Sometimes life’s muse challenges us to get ahead of our story and create a deeper, more fulfilling path of travel. My old friend, Luke, called me one day from Wichita, Kansas, to ask if I would be interested in assuming his position as the YMCA health club assistant director and lead masseur to a team of homeopathic physicians. It was exciting being in the emergency response world, and the key word here is response. I felt the need to change from being a responder to becoming an enabler, a proactive healer instead of cleaning up the mess of disasters.
The title Young Men’s Christian Association conjures up all kinds of impressions, but none of what I could imagine came near the world that existed within my new downtown enclave. Our health and healing haven was unique for its time and for the broad spectrum practices that were performed by our eclectic team. These included New Age woo such as polarity therapy and acupressure, but also included deep body massage coupled with psychotherapy and various nutritional schemes. These were an adjunct to the vast array of exercise opportunities that immediately became a much desired part of my daily routine: early morning tennis matches, daily racquetball practice and novice competitions, daily half-mile swims, five to six work massages a day, weight training, and nightly runs leading to multiple marathon competitions. As the Star Wars films so often stated, “The force was strong in me.” There appeared to be no way to exhaust that cauldron of energy and life exploration. My daily massages soon led to a thriving after-hours and weekend practice. Money was as abundant as health club physicality was rewarding.
The club’s clients came from all walks of life, but were primarily the businessmen and politicians of the downtown region. Wichita is known as the “Air capitol of the world,” with Boeing, Beach, Cessna, and others bringing prestige and power to the area. Many of these companies’ corporate team members participated in our “Y” activities, and many days I would ponder in amazement that these conservative aircraft industry leaders would participate in our often-fringe health practices.
One day, while on break from a therapy session, one of the Cessna executives, Malcolm, and I were discussing our life’s passions. He asked if I had ever been scuba diving. I exclaimed that I had not, but years of watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries planted a seed that would germinate!
It was soon agreed: He would sell me some of his older US Divers scuba gear, amounting to mask, fins, regulator, buoyancy compensator (B.C.), pressure gauge and weight belt; I would procure a used scuba tank. We soon arranged to drive out to Lake Tenkiller a reservoir in eastern Oklahoma, for some lessons. Now just an unsubstantiated word or two about my erstwhile instructor. He claimed to have been connected to the Navy Seals that were formed in 1962, and his methods were extremely proud in the area of practical experience—and extremely limited in theory. Let’s just call it what is was: “Gonzo” (bizarre or crazy) diving! Malcolm taught me the rudimentary basics centering on diving safety—namely, never hold your breath descending or ascending through the water, since your regulator provides compressed air on-demand, depending on your depth. I learned that every 33 feet below the water’s surface was equivalent to one atmosphere of pressure, requiring twice as much air intake as at the water’s surface. It was quite clear that if I ascended from this depth and held my breath, that air would expand to twice its volume, causing catastrophic lung damage. He also taught me that under pressure the nitrogen in the air, normally about 70%, would be compressed into my bloodstream under extreme depths, usually about 100 feet or so, and would need to be released by slow ascent; otherwise, the gas would form a nitrogen embolism. This is called the “bends” and can cause extreme pain and even death from pulmonary embolism if not corrected in time. It can be corrected by spending hours in a hyperbaric (pressure) chamber. Malcolm used the analogy of opening a can of carbonated soda that was pressurized at the canning factory, and when opened, the expanding gas at normal atmospheric pressure would explode out of the container. Okay: These points were well taken. The science and other pertinent details would only come years later in a properly supervised series of diving courses, but Malcolm was the experiential type.
