered to help.
Suited up, my feet flippered like Bozo’s, I walked off the back of the boat. The impact knocked the regulator out of my mouth, and I couldn’t find the inflator on the buoyancy control device (BCD). I panicked.
I don’t know what I’m doing! I silently shrieked. I’m sinking! My face wasn’t even underwater, but I convinced myself I was going to drown two feet from the boat. Fortunately, the more primitive parts of my brain were not persuaded. Reflexively, I shoved the regulator back in my mouth, found the inflator button, and put some air in my BCD.
Calmer now, I swam to the rope that led to the Blackthorn, a coastguard cutter that had been hit by a freighter on Jan. 28, 1980 and sunk with a loss of 23 lives. I wanted to see a wreck — that had been a request when I spoke with Captain Diane on the phone — but I hadn’t stopped to think about how a boat got to be a wreck. Holding on to the line and bobbing in the warm water, I felt uncomfortably like a rubbernecker on the highway slowing down to take in the scene of an accident.
I deflated my BCD and took my first breath underwater (which is still frightening, numerous dives later). Your senses tell you you are underwater, and reason tells you, you can’t breathe under there. You have to trust your equipment. Completely. After a few more breaths, I did.
I descended, following the yellow rope that led to the anchor hooked on the bow of the Blackthorn. The ship, 180 feet long when it was whole, was in three sections. The bow was the largest and upside down. I didn’t have as much trouble getting the pressure in my ears to equalize as I had on my training dives (I have to swallow; the other method: holding your nose and pushing air to your ears, doesn’t work for me).
I touched down on sand 80 feet from the surface — 50 feet deeper than any of my previous dives. Dives of 20 or 30 feet are different from deeper dives. It might just be that, depending on water clarity, you often can’t see bottom as you are descending, or that the curtains of bubbles rising past you from other divers create a keener sense of depth, or that you somehow “feel” you are more distant from the water’s surface. Then again it’s possible that just knowing you are farther away from the breathable generates the illusion you can sense a difference.
With my equipment working as advertised and half a dozen divers nearby (although it takes much longer to get to one than the movies lead you to believe), I was settled into the dive.
The Blackthorn’s hull was overgrown with sea life. I reached out, my pale hand tinted luminous green, and touched what looked like a rock but turned out to be a cloud-like formation of sponge. The Blackthorn had been laid to rest, but, unlike a body in its grave, the wreck was becoming more beautiful: a splinter of the sublime in which the artificial and the natural, straight-edged geometry and organic spontaneity fused. The steady creep of rust abetted the ship’s going native on the sea floor.
I swam the length of the Blackthorn, more interested in the eroding hulk than the silvery-blue barracudas — sleek, mean-looking fish — eying me warily. There were also smaller, less-intimidating fish sporting tropical colors of yellow and purple that made the most eye-catching combination.
The dive wentThe dive went well until the end when I ascended too quickly, and the air in my BCD suddenly expanded and made me rise even faster. You have to remember to exhale as you go up since the air in your chest also is expanding and can in the worst-case scenario tear your lungs. A primitive override kicked in once again, and I exhaled as I shot up like a cork bobber cut loose from a bottom snag.
Right before the second dive, I suffered my first bout of seasickness — ever. We were dealing with nasty swells, and the boat bounced constantly. The woman who’d complained on the way out was too ill to do anything but lie in the cabin, a towel over her face. I might not have heaved had I not gone to the head: the combined stench of engine oil, brine, and typical bathroom odors were intensely nauseating.
“If you’re sick, get out of there!” Captain Maddox shouted. “The head is a terrible place to be if you’re ill.”
I retched before I could get up the ladder.
Captain Maddox didn’t seem to mind. “Come up here and get some air!”
One of the other divers looked at me sympathetically. “Are you sure you want to dive?”
“I think you should go,” Captain Diane said. “You’ll feel better in the water.”
I just wanted to lie down and be left alone.
“Come on, Vince. I’ll help you suit up.” Captain Diane smiled.
I imagined myself curled up in a cool, dark place until we got back to land, but Captain Diane kept prodding me. “You can do it.” Bringing all the equipment over, she buckled, zipped, and strapped me in.
I’ve never been so glad to take someone’s advice. The second I hit the water, I started to feel better. The ocean was 85 degrees (the Mediterranean had been about 70), so I had no wet suit, just shorts and a t-shirt.
This time we were anchored to the wreck of a huge barge. I made my descent and when I touched bottom — around 75 feet — I felt almost euphoric. A burp on the way down was a little uncomfortable, but topside, I’d heard story from a woman who’d vomited at 80 feet.
“I was terrified,” she said, “but I remembered to pull the regulator out of my mouth and replace it before inhaling.”
Kind of tough, I figured, with a reflexive action like reverse peristalsis.
As the dive went on, the euphoria was accompanied by an overwhelming sense of peace. It’s not the stillness because there’s movement everywhere — the darting of small fish, the leisurely approach of larger ones, the swaying of weeds in the current, the rise of bubbles from your tank, the drifting of myriad motes illuminated by sharded sunlight. It’s more that it all seems to be harmoniously suspended, to be in perfect balance.
