Sixty Years a Diver
Text by Albert Podell
The days and the dreams of my childhood were dominated by the events of World War II. The Nazis and the Japanese were an existential threat to our way of life, and we celebrated our every victory and adored our military heroes.
My favorites were the daredevils of the UDT – the underwater demolition teams — who bravely swam into enemy-held tidal waters to blow up obstacles in the path of Allied amphibious landings or dove through Axis harbors to attach limpet mines to the hulls of Axis U-boats and cruisers. Even though, at age seven, I proudly and patriotically wore the junior-sized, neatly-pressed, dress uniform of an artillery major that my mother had purchased for me, I wanted to be an underwater warrior.
In 1951 this feeling was re-directed toward peaceful pursuits after I read marine biologist Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book, The Sea Around Us, the book that introduced me to the science and the poetry of the sea. Not only me, but a quarter million other Americans, who bought the book; the press, which lavished praise on it; the New Yorker, which serialized seven chapters; the critics, who gave it the National Book Award; and the film producer who won the Academy Award for making it into a very popular documentary. Our nation was finally discovering the world beneath the seas.
This was promptly followed, also in 1951, by a French naval officer, scientist, and conservationist named Jacques Cousteau who wrote The Silent World: A Story of Discovery and Adventure. When the eponymous film came out in 1953, I was enraptured, and reviewed it with high praise in the high school newspaper that I edited. The Silent World became the only documentary for the next 60 years to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it hooked several million of us on diving.
I rushed out and became – for one dollar – a charter member of the National Frogman Club, and proudly attached my house keys to the small pale-green rubber flipper that was our identification and our good-luck charm.
By 1954, I was making money from diving. After my summertime shift as a Good Humor Boy at Brighton Beach and Coney Island, I would take to the waves in my rudimentary flippers, mask, and snorkel, and get paid 50 cents a shot for recovering the fishing gear of anglers who snagged it on the rocky jetties while fishing for porgies. black bass, fluke, and skate.
But it was the tropical reefs that drew me. I thumbed my way down to Key Largo during the summer of my sophomore year at Cornell and was one of the few to explore the near-shore corals in what today is the million-visitors-a-year John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. My God, it was beautiful! Entrancingly beautiful to someone seeing, for the first time, the multi-hued corals, the feather-like strands of fan corals waving with the water, the sponges, the tiny sea horses, the brightly colored fish that fed from my hand (Birdseye frozen green peas were their favorite), and even the barracuda which flashed by, providing an extra thrill.
There would be no turning back: I would be a diver for the rest of my life. I had spent my first two years at Cornell taking a heavy load of physics and chemistry, so when scuba started to go public, it was easy for me to understand the basis of all the blood-gas stuff, compression and decompression, the Venturi effect, the Vasalva maneuver, and most other technical aspects of breathing compressed air at depth.
Soon as I could afford it, I went down to Grand Cayman to get my open water certification. I vividly remember that I was heading into the PADI shop – which was gaining in popularity – until I saw this lovely, long-legged blonde in a bikini entering the NAUI shack. Needless to say, I became a NAUI diver.
As both the equipment and my finances improved, I would go with the flow, acquiring a low-volume face mask with windows on the side and a synthetic seal that understood that its job was to keep water out. I moved up from small, black, overly flexible and inefficient strap-on rubber flippers to zip-up booties and large, blue, firm, fins of a step-in design that protected my heel against sea urchins and sharp stuff. Better BCs, easier-to-read gauges, black chronometers that did not attract the barracuda, an octopus rig that took the terror out of buddy-breathing, a dive computer that enabled me to optimize my downtime, all enhanced my underwater safety, comfort, and enjoyment.
The other major changes – and I hate to be the one to break this to the newbies – are the reefs. They are a ghost of their former selves – fewer varieties of coral, far fewer gorgonians, much less color, much more dead, bleached, and dying corals, a paucity of colorful fish. The causes and culprits are many: Global warming, fishermen using drag nets and others hurling explosives, polluted runoff into the oceans, harvesting of coral by collectors and commercial suppliers, and careless members of our own diving community who overdid the spear-fishing and who let their fins touch down atop fragile corals.
