Don Reese scuttles across the fantail of the Aqua Safari, heading for the gap in the railing through which he will jump, unreservedly, into the Gulf of Mexico. He is hampered not only by the jet fins on his feet, but also by the tight crotch band of his wet suit, by the tank and harness on his back, and by twelve pounds of cast lead on his weight belt.
Free-floating gauges sprout from him like vines: an emergency octopus unit with two regulators, a feeder hose from his inflatable buoyancy compensator, an instrument console that includes a pressure gauge, compass, and depth gauge. An automatic decompression computer is strapped to the console; a knife in a plastic sheath is strapped below his knee.
He spits into his face mask to prevent it from fogging, washes it out in a bucket of salt water, and puts it on. His nose disappears behind the purge valve, his eyes seem magnified by the lens, and the snorkel attached to the mask strap crimps one ear. He does not look quite human anymore, but that is appropriate.
Reese is the divemaster for this trip. There are 21 divers on board (all males, except one), and it is his responsibility to make sure that none of them takes up permanent residence in the Gulf.
Some of us are more in need of his skills than others. Already I’m slightly in awe of the other divers, most of whom seem to have learned the sport at Lloyd Bridges’ knee. But this is, after all, a pleasure dive, and scuba diving is, more and more, as the manuals say, “a sport for the whole family,” so I keep my qualms to myself.
Reese turns to me. I’m standing behind him, wearing my aged and rented equipment, and a look, at this decisive moment, of trepidation.
He disappears over the side. The steel-blue water erupts with his air bubbles, as though he were a giant Alka-Seltzer that had just been dropped into the ocean.
And it is, undeniably, the ocean out there. We are anchored in 80 feet of temperate water 120 miles southeast of Galveston, over the west bank of the Flower Gardens reef the northernmost coral reef in the world. I’ve been hearing about this reef most of my adult life. For a long time I thought it was a myth, like Atlantis. Standing on a Texas Gulf beach in water so murky you can’t see your own feet, it was always hard to imagine that less than a hundred miles away there existed clear water with all the tropical trappings.
Lately I’ve been hearing rumors that the reefs are threatened by pollution, that they have become a dumping ground for industrial wastes. These rumors provide the most immediate excuse for my being here, but I don’t have the willpower to keep them in mind and at the same time look down into that lovely water I expect, at any moment now, to enter. Whatever pollution exists here is quiescent: it will not show itself on this trip. From the deck, the water is clear enough for me to see all the way down 80 feet to the reef and the brilliant white splotches of sand at its base.
I can see also—and this is what accounts for my cold fins—the unremitting, featureless ocean that circumscribes us, vast and impinging. A while ago we saw a six-foot sea turtle swimming along the surface: even it did not look at home here.
Oh well. I pull on my faithful fifteen-year-old mask, bought when I took my first scuba lessons in the eighth grade. (Sea Hunt had just gone into syndication.) I see again the reassuring legend—“tempered lens”—reversed on the glass. I open my mouth wide to accommodate the rubber mouthpiece of the regulator and take two breaths of that harsh, sterile air that is bottled and strapped to my back. Hawoo-huhh. Hawoo-huhh.
And step off. And sink. A few rushes of cold water invade the torn seams of my bargain-basement wet suit, but otherwise the underwater climate is balmy. My eyeglasses are back on the boat, but my vision, through the trapped atmosphere of the mask, seems restored, and through a curtain of bubbles I’m able to see what I’ve come to see: the great inverse panorama of the Gulf, perfectly horizonless, from which an occasional barracuda materializes as though cast forth from a magician’s cloak.
In this featureless expanse the only reference point is the bright yellow descent rope tied to the stern of the boat. Reese is waiting for me there. My buddy.
“Stay with your buddy and bud with your stayee,” he has repeated innumerable times since the boat pulled out of Freeport last night. “Plan your dive and dive your plan.” “Time and depth, depth and time.”
Perhaps such platitudes are a linguistic corollary of his central passion, for it is true he inverts his environment with as little trouble as he inverts his syntax. Reese is in the underwater business—he owns a dive shop in Fort Worth and has given scuba lessons to most of the people on this cruise—and below the surface that workaday insouciance seems to invest him with hydrodynamic properties that I, for one, can’t claim to share.
On the average, I have the opportunity to dive about once every two years, most often in silty lakes littered with beer cans, and consequently I have the reflexes of a surface dweller. Here, for example, I’m still floundering at ten feet, attempting to clear my ears. Swallow, squeeze, yawn—I try anything I can to relieve the pressure. Reese’s ears have, of course, adjusted automatically, and he looks up at me quizzically, like a dog who can’t understand why his master won’t follow him into a mud puddle.
