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THE WILDEST PROVINCE OF THE SEA
Peter R. Gimbel
November 17, 1958
In the depths of the colder oceans lies a strange and fearful world which few men have explored. Here is the story of deep-ocean free diving
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November 17, 1958

The Wildest Province Of The Sea

In the depths of the colder oceans lies a strange and fearful world which few men have explored. Here is the story of deep-ocean free diving

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The colder oceans, with their dim light so strangely diffused by its long passage through the middle ground, produce one of the coldest neutral tones in all the world, a bizarre twilight—the emasculated light of day. And the scene it lights is just as outlandish: the muddy brown or gray of the bottom deposits; the huge lumpy boulders of the deep ledges covered with drab growth, made more so by startling contrast with an occasional delicate vermilion starfish or an exquisite anemone so delicately formed that it looks like a blossom made of pollen; the big schools of slow swimming pollack and cod, grave and austere, amidst the curious little cunners darting all about; the occasional shark appearing big and ghostly at the perimeter of vision, gliding close by without movement and watched anxiously out of sight by the divers hovering horizontal beneath their clusters of rising silver bubbles; the numerous flatfish lying inconspicuous on the bottom mud, their bulging eyes, both on the upper side, staring vacantly up; and under nearly every rock the atavistic-looking blennies, sometimes two or three to a rock, with just their heads sticking out, long eellike fishes with the sad amber eyes of a hound dog—all part of that submerged wilderness colored in graveyard hues. The austere shades, weird profiles and cold light set a grim mood compared with the light cheerfulness of the tropics.

Despite the stability he may derive from wide experience, any diver at depth is psychologically susceptible to his environment. His mood will take its cue from the tone of his surroundings. Below 130 or 140 feet, divers commence to respond to the narcotic effect of breathing air under high pressure. Nitrogen narcosis as a phenomenon of breathing air under high pressures has been known for many years but has been reborn glamorously in this era of free diving under such partially misleading aliases as "rapture of the deep" and "drunkenness of the depths." From both these names, one could infer that the dominant feeling of nitrogen narcosis is one of buoyant well-being, which is indeed sometimes the case. But whatever it is called, a basic fact of nitrogen narcosis is that it produces a central-nervous-system depression. The reaction to this depressant effect varies from person to person; in fact, it often varies enormously with the same diver on different occasions or in changed circumstances. Nitrogen narcosis, like most narcotics—and like alcohol, too—often intensifies the subject's existing mood. A diver's mood, strongly affected as it is at depth by environmental conditions, is almost certain to be more carefree in the clear, light-filled waters of the tropics than in the somber surroundings of temperate oceans. Since free diving had its most vigorous beginnings in the clear-water latitudes, nitrogen narcosis came to be known by benign names suggestive of happy abandon. This series of conclusions, which seems so neat in theory as to be suspect, does, nevertheless, hold up in practice. But, though it is known around the Mediterranean as L'ivresse des grandes profondeurs (rapture of the deep), nitrogen narcosis is called familiarly the "uglies" by the very capable California divers of the temperate seas who refer to the phenomenon with considerable respect but not much affection.

NIGHTMARES IN THE MEASURELESS SEA

The hostile wilderness of temperate waters at great depths infects divers with some degree of apprehension, and that is apt to be the mood, conscious or subconscious, which narcosis intensifies. Divers in the pressing gloom of temperate seas rarely feel euphoria. They are sometimes overwhelmed by a sense of nightmarish unreality, of nameless monsters lurking just beyond their perimeter of vision, of their utter frailness in the midst of the measureless bulk of flowing sea. None of these feelings are akin in any way to the light-hearted symptoms of nitrogen narcosis in the tropics. They are dark, fearful feelings of general dread and panic born of the cheerless twilight.

As with many real hazards that are recognized but not controllable, experience is the effective counter-measure. Every seasoned diver going below a certain depth (it varies considerably in individuals) knows that he will fall under the narcotic effect of nitrogen. He simply accepts that handicap as one of the occupational difficulties of the game, like his relative clumsiness and his inability to use water as an oxygen source as a fish does. He learns to control those narcotic reactions that might become runaway. While it is true that most people under the effect of nitrogen narcosis lose a certain amount of their normal purpose, vigor and ingenuity and sometimes make an impressive number of silly mistakes, those used to deep diving very seldom make fundamental errors. A highly developed determination to survive speaks with a clear voice through even the heaviest daze. After all, there seldom is a reprieve from the sentence imposed by submission to heavy nitrogen narcosis in any of its forms, and especially the panic variety of dark waters. There is no breathing regulator made that can feed enough air to a terror-stricken man at the great depths where gas, being dense from compression, flows more reluctantly than normal. The vicious circle of panic, a false sense of insufficient air and fatigue are a stern combination when they get started.

A diver ascending from great depths finds almost immediate relief from nitrogen narcosis and from all the other hazards, psychological and real, as well. Just as he feels during his headfirst plunge that he is diving into an alien gulf, so, when he starts his upward swim, the reality of his own familiar world of air grows with every foot he rises toward the brightening sunlight. Even the overwhelming quality of the middle ground loses much of its power; he is headed for the light of day and he knows well what is there. The very sound of lessening pressure is a strangely reassuring note of relief. The noise of air feeding through a demand regulator, urgent—almost screaming—at depth moderates progressively and becomes peaceful in the shallower zones. The bubbles seem bigger and happier-looking—they look more glasslike and less metallic. It is quite amazing how harmoniously these sights and sounds of ascending blend with the feelings of a diver swimming up from the hidden mansions of the sea, returning to his own familiar world of free air and daylight.

 

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