Dive Deprivation

dolphins
CREDITS | Text and Photos STEPHEN FRINK

Given the glacial pace of a quarterly magazine, we tend to not deal with the current news cycle in our articles. But lately the corona virus pandemic has dominated TV broadcasts and online news feeds, and we can’t ignore what is happening. It has brought disruption beyond our imagination; since much of the dive industry is so travel-dependent, it has had a significant impact on every sector of our industry.

Our dive resorts and live aboards were the most immediately vulnerable as travel embargoes began. Imagine that your whole business depends on people flying to your destination and getting on your boats to go diving, and then the airport shuts down or airlines severely limit their available flights. Anyone who wanted a new wet-suit, camera housing or dive computer for their trip probably deferred purchasing, so there is also a residual detriment to equipment sellers and manufacturers. These are hard economic times for the dive industry.

These are hard emotional times for recreational divers too. We don’t want to stop diving, but even places you can drive to, such as the Florida Keys, have temporary restrictions affecting tourism. For those of us who view scuba as a lifestyle, this moment in time is transformational. It will be the longest time I’ve been out of the water since I moved to Key Largo in 1978.

I was venting about all this to a nondiving friend.Beyond the obvious observation, “You not going diving is not the most important pandemic issue out there,” she asked what was so special about scuba diving. I had to stop and ponder for a few moments. For me, underwater photography and the hope to get a photo of something that’s better than any other is a lofty personal challenge that makes me excited to go diving. But in retrospect, the zen encounters I’ve had with marine life are the most resonant.

In my early years in Key Largo there was a day when the marine VHF buzzed about a whale carcass floating in the Gulf Stream. The offshore anglers first saw birds working the detritus,  and then when they got near, they saw a dozen tiger sharks feasting. The whole situation was a floating ecosystem of predation. Having never photographed a tiger shark before, I hopped on a boat and hoped to get a shot.

My buddy Paul Caputo came with me, armed with a boat hook for our protection, while I carried a Nikonos III camera. We jumped in, the carcass above raining down blood and bits of flesh as the tiger sharks tore into it. We figured the tiger sharks would be so busy eating and so full by now that they wouldn’t care about us, but that’s not how it went. One large tiger shark almost immediately left the banquet and swam straight at me. He stopped still in the water, dropped his pectoral fins and arched his back while staring at me, clearly making a threat display. I looked down and saw that the wimpy camera in my hands would not be able to fend him off and thought of Paul behind me with his equally ineffectual boat hook, and I realised this was not the place for us. I gave the shark a little salute and swam back to the boat, while he swam back to his meal. No harm, no foul. It wasn’t particularly frightening, but I’ll never forget the clear and assertive communication.

I had another memorable inter-species communication with dolphins on the White Sand Ridge off Grand Bahama. The dolphins are consistently there, but the necessary freediving skill is the challenge. The dolphins get bored easily, so you must move quickly and efficiently, and a breath-hold dive can get challenging. I planned to use a small bailout bottle that Aqualung made for helicopters that ditched in the sea. It wouldn’t allow me a lot of time breathing compressed air, but it was small enough to be hydrodynamic while swimming.

My plan was to get with a pod of dolphins, swim alongside them as long as I could while holding my breath and then switch to the bailout bottle. I would breathe it down to nothing, get a few more shots and free ascend to the surface. It was such a stupid plan that I can’t believe I’m even talking about it in a dive safety magazine — once I breathed the compressed air, I would have to exhale on the way up to avoid an embolism.

I found a photogenic pod and swam as hard as I could to keep up, finning alongside and about 25 feet below them. When I couldn’t hold my breath anymore, I went to the small cylinder, which I discovered had very little useful gas at that depth. When it was all done and I had every shot I thought I could get, I began my free ascent, exhaling all the way.

The pod of dolphins had been moving in one direction the whole time and was headed out to sea. When I started swimming to the surface and reached a point where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it without suffering a shallow-water blackout, the whole pod began circling me. The dolphins formed a swirling envelope around me, staying with me to the surface. I don’t know what they might have done if I had passed out — maybe nothing — but when I hit the surface and took my first breath, they peeled off and went on their way. I felt they knew I was in trouble and were there for me at that moment.

Maybe experiences like these are why we dive and why we miss it so much when we can’t. Each dive is a potential adventure. Each dive is a lesson if we are open to receiving it. There is no 24-hour news cycle underwater. We use the buddy system, not social distancing. When we are lucky, there may even be a special encounter that puts in perspective our small and insignificant place in this global web of life.

 - Alert Diver magazine 2020  Q2

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