But the eustachian tubes finally do their job, and we descend. The needle on my depth gauge climbs dramatically, and when I look below I involuntarily tighten my grip on the rope, since the water is so clear it actually seems possible to fall the remaining 60 feet onto the mottled surface of the reef.
A few divers are already down. I can spot Ed Cook by his fairing, a fiberglass housing that encloses his tank and buoyancy system into one sleek unit. It makes him look like a mollusk about to break free from its shell. Cook’s bubbles fall upward to us during our descent and flatten as they approach the surface. For a moment I mistake them for some odd, metallic species of jellyfish.
At 70 feet the rope ends, and I let go of it and entrust myself to the element. Reese is at the bottom now, motioning to me, and I sink easily to meet him.
He pokes a piece of sponge coral with his gloved hand and indicates that I should do the same. Then he pretends to touch a piece of fire coral and shakes his hand as if in pain. OK, I reason, don’t mess with that. He pokes at little Christmas tree worms and when they pop back into their holes in the coral, turns to me with an amused look in his eyes. Good clean fun.
Then we take flight over the reef, skimming above the large bulbous mounds of brain coral and descending occasionally to peer at a sea slug, or at an encrusted bottle opener, or into a hole hoping to discover the outraged countenance of a moray eel. My fins feel like natural appendages, and all the various gauges we carry close in like the tentacles of a squid.
The reef stretches out in every direction as far as we care to look. Because it is situated so far north, and because at this depth almost all the color spectrum has filtered away, leaving us with only blues and greens and yellows, the reef lacks the riotous garden club beauty of its counterparts in the South Pacific and Caribbean. It seems to be periodically swept clean of every pretty bauble that has not demonstrated its endurance, and so has a morose, decrepit, compelling loveliness.
Far, far above us we can see the hull of the Aqua Safari, spread like a bruise over the final film of water. A group of divers passes beneath it on their way to the surface, each of them with a long plume of air bubbles.
We’ve been down only fifteen minutes, but in my excitement I’ve been profligate with my air, and my pressure gauge reads 500 pounds. (A full tank is about 2500 pounds.) Since Reese insists that at 300 pounds we should consider ourselves empty, I tap him on the shoulder and show him my gauge. He looks at it with disappointment—he has about 1200 pounds left—but under the buddy system, which is as rigorous as any samurai code, he is duty-bound to escort me to the surface.
When we reach the diving platform Reese goes down again to use up the rest of his air. The platform is fixed at water level to the stern of the boat, and even though the seas are mild today it is still quite a maneuver to haul my body onto it. When this is finally accomplished I feel helpless, like a beached whale, and once I’m on the deck the equipment I’m wearing pulls and constricts and encumbers this body that was a few minutes ago as light as plankton. My nose bleeds slightly from the rupture of a few capillaries, and I notice a burning open sore on my thigh. The fire coral got me after all.
Others are on the fantail, suiting up or suiting down. (Since there are so many divers on board, we tend to go down in leisurely shifts.) I unbuckle my tank and heft it onto the refill pile next to the air compressor, set the rest of my gear out to dry on top of the old laundry bag in which I brought it on board, and then sit down, exhausted, and gaze covetously at the first-class equipment littering the deck.
Ed Cook, recently surfaced, hands his prescription facemask to Sam, his 15-year-old son, who then gives him his glasses in return. Cook crouches down by an ice chest and supports his fairing on it as he unstraps himself. He wears an abbreviated red and blue Caribbean wet suit that, on such a big man, looks like a Munchkin costume from a high school production of The Wizard of Oz.
Cook is a Fort Worth oilman who discovered diving when he found it necessary to clean the hull of his racing sailboat. He and a few others on board seem to have reached the frontiers of equipment purchasing: they are forever pulling out gadgets that seem the latest Last Word for the scubaphile. One man, a physician, has a suitcase with foam-rubber lining filled with several kinds of underwater cameras and strobes and housings. Between dives, he and Cook are frequently seen lounging about in official Scubapro warm-up suits.
It is very much a consumer’s sport, and those who have pursued it this far have, whatever their resources, made room in their financial lives to accommodate diving. This trip—which includes three full days of diving—cost each diver $164, and many of the people on board are veterans of more expensive trips (sponsored by Reese’s dive shop) to Honduras or Veracruz.
There are six or seven college students here, an Air Force mechanic, a dentist, an electrician, a doctor, a florist, a staff member from Quarter Horse Track magazine, and a quintessential sci-fi freak with an inscrutable grin who is reading a book called The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge.