One of the most tranquil things I’ve ever experienced happened at about 70 feet: I was looking at a fish that was looking at me, equally fascinated. The strange eyes showed no trace of fear. The fish seemed to recognize me as a neophyte, a non-water-dweller too slow and clumsy to be a threat, which meant gawking was permissible (what was I going to do about it?).
The barge was very different from the Blackthorn. It was lying in a single piece on its flat bottom. No one knew the ship’s name although the consensus was that it had been put out to pasture as an artificial reef. Jigsaws of missing hull exposed steel ribbing, but the girders had been transformed: Sponges grew on them, barnacles had attached themselves, a purple lichen lookalike spread in huge splotches, and white tubes — like blanched spaghetti — snaked over the steel. I didn’t see a single metallic glint. And then there were the shafts of light and the way they and the geometry of the ship divided the shadows into a cubist’s underwater dream.
I entered the barge through a gash in the deck. It was strange to look up and see fish against the distant glow of the upper world. The density of the water seemed to bend light and time both. I made the beginner’s mistake of not leaving the way I had come in, exiting through a smaller hole and scraping my tank. If I had gotten stuck, no one would have noticed, and it’s possible that, before Captain Maddox came for me, I’d have run out of air.
I continued along the deck. I saw a few more barracudas, looking like holdovers from the Mesozoic, and swam back into the barge with them. Fish scattered at my approach but not far, cautious but not alarmed.
I glanced at my air gauge; the supply was low.
As I ascended and the barge receded, it became a stunning mosaic of colors, its outline fuzzed by seaweed so that from a distance it seemed enveloped in a green haze.
Careful to come up slowly this time, I saw a tiny jellyfish, shaped uncannily like a human fetus, suspended in the current. I let air out of my BCD until I was level with the transparent blob. It bobbed a little above the hand that reached out toward it. Illusory though it may have been, I never felt more certain that life had begun in the sea.
Reluctantly, I injected air into my BCD and abandoned the see-through glimpse of primeval life adrift 15 or 20 feet below the Sea Fox. I broke the surface and swam over to the boat’s ladder. I hauled myself back on board, which wasn’t all that easy. Divers wear many pounds of equipment (the tank alone is surprisingly heavy) and flippers make a challenge out of negotiating aluminum rungs.
As I struggled onto the deck, I realized the cliché is accurate: The sea is a different world, one with its own rules. But, after integrating just a little with the seascape and the life it harbored, I found it difficult to understand fishermen bottom-dragging without the slightest compunction. Deep-sea fish raised to the surface explode: Think of your lungs sown shut and the air expanding in them until they shred. But with fish in cans or in a breaded stick or filleted on a plate, we don’t think about it.
By the time our third dive rolled around, I was once again feeling awful — weak, tired, nauseated — and had a headache to boot.
Once again, Captain Diane was pushing, both hands on my back. “C’mon, Vince, get back in the water.”
I wanted a towel to cover my face and a place to stretch out.
“Don’t think about it, just do it!” somebody shouted. “Hurry up! Get your gear on!”
I dragged myself over to the equipment but couldn’t bring myself to pick anything up. Let alone put something on.
Diane strapped me in a second time, and back into the ocean I went.
The water was pure relief. I sank slowly, enjoying my descent.
The Sea Fox was anchored at Tabletop, a rock formation whose flatness lived up to its name. Captain Maddox used a flashlight to lance the darkness beneath crags. A single blue shrimp walking a ledge on incredibly long legs looked like a spun-glass insect.
The highlight of the dive was a goliath grouper. A deep, deep brown tinted toward purple, it was the largest fish I’d ever seen outside a tank. About four feet long, maybe more, and three feet from its belly to the base of its dorsal fin. Dzeni, a Bosnian diver, later told me it was around 200 pounds. Astonishing something that big was so close and I wasn’t alarmed. Neither was the fish. Astonishing also something that heavy could be so graceful. A ripple along a fin and it changed position. After a minute or so it lost interest in me and swam off.
“Datt vuzz baby,” Dzeni said when we were back on the Sea Fox. “You should see beeg vunn.”
Maybe some of the underwater sensation, that you’re porous and soaking up eternity, is overlap with the womb experience or leftover impressions of pre-consciousness, when the nascent mind preserves impressions like a sandy bottom ribbed by current. Or it might be that just as euphoria is often accompanied by a hallucination of floating, floating conjures up a little euphoria. Adjust your BCD right, and you’ve made peace with gravity. You experience an expansive freedom: You’re swimming amid sea life; you can breathe without gills; you weigh as much as seawater — you are seawater — and yet you feel it flowing over your skin. The other divers are next of kin because you’re all joined by mutual vulnerability, by an experience bought with a rented boat and a pile of gear topped off by an oversized steel lung.
Religion, scholars tell us, encompasses our oldest attempts to reconcile ourselves to an unpredictable environment that we rarely understood. Mountaintops, the interstellar vacuum, aqua incognita, were once populated with immortal entities who heard our prayers and sometimes lent an invisible hand. These tribal tales served to make the alien more human. Art in some ways took up where mythology left off, harmonizing the dissonance between our inner and outer lives. Diving works in a different way. Peering into a wreck and the shadows it casts, you may very well be taken with the intuition that you’re gazing at time’s architecture, but there’s also the unmistakable feeling you’ve returned, that your human separateness has dissolved in the water around you. You’re home. •