The Urge to Submerge

by Sylvia A. Earle
In this excerpt from her new book Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans, the renowned marine scientist, conservationist, and developer of research vehicle submersibles offers some underwater reflections on her lifelong fascination with watery worlds below.
In my dreams, a monstrous wall of green water races my way, hissing, roaring, towering, inescapable, sweeping me into a cascading aquatic mayhem. I am lifted, tumbled, churned, pushed, and fall, gasping, clawing for air. My toes touch sand; a sweet breeze soothes my lungs. I stand, choking, face the next advancing wall, and leap into it exhilarated!

In reality, when I was three the ocean along the New Jersey shore first got my attention much as it happened in the dream: A great wave knocked me off my feet, I fell in love, and ever after have been irresistibly drawn, first, to the cool green Atlantic Ocean; later, to the Gulf of Mexico, warm and blue, serving as my backyard and playground through years of discovery; and thereafter to other oceans, to reefs, raging surf, calm embayments, steep dropoffs, and the farthest reaches of the deep sea beyond. The "urge to submerge" came on early and continues, each one heightening the excitement of the last as one discovery leads to another, each new scrap of information triggering awareness of dozens of new unknowns.

The lure of the sea has enticed explorers to probe the mysteries of the vast, sparkling wilderness, probably for as long as there have been human beings. Our origins are there, reflected in the briny solution coursing through our veins and in the underlying chemistry that links us to all other life. We are probably the most versatile of creatures, anatomically gifted with an ability to climb mountains, swing among treetops, leap into the air, race across plains, and briefly enter underwater realms. While we are not naturally equipped with wings to remain aloft or gills to stay submerged for long, we are endowed with ingenuity, and have thus been able to respond to another human gift, especially evident in children and those who happily never quite grow up: an irrepressible curiosity. The result has been the creation of an expanding wealth of technology that extends human capability into every place on the surface of the Earth, to the deepest parts of the sea, and even into environments inhospitable to any other life forms, far beyond Earth's atmosphere.

To some, the word "technology" conveys the specter of an overly mechanized society, a loss of contact with nature, a despoiler of civilization. Yet, without machines to take us into the sky, we would be as earthbound as elephants; without submarines and other specialized diving equipment, our ability to explore the oceans directly would be approximately equivalent to a dolphin's ability to glimpse its above-water realm. And without modern means of discovery and communication, there would be no hope of identifying the critical changes sweeping the planet and alerting the global community to growing threats to our species. Without technology, the sea would be fathomless as the distant stars.

Without special equipment, human beings, like most other air-breathing creatures, cannot live underwater for long. With some practice, I can hold my breath for about a minuteŃtime enough to swim around, touch bottom thirty to forty feet down, then race back to the surface, to sunlight, to air. Throughout history, humans have been divers in oceans worldwide, many going significantly deeper, and some staying much longer. Over centuries of gathering food from the sea, divers in Japan and KoreaŃmostly women, known as amaŃhave honed breath-hold diving techniques to perfection, passing traditions from mother to daughter through generations. Even grandmothers dive well into their seventies. Although it is a swiftly fading art, displaced by sophisticated modern fishing techniques and made less rewarding because of sharp declines in desirable shellfish, a few families maintain the old ways. In Japan, the cool air of Hekura Mima Island sometimes resounds with the soft, shrill whistles of the ama as they exhale, creating the musical sounds Japanese poets call iso nageki, the elegy of the sea. Garbed in long, trailing wraps of white cloth thought to ward off sharks, these women repeatedly inhale and dive into cold water, towing a basket for their catch of abalone, snails, kelp, and sprigs of favored red and green seaweed. Certain South Pacific islanders routinely dive to 100 feet, often remaining submerged for two minutes, and at least five people have successfully dived (that is, they have lived to talk about it) to more than 300 feet, requiring a breathless four minutes.

In 1976, Jacques Mayol, the real-life hero who inspired the popular theatrical film production Big Blue, was the first to descend to 312 feet (100 meters), a depth once considered to be a physiological impossibility for humans. It was thought that pressure at that depth would cause the thorax surrounding the lungs permanently to collapse, but MayolŃsometimes admiringly referred to as Homo aquaticusŃnot only survived with his lungs and chest intact, but has continued to press the limits in competition with several others who aspire to be the "deepest man alive." How deep can free-swimming divers descend? A Cuban-born Italian citizen, Francisco Ferreras Rodriguez, widely know as Pipin and thought by some to be more aquatic than terrestrial, is aiming for 500 feet. So far the record stands at 400 feet and is held by the agile underwater athlete Umberto Pelizzari.

I have often looked longingly at the speed, agility, and gamboling grace of dolphins, who sometimes fling themselves aloft with deliberate twists and spins that easily surpass the finest human gymnastic displays, all the while keeping pace with a boat speeding alongside at twenty knots, sometimes more, and regularly staying submerged for several minutes with no apparent stress.