Most of the divers are fairly young, but quite a few of them seem to be closing in on 50, and they have that middle-aged athletic astringency. But age and occupation are minor diversities compared to the bond that makes them a homogeneous enough group to remain in high spirits at close quarters for three days.
“All you gotta do is have the true desire to go underwater,” Don Reese tells me soon after he has surfaced. His mask has left a red ring around a slackening hawk face.
“Like me. When I was a little boy I always dreamed of being a frogman. That was what I wanted to be. Nowadays when people come in my shop and say they want to take lessons, I always ask them what their feelings are about diving. If they say it’s something they’ve always wanted to do all their life I sign ’em up right there. If they say they saw Jacques Cousteau on TV last night and thought they might like to try it, well, then I think about it a while first. You’ve got to have the true desire.”
How that desire comes about, or is measured, I’m not sure. The first time I can remember feeling an overpowering urge to subsist beneath the sea was when my mother first read me the Water Babies poems, about a little boy who grows a “pretty lace collar of gills” and takes up with salmon and porpoises and otters. I was enchanted beyond endurance. I had been frustrated in my attempts to force entry into the universe on the other side of the mirror, or into the world that existed inside of records, where tiny flat men and women sang their hearts out constantly. But here was a world just as mysterious whose every molecule was a doorway.
It is that kind of childhood mysticism I have in mind when I wander around the boat asking my stock question—“Why do you dive?”—of a representative number of shipmates. Invariably they grope for the words for a long while, then shrug as though conceding that the longing to be underwater is inexpressible, and say, “Well, you know, I just really enjoy it.”
For lunch we have chili dogs, and there is some speculation that this is not the most appropriate meal for people who will soon be submersed in 80 feet of water. This leads naturally to unsavory talk and bad jokes interspersed among the usual stories about great dives of the past and water in other parts of the world that is as clear as air.
“You should try diving in twenty feet of shit,” an eighteen-year-old camp counselor named Victor volunteers. It seems that Victor and a friend contracted to descend into Kerrville’s unprocessed sewage plant and plug up a leak there.
“It took us six hours in all. God, it was so dark in there you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, so we had to feel our way along the walls, which were covered with about six inches of slime. You’d see little turds floating inside your air bubbles and when we came up there was toilet paper on our heads. Made eighty dollars, though.”
This is the way we pass the time before diving again. We must wait for our bodies to reabsorb the nitrogen that has formed under pressure in our bloodstreams. Otherwise we would have to decompress on the way up to avoid the bends, a very painful condition which can result in paralysis or brain damage or death. Reese says that once on a trip like ours a diver improvidently made too many dives in too short a time and surfaced with a case of the bends. Since the only cure is decompression, they had to put him back under water to relieve the pain while they waited for a helicopter to pick him up and fly him to the nearest decompression chamber. Once in the water his luck did not improve for he spent the next few hours sweating out the attentions of a group of sharks.
The surface time is passed in low-key gossip about equipment (which is really better, the Water Gill At-Pac with or without the fairing? Does the fact that tank harnesses no longer have crotch straps mean it’s no longer necessary to put one’s weight belt on last?) or in apocryphal tales such as the one Reese keeps repeating about how Linda Lovelace was once his assistant in a diving class.
By two o’clock my body has regenerated itself.
This time I descend with identical twins named Ed and Roy Cole, who are distinguishable only by the words “Ed” and “Roy” written on their equipment, and by Jim Motheral, a classmate of the twins at TCU.
My ears give me no real trouble on the way down, but when we reach the bottom I begin feeling a little peculiar. I wonder if I’m not experiencing a faint preview of nitrogen narcosis, the fabled “rapture of the deep,” a condition caused by breathing nitrogen under pressure, in which rationality simply drifts loose.
According to the manuals, narcosis is not supposed to set in until past 130 feet. So why are these barracuda so hilarious? And are these not intimations of paranoia I’m now feeling? The rhythm of my breathing becomes irregular and I begin to think of all those pounds per square inch that would love to have their way with me.
But that mood vanishes, and something else, a non-mood, takes its place. Just as a driver falling asleep at the wheel returns intermittently to his consciousness and realizes that he has been away somewhere, I discover that for the last 200 pounds of air I have not existed. Or perhaps I have simply transcended any form of self-awareness. Anyway, I have a distinct memory of not quite existing, as though my soul had just changed places with that dead sea slug down there in the coral.
