Diving is an intensely personal activity. As one gains experience and time underwater, one’s views of what is special or unique and interesting changes. As more dives are logged, the type of dives that the diver would “someday” hope to do also changes. Always, however, there are some diving fantasies that they have heard about and hope to encounter. Some of these hopes come from stories they have heard others relate, from magazine articles they have read, or seen while watching diving television programs or movies. I have been no different.
I have been diving for more than fifteen years, and have logged in excess of 1600 dives. In that time, I have had the good fortune to travel and dive in many parts of the world. While most dives bring back generalized memories of fish, friends, and good times, a few shine forth in blazing splendor as truly unique experiences. The sketches that follow are a compendium of my ten most memorable diving experiences and a fulfillment of some of my personal diving fantasies.
1. Jellyfish Lake, Eil Malk Island, Palau
They bounce up against my bare skin. Hundreds of them, no, thousands, or millions. I know my buddy is but a few feet away, but I cannot see her. Snorkeling only an arm’s reach from me, she is completely hidden by the thickest mass of jellyfish I have ever seen.
Fortunately, these jellyfish do not sting. They have been trapped in the marine lake of this limestone island of Palau for so many generations that they have lost that ability. Nothing lives there to prey on–they no longer need nematocysts. Instead, they have co-evolved to live with a symbiotic algae.
This algae lives within the body of the jellyfish. Because they need sunlight to photosynthesize food, the jellyfish provides them with transportation. The jellyfish swim nearly a mile across the lake, following the sunshine. Then back again every night, ready to catch the first rays of light peeking over the steep cliffs and walls guarding the lake’s waters. Every day, year after year, these jellyfish swim back and forth for the benefit of their internal gardens.
And dense–one research paper estimates over six million jellyfish, all crowded into the small area of the lake that the sunshine falls upon. Although only a snorkel dive, pushing through a solid curtain of bouncing, rubbery globules leaves unforgettable memories. If they stung, it would be memories of a nightmare–but as they are, they are memories of a diver’s dream….
2. MRDF Underwater Habitat, Key Largo, Florida
I have been underwater for nearly two days now. Outside the window, I see a large scrawled filefish hovering, its perplexed eyes peering into the underwater habitat in which I sit. At the periphery of the window are small amphipods burrowing into the anemones and algae growing on the habitat’s outer wall. Providing a melodic background noise is the reassuring sound of the air as it is pumped down to us from the surface, sustaining us in a comfortable environment here in our home under the sea.
Ian Koblick has two operational habitats at the Marine Research Development Foundation facility in the Florida Keys. The smaller of the two is the educational habitat and sleeps three persons. My dive is in that habitat. The other dwelling, the Jules Verne Habitat, is operated as an undersea hotel, and as its name implies, seems like something out of a science fiction novel.
As aquanauts, we make excursions from the habitat to explore the environment of the marine lagoon in which the habitats are located. Hundreds of sea horses can be found in the mangrove roots lining the lagoon’s edge, lobsters roam the bottom, and schools of mangrove and grey snapper hide beneath the habitat.
At night, we sit in the round plexiglass dome which is slung beneath the habitat. Cozy and warm, sipping at hot chocolate and eating fig newtons, we watch the small silver fish which dart after the plankton attracted to the bright lights outside. The fish feeding outside, us feeding inside, and our imaginations feeding on the implications of a city of underwater habitats sometime in the near future–of which we are experiencing only the beginning….
3. Halocline Heaven, Grand Bahama Island, Bahamas
The light sparkles around me. Bouncing off white crystalline calcite, it travels back and forth, reflecting off the stalactites and stalagmites, and then is reflected by the mirror-like haloclines into myriads of diamonds and planes and ray beams of dazzling intensity.
Haloclines are areas where the salinity of the water changes rapidly with depth, analogous to thermoclines and temperature common in diving. Only here, the haloclines are thinner than a sheet of paper. They are so sharp you can see the boundary between different masses of water, and they partially reflect, partially refract, and partially transmit the beams from the dive lights.
As the light is bent and scattered, it illuminates the teeth of stalactites and stalagmites protruding through the water layers. These cave formations are of pure, white calcite, which further shatter the light with its thousands of tiny crystal faces. And because Halocline Heaven is a room deep in a cave, the blackness is absolute where the light fails to reach.
I am only the fourth person ever to see the multiple haloclines and cave features of Halocline Heaven. It is over a half-mile swim from the cave entrance, all of it completely submerged and underground. Its great isolation guards the room from casual divers, remote to all but a few well-trained and well-equipped cave divers. Remote in distance, but near in memories….
4. Living Seas, Epcot Center, Orlando, Florida
On my right, a large sea turtle slowly cruises by. In front of me, I see an eight-foot brown shark. Startling me, a six-foot long sawfish swims up from beneath my legs. This could be Disneyworld…oops, it is Disneyworld!
I am diving in the large tank at the Living Seas in Epcot Center, adjoining Disneyworld in Florida. The tank is stocked with large, diverse marine life from the Atlantic Ocean, which educates and entertains the thousands of visitors which visit every day. They walk through submerged tunnels, looking out at the marine life–and at me. I wave to them, and then swim into the divers bell they have on the bottom of the tank in 26 feet of water.
Talking with the resident staff, they explain to me how the facility works, about the research they are trying to accomplish, and how the guests are informed of futuristic ocean technology and ocean environment. While part of an amusement park, a serious theme of education about the ocean and its inhabitants pervades the attraction. I, however, am more enthralled by the opportunity to dive with creatures rarely seen by divers, and am enjoying being on center stage with a cast of thousands for an audience of thousands….
5. Dead Sea, Israel
It is 110oF. Out of the water it is much hotter, with an angry sun blazing down on a bleak landscape. Dried salt blankets the ground, like winter snows in northern climes. But my parched throat and salty skin reminds me that this winter is but an illusion.