If you’ve never breathed under water, it is antithetical to common practice. My first breaths under water were very tenuous and fearful. Would I breathe through my nose, which was only partially occluded by my mask, and choke water? Immediately, it became clear that breathing through my mouth was easy. The freedom of being able to breathe under water was an exhilarating “Ah ha” moment! Malcolm sensed my growing comfort, and just below the surface, signaled me to lower myself down with him into the clear blue water. We descended slowly past subsurface rocks, and the water became cooler than the warm, sun-heated bathwater above. This was exciting! I was doing it! I watched my pressure gauge as we approached 30 feet, water still clear, sun streaks piercing the blue around us. I looked down for the bottom and all I could see was black, and still Malcolm motioned me down. Very quickly as I cleared my ears from the pressure squeeze, I watched my feet disappear from view into the inky darkness. Malcolm, eyes on mine, motioned me down still. Soon, I had no torso, and my legs and feet were very cold, like I had been pushed into a freezer. Within ten seconds the world around me went completely, horrifyingly dark, and very cold. This was not what I signed up for.
We had passed into a thermocline, a separation from the sun-warmed surface region into the deep, dark, cold “Mesopelagic Zone,” habituated by slow-moving and very large catfish and who-knows-what in the deep dark! Panic alarms began to sound. Then, suddenly, inches from my face, Malcolm’s mask and wide eyes appeared. His hand joined the visage before me in the inky blackness motioning me up, and at the same time, he reached over and pulled my regulator out of my mouth! At that moment his words flooded back to me as my lifeline was literally eliminated. I looked up—“up” could only be determined by the rise of my exhaled bubbles in the dark—and slowly inflated my B.C., all the while kicking toward the surface. And not forgetting to breathe out the entire time. Within moments I emerged, with Malcolm by my side, up through the blackness of the thermocline into the very welcoming warmth of a recognized world. I had been breathing out—for what seemed an eternity—a steady stream of expanding compressed air. Upon reaching the surface, gulping sweet Oklahoma air was heavenly. My initiation was in progress.
Malcolm promised me that after a lunch break, we would have a wee bit less exciting second dive, and from what I had seen so far, the jury was out. We soon plunged back into the dammed lake and skirted the edge of the rocky shore, joining schools of fish. I smiled inwardly at the advantage I had over the nearby fishermen, casting their lines into the unknown. We stayed clear, not wanting to be the catch of the day. Malcolm was true to his word and just before we reached the end of our air supply, I noticed an object in the rocks below me that seemed out of place. I had to know what it was, and quickly swam towards its shininess. I was rewarded with a beautiful black-sheathed U.S. Divers’ knife, in perfect condition. I took this as a cosmic payback for the horror of the sub-thermocline dive experience.
We obviously were not the only ones exploring this lake from below. The thought crossed my mind that spearfishing might be an option, but the really big fish hung in the black abyss I had so gratefully left with no desire to return. Meanwhile, back at the YMCA, I knew I would have to be certified at some point, though that point would have to push out into the future, as travel and career changes were afoot. In the meantime, though, at night in the darkened YMCA building, I would turn on the pool’s underwater lights, drop my tank, regulator and weight belt into the deep end, jump in with facemask, and swim down to reclaim humanity’s primordial aquatic origins. There is nothing like an hour underwater, in womb-like, nearly weightless, meditation.
Into the wild blue yonder
Nearly twenty years later, now in San Francisco, it was time for me to rejoin the diving world and get certification in multiple categories. Armed with a plethora of underwater cameras and video gear, the water world was an invitation for exploration.
The dive shop where I was certified sponsored regular weekend junkets to Santa Barbara, California. A group of divers would load into a bus and arrive at the dock near midnight to meet up with the Conception, our 79-foot dive boat. From there, we would head down to our bunks to sleep, then after a few hours awaken amidst the Channel Islands, nearly 50 miles from the coast, anchored over crystal blue water. Dropping into the ocean in a cascade of bubbles first thing in the morning definitely jolted the senses awake. Kelp fronds waved with the current, schools of fish moved in unison directed by mysterious telegraphed commands, and it was impossible not to notice the brilliant orange-red Garibaldi fish, who seemed so out of place in those colder waters. Diving in this vast ecosystem is breathtaking. Also breathtaking is knowing that, very close at hand, the land shelf drops off more than a mile. You could liken this to floating out over the rim of the Grand Canyon, tiny you, looking down into the vastness of space to the Colorado River far below.