Back at the controls, I notice that the other divers are poking around with their knives. This seems to provide them with some pleasure, so I withdraw mine too and fan the spines of a sea urchin with it. The little plastic ring that secures the knife to the sheath drifts down to the floor, and when I recover it I realize I lack the sobriety to put it back where it was. I decide to put it into a little pocket thoughtfully provided on my buoyancy compensator. A splendid idea. But when I open the Velcro flap, the sound rips through the water, breaking some holy silence I hadn’t noticed was there.
No one seems to mind, however, since they’re still busy with their knives. I wave to the twins and drift over to a place where the coral drops six feet or so into a bed of sand that, even at 90 feet, holds the exhausted surface light so brilliantly it almost shimmers. The sandbar, meandering from the coral canyon, seems to stretch on forever. I descend to it, plant my fins in the sand, lean into the current, and let it rock me above this white plain on which it is heartbreaking not to be able to lie down and go to sleep.
There are two ways to pull somebody’s underwear down. One way is called a “Melvin” and the other way is called a “Seymour.” I’m not really clear about how they differ, but Sam Cook assures me that at the military school he attends, where both techniques are practiced regularly, they are clearly distinguishable.
We’re passing the time with more idle chatter, standing on the bow waiting for the Aqua Safari to be secured to the fractured leg of a sunken drilling platform. The leg rises two or three feet above the surface, but the rest of it falls all the way to the bottom 180 feet down. Through the water we can see the rig, a network of pale green girders.
This is the wreck of the Topper 3, a Zapata drilling rig that blew out and sank two years ago. The company has written it off as a total loss and our group, we are told, will be the first divers to explore it.
In the galley Reese delivers a commando-style orientation lecture.
“Now remember,” he says, “stay with your buddy and bud with your stayee.”
He goes on to describe the wreck, whose triangular deck is, or was, supported by three legs. The whole thing now lies at an angle in the water. One leg is totally buried in the mud.
We’re warned about the “Venturi effect,” a condition in which the action of the surface current will draw us indiscriminately through any size hole we happen to be loitering around. Therefore we should keep well away from open hatches or gaps in the deck that are within twenty feet of the surface.
The descent line on the stern has been secured to the wreck, which is about 25 yards away against a stiff current. To save air, we snorkel along the rope until we reach the girder to which it has been tied.
Underwater, the buckled leg of the rig resembles a section of a massive submerged bridge. It slopes all the way down to the sea bottom, passing through the drilling platform which lies upended a hundred feet in front of us, stretching all the way from the mud bottom to the surface.
We descend along the angle of the leg. The closer we come to the platform the farther in every direction it expands. The rig is unspeakably vast, too vast even to afford reference points, so that there are times when I’m not sure if I’m swimming up or down.
The rig shifts and creaks in the current. A heavy chain looped about the girder swings back and forth, producing an ominous rhythm that I assimilate into my breathing pattern. We swim through a school of red snapper, their roseate scales, in this light, a metallic green.
Roy Cole and I descend to a level place above the deck, just across from the capsized helicopter platform. Roy has a spear gun and obligingly a school of jackfish has closed in around us, attracted by our bubbles.
It seems to me that Roy takes an excessive amount of time deciding which fish in this particular barrel he wants to shoot. The largest one, a two-and-a-half-footer, makes three or four passes before Roy leans forward and pulls the trigger. The spear silently implants itself just behind the creature’s gills, which flare out wildly. The fish’s mouth gapes open, its blood comes out green, and it begins to pull Roy around in a circle. I stay behind him, clear of the line, and our fins raise a cloud of silt through which we can see nothing.
Finally the fish is subdued. On the way to the surface it seems as docile as a dog on a leash. Others of its species, still curious, escort us part of the way up. Snorkeling along the line back to the boat we pass Motheral and Ed Cole, who is trailing a fish too, a jackfish identical to his brother’s.
We go down twice more. On these dives we follow the leg through the superstructure of the platform and swim up the sheer mountain face of the helipad. We peer into the darkness of a few open holds and sit for a long time on a girder, looking down at layer after layer of what seems like a brooding underwater metropolis.
Nowhere I’ve ever been or have thought of being has seemed half so mysterious. The rig is so elementally unaware, so content, so undisturbed, it can barely accommodate a human imagination. Having disappeared from our world, it is, like a zombie in a horror movie, autistic now, and profoundly alien. An open hatch slams regularly against a bulkhead, like some tireless, autonomic death spasm.