Olympic medalist Matt Biondi, much admired as the fastest, although not the deepest-diving, human swimmer in the world, enlisted several of his fellow athletes, and Olympic medalists, to join him for a swim-in with a group of wild, friendly dolphins in the Bahamas. The dolphins frequently chose to engage the swimmers, circling them and diving within touching distance. Biondi, enchanted but envious, reported: "The faster I would go to keep up with the dolphins, the faster they would go. They were always faster, always one up on me.... Since then, I have often tried to imagine what it would feel like to be a dolphin."

In T.H. White's The Once and Future King, the young King Arthur, known as Wart, gazes from a bridge into cool, clear water one especially hot afternoon and impetuously says, "I wish I was a fish." Obligingly, the wizard Merlin takes off his hat, raises his cane, murmurs the appropriate incantation, and turns the boy into a perch, a long, lithe creature of "a beautiful olive green, with rather scratchy plate armour all over him," delicate pink fins, and a belly of an "attractive whitish color."

Then Wart discovers a wonderful thing. He is no longer earthbound. "He could do what men have always wanted to do, that is, fly. There is practically no difference between flying in water and flying in the air. The best of it was that he did not have to fly in a machine, by pulling levers and sitting still, but could do it with his own body. It was like dreams people have."

For me such a dream came true in an experience shared with my three children, that in a way combined the wishes of Wart and Matt Biondi: to fly underwater in the company of a wild, free dolphin. Breaking the usual rule, "school comes first," I scooped up my small brood, ages sixteen, fourteen, and eight, and enlisted their help for a week of diving and exploring reefs while working on a research project on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. I have wistfully watched thousands of dolphins during many years spent working in, on, and under the sea, often reveling in their exquisite mastery of ocean elements, but I had never encountered one that was willing to stay around for more than a moment in the presence of divers. I was skeptical about the existence of a wild dolphin at San Salvador who would "come right up to you," but my doubts went up in a puff of sea spray when a dark fin appeared in the distance, and a lone spotted dolphin, Stenella longirostris, locally known as Sandy, came straight for our boat. We stopped, looked, and leaped in.

My son Richie, making a polite overture, swam dolphinlike, undulating his whole body, holding his legs tightly together, and thrusting upward with his flippers, which sent Sandy into spirals of apparent delight. The eldest, Elizabeth, blessed with a streaming mane of shining golden-red hair, was an irresistible lure. Approaching close and peppering her with rapid, staccato sounds and soft, high weeeps, the dolphin mouthed locks of her hair, then, eyes closed in a look of apparent bliss, gently let strands flow through his teeth, as if trying to guess the nature of this intriguing, silky substance. Gale, an elfin eight-year-old, was the only one of us petite enough to hitch a ride. Looping her small fingers along the leading edge of Sandy's dorsal fin, she allowed herself to be towed in a circle around us, propulsion provided by thrusts of the dolphin's muscular tail. It was a living reenactment of the dolphins and cherubs depicted on ancient Roman coins and Greek mosaics.

Sandy could see clearly underwater as well as above, and so could we, using masks fitted with acrylic windows. Like all dolphins, Sandy inhaled air through a hole conveniently placed at the top of his head, and so did we, via snorkles. We also wore flippers to improve speed and maneuverability underwater. Fully outfitted in the best of modern snorkling gear, though, we presented a pale, makeshift imitation of Sandy's exquisite design, honed during millions of years of processes that perfected slopes, angles, and surfaces, coupled with finely tuned musculature, energy, and sensory systems. But the specialization has a price. We could comfortably enter Sandy's realm for a while, but it was hard to imagine him entering oursŃto come on board and go ashore, visit a forest...climb a mountain...ride a bus.

For me, 1952 was a turning pointŃdownward. A school friend borrowed his father's copper diving helmet, compressor, and pump, and introduced several of his the fine art of breathing underwater. It was fortuitous for me, a would-be marine scientist, that my parents had chosen to move from New Jersey to Dunedin, Florida, a coastal community near Tampa Bay. Years before, nearby Tarpon Springs had attracted fishermen and sponge divers from Greece. More recently, other fishermen, including my friend and his father, acquired the diving skills and equipment needed for gathering sponges to sell at auctions in Tarpon Springs. How else, in 1952, would it be possible for a sixteen-year-old girl to have access to a sponge diver's helmet in a wild Florida river?

When I was twelve, a U.S. Navy commander, Edward Ellsberg, had transported me underwater, vicariously, with gripping stories about salvage operations reported in his classic volume, On the Bottom. Now I had a chance to try diving myself, a venture I looked forward to with pleasure spiced with fear. After all, Ellsberg had cautioned, "Nothing that the ingenuity of man has permitted him to do is more unnatural than working as a diver."

For most divers, little had changed since the 1920s, when, as Ellsberg pointed out, the usual diving dress consisted of a copper helmet and breastplate secured watertight to a flexible, canvas-covered rubber suit. The helmet was essential to the provision of compressed air, but a diver could do without the suit in shallow or warm water. With or without the suit, the laws of nature had the same effect as those who presumed to "slip the surly bonds of earth," and dive....