What has remained constant are the undersea dangers provided by nature.
The first danger into which I drifted was sea snakes. I was on the Great Barrier Reef, and I had never seen them before except in books. A squadron of about a hundred swam directly toward me, but I did not realize what they were until they were almost upon me because, viewed head-on from a distance,, they look like a large green pencil eraser and not anything threatening. For a few moments I thought they were some sort of spotting on my mask. When I noted their serpentine way of moving, and understood what they were, and remembered having read about their aggressive nature, I dove straight to the 20-foot bottom off Heron Island, held on to a piece of staghorn, and waited until the armada had passed overhead.
One of my closest calls came on the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, famous in the last decade as “the drowning nation” because it will be the first country to sink beneath the ever-higher tides. (The Maldives are a foot or so lower on average, but much wealthier, and can afford to build a seawall, which the impoverished Tuvaluans cannot.
Since I can endure only so much sadness and tranquility, I needed, after three days on the capital island of Funafuti, to go diving, but there was no dive shop in the nation – and for good reason, as I learned too late. I trudged back and forth along the main (and only) road down the center of the football-field wide island searching on both sides for boat mooring places. I finally found a 19-year-old kid who agreed, for a hundred dollars, to borrow a boat and throw together some snorkeling stuff the next day. I went back to the Vaiaku Lagi, the country’s only hotel, and rounded up a group of receptive guests: two Kiwis, an Aussie, an Italian, and a shy, deaf Japanese woman named Midori who was an Olympic badminton player. She told us, through her sign-language interpreter, that, although she’d never gone snorkeling or diving before, she was eager to try it because, in the silent world beneath the sea, she would, for the first time in her life, be equal to all the rest of us — no longer the child of a lesser god.
But it was not to be.
The next morning dawned bright and cloudless, and the boy I’d hired took us 40 minutes out to a flat, shallow reef, covered by 6 to 15 feet of water, near a steep drop-off. We back-flipped into the clear water, but Midori jumped, landed atop some spiny coral heads, and cried for help. She had badly scraped her leg and was bleeding profusely. We gathered around her and gently lifted her into the motorboat, where the Aussies elevated her leg while I applied pressure with a handkerchief to staunch the bleeding.
When we were certain her bleeding had stopped and that she was not in shock, we gulped some air and went back down to explore. We’d only been under a few seconds when in zoomed a large, blunt-nosed monster with faint vertical stripes along its sides – the dreaded tiger shark, a voracious hunter with powerful jaws; sharp, highly serrated teeth; and a superb sense of smell that had undoubtedly enabled it to home in on Midori’s blood.
I froze as the brute brushed past me, heading right toward the stern ladder of the boat, where Midori had been. The tiger is one of the three deadliest sharks to humans but, unlike the great white, which will often take a bite of an arm or leg and decide it doesn’t like the taste, the tiger will usually devour its entire prey. Tigers generally live deeper but will occasionally venture onto small, shallow reefs, like the one we were on.
I held my breath for the longest I ever had, let myself slowly rise to the surface without any motion to attract unwanted attention, gently rolled onto my back, daintily sculled my way to the boat, and lunged in.
According to our Italian companion, who stayed down the longest, the shark nosed around, as if searching for something, but, not finding it, headed back down to the deep drop.
When we were all safely in the boat, I berated the “captain,” who was by then slightly conked on kava, for taking us into shark territory. He pulled up his T-shirt to show us a jagged, dark purple, partly-healed wound in his chest, the size of a serving platter, which he said was a tiger shark bite from a few months before at this same spot. He looked at us with little sympathy, shrugged, and said contemptuously, “ What’s the big deal? None of you were hurt.”
I had an encounter with someone even more careless and callous — a dive-shop operator in Curacao.
Although Curacao does not count as a country, it was a convenient place for me to rest when I was returning from mountaineering in Venezuela and heading toward Trinidad and Tobago. Like Aruba, its sister island to the west, Curacao is not known for spectacular reefs or grand diving, but I was there and figured I’d see what it had to offer.