I push off from the girder, hover in the open water, and look up and see the comer of the platform breaking through to the surface. Below, faintly visible, is a tower of some sort lying on its side. By this time I have dropped to 100 feet, and I can feel the featureless darkness from below the tower moving up, taking hold. Air bubbles rise up out of that darkness. That would be Reese, or Larry Vaughn, or the others who can feel at home in those depths.
This, I know, is my limit. I don’t belong any deeper. When I look up I can see the dark blue water lightening at the edges of my vision, but the surface itself is distant, a dream.
That night for dinner we have a feast of jackfish and red snapper and ling. Afterwards Larry Vaughn talks about his first dives to the V. A. Fogg, an oil tanker that sank off Galveston in 1972 with all hands.
“The first time we went down we found the chief steward. He wasn’t in too bad shape. The last time we went down, though, we found this other guy whose head was gone, and his arms and hands were gone, too.
“I’ll tell you, that’s weird. You have the feeling you’re just in the wrong place. You just shouldn’t be there.”
After dark some of us are sitting on the bow watching Ed Cook take our position with his sextant. I hear a small thunk against the side of the galley but think nothing of it until, walking back to the fantail, I come across a flying fish lying on the deck. It had apparently flown too high, but it’s still alive. When I pick it up, it extends its pectoral fins into the wing position, and I aim it out over the water like a rubber-band-powered airplane. At takeoff, though, it nose-dives into the water, swims limply for a while, and then surges out of sight.
On the third and last day of the dive we anchor over the Stetson Banks, a series of rock formations encased partially in coral and the supposed host to a great variety of denizens.
“We’ll see some hungries down there,” Larry Vaughn tells me as we lean over the railing and watch the eight-foot swells that have made my digestive system’s alliance with this morning’s pancakes very tenuous.
Just in case we do see some hungries, I review the warning signal for sharks, a hand flapping on top of the head, and decide I’d just as soon not have that be my last gesture.
Ed Cook and Victor, the sewernaut, are the first into the water. A group of divers gathers on the fantail to see them off. Though it is an occurrence that takes place dozens of times a day on the Aqua Safari, a diver taking the plunge consistently draws attention. You never really expect them to come up again.
When our breakfast has settled, the twins and I wriggle into our wet suits and strap and buckle and hoist the rest of our equipment into place. The boat pitches violently in the water and we grip the railing with both hands and wait for a trough before committing ourselves to the Gulf.
Stetson has been described to me as an underwater version of Utah. The observation seems valid. It is an expanse of irregular solitary rocks veined with fire coral the color of gold. Schools of parrot fish and triggerfish sweep across the rocks like curtains. The water is fairly murky today—visibility is about 70 feet—and through it no predators loom forth, though one diver will report sighting the retreating caudal fins of a large shark.
There is not all that much to see, but I feel completely at home here. My breathing is slow and deliberate, and I make my way through the water with a confidence that does not belong to that other species I represent on the surface.
And so we have a calm, leisurely dive. Eighty feet below the high sea swells my stomach settles itself, and when my gauge reads 500, I regret having to make my way back up to the turbulence overhead.
After lunch Jess Stark, one of the three crew members of the 65-foot Aqua Safari, surfaces at the side of the boat cradling a rust-red octopus in his arms. It is brought up in a bucket and transferred into an ice chest filled with water, where it resides for a while as a curiosity. It’s a good-sized octopus, maybe three feet long altogether, and has a thick, wrinkled skin like an elephant’s. After half an hour or so it slithers over the edge of the ice chest, drops onto the deck, and stealthily oozes about until it finds a hole in the gunwale through which it returns—without a backward glance—into the ocean.
On our last dive we leave the descent rope and venture a short distance to a point where the Stetson Banks drop off into a sharp chasm, a precipice that looks as severe as the continental shelf. We can’t see the bottom, but we notice how the blue water deepens almost to black and when we drop down a few feet can feel the beginnings of the cold waters of a thermocline.
When we’re down to 800 pounds of air we turn around and swim back to where the descent rope should be. We don’t find it, and there is a moment of utter helplessness as we speculate that the current has carried us out into the open ocean. Without a compass we have no sense of our position, only the knowledge that we belong on this side of the chasm. The water is too murky for us to make out the hull of the boat.
For the first time I realize that down here we are not at a place, but in an atmosphere, one whose chief characteristic is the absorption of everything that comes into contact with it. I grow afraid and lonely, and those emotions resonate through the water and turn the entire ocean into a cohesive, malevolent force.
But we swim in a direction that seems right, and before long there it is, a magical prop hanging by itself in the void. The summons is clear: come home. I grab the rope and, with no effort on my part, the rough seas begin to pull me toward the surface.