Thursday 21 April 2011

Spring Beneath the Waves, Part 1

(Written for my church's "Spring Miscellany" service.)

“A school of fingerling trout hangs motionless above a meadow of freshwater grass. We could pick them like apples if we cared to. They’re sleeping out the winter, drunk with cold.”

So said the American diver, Andrew Todhunter, diving beneath the surface of a frozen lake in the High Sierras in California in the middle of winter.

I myself, however, have never seen this. Although it is possible to scuba dive in winter in Britain, it requires a warmer diving suit, known as a drysuit, which I have yet to purchase. In addition to this, as Todhunter says, little moves beneath the waves, or beneath the surface of our lakes and quarries, in the depths of winter. The cold-blooded creatures of the water slow down and, like many of their land-based counterparts, hibernate throughout the coldest time of the year.

So, like many British scuba divers, I eagerly await the arrival of spring. There is no official start date to the diving season, since it depends upon local conditions and individual divers’ toleration of different temperatures, but March is usually the earliest many divers will venture back into our seas. Before this, short hours of daylight, rough seas, cold water, and bad weather on the surface make sea diving an unattractive proposition. And, as I’ve said, there is relatively little moving down there to see!

The first dive of the season is always an exciting and slightly anxious time, as we venture back into the habitat we have been away from for so long, and strap ourselves back into our equipment. Though humans evolved to be excellent swimmers on the surface of the water, to return to the world sixty feet below the surface is to venture into an environment we are not naturally adapted to be part of. So, to return to the water we must instead use that great product of evolution, the human brain.

Human ingenuity has designed equipment to compensate for all our physical shortcomings beneath the waves. As I prepare to enter the water, I carry on my back enough air to fill the interior of a large wardrobe at normal atmospheric pressure; compressed to 232 times atmospheric pressure, it fits into a bottle I can carry on my back. A thick wetsuit compensates for our human lack of insulation in the cold water. Lacking flippers or a tail, plastic fins on my feet enable me to propel myself through the water, and a plastic mask holds air in front of my face, so that eyes that evolved to survive on land can see clearly 60 feet beneath the surface of the North Sea.

We climb down across the rocky beach, and cross the rocks to the shoreline with care. Pausing to check that our equipment is working, we fit our masks and fins, put air into our inflatable jackets, and waddle slowly out into the waves. Like seals, divers are not graceful upon the land.

As we enter the water, the cold seeps slowly through our suits. Despite what many people think about diving in Britain, though, it does not stay cold. The thick wetsuits we wear soon trap the water next to our bodies, allowing it to heat to body temperature and keeping the diver warm and comfortable during the dive. People do not believe me when I say that diving in the North Sea does not make you cold, but with the proper gear it’s quite possible to stay comfortable!

Most importantly, as we swim out from the shore to the point at which the water becomes deep enough to submerge, we turn onto our fronts and dip our faces into the water. With our masks on, we can see beneath us into the world we will soon be entering.

The concept of the doorway into another world is a long and ancient one. There can surely be few human cultures that have not developed the concept of human beings being able to pass from the day-to-day world we all inhabit into another world where the normal rules of existence do not apply; whether it be Alice going through the Looking Glass, or the ancient Romans worshipping Janus, god of doorways and gates. Typically, the person going through the doorway must prepare themselves in some way to do so, and, whilst in the other world, may find that they have acquired new abilities, or will face new challenges...

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