Dive #1 – Low Visibility
A blissful weekend of scuba diving awaits. I’m going on a dive holiday to one of the smaller islands that dot the ocean around our main inhabited island.
I’m meant to leave work early at 3:30 p.m. on the Friday so that I can get my gear and head down to the dock to catch the ferry. At 3:25 p.m., my customer (who knows that I have to go at 3:30 p.m.) decides to perform an iffy software installation on a server and, predictably, runs into some issues.
I was onsite to work on their disaster recovery plan, and this unexpected fux0ring of a production server becomes an impromptu demonstration of the worth of my work. Fortunately, it’s a virtual environment and we have a secondary server in the DR cluster that is fed a continuous stream of delta files from the primary. Like an understudy in a Broadway musical, waiting unseen in the wings for the primary server to go kaput, the secondary takes over with nary a blip to the end users.
Disaster averted, my customer shamefacedly shuffles down to the pub for a restorative for his poor nerves. I hurry like a mad thing on my overloaded scooter to the ferry. We load the ferry with 40 dive tanks, our dive gear, luggage and massive amounts of food. Our island getaway is just a small campgrounds with a rudimentary dormitory and bathrooms. There won’t be anything else on this island, so if we don’t bring it, we don’t got it. I’m a veteran backpacker. I bring TP and a bedroll.
We arrive at the island at the very last exhalation of the afternoon sun and unload in the waning light. The dorms are simple and a bit run down, like public housing in the post-Soviet states. Battered basketball court with rusted hoops. Concrete communal showers and outhouse. Completely deserted, dystopian architecture, almost a holdover from the end of Cold War. The place has all the air of the opening scene of a horror movie where the campers get killed off one by one by zombies. Possibly zombies with chainsaws. A little dog appears out of nowhere and frisks about as we unpack. I scratch him behind the ears and check for signs of zombie infection.
One of the more seasoned divers arrives on his runabout to take us out for a night dive at an abandoned pier nearby. On the ride over, I sit on the bow and watch the stars emerge as the veil of sunlight slips from the face of the night, listen to the chatter on the boat. One of the girls is moving to a landlocked country next month and is trying to cram as much diving as possible before she leaves. In the edges of the conversation, I hear pieces of regret in her voice. When you are about to lose something you love, you always regret not devoting enough time to its worship.
An indiscreet comment from the most gossipy girl in the group reveals that one of the guys has a rather unethical personality trait. He freezes and smiles the sidelong guess-the-jig-is-up grimace at me. Like a stagehand moving the set during a scene change for a stage play, suddenly exposed to the audience when the curtain goes up too soon. The information hangs in the air between us, along with the faint smell of manure. I feel like a blindfold has been removed. As if the appearance of virtue is as important as actual goodness. Have I learned nothing from Jane Austen?
We start the dive in starlight. Flashlights pick up shy crabs hiding amongst the coral-covered pilings. A huge blowfish the size of a watermelon drifts by, spines folded flat against his body. You have to really look to see the spines, like quills of a porcupine or the shafts of feathers. I always think of Puffy the OpenBSD mascot when I see one of these guys.
Visibility’s not so good and we see little else. But the pier is a simple structure, so you are never lost as long as you follow the pilings. We’re back on the boat soon and ride back to Camp Zombie Island under a clear sky with huge stars. The girl who stayed onboard the boat as surface cover for us sympathizes with the low visibility in the water. Up on the boat, she saw a huge shooting star, as big as fireworks over the Hudson on the 4th of July. The sky’s so clear, but you had to be looking in the right patch of sky to see it, she says.
As I fall asleep that night, I think of astronomers looking for intelligent life in the wrong patch of sky. Looking for love in all the wrong places.
Dive #2 – The Virtue of Having a Plan B
I wake up early the next morning, circadian rhythm all out of whack, the universal early morning state of all campers since the dawn of time; cold and stiff and desperately needing caffeine. The little dog reappears in our dorm in hopes of breakfast, tags along as we do ourselves a nice fry up. Stares at the platter of bacon, attempts hypnotic zombie stare to get us to feed it a rasher or three.
As we motor to the dive site, we get hit by several small passing showers. They soak us briefly and then wander off into the distance, the rainfall from a single gray raincloud standing out against the sunny horizon. I am reminded of PigPen from the Peanuts comic strip, with his own personal dustcloud that follows him around.
We wait for our turn to pass under a narrow drawbridge, and pasty tourists on the drawbridge take snapshots of us, a boat full of divers, heroic and picturesque in our wetsuits. We wave and smile. A couple of the guys are actually kinda seasick and trying to hide it. They smile the widest at the cameras.
The skyline is beautiful, full of huge moisture-rich clouds and rainbows from the passing showers. I hang my head over the side of the boat, like a dog riding in a car. High up amongst the clouds, I see the faint outline of the crescent moon in the daytime sky. Everyone else is squinting against the backspray, or busy trying to keep breakfast from reappearing. Nobody else sees it. It is mine alone, this secret moon.