Since I’d been climbing in he Guyanese Highlands, I had none of my dive gear with me. I signed up at the dive shop, was rented a load of stuff, and joined the 12-person group on the boat. Since I was traveling alone, I had no regular dive buddy with me. The dive master assigned me to a friendly young tourist named Carlos, who spoke no English at all. I might as well have been underwater when I tried to talk to him about staying together, rehearsing hand signals, and other safety stuff.
The spot on which the captain chose to dive had no reef or cliff wall to help orient us, just a clear, sandy bottom very far down and a few edible-size gray fish near the surface.
Carlos and I back-flipped in unison, but he clearly did not understand the principle of dive buddies staying together. As I swam slowly down, scanning the distant bottom for anything worth seeing, he lingered back, increasingly far above me. I kept signaling him to come down, but he kept shaking one finger in a gesture that, to me, indicated he was afraid to go deeper. After what seemed far too many Valsalva maneuvers, I leveled off about 50 feet above the featureless bottom. Carlo was far above me and refused to heed my attempts to wave him down.
I checked my rented depth gauge and it registered just 65 feet, so I concluded that Carlos had never done any deep dive before and was afraid to try it, while I was quite comfortable down to 100 feet,
After about twenty minutes of level swimming above the sandy bottom, which had no morays, or sharks, or stonefish, or anything else to cause concern, I was at peace with the underwater world ,and, since there was nothing worth seeing, I used the time for some immersed meditation. I was practically euphoric with tranquility and happiness.
When I happened to look up, I saw Carlos frantically shaking his finger in a warning gesture and signaling for me to swim up to him. I checked my pressure gauge, noted I had a good third of a tank left, so I shook the sissy off, and he turned away and swam toward the surface.
A few minutes later, Carlos and the dive master rushed swiftly down to me along the boat’s anchor line. The dive master grasped my head and shoved his depth gauge right in front of my face. It read 150 feet. Holy shit!
But that was not my reaction. I was so contentedly intoxicated, so deeply into nitrogen narcosis, that my reaction, as I recall it, was like, ‘Oh, whoopee, isn’t that interesting. I’m down at 150 feet. How did I do that? Oh well, that is very interesting’.
I was so narced that I failed to recognize that I was in a desperate and deadly situation. I then lazily looked at my depth gauge, and it still read 65 feet, but I could not connect the dots. Luckily, I was so comfortably conked that I was as far from panic mode as a diver could be.
Both Carlos and the dive master gestured forcefully for me to ascend, but I could not. My arms were like rubber bands, my legs had no coordination, and my feeble efforts to gain traction were futile. Besides, I still did not comprehend my peril.
Finally, and at great personal risk, Carlos and the dive master each took one of my elbows and swam me slowly to the surface, making all the necessary decompression stops. We reached the boat with mere whiffs of air in my tank.
On the long ride back to the marina, my head cleared and I finally connected the dots: They had rented me a defective depth gauge!
As soon as we got back to the shop I started screaming at the owner and threatened to carve him a new asshole. He suddenly remembered that he only spoke Dutch and pretended not to understand a word of what I said, including my pointed instructions to either fix the gauge or throw it out.
As I left the shop, I turned and saw him putting it back into the bin, to be rented out to another unsuspecting soul the next day.
I had long wanted to do a drift dive in the powerful current of the Amazon River and tickle some of the gigantic tilapia that hung out down there, but I got to Iquitos during the rainy season, and the river was a 25-mile wide torrent of floating tree trunks, drowned monkeys, and churning water the color of a very dark tea.
I had hired a kid who operated a large cargo canoe, and on our third day downriver, instructed him by gesture, to take us off the main river, into the flooded forest, where the parrots chattered at us, and finally, many miles later, into a stream that was clear and quiet.