The water here is dense. Thousands of years of evaporation have made this brine more than twelve times saltier than normal sea water. It is so thick, it feels like I am swimming through a viscous oil. And even without a wetsuit, I need lead. Lead strapped to my cylinder, lead weights crowding multiple weight belts, lead filling my BC pockets. Eighty pounds of lead, and I am barely heavy enough to be neutral.
Underwater, I wish for sunglasses. The sun burns above, and the light rebounds from the crystalline salt bottom. I settle lightly to the sea’s floor, and cut my knees on the sharp crystals. The wounds will heal, but the dive still remains sharp in my mind….
6. Sand Falls, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
The bottom flows continuously below me, ever shifting and changing, never still. The sand tumbles and cascades over walls of rock, hurtling towards the unknown depths in a never-ending story of life and death. This is last time these sands will be seen for thousands, or perhaps millions of years. These are the sand falls of Cabo San Lucas, at the very southern tip of Baja California.
Here is the termination point for sands which have traveled thousands of miles. Thrust up into great mountain chains, the rock eroded and was broken down into ever smaller bits and pieces. Finally worn until just the hardest and most resistant scraps are left, this sand is washed to the sea by rains, rivers, and flash floods. Arriving at the coast, the great longshore currents take over. Pushing the sand along, it moves the particles continuously southward. Finally, the sands come to the great submarine canyon at the southern end of Baja California, where they plummet into oblivion in hundreds of cataracts.
I float but a few feet above these rivers of sand as they rush towards obscurity. Once proud mountains, then warm inviting beaches, now they migrate towards sleep; sleep, and eventual rebirth when they once again will be thrust from the depths into new mountains, and new life….
7. Panama City, Florida
Twisting and turning, I turn somersaults on my scooter. Zipping down to 80 feet, I rush along the wreck, only to soar back to 40 feet to do flips again. I have no controls, cannot steer, and am unable to stop, because my “scooter” is a twelve-foot-wide manta ray!
The ray appeared as we were ascending from our dive on the “Empire Mica,” a wreck near Panama City, Florida. Although I had stayed as long as I could at the 110-foot depth, my Edge allowed me unlimited time to stay and watch the manta at twenty foot. It remained in the area for another thirty minutes until I surfaced, low on air.
This had been one of my long-standing diving fantasies. I swiftly changed to a full cylinder and grabbed my Nikonos and jumped into the water. After a few minutes, the manta rejoined me. Like a playful puppy dog, it followed my dive buddy and I the entire dive. Soon we were doing loops, rolls, and long glides together. If we got too deep, we would swim to shallower water, where the ray would tag along like it was on a leash.
It played with us for hours, until finally the dive boat had to hoist anchor and go. We left it playing in the current with a second ray, but images of the three of us often play in my memory….
8. Cenote Segrado, Mexico
The rocks are rounded, abnormally so. “What are they,” I wonder. Turning one over, I stare, stopped in mid-motion by the shock awaiting me. The “rock” has handles, a mouth, carvings. The pottery we have found is hundreds of feet back in this fully submerged cave and may be thousands of years old.
The name of the cave means “Sacred Well,” and was so christened by the ancient Maya Indian nation. Later Pilar Luna, the head of the Mexican government’s department of underwater archeology, confirmed that the pottery had indeed been manufactured by the Maya. In fact, they even had spear holes in the bottoms, holes from where the vessels were “sacrificed” as offerings to the gods.
Why were they left there? Was the cave still dry then? Partially flooded? Perhaps it was an effort by these prehistoric people to prevent the waters from turning from sweet drinking water to the salt waters currently flooding the passages? We will probably never know, but the history represented by these bowls and cauldrons will endlessly tease us with similar questions….
9. Amazon Basin, Bolivia
I see it glittering in my hand. Small pieces, but they catch the beams of sunlight and send them gleaming back. This is what we have slaved for–these bits of metal. Gold, pure and fresh, straight from this small tributary of the Rio Blanco.
I was hired to set up a placer mining operation here in the jungles of Bolivia. Four weeks buying the underwater suction dredge, two weeks constructing it, a week to move it to the jungle, and yet another week to train the local men to dive and use the equipment. A lot of time and effort invested, but after our second day of diving, we see our first results.
The diving has been wretched. First, the twelve-hour drive through dense jungle. Then, carrying the hundreds of pounds of equipment on jungle trails upstream to the site on the river. Then, into the cold water, working in the darkness of two-inch visibility. Finally, to emerge from the backbreaking work underwater, only to be attacked by hordes of bloodthirsty insects. But the rewards are worth it.
The gold radiates light as if producing it within. I now understand how the forty-niners could sell their homes, their businesses, even their most prized personal possessions in pursuit of this element. Eternally in my blood some vestige of gold fever will lie dormant, waiting to flourish again….
10. Chimney Cave, Bahamas
Someone has pulled the drain plug from the Atlantic Ocean. Around and around I spin, whirling faster and faster until all is a blur. “An ice skater has never spun so fast,” I think, as I am sucked down the maelstrom like a bit of soap down the whirlpool at the bottom of a bathtub.
This giant whirlpool sucks air from the surface of the ocean thirty feet down into a cave. It is tidally driven, with the currents which roar through the cave alternating between sucking and blowing twice each day. Twice a day this funnel of water forms, gulping anything nearby into the maw of the cave.
It is the only place I have seen where exhaust bubbles from the regulator are pulled down, or where two completely inflated BCs and a full wetsuit will not float a diver wearing no lead. I escaped this E-ticket ride by climbing the rock sides, clawing at one handhold after another; but the vision of this experience will never escape my remembrance….
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