The first dive of the day was usually the deepest, as nitrogen accumulation in the bloodstream requires time to “off gas” through breathing. Later in the day, on a short shallow dive along the rocky seagrass bottom, I was hypnotized by the rich green, red, and pink fronds waving with the current. However, as in my earlier dive experience, suddenly something seemed out of place. I dove down to get a closer look at what looked like a rock resembling a bottle. I reached out and grabbed it, and immediately saw that though it was completely covered with barnacles, it was, in fact, a Coke bottle. When I brought my prize to the surface, I scraped the outside clean and noted that the bottle had been manufactured in the 1940s. The biggest surprise, though, was what was captured within: a fully grown clam shell. At some point in time, clam larvae had found the interior of this bottle a safe haven and grew to its demise. This “ship in a bottle” became my physical souvenir of the weekend. It was cleaned, filled with water bleach solution and recapped to immortalize its former inhabitant.
A side benefit of a live-aboard dive boat is that they know all the secret spots and access to the “fresh catch of the day.” My gastronomical memory remains sharp and clear of early morning free dives off the stern of our boat. There, into shallow, rocky water we’d search for and pry scallops from their lairs, opening their shells and dipping the white, delightfully fresh, sea water scent- infused “sashimi” into a bowl of soy sauce. This really was the breakfast of champions!
At the end of a long dive day and need of nitrogen off-gassing, we’d again free dive, this time for “bugs,” the slang name of spiny lobsters that hang out in their rocky lairs, antennae twitching out in alert for danger. These rascals often share their lairs with moray eels, one of the most feared fish in the ocean. Their scary monster heads are unique, in that their jaws contain two sets of razor teeth. One set grabs the prey, the second pulls the unfortunate catch into its gullet. This is the strength of a moray. Their weakness is poor eyesight, and they rely on scent to hunt. One afternoon I spied a lobster hanging on its “porch,” and reached into the hole in the rock to pull it out. It resisted, digging in its legs to push back deeper into its den. My dive gloves were now fully around its torso, and my arm receded deeper and deeper into the rock face as we tugged against each other. Finally, inch by inch, I was able to extract the bug and stuff him in my catch bag. It was a struggle of some equality. Man versus beast—and the result was delicious.
Let’s get back to our moray eel. Our dive guides told us that, after numerous dives, some of the resident morays had become acclimated to frequent divers. I fearlessly decided I would test this interesting fact. This time with scuba gear, to allow time to get acquainted, I dove in, found the eel hanging outside its home in the rocks not far from my bug quest. It rested patiently, jaw opening and closing in rhythmic syncopation, teeth exposed. I’d learned that this was not an aggressive posture but the process of breathing. I also learned that eels considered shiny objects thrust into to their faces an act of aggression, so with careful deliberation, I slowly reached out toward its head, ready to jerk my hand away in case the moray was hungry. We both drifted gently in the current in that moment, and ever so slowly, I tentatively stroked its head; to my surprise, it responded like an attentive puppy dog, slightly arching its head under my touch. This was one of those moments of bonding that stays with you forever.
If you have been following the news lately you may have seen or heard of the tragic fire that killed 33 passengers and one crew member. It was, unfortunately, our Conception.
There are so many dive stories to be told: drift diving in Cozumel, Mexico, with eight-foot-long puppy-like Groupers; fending off playfully curious harbor seals in Monterey, California, that love to bite your dive fins to get attention; scuba diving with the late Jerry Garcia after his New Year’s concert in Oahu, Hawaii; and wreck diving for opium bottles off the coast of Bermuda. But I’ll single out just a few hallmark events here.