I prepared to jump off the square back of the boat and grab the thick knotted rope that trailed behind us, and slowly drift with my mask and snorkel a few inches below the surface. The young man – again someone who spoke no English – started jumping up and down and, as far as I could tell, letting me know that I was an idiot, while I had already stereotyped him as a wimp. I assumed that he was worried about the presence of flesh-eating piranhas, which can clean a cow carcass in a matter of minutes, but I had already tested that out, and come up negative, having tossed a piece of monkey meat on a string over the side — with no nibbles taken out. I felt safe.
But the kid was right. After about 15 minute of leisurely underwater sightseeing carried along by our five hp motor, I glanced toward the jungled bank of the stream and saw an immense anaconda slither into the water and head toward me. I hauled on the line and practically leaped into the boat.
The next incident was not my fault at all.
I was in Egypt, on the western edge of the Red Sea, well south of Sharm el sheikh, and more than two-thirds of the way down from Cairo to the border of Sudan, to a village where I had been told there was spectacular unspoiled diving. What I had not been told was that it was a primitive bring-your-own-gear place, and that the one ‘dive shop’ did most of its business repairing bicycles.
After 20 minutes of rummaging around in the shop he found enough gear – no depth or pressure gauges – to outfit me for a basic shore dive, so in and under I went, out to one of the best virgin reefs I had ever seen. The variety and colors of both fish and coral were unsurpassed.
But I could not stay more than a few minutes: I was being asphyxiated. The air in the cylinder tasted of gasoline vapor. I quickly popped to the surface, inflated the airplane life vest they had handed me – no buoyancy compensators down here – removed my mask, and swam back to the shop.
When I went behind the shop, I immediately understood the problem. It had an old compressor, mostly used for pumping up tires. It leaked a cloud of diesel fumes, and those had gotten sucked into my tank when they filled it, poisoning the air.
The most frequent natural dangers that have befallen me are poisonous fish, mostly stonefish and scorpionfish. I have had too many too-close encounters with them, probably because I do not have a vast visual memory bank. I can, like most frequent divers, recognize, and thus avoid, the ten species of vividly striped lionfish with their long venomous spiky fin rays (Pterois), including the red lionfish, the devil firefish, and the Hawaiian turkeyfish, but I am often at a loss when it comes to the members of the other twenty or so genera and more than 300 species of scorpionfish (Scorpaenidae), including some that look like fallen leaves and others that seem like innocuous pieces of soggy rope or encrusted rocks.
My closest encounter occurred in Florida, around 1999, after I had been diving on the other side of the planet for a decade. I was unaware that the normally Indo-Pacific dwelling Pterois volitans had become a hugely invasive species throughout the Keys and the Caribbean, and I was totally unprepared to find them abundant in those normally safe waters where I used to have had nothing more painful to worry about than some near-invisible piece of Portuguese man o’ war tentacle that had been ground up and spread around by an outboard motor.. I inadvertently brushed against one – the fish, not the outboard — and would have been in for an excruciatingly painful week had I not been wearing a dense Australian dive shirt I’d brought back from the Gold Coast.
And I bumped into that critter’s invasive cousin, a year later, in Eilat, where it also had no business being.
I’m not an ideal candidate for a diver because I easily get seasick. I could never live on a live-aboard, and I have even gotten nauseous while standing on those docks that float up and down with the tide.
I tried to cope with the condition by using Dramamine, and Bonamine, and Scopolamine patches, but they all so defuddled and befogged me that I was not safe to dive under their influence.
Since I rarely got sick while the dive boat was in motion, but only after it stopped its horizontal movement and started bobbing up and down and rocking back and forth, I had developed a strategy that worked: At the shore end, I would wait until the boat was just about to leave port and then jump aboard, minimizing my time on a boat that was not under way. On the dive end, I would plunge in as soon as the boat dropped anchor.
But on one trip out of Grand Bahama, on a windy and wavy day, on a large boat toting twenty tourists and six C-card holders, the crew made the latter wait until all the newbies were outfitted, instructed, and in the water. And all the while the boat heaved up and down as it was battered by the waves.
By the time it was our turn to go in, I was right on the verge of losing my expensive breakfast. I jumped in as soon as we got the signal, but it was too late. I found no peaceful respite in the sub-surface water, which was greatly agitated and rocking, which increased my mal de mer. And I lost it all – eggs, bagel, hash browns, the works, — all of it shooting into my regulator and out my nose into my mask, and … well, you get the idea.
