Taking the plunge.

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Lake Jocassee, SC

To truly know the world, look deeply within your own being; to truly know yourself, take real interest in the world.  — Rudolf Steiner

I’ve been fascinated by diving for about a year now, but never thought I’d actually want to do it myself.    That’s changed now.   I really want to try it.   I feel like it would be great for my confidence and open doors to new adventures, making life more interesting.

Today I visited a SCUBA diving shop that I’ve always passed on my way to work and never really paid attention to before.  The store was filled with customers, but the man inside, David K, who happened to be the owner, greeted me as if he’d been waiting for me.    We talked for about 20 minutes or longer.  The store doesn’t just sell diving gear, they also offer PADI (the worldwide SCUBA diving organization)training classes, which are held on the weekends.   They’re not cheap, but not as expensive as I had feared either.   I may be able to afford them next year, after tax time.  I have some money stashed away, but I really don’t want to touch that, in case of an emergency.

David seemed eager to have me in one of his classes.  I was afraid my age might be a factor, but it isn’t.   He says he’s had students up to their 70s and even 80s.  He offers group or individual classes, but I’d probably opt for the cheaper group classes, which are small (about 8 people).  The course is in three phases: classroom learning and quizzes (you get a book, like in school); practical training in the deep end of a swimming pool at David’s home; and finally, open water experience at Lake Jocassee in northwestern South Carolina (at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains) which has exceptionally clear waters (visibility is high; it’s not dark and murky like most lakes).   It’s also exceptionally deep in the middle, at over 300 feet at its deepest, but of course we wouldn’t be diving that deep, since this is a beginning class.   We’d only go to about 25 feet for PADI certification (after passing this part of the training, you get your PADI certificate, which qualifies you to dive up to 130 feet at any diving site, not that I’d EVER go that deep!).

I’m really pumped.  I’ve decided I’m definitely doing this.  I NEED to do this. I feel like I was called to this because it’s something God wants me to do.  I have many fears.  I always have.  Because of my PTSD and general temperament, I spend a lot of time being fearful or apprehensive of things, and although I’m crazily attracted and curious about deep water and its mysteries, it also scares me (thalassophobia — fear of deep water — is probably a healthy fear).  I feel like overcoming my apprehension will change my life and make me less fearful in general.  I actually told David this, and he didn’t laugh at me or look at me like I was crazy.  Instead, he told me the story of one of his students, a veteran who was suffering from PTSD.  Taking the class helped him overcome his fears to the point that when he passed the open water test, he burst into tears of gratitude and joy, and is now working on getting advanced certification for divers who want to go deeper than 130 feet.

Jocassee Valley in the early 1970s

I’ve never been in water deeper than 12 feet,and that was in a swimming pool.   I’ve never wanted to touch the bottom of the deep end of a swimming pool, because being down that deep just seems spooky to me, but I have no fear of being in deep water and I can tread water for hours.  I even taught my children to tread water when they were very young, just three and five.  They used water wings at first.  Within a month, both could play in the deep part of a swimming pool without any kiddie contrivances (with supervision of course).  As for the ocean, as much as I love it, I have never waded out where my head was not above water.

I can’t end this article without including the story of Lake Jocassee.   I’d never heard of it until David told me about it yesterday, and its history is fascinating.  Jocassee is a large manmade lake nestled in a mountain valley, and it didn’t exist until 1973.  It was formed by merging four rivers that used to converge in the Jocassee valley, for the purpose of providing a reservoir for Duke Energy.  The town that was in that valley was evacuated before it was flooded, and all its buildings — including a graveyard! — are still there at the deepest part of the lake (almost 350 feet of water covers the town).  Oh, and it turns out parts of the movie Deliverance was filmed in the old town before it was flooded!

Advanced divers regularly explore the submerged buildings and the graveyard.  Every Halloween, there is even a special graveyard dive (you’ll never get me to go on that!).   I read a story about a woman whose childhood home was discovered by divers and was astonished to find out her house was still mostly intact, although now lying on its side.  She has become close friends with the divers who found her home. She says they have been the kindest and most compassionate people she ever met.  She can barely talk about their respect for her childhood home without choking up.

Here is a video showing divers exploring some of the town’s artifacts.

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“Free Fall” (video)

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After posting Julie Gautier’s underwater dance video “AMA” the other day, I was led to watch some of her other short films.  She is not only a talented underwater choreographer, dancer, and freediver, she is also an incredible filmmaker.

Gautier’s husband, Guillaume Néry, is a championship freediver (diving without any breathing equipment), author, and public speaker.   Here is the video Julie made of her husband diving into Dean’s Blue Hole, located in the Bahamas.   A blue hole is basically an underwater sinkhole, and they are common in the Bahamas.   This video was filmed entirely on one breath.  

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That tempting dark blue is just nothingness all the way down.

