Thursday, July 12, 2012

Underwater and Breathless

I was on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, near the Mamanuca Islands of Fiji, running out of air. Nothing to be alarmed about…yet. But you never want to drain the tank of its life-giving air supply. Once you hit the red zone on your pressure gauge, at 500 psi, as I had, it's time to move towards the surface. The deeper you go (I was moderately deep at 60 feet/20 meters), the faster the air is used up. Other influences on the consumption of the vital contents of my tank included the speed that I was moving, the effort that I was using, fatigue factors and anxiety, all of which dictated against staying longer underwater. But by breathing slowly, never panicking, a dive can last 30 minutes or more. No matter how long you are underwater, it never seems to be long enough. It is a fascinating world to explore. 
While this would be my first diving experience on this trip, and my first in the southern hemisphere, I have been diving for 15 years, albeit recreationally and sporadically. It is an incredibly satisfying experience, being under the water and sharing that world with innumerable strange, brightly colored fish, coral, and a freedom of movement largely unhindered by Parkinson's. But that is when I am in the water.

To prepare for entry into this aquatic wonderland, a lot of preparation is required. To start with, your body gets cold once you're below the waves, even though the water temperature is around 78°F (28°C). Without a wetsuit the water drains the heat from my body and I can begin shivering in temperatures that would feel warm on land. Of course, I started shaking before I even approached the water, which solicited comments from my dive mates who guessed right away that I had PD. I assured them that it would not influence my ability to dive, which they accepted at face value. I was thankful for that, as I'm never sure about how long that will be true. Actually, the most difficult part of the whole process was filling out and signing the necessary disclaimers and forms.

Next came the gear. Most important of which is called an "octopus". This is the connected system of hoses distributing my air supply in the tanks to four different places. Firstly, my breathing hose and apparatus. Secondly, my secondary breathing apparatus, tucked away for emergencies. Thirdly, my BCD (buoyancy control device), a vest-like garment upon which hang the air supply tank, the octopus, and any other paraphernalia I may wish. Fourthly, before putting on my fins and mask, there is a question of weight. Without a weight belt I would not likely be able to make it down to the depth required. One last special requirement: is to remove my hearing aids. Hearing underwater is not a prerequisite, and salt water does seems to damage delicate electronic instruments! 
When ready, over the edge of the dive boat I went, signaling that I had made the water entry safely and intact, then head down to the predetermined depth where I began my underwater odyssey (always with a buddy or a group). The second dive was in a place called "The Fish Market". The scenery was stunning. There was a massive amount of brightly colored fish, large groupers, and spindly, quasi-transparent trumpeter fish. There was the occasional shark (not the dangerous type), as well as sea turtles with their entourage of turtle-shell-cleaning fish. Perhaps the highlight in observations was the discovery of a 6 foot long moray eel, protecting its cave-like hiding place with bared teeth and a seeming readiness to attack as it darted forward a every time I got too close. The undersea world leaves one figuratively, but not literally, with one's mouth open. It is like submerging into a different land where language becomes meaningless and you are definitely a foreigner. It is aquatic adventure all on its own. 
The most dangerous part of the whole trip under the sea was getting back on the boat. While the undersea conditions were relatively calm, although subject to strong currents, the surface tossed the dive boat about on 8 to 10 foot swells, making the ladder hanging off the stern a potential weapon if you got too close at the wrong time. Grabbing hold and hanging on was akin to riding a bucking bronco, as it seemed to want to be free of your grasp rather than provide access to safety. The most challenging part followed: getting your equipment-laden, water-logged, tired body up the ladder.

Exhausted from the effort, I stumbled along the pitching deck to the bench where I found my towel. Between the exertion, feeling cold in the brisk wind and my Parkinson's tremor, I was shaking to the point of vibrating off the boat. 
Other than a toe that I had damaged trying to make it up the ladder, and my incessant shaking, the return from the seafloor left me unharmed and with a suitcase full of memories.  While writing this post, I realized how metaphorical my scuba diving seemed as I reenter a reality that may present challenges over the next several weeks and months. Regardless, like my temporary undersea venture, nothing can diminish the extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime, shake up my world journey of these past months.


  1. Bob you certainly live life large and to the fullest!! 'Makes me wonder if I could try and experience something like this!! Bob Dobson

  2. Bob;

    Others may quarrel with my conclusion, but I believe we are called to live life to the fullest, whatever that may mean in the context of each life. Sometimes, as is the case for you and me, we do not choose the adventures dealt to us. Regardless, they constitute our calling and require us to embrace what we have been given, not as a punishment but as an opportunity to live life on purpose.