Thirty years ago, I happened to catch a Jacques Cousteau special, Borneo, the Ghost of the Sea Turtle, (Original full length video. If you don’t speak French, the visuals are awesome) about his “discovery of an untouched piece of art,” Sipidan Island, and knew I had to go. It would be no small undertaking. Sipidan is located off the coast of Borneo’s northern Malaysia-controlled region, in the state of Sabah. I flew from San Francisco, stopping to visit a friend living in Singapore who I had adventured and worked with in Thailand—that’s yet another story. I flew from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu International Airport in Sabah. From there it was a two-hour drive by minivan to the port town of Semporna, where I negotiated a one-and-a-half-hour ride by fishing boat to Sipidan Island.
This particular location is in the Celebes Sea, south of the Philippine archipelago, and houses the gypsies of the sea: people who live in shallow waters on stilt bamboo platforms. This remoteness unfortunately encourages sea pirates, who prey on a vastly unprotected seascape.
During that last leg out at sea, the island only became visible during the last 20 minutes of our journey, as the island was constructed by living corals atop of an ancient extinct volcanic cone, rising 2,000 feet above the sea bed. It is only one-third of a mile long and one-tenth mile wide, with just one entrance through the coral reef into a sheltered cove. At the time, there was only one dive company servicing the little-known location that provided compressed air, dive master guidance, and rudimentary food and lodging in grass huts on the beach.
I often walked out from my rustic lodging into the bathtub-warm water, to snorkel or walk out fifty yards to the stark demarcation of coloration in the water from sandy coral to a deep black, 2,000-foot abyss awaiting the next step forward. Outside this nether region schools of silvery barracuda trolled their watery turf challenging intruders with their razor sharp teeth. There are more than 400 species of fish and hundreds of coral species identified here, green and hawksbill turtles—three to four feet long—mate, nest, and can be watched from a safe distance on shore as they crawled up and laid their eggs in the sand.
I captured copious video of sharks stalking me as I dove the island over the next week. It became a comedy to observe. Out of the edge of my vision, a white tipped shark stalked just behind my fins, the two of us slowly working our way along the steep volcanic underwater walls lit in every color of the rainbow. Recognizing my pursuer, I would immediately turn my camera around and we switched roles. A fun, but potentially dangerous, game.
Night diving is another breathtaking and mysterious experience. When you enter the water, the first thing you notice before turning on your light is that the underwater world doesn’t exist in total darkness. Bioluminescent plankton light up with the ocean’s currents, creating an eerie glow that can be observed on shore with every crash of the waves onto the sand in brilliant fairy twinkling.
All about you the presence of life abounds with the sounds of the clicking and clacking of crustaceans, shrimp, and creatures navigating by sound. As we dropped down along the volcano’s rocky face and shone our lights into the crags, we spied sleeping parrot fish that enclose themselves in a shimmering mucus web of protection. This was a world that few experience and deeply marks your memory.
I neglected to mention that Jacques Cousteau discovered underwater limestone caves that penetrated deep into the center of the island. Sea turtles would enter the labyrinth, become lost, and die, leaving skeletal remains for carefully trained divers to explore.
One evening, my dive partner, Jisang and I decided to dive down into the mouth of one such cave entrance and peer into its dark maw in the safety of the fading light of day. As we floated buoyantly in the entrance, I became aware of my partner attempting to speak to me, which as you might imagine is not an easy task underwater. I quickly interpreted him saying, “Hup, hup, gammeaottahhare!” He repeated this, desperation building in his insistence followed by hands reaching around to attempt to climb up on top of me. We struggled as I quickly realized that he presumed himself lost in the cave, and was not able to see the light of the entrance. I grappled with him, and managed to work around until I could face him, looked into his crazed eyes and motioned to go up with me. I then swam up and out toward our fading light source, pulling him with great difficulty as he fought me. Eventually, he settled down in the comforting light and his frenzy subsided. Panic is a scary and dangerous emotion and can happen to any of us. I made sure that Jisang would not be my dive partner in future!
To be continued…