Journal: News & Comment

Friday, December 29, 2000
# 11:27:00 AM:

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A place to which I'll never return

For Christmas, my dad gave me deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard's new book The Eternal Darkness. Although it's about the truly deep ocean -- thousands of metres down, where light from the sun never reaches -- it reminded me of my brief time as a scuba diver, more than a decade ago.

Scuba diving reaches only the thinnest top skin of the ocean. Recreational divers are limited to about 30 metres in depth. By contrast, the average depth of the ocean is something like 4,000 metres, while the very bottom, in the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench, is over 11,000 metres down. Only two men have ever been there, in a 1960 dive aboard the bathyscaph Trieste. (Twelve people have been to the moon.)

Anyway, I was a scuba diver, plumbing the thin skin of the ocean, from 1988 to 1991, when I developed diabetes. Though it is still theoretically possible for me to dive, the blood-sugar anomalies that are part of my disease make it unsafe, at least in my judgment. Still, I remember vividly from my diving days some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. One incident in particular stands out.

While taking a summer course for my marine biology degree at the Bamfield Marine Station in 1989, I went underwater nearly every day -- sometimes twice a day. As part of my summer research project, I was collecting sea pens (colonial animals related to corals, sea anemones, and jellyfish) from the bottom of Bamfield Inlet, a minute or two's swim from the station itself. It was generally an unremarkable dive -- not in deep water, not far from land, not in any spectacular underwater location. I spent the time concentrated on the sandy, mucky bottom, gathering sea pens in my mesh bag, monitoring my air supply and time under, and making sure I knew where my dive buddy and I were. A spotter kept an eye on our bubbles from shore.

At the end of our dive, we navigated toward the station underwater, aiming to hit the surface as close to shore (and far away from passing boats) as possible. I looked up for the first time in a while.

Ahead of us, the sun shone down through a forest of giant kelp, growing in a band between the steep Bamfield shore and the deeper water where we had been. The deep greens and dappled light are hard to describe, but photos like these ones give you an idea how it looked. Sort of. But drifting there, weightless, after spending half an hour in the gloom of a muddy bottom, was almost mystical.

I miss experiences like that. But I remember them.


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