Saturday 30 April 2011

Spring Beneath the Waves, Part 2

...This is, perhaps, the aspect of diving most difficult to convey to those who do not dive. Not only do we enter another world, we gain new abilities within it. We float weightlessly, our bodies hovering within the water, drifting elegantly past rocks and reefs with steady kicks of our reefs. Whereas when we swim or snorkel on the surface, we can only very temporarily experience what a fish experiences before the need to breathe draws us back to the air world, a diver swims among our fellow creatures as one of them.

Perhaps the only comparable sensation to the weightlessness a diver experiences when submerged is that experienced by astronauts who have left Earth’s gravity field, but the underwater world is very much of this Earth. The other question people ask British divers (the first one being “Don’t you get cold?”) is “Can you see anything down there?”

They would, I think, be very surprised to learn that when we return to the sea in the spring, the underwater world is teeming with colour and life. Beneath us, tiny hermit crabs in brown shells scuttle about on their orange and white legs. Their bigger relatives, the green velvet swimming crab and orange edible crab, walk quickly across the pale sea floor, or wave their claws at the curious faces peering in at their rocky homes in the reef. Dark purple and orange kelp forests cover the rocks, providing homes for small silver and green fish to dart in and out of.

A diver armed with a torch may even find one of our most striking creatures, the common lobster, hiding in a hole in the rocks. An impressive sight, with their navy blue armour and bright red antennae, they are rarely as pleased to see us as we are to see them. Perhaps most unexpectedly of all, pink and purple are colours often seen beneath the waves. Vivid pink rocks litter the seabed, purple and orange sponges grow across them, and an observant diver will often spot an elegant purple starfish clinging to the rocks!

Spring beneath the waves is a time of renewal. We re-enter our other world with joy, greeting again the familiar sights of crabs scuttling beneath the waves, kelp swaying in the back-and-forth of the tides, and small starfish making their homes upon the rocks. At this stage in the year, most animals are smaller than the size they will eventually reach in the warmer waters of summer, and we have yet to see the familiar summer sight of a large lion’s mane or purple jellyfish drifting in the current with its passengers of small silver fish. Elsewhere in the sea the seal pups born the previous autumn will be adult seals now, playing among the rocks and wrecks of the Farne Islands.

Eventually, of course, we must return to our own world. Even the large volume of air compressed into the steel bottle on my back will only last for so long. We did not evolve to live here, but we are very privileged to become a part of this world. I once heard of a diver who dived because, he said, it was the only place he became convinced of the existence of a Creator. Perhaps for him, as for me, the encounter with another world helped him shed the old habits of mind we acquire through long familiarity with our world, and look again at the miraculous complexity and beauty of life.

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