During decades of peregrinations around the globe, I yearned to dive Belize, and for decades it remained (with dangerous Colombia), the only country in the Western Hemisphere that I had not visited. Finally I had my chance. But my planning was poor.
It was, as have been so many disasters in my life, the fault of a beautiful woman — or, to put it more accurately and less chauvinistically, of my adolescent, but life-long, obsession with beautiful women.
She was an Israeli, divorced, stunning, and sublimely sensual. I’d met her through one of the 500 personal ads I’d answered in my wilder days. After dating for a month, we flew to Cancun and drove down the Coastal Highway to dive the reef off Belize. Or so we thought until we reached its border, where the guards refused to let her across because she had an Israeli passport with no Belizean visa, a visa that I, as a U.S. citizen, did not need.
I was confronted with a dilemma of deprivation: either leave my love at the border for several days, and hope she would still be there when I returned, or skip the scuba. After much consternation and cogitation, chivalry triumphed – the more cynical would think sex, but to you I say honi soit qui mal y pense – and I retreated with my lady to Cancun and the noisy scene at Senor Frog’s.
I next had the opportunity to dive Belize four years later, again in the friendly company of an exquisite woman, this time a Russian, this time with a visa. And again I almost didn’t make it.
We left from Cancun, driving a rented VW Beetle. I’d promised to show her the ancient Maya sites along the way; therefore, after making the customary tourist stop at the walled city of Tulum, I cut west and south through the Yucatan jungles along the Campeche Triangle to wow her with Uxmal and other ancient temples at Quintana Roo, Kabah, and Xlapk – none yet discovered by Spell-Checker.
The girl was a total free spirit, a ravishing 20-year-old red-haired wild child who loved to take off all her clothes in the jungles and the ancient ruins. If other tourists were about, she didn’t give a fig, or a fig leaf.
Strolling through a lush jungle with an enchantingly carefree, hard-bodied hot-blooded young creature gamboling about, totally naked and glistening with the moisture of rainy-season sprinkles, did not make me eager to head back to the VW and resume driving. I might put the pedal to the metal, but not in any way that’d get me closer to Belize.
Since I needed to get to Belize as part of my over-riding mission to visit every country, I made a major sacrifice and, got back on the road. We staggered into Belize City ten days after we left Cancun, surely a retarded record for that distance. But I was guided by the old Cunard Lines apothegm: “Getting there is half the fun.”
Unfortunately, we got there too late for the other half.
While we’d been busy canoodling, and only cursorily noting the extensive rain, Belize had been hit by Hurricane Keith, which covered its reefs with sand. A direct hit by a hurricane was an uncommon event there. Most such storms form off the African coast at about the same latitude as Belize, then start heading west, and eventually veer north; Belize is consequently rarely hit, the previous slugger being Hattie, way back in 1961.
I was disappointed. I had dived all over the warmer world — Cozumel, Crete, the Caymans, the Caribbean, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Great Barrier — and I’d been looking forward to this reef Darwin called “the most remarkable in the West Indies.” It’s part of the 560-mile-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the planet’s second largest living thing, and featured 35 species of soft coral, 70 of hard coral, and more than 500 species of fish. But few were visible when we were there. We tried Ambergris Caye, Half Moon, Rendezvous, and the Great Blue Hole, but all we saw was Keith-stirred sand covering and smothering everything, a sad sight for someone who loves reefs.
I assuaged my disappointment by buying a bright purple T-shirt with the slogan “Don’t Tell My Mama I’m a Diver, She Thinks I Play Piano in a Whorehouse.”
I also picked up a cassette of raunchy diving songs, which my lady and I, once back in Cancun, repeatedly played — “Divers Do It Deeper,” “Mr. Muffdiver,” and “Divers Love Going Down.”
