The Liberation of the Deep
A gap between the frothy windblown crests of the open ocean waves provided a brief but reassuring glimpse of the distant boat. It was silhouetted by the late afternoon sun roughly 100 metres to my right. To my left tall clouds gathered above the hopeful shadow of land, that was too low to see above the waves. This indicated that I was oriented correctly as we drifted atop the immense ocean, pulled by the moon up over a depth of thousands of feet, towards the incredible underwater structure that rose from the depths under the seabirds directly ahead. My eyes struggled to readjust to the darkness of the deep blue below. My neck and back now began to relax in the reprieve from the strain of lifting and stretching for vigilance over the waves moments before. The awareness of my breath became my whole existence. I exhaled slowly through my snorkel for a patient count of eight before gently pulling my diaphragm up and in, forcing out even more of the residual volume of old stale air from my lungs before inhaling life again deeply into my belly to my full vital capacity. The tension in my right arm now seemed so strangely unnecessary, reminding me to relax my nervous grip on the speargun that accompanied me at my side. The familiar pleasant sensation of my heart slowing ushered in a wave of complete relaxation over me that calmed and slowed my mind. Shapes that began to materialise out of the murk, instinctively attracting my focus. Small fish frolicked playfully at the edge of visibility seventy feet below, signaling that the current was bringing us closer to the leading edge of the structure. I looked over to my friend, touched my dive watch and raised one finger. This was the signal for one more minute. As we drifted closer, the upwelling of cold oxygen and nutrient rich water from the depths below sustained an incredible web of life that now swarmed all around us. We could feel the ocean becoming more electric and alive with each second as we drifted closer. I looked at my dive watch, almost time, 15 seconds to go. I signalled the “OK” sign to my partner. It crossed my mind that this could be my last breath as I forced extra air into my lungs with a technique known as packing. Spitting my snorkel out, the uncomfortable stretching sensation this causes quickly diminished with the increasing pressure of my rapid descent. I kicked powerfully straight down against my own buoyancy through the schooling bait fish as I bid farewell to both light and air and confidently embraced the potential of the unknown below me. After roughly 30 feet, the buoyancy that tethers you to the surface is released and the unseen abyss below takes hold of you, pulling you gently at first, but then faster and faster deeper down. Tucking my chin in, I glanced back past my fins up for one more glimpse of the surface as it faded into a bright haze. In free fall now, the water became colder. For what seemed like an eternity, I resisted the urge to kick, conserving precious oxygen as I patiently waited. The interludes between the heartbeats that pulsed my entire body seemed to take forever as I sank down deeper and deeper, head first through the eerie silence. Intimidating shapes began to emerge out of the murk below. I approached a gigantic ball of bait fish that swarmed all around me as I glided down unthreatening and camouflaged through them. I cocked one fin slightly out to fall in a spiral, allowing me to scan the emerging bottom below. The beeping of my watch alarm notified me that I was passing 100 feet. Adjusting the trajectory of my fall, I gracefully touched down gently on a promising outcrop above a huge ledge. Lying down holding on, camouflaged with my speargun now ready, I waited and peered over the edge into the immense curious school of nervous sardines. Strange shadows moved at the edge of my visibility down deeper below me. I knew they could feel my gaze upon them. The big shapes at the edge of visibility were creeping in slowly to investigate my strange presence in their territory. A massive 130 pound suspicious Cubera snapper, the most prized catch eventually darted up from below the ledge scattering the sardines just out of range of my spear. I knew with time he would come closer, if I could just wait longer. The rising carbon dioxide levels in my blood were beginning to cause the first wave of diaphragm contractions to set in, and at 124 feet I didn’t want to push things. Right before being forced to return to the surface, this massive apex predator warily noticed the movement of my eyes. Remaining out of range, for a moment we locked gazes in an ancient primal stare. It’s hard to verbalise, but there was something in there that I recognised, reminding me that I too am part of nature and that like a wave in the ocean, I didn’t come into this world I came out of it.