We’re meant to be diving at one of the older wrecks on the island, a lost cargo ship from the late-1800s. When we get to the dive site, there is another dive boat already attached to the deep mooring. Early bird gets the worm. No idea how long they’ll be there. So we bugger off to another wreck nearby, a couple of decommissioned tugboats that have been deliberately sunk for divers to explore. Kinda like putting a little toy at the bottom of your aquarium for your goldfish to have something to play with.
Vis is fairly good. Both tugboats are rusty and overgrown with coral. We wiggle into the rusted hulls and see a small lionfish and a grouper here and there. In the cabin of one of the tugs is an old laptop with a graphic drawn on its screen in white marker, an Internet connection error prompt. One of the dive operators on the island has placed that laptop there as a joke.
I exhale a little and sink down; get into a standing position on the bow of one of the tugs and hold on to the railing. I wonder what it must have been like to have stood here when this was a working tug, towing a huge ship behind it, like an ant pulling a mountain range. All these wrecks I’ve dived, what it must have been like to be onboard when they struck a reef. The crumpled bows of some of the wrecks attest to the speed at which they ran aground.
I’ve been on a saliboat that struck the reef. We were going slow, and it was a glancing blow. No severe damage that time, thank goodness. What happens when you hit something? After the initial jolt, and the damage assessment, you eyeball the nearest bit of land and wonder if you could swim the distance.
Dive #3 and Dive #4 – Location, Location, Location
After scarfing down a quick lunch, we are back on the water to do a couple more dives with a local dive operator who will take us to a couple of wrecks further out. These should be scenic, so many of the divers prepare cameras, dunk them into a tank of water on board the dive boat. This way, the camera gets acclimatized to the water temperature, and you can easily detect leaks before you dive in. The South African guy tweaks the armatures of the strobes that extend from his camera body like the spindly limbs of a spider. The Russian chap has a similar setup, but his camera is already snuggled in his own personal bucket of water. Everybody else has lower-end cameras in marine cases.
The first wreck is an old one, and the wooden hull has all but disintegrated after 200 years in the salt water. All that remains are the huge stone discs that they used as ballast. Scattered over the seabed are broken bottles with pronounced punts, dark glass against the white sand. This ship had been carrying a cargo of wine. It sits in an area of stronger current, so nothing is at peace for long. Most everything that was not smashed to bits during the wreck has been carried away over the centuries of tides.
The second wreck is fairly intact. The site is more sheltered and the waters here are much clearer. There are many more fish in the surrounding reef, and the photographers are in a frottage of ecstasy. I see a pair of fish that face off, mouth-to-mouth. They whirl apart, in mirror-image moves, almost like dance partners, then come back for another kiss. I think this might be a territorial display. The strangeness of this dance is that they touch mouths. I don’t understand the virtue of aggression at close proximity. Maybe that is the difference between an archer and a knife fighter.
We have a fast ride home. The pilot knows the reefs so well, he drives like a NASCAR racer, one hand on the wheel, swerving and cornering through the maze of dark reef just under the surface of the water. I am minded of a Norwegian friend from IRC who sent me a video of himself driving through a deep snowfall, so deep that roads, street signs and the ground floors of houses were buried in snow. But he knew the route like the back of his hand; he could drive at breakneck speed through his rural neighborhood and make all the turns correctly. The camera is mounted on the dash of his truck, and all you see is the tops of signposts whizzing by. My friend has added a soundtrack of banjo car chase music to the video clip, very Dukes of Hazzard.
That night, we build a bonfire on Camp Zombie Island, and I sit in my chair and watch the fire. The little dog positions himself under my dangling arm and I scratch him behind his ears. Anyone who tries to tend the fire gets sweaty very quickly. I want to edge closer to the fire but I don’t want to offend the dog by relocating. There’s a Goldilocks Zone somewhere. Not too hot, not too cold.
Dive #5 Lost and Found
For our last dive, we go to an underwater junkyard. Used to be a drydock, now houses old boats that have been sunk deliberately. It takes several attempts for our boat anchor to catch hold and we circle over the area like a shark for a good 20 minutes before the anchor snags something. From the boats’ digital depth sensor display, we see the bulky shapes underwater as sawtooth waveforms of red and purple.
When we get down there, we find a low viz environment. Everything is covered in a thin film of silt. It looks like a neglected industrial plant covered in the ash of a nuclear fallout. Boat propellers, long stretches of hull with portholes, stairs and railings that go nowhere. With all the man-made shapes looming out of the murky water, still recognizable under the coral growing on top, I think of the decrepit robots in Laputa, half-covered in moss.
My dive buddy is the boat pilot and we locate our anchor, tangled in some rusty structure. He untangles it and lifts it out of the structure. I marvel at the buoyancy control skills required to do this. Unfortunately, the boat above us is sitting in the current, and without the anchor securely hooked, my dive buddy and the anchor are whisked away, like a man holding on to a kite-string. I follow behind, calmly finning in the same direction. Man and anchor are soon lost from view. With no visibility and no frame of reference, it is easy to get lost. I circle slowly and wait until I see the yellow fins of my dive buddy returning to find me.