Truk Lagoon was fascinating from underwater, filled with haunting relics of WW II. It had been the forward anchorage of the Japanese Imperial Combined Fleet, home to more than twenty warships, five airstrips, a seaplane base, torpedo boat station, submarine repair shop, and communications center, the Rising Sun’s most formidable stronghold on a conquered island.
Until February 16, 1944.
That’s when the US launched Operation Hailstone and battered Truk Lagoon for three days with dive bombers and torpedo planes from five fleet carriers. We sank 15 warships, 32 merchant vessels, and sent more than 250 enemy planes to the bottom, where they remain today, “The Ghost Fleet of Truk Lagoon,” almost all lying virtually intact and clearly visible in their shallow tombs after more than 60 years, with just a bit of seaweed and coral encrustation, all finally at peace in the largest ship graveyard under Earth’s oceans.
When I came upon the well-preserved remains of a Curtiss Helldiver, one of the 25 American planes shot down during the attack, resting level in less than ten feet of clear water, I swam slowly down, slid into the opened cockpit, and silently thanked the missing pilot, and the others of the ‘Greatest Generation’, for having rid the world of this menace and preserved our liberty. I teared up and my face-mask misted over.
Out in the Galapagos, I never swam in colder water. But it was worth it.
My then-girlfriend, Amy, and I had sailed from Guayaquil to visit those islands, an archipelago of volcanic peaks, made famous by Darwin, that straddles the equator 600 miles west of Ecuador. They lie directly in the path of the frigid Humboldt Current, which lowers the ambient water temperature to 74 degrees, rather nippy for lengthy immersion. The Galapagos are 97.5 per cent national parks, plus a protected marine reserve that was our goal. Most visitors come to see the giant tortoises, iguanas, and Darwin’s famous finches, but we went to frolic with the seals and play with the penguins.
We had no room in our luggage for wetsuits, but had squeezed in thin diveskins, although whatever insulation they provided against the cold waters was probably a placebo effect—and a barely perceptible one. We plodded backwards into the crystalline waters in our flippers and masks, watched by a curious audience of waved albatross, giant frigate birds, and a family of blue-footed boobies.
As soon as we submerged, the brilliantly multi-colored crabs clinging to the underwater rocks scurried from us, and a Galapagos green turtle furiously paddled away. The dark marine iguanas ignored us while chowing down on seaweed attached to partly submerged rocks, the only members of the genus Amhlychynchus to sup at sea. But we did not lack for companions: A raft of penguins and a pod of seals came to cavort.
The Galapagos penguin is the only surviving tropical penguin, and they peacefully swam right beside and below us, as if we were regular members of their raft. (A pack of penguins at sea is a raft, on land a waddle, on their nests a rookery, and their newborns constitute a crèche.)
The Galapagos sea lions, famous for their curiosity, took the opposite tack from the birds and swam directly at us, fast-moving, living brown torpedoes, heading right into our facemasks, veering away only at the last second, just as we were sure they’d collide with us. Were they trying to scare us? Play with us? Or adopt us?
I can’t say whether our aquatic playmates enjoyed us as much as we enjoyed them, but their close camaraderie was like none I’d ever experienced in the wild. I profoundly felt at one with nature and its fauna, kindred spirits sharing a pleasant afternoon by the seaside, a warm, tender, primordial feeling of belonging together on our pale blue dot.
A long time diver, Albert Podell has been an editor at Playboy and three national outdoor magazines, including Argosy, the author of hundreds of freelance articles, and co-author of Who Needs A Road?, an adventure classic still in print after nearly five decades. A New York resident, he’s an all-around outdoorsman: skier, boarder, mountaineer, climber, camper, hiker, biker, archer, angler, surfer, kayaker, scuba diver, windsurfer, long-distance swimmer, and vegetable gardener.
Of this new book recounting his global adventures, Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler said: “It’s like Crocodile Dundee produced by Monty Python and directed by Woody Allen.” This is not your average travel book.
Around the World in 50 Years
Copyright 2015 Albert Podell
Thomas Dunne Books, an Imprint of St. Martin’s Press. 368 pages
ISBN 978-1-250-05198 hardcover CAD$19.75
Go to: www.albertpodell.com
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