Saturday, November 21, 2009

Parkinson's Under the Sea

Flipping off the small boat backwards into the turquoise Caribbean water I entered a world that rendered Parkinson's disease momentarily meaningless. While the air and the water had similarities, both being approximately 80° Fahrenheit, and the 97% humidity only 3% below 100% liquidity, they had many more differences. The silence and serenity of the underwater environment has kept me coming back since gaining certification in 1997. Granted, I have chosen to limit my scuba diving to warm waters, which in turn restricts these experiences to no more than once or twice a year on average. But the freedom and freshness of these adventures remain inspiring.

After battling back from the virtually lifeless existence that had resulted from my cold, when we docked at Grand Turk (the Turks and Caicos Islands), while not 100%, I was ready for my last chance for an underwater adventure. It was too late to join the scuba tour arranged by the cruise ship, so my brother-in-law and I took the first available taxi to an island dive shop I had contacted through the Internet. Two thoughts ran through my mind as we drove the short distance to the address I was given, viewing hurricane damage and a definite lack of commercial sophistication along the way. First, would this be a reputable establishment or a literal one-way voyage to the bottom of the sea? Second, as we only had a few hours before our ship left the tiny island, how could we be assured of getting back on time?

What we saw upon arriving can only be described as "under construction". We were silently acknowledged by what appeared to be a "construction crew" of 4 or 5 native island dwellers who simply stared at us as they went about some indiscernible task that was apparently not pressing. We entered through the low doorway crudely marked with a hand-painted sign, "DIVE SHOP", only to find the converted beach shack apparently deserted of any occupants. The little voices inside me began competing in volume and urgency, with one shouting, "it will be fine", while the other sounded a full alarm, "danger, danger". But the inner screaming match ceased when we heard a toilet flush and saw a door creak open to disclose a blonde woman in her early 40s, who, obviously embarrassed, welcomed us in a refined but cheery English accent. What followed was reassuring as we were fitted with top quality diving equipment and introduced to our dive master, Smitty, who appeared quiet but confident, having been a dive master around this island for his whole life. Additional comfort was given as the dive shop owner assured us that Smitty would deliver us directly to the cruise ship dock in plenty of time, and that the best diving was less than a 15 minute boat ride away.

The lead weights buckled around my waist, the heavy life-sustaining canister of air strapped to my back, the incredibly awkward fins that extended my feet some 3 times their normal length, and the opaque vision through the diving mask all seem incredibly cumbersome before I hit the water. But this discomfort was erased by even a short-lived existence under the waves; the stuff of surreal science fiction. All the gear that distracted me moments before becomes weightless as I slowly submerged, descending 30 feet to the crushed coral sand and a world far away from normal life. Every 20 feet or so my eardrums remind me of my too recently clogged nasal passages, but by persistently grasping my nose and puffing up my cheeks with captured air I was able to equalize the pressure and descended without further pain. Our small party soon dove down the face of the nearby coral wall, stopping at our maximum depth of 90 feet, although the precipice continued precipitously into pitch dark down a further 7500 feet we were told. I am reminded that I am a stranger here as my mask squeezed onto my face under the increased pressure, forcing me to blow air out through my nose. After a few anxious moments of drawing air through my mouthpiece, I relaxed, breathed deeply and with long intervals, like the swells of the sea above me.

Adjusting the amount of air in the buoyancy control device to keep from plummeting down the “cliff” I began a leisurely horizontal swim, drifting and rocking with the tidal underwater current. It was really more like a slow drunken stroll in a giant aquarium filled with coral, white sandy expanses and marine life of every description. There were immense sea turtles (okay, one sea turtle) swimming effortlessly in complete contradiction to their earthly maneuvering, large lobsters scuttling from one clump of coral to another to escape our presence, and innumerable multicolored tropical fish hanging and turning slowly like neon lures of every size, reflecting the sunlight that stabbed in shafts through the sea, each one playing unashamedly as they proudly promoted their own particular patterns and shapes.

Parkinson's was forgotten as I took in the watery wonderland. Except for clearing my mask of unwanted seawater from time to time, it was an uninterrupted experience where tremor and stiffness seemed to disappear. It was if during those 55 minutes I had been transported to a disease-free heaven filled with beauty and potential for discovery around every coral corner, totally unencumbered by any serious physical limitations.

Of course, as in life, the reminders of my earthly challenges are never far away. The reality of my Parkinson's disease was brought home with a vengeance as I reluctantly drew myself out of the water and crawled aboard the dive boat. The late afternoon sun had hidden behind clouds hugging the western skyline, and the wind that whipped through the open boat came in cold gusts that cut through my warm water dive suit. The uncontrollable shivering due to the cold accentuated the uncontrollable shaking that I normally displayed. I felt conspicuous but was helpless at explaining my dilemma. It seemed too awkward to even attempt.

Upon reflecting later that evening I replayed the effortless and symptomless submarine experience and smiled with satisfaction. I was reminded yet again that Parkinson's couldn’t rob us of everything. We can find places of freedom, like on motorcycle missions, jumping out of planes or slipping into the sea. The open water frees even the sea turtle from its tortured struggles to glide easily among more elegant members of marine society.


  1. It sounds beautiful, could almost convince me to take up diving. I think snorkeling is deep enough, though. I'm glad you had a good holiday!

  2. Has there been any research into water therapy for parkinsons. Since you didn't seem to have any symptoms while in the water, maybe that is a possibility.