Scuba Diving: The Doorway to an Alien World
As a kid, my pull to the water had my parents calling me a fish. What started out as an excitement for swimming turned into a stoke for surfing and a love for connecting with and taming a wondrous beast. Standing on the shore looking out into the ocean, you can't help but be in awe of the majestic forces of nature. It's a reminder of how fragile our human condition is. It's a symbol of the unknown. The ocean is where the pioneers of our history pushed the limits of exploration and possibility.
The earth is known as the "pale blue dot" for a reason - 71% of the earth's surface is covered in water. The deepest area of our oceans stretches down further than our highest mountains reach up toward the sky (Mt. Everest is 29,030' high - the Mariana Trench is 36,070' beneath the surface of the ocean). As humans, we find our comfort above the surface of the water, where the sunlight can meet our eyes and we can breathe freely and share a cold beer. But below the surface, there is an entirely different world with different rules and different creatures doing their thing.
Last weekend I went scuba diving for the first time off the coast of Pondicherry, India. The day before, we'd put on all the equipment and trained in a small pool to learn how to communicate, deal with issues underwater, and get used to the feeling. I can't begin to tell you how cool it feels to breathe underwater... I sat on the floor of our training pool stoked by the feeling that I now held the key to a new world. I couldn't wait to get into the ocean.
But then after I flopped backward off the boat with all my gear on, it suddenly felt so real. The pool was simple fun; the ocean is alive and unforgiving. We were 5km away from the shore, bobbing in the vastness with no land in sight. I stuck my head underwater and started breathing. This is wild. Then the instructor asked if I was ready to go down. I gave him the A-OK hand signal and we started making our descent. The first thing you notice is the change in sound. There is a fullness to being surrounded by water that you don't get on land. All I could hear was the sound of my breath and the rush of bubbles going past my face with each exhale. Here we go.
You can't go down too fast because the pressure increases rapidly underwater, so there are periodic stops on the way down to equalize the pressure and get acclimated (you hold your nose and blow into it to pop your ears). After ten minutes or so, we'd made it to our final depth of 12 meters deep and started to swim. I looked up and the fear set in. If this equipment fails I'm totally screwed - how long can I hold my breath? And even if everything did fail, you can't just swim straight up. Your capillaries constrict from the pressure and they need to decompress slowly on the way up or you can pass out. My heart was pounding. Suddenly I felt lost in an unknown world, unable to trust my gear. I signaled to the instructor that I wanted to go up, so we started heading toward the surface slowly. When we stopped to equalize, he motioned that I should breathe deeply and try to relax, so I did. My body felt like it was rejecting the experience and shutting down. But after a handful of deep, purposeful breaths I was able to settle into a sense of comfort. I signaled to keep the dive going and turned my focus to the sheer wonder of what was happening around me.
Colorful fish swirled around us in all different shapes and sizes. The ocean floor danced with tentacled algae-looking plants. I was breathing 30' beneath the surface of the ocean... this is crazy! Curiosity overtook the fear. I started kicking my legs and effortlessly moved through the water. Here I am, floating in space through a world that I'd never known. It was incredible. I felt like the experience gave me a glimpse into what an alien world could look like on a faraway planet. The possibilities for life to exist in the universe are endless beyond belief. The water to these fish is the air that I breathe. Who knows what else is out there and what other elements organisms are using to fuel their lives.
Even after spending a lifetime around water, I'd never experienced it like this... and no matter what else is happening among the stars, there's no denying the magic and mystery of our own beautiful planet.