When my turn came to see what it was like to dive with the borrowed helmet, I eagerly slid into the icy, ultraclear water of the Weekiwatchee River, barely noticing the weight of the ponderous "hard hat" biting into my bare shoulders. Ellsberg's gruesome "crushed to jelly" tiptoed across my mind as air surged around my face, and the river's brisk current kept sweeping my feet out from under me, making it difficult to stay upright. Pain stabbed my ears, reminding me to swallow repeatedlyŃa small exercise that helps equalize the pressure of air trapped in ears and sinuses at the surface with the compressed air breathed while descending. But as soon as my toes touched bottom, thirty feet down, I stayed put, held in place by the hefty helmet, and then it suddenly sank in: I am underwater and breathing!

A few feet away, lurking among stalks of river rushes, the alert eyes of a huge, silver-green alligator gar met mine; then, in a perfect barracuda imitation, this legendary river monster opened and closed its mouth several times, revealing saber-sharp dentition before the creature ever so slowly turned and slid out of sight. Fascinated, I stepped toward the sweep of its speckled tail and was nearly toppled by the rushing current. Next time, ankle weights, I thought, very carefully edging my way from the river's main stream to the quieter shore and a scattering of small golden-brown fish. From the fishes' standpoint, I was a noisy apparition of rushing bubbles, hose, and huge helmet with legs, but I willed myself to be inconspicuous and, as stealthily as I could, made my way toward them. Then, something totally unexpected happened. First one, then several, and finally all of the small fish I had been stalking turned and swam in my direction. I was supposed to be the watcher, but found myself the watchee, the center of attention for a bunch of curious fish, apparently mesmerized by the strange bubbling being that had just fallen through their watery roof. For twenty blissful minutes, I became one with the river and its residents, bending with the current, blending inŃand breathing!

Gradually, though, the glistening fish and silvery bubbles blurred and I felt a dizziness that seemed to be more than the consequence of first-dive excitement. I signaled with a tug on the hose that I wanted to go up just as someone free-dived down and pointed for me to ascend. It turned out that exhaust fumes from the generator were being swept into the compressor's intake pipe, and I had been breathing air laced with a toxic mix of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, blue smoke, and uncombusted fuel. It was a memorable lesson concerning clean air: Never take it for granted, on the surface or underwater!

The question I now faced was, How could I possibly manage to obtain a diving helmet and compressor that I could use all the time? That problem was eliminated before it was solved. I had a new dream, one inspired by the development of a new way to breathe underwater, free of any connection to the surface: the aqualung.

In the summer of 1952, Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau captivated many, including me, with the exuberant delight expressed in his book The Silent World, in which he described his invention, the self contained underwater breathing apparatus known as scuba. He wrote: "I reached the bottom in a state of transport.... To halt and hang attached to nothing, no lines or air pipes to the surface, was a dream. At night I had often had visions of flying by extending my arms as wings. Now I flew without wings. (Since that first aqualung flight, I have never had a dream of flying.)"

I yearned to experience for myself the thrills described, to "swim across miles of country no man has known, free and level, with our flesh feeling what the fish scales know."

Without hesitation, I strapped on the heavy steel tank, adjusted my face mask, bit down on the mouthpiece of the regulator that was draped over my head, and dropped into the sea five miles offshore, fifteen feet down, into a meadow of green-brown sea grass. With a gentle kick, I glided to a small clump of sponges and found a feisty three-inch-long damselfish who was not pleased by my intrusion on its territory....

Before yielding the tank to the next lucky aquanaut, I spent a few minutes exploring the potential of weightlessness, just as astronaut Buzz Aldrin would years later while training underwater for the first moon landing. "Eventually," he said, "I mastered the intricate ballet of weightlessness." This was vital preparation for spacewalking when, as Aldrin puts it, "flexing your pinkie would send you ass over teakettle." Easing away from the damselfish, I hovered, blending with the sea like a jellyfish and then, inspired by the athletic grace of every other creature in sight, tried something I imagined to be impossible: a midwater slow-motion back flip. No problem! Forward, thenŃsoaring, rolling, swimming upside down, then a spin. The fish were almost certainly perplexed by the large mass thrashing about in their midst, but in my mind I was dolphinlikeŃbut with an edge on the dolphins. They have to surface to breathe every few minutes, but with the air tank I could stay submerged for an hour.

Reluctantly, I returned to the surface convinced, more than ever, that I really needed gills, or at least an aqualung! I was not alone. Thousands, then millions, responded to the wonder of being able to breathe underwater. For marine scientists, scuba was a breakthrough comparable in some ways to the development of the first microscopes. In both cases, technology provided a means of access, a way to see things otherwise not visible, and gradually, scientists effectively used such tools to better understand the nature of the world. Nevertheless, many scientists viewed scuba diving for scientific research as nothing more than a wispy disguise for having a good time, implying that what you're doing can't be serious if you're having fun! Since then, several decades of underwater observation using aqualungs and other diving techniques have permanently transformed human perspective, forcing those who have tried it to look at the EarthŃand themselvesŃwith fresh eyes. Ş

Earle A.M. '56, Ph.D. '66, Hon. '93, former chief scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association, is the founder of Deep Ocean Engineering and president of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research.

Excerpted from Sea Change, A Message of the Oceans, Š1995 by Sylvia Alice Earle. Used with permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons.

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