In “Free Fall,” Nery slowly makes his way down a gentle incline of pure white silty sand toward the edge of the sinkhole (Dean’s Blue Hole is 663 feet at its deepest point).  He stands at the edge of the abyss for what seems an eternity, and finally dives down into the darkness, and it seems just like he’s flying.   When he lands, it’s not at the deepest part of the blue hole  (I don’t think reaching 663 feet is possible for freediving — no one can hold their breath that long); I’ve read it was around 300 feet or a little over that.   But who cares?  It’s still mind blowing.   It’s really like another planet under the ocean, with a different sort of “air” that allows you to fly down into canyons, and rock climb back up to the top with ease.  

“Free Fall” is quite possibly the coolest video I have ever seen.   What’s so amazing about it is no special effects whatsoever have been used.   Everything you see here is exactly as it happened, from Julia’s perspective (who was filming it and probably also there to provide her husband with an oxygen tank, if any problems developed).

How can something appear to be so completely exhilarating, and at the same time be so utterly terrifying?   The darkness and depth of that blue hole is spine chilling, but when the camera pans upward toward the sunlight filtering down deep into the darkness,  I had to catch my own breath in awe.

The song (“You Make Me Feel” by a group called Archive) is pretty great too.  I think it’s just perfect for this video.

Please watch and comment!

On dying alone in deep ocean waters.

I was browsing nature videos on Youtube the other night, and I stumbled on the below video.  I watched the entire thing, and was simultaneously fascinated and horrified.    The footage of this 22 year old diving instructor (who should have known better than to scuba dive in one of the most dangerous diving locations on the planet without the proper equipment or with a diving partner) falling to his death on the ocean floor is incredibly scary and heartbreaking.   TRIGGER WARNING:  If you are bothered by footage of actual deaths in progress, I don’t recommend watching this video.

 

On April 28, 2000, Yuri Lipski, a 22 year old Russian diving instructor, decided to dive in the (in)famous (but very popular) Blue Hole off the coast of Egypt, in the Red Sea.   It was his last dive.   Because the entire dive, including his death, was recorded on camera, he became the most well known casualty of what has become dubbed by many “The Divers’ Graveyard.”

One of the basic rules for scuba divers is to never dive without a buddy, and to make sure you have the proper equipment appropriate for the depth you plan to dive.  Only the most experienced divers who are equipped with special tanks containing an oxygen/helium/nitrogen mix (oxygen alone becomes toxic at great depths) should ever attempt to dive to depths greater than 130 feet (40 meters).

Yuri apparently dove alone to depths exceeding the recommended 40 meters, in order to pass under the much desired “arch” which is a deceptively deep underwater cavelike structure (and to a diver appears much closer than it actually is), to get the best views.  Or at least that’s the theory, since Yuri never lived to tell his story.   Whatever really happened, he soon lost control and began hurtling toward the ocean floor once the water pressure became too great for him to be able to achieve buoyancy and rise to the surface.  He was carrying too much camera equipment and only one standard oxygen tank, a grave mistake.  There was no way he would have been able to return to the surface once he got much below the “safe zone.”   Not only because there was too much water pressure for him to be able to achieve enough buoyancy to return to the surface at that depth, but also because he would have died anyway from a condition called the “bends” (decompression sickness) even if he had been able to rise before his limited oxygen ran out.  If he had tried to go through the “arch,” he also would have ran out of oxygen long before he could make it back to the surface and drowned.   Yuri’s fate was sealed from the get go.

You can hear Yuri wheezing and struggling to get enough air into his lungs as he hurtles toward his death.  He seemed to be aware of his fate though one cannot be sure.  It seemed like he may have been suffering a seizure as he hit bottom but was still aware of his surroundings because he checked his diver’s computer and finally ripped off his oxygen mask.  It must have been absolutely terrifying .  He was suffering from a serious medical condition known to divers called narcosis, caused by the intake of too much oxygen.  Narcosis causes a diver to enter an altered state similar to drunkenness but which may also include hallucinations like a psychedelic drug.    It seriously impairs a diver’s judgment and can itself be fatal.

This excellent documentary explains the science of why narcosis happens and speculates about  what actually happened to Yuri Lipski before he died and what he must have experienced in those final moments.   It also explains why the Blue Hole in the Dahab region of Egypt, which is easy to access (it’s right off the beach), having calm waters and usually good weather, is deceptive in its “easiness” but is actually one of the most dangerous diving spots on earth.

 

On the vastness of “short” distances in ocean waters.

I love the beach and the ocean, but there is something incredibly creepy about deep ocean water. The weird thing is, Yuri sank only 330 feet. Yes, I said only. When you stop and think about it, 330 feet really isn’t that much — except in a body of water like the ocean. Here’s a thought experiment. Think about something that is 330 feet away from you. That’s just a little bit longer than the length of a football field. It’s not even a tenth of a mile. Most highway exits exceed this length. If someone was standing 330 feet away from you, you would probably think they were fairly close, within shouting distance. You would definitely see what they were wearing and be able to recognize who they were (if you have decent vision).

Most of the ocean is much, much deeper than this. The deepest part of the ocean, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is more than 37,000 feet, which is much deeper than Mt. Everest is tall! There are other trenches and abyssal plains that are also incredibly deep, miles deep, not just feet. So, 330 feet is a tiny fraction of the deepest waters in most oceans; it wouldn’t even be a decent sized hill on land! And yet, when we are talking about the ocean, it seems to make little difference if the depth you fall is 330 feet or 33,000.

Yuri’s fall seems to take an eternity, and the blackness descends fast, since sunlight rarely penetrates much deeper than 200 to 300 feet of water or so.   If the water is murky, it can become black at even shallower deaths.   The pressure above you is insurmountable at the kind of depths Yuri descended to.   330 feet is over twice the maximum depth that even the diving experts recommend without special equipment. It was not survivable, and yet…330 is almost nothing when compared to most of the ocean. At the bottom of the Mariana Trench it is just as black as the bottom of this Blue Hole whose bottom is only 330 feet. The only difference is Yuri would have been long dead before reaching the bottom of the Challenger Deep , which is a SEVEN MILE DESCENT! It would have taken a couple of hours, at least.  Yuri’s fall took just over five minutes, yet must have seemed like an eternity.   By my calculations, he must have been falling at just over 60 feet per minute, or one foot per second (that’s pretty fast).

The surrounding waters were already very dark when he passed the last visible diver in the background. We can’t tell if that other diver had descended deeper than the recommended 130 feet but chances are good that if he did, he had the proper equipment to handle it, which Yuri did not.

I cannot tell which moment was “the point of no return”– that is, the point at which Yuri would not have been able to rise to the surface again.  But watching this and realizing he almost certainly was aware of his fate and there was nothing that could be done chills me to the bone.

It’s incredible to me that you can be merely 330 feet from the surface of the ocean, and perhaps only yards away from other people, and yet when you are enveloped in the dark waters of the ocean at this depth you might as well be alone in the universe. Other than floating alone in space, I can think of nothing more existentially lonely and terrifying than sinking in total blackness to the bottom of the ocean, even if that bottom is a mere 330 feet down and mere yards away from safety. In the ocean, such distances might as well be light years.

Yuri Lipski may have died too young and in a horrifying way, but at least he died doing something he loved more than anything else in the world.  Diving was his entire life.    I hope he is resting in peace.

Rollin’ on the river.

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On Friday, I had a day off.  The plan was for me, and my daughter and her friend to go tubing on the French Broad River (yes, that’s it’s actual name).    We started off around 1 PM, parked our car, signed up at Zen Tubing and paid our fees — 3 rented tubes and another one to carry our small cooler.  We also purchased a waterproof box to carry our cell phones.  Then a bunch of us boarded a jitney bus that took us about 3 miles to where we picked up our tubes and headed off.

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It’s a good thing I decided to buy some cheap water shoes with treads because the rocks as you’re getting in the tubes are very slippery!

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Soon we were on the water.   There were straps where you could attach the tubes so they wouldn’t separate, but at first they kept getting tangled and it seemed like we weren’t moving at all. But we actually were moving, because when I looked back behind us, the boarding point was very far away.

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Soon we were in the groove and rolling down the river.   The trip is about 3 miles (back to the rental and sign-up place) and takes about 2 – 2 1/2 hours.    It’s incredibly relaxing and the tubes are comfortable.  Soon I was leaning back in my tube and just taking in the gorgeous scenery all around.

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The cold water felt good on my feet as I spashed them in the water.  Blue dragonflies   were everywhere, landing on our tubes, on our cooler, on my body!    A lot of them were mating in mid-air (which I wrote about in my last post).     I should have taken a photo of them but they’d always move before I had the chance.   They did become slightly annoying in some areas, because there were so many. But other than that, the trip was perfect, and so relaxing.

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In some areas the slowly moving water became more like rapids, and going over those was a lot of fun.   At one point we got caught on some rocks and my daughter’s friend had to get out of his tube to get us free (the water in the river is surprisingly shallow, and we were told never gets over about 5 feet, even in the middle).

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In some areas there were rocks you could sit on, and at one point we did.  We got out of our tubes and climbed up on the rocks (again, they were so slippery I had to put my shoes back on) and took some pictures.   We looked over at the side of the river and saw some kids swinging from a rope into the river and swimming in it (you can see that in the below picture):

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The French Broad isn’t really great to swim in.  I’d heard it’s infected with e-coli, so you definitely don’t want to drink it.  But for tubing or kayaking it’s perfect.

Finally, we reached our destination, and we were all sunburned but I felt so relaxed.   Afterwards, we stopped for ice cream and headed home.  I’ll definitely go tubing again soon.