Now I tell you, mate, we all tempt fate
when we dive beneath the sea,
For a man is a fool to break the rule
that nature meant to be....
I am reclining uneasily on the sandy bottom off Athol Island, 18 feet down, in what Gardner Young calls "the shallow depths," unduly aware of my loud, exalted inspirations and expirations. By my elbows little transparent fish hop about like grasshoppers, unaccompanied by Disney musicians. Before me is the reef and its numerous, brilliant population; behind me the great, empty, shrouded hall of the sea. Its floor, thinly planted with turtle grass, slopes predictably into the dark. There I behold the head of a large fish, perhaps a jack, magnified by refraction, protruding, like Punch between the curtains, from the gloom, regarding me, withdrawing. If I were to turn and swim forward, girdled with 10 pounds of lead to keep me from rising, a tank of compressed air on my back, a regulator enabling me to breathe, a mask allowing me to see, wearing rubber fins to facilitate my progress, the darkness would recede by exactly as much as I advanced, so that I would be continually illuminated, but I would not know where I was going or, looking futilely back, where I had come from; and, because the bottom of the sea is largely barren and uniform, without points of reference, I would undoubtedly lose my way. I feel the above (the below!) fairly approximates life, how we make our way, necessarily encumbered and groping, and this is why, perhaps perversely, I prefer the monotonous plain, where a solitary tulip shell slowly marches on its single foot, to the reef, from which I derive no fear or comfort. The diversions of the reef, its beauty, have been sufficiently described, but they are, in a way, illusory; a piece of coral chipped from a head is literally stinking when brought to the surface. Likewise, the fish are diminished and grow pale before they die, but beyond the reef the bitter interior of the sea prevails, extending, relevant and reminiscent, even in my dreams.
Would Gardner Young class me with psychiatrists who, he contends, make the world's worst diving pupils? "They are not out for a good time," he says. "They want an experience."
Gardner, his wife Doris, and their partner, Charley Badeau, own and operate Underwater Tours, Ltd. of Nassau in the Bahamas, whose business it is to teach tourists how to scuba dive in hotel pools—where they may come across such sunken treasures as a rusty bow from a pair of sunglasses—and then to take them out in "the big water" to poke about reefs. Among UT's six soft-sell instructors is a young chap named Caius St. George, whom it is my ambition to introduce to Cassius Clay, so I can say, "Caius meet Cassius." Another is Rodney Brears, a hairdresser and pilot from Nottingham. "Where they shot the arrows," says Rodney, who feels that flying and diving are related, in that they both allow one to be alone. Gardner once shot a crossbow underwater. In a film called Warlords of the Deep, which has not yet been released, he played, alternately, a member of Captain Nemo's crew and a Gill Man. "The problem with the Captain Nemo suit was that I couldn't see out of it," Gardner says. "The problem with the Gill Man suit was that I couldn't breathe. The Nemos are supposed to shoot the Gill Men with crossbows, but some jackass made the arrows out of wood, so they flew straight to the surface."
Scuba lessons � la Young take around an hour, and are called check-outs. "Most people are opposed to taking anything called lessons," Doris explains. Obviously, in an hour, one is not going to learn Henry's Law, or Ditching the Equipment, but you do find out how to clear your mask and regulator and how best to pop your ears. Says Gardner: "We do not approve of taking you out on the reef, as others do, and saying, 'This is a regulator, this is a pair of fins, down you go, lots of luck.' You're not apt to enjoy the trip that way."
Underwater Tours picks you up at your hotel in a Volkswagen bus, after having first called your room to make sure you've gotten up, and drives you over to the boat for the 20-minute trip to the reef, where it assigns buddies, straps you in self-inflating life vests and diving gear, helps you onto the diving platform and then, as each pair of divers, accompanied by an instructor, descends, says, "Lots of luck."
There are usually two reef trips daily, and the boat can accommodate as many as 10 divers. There is also room for 10 snorkelers and glass-bottomed-barrel lookers. Rates are $25 for the pool check-out and the first reef trip, including gear, air and coffee, and $20 for each subsequent trip, with the fourth being free. Snorkelers and lookers pay $10 a trip. UT also rents outboards, cylinders, regulators, etc. to experienced divers, but no spear guns.
Learning how to scuba dive under the Youngs' exceedingly soothing direction is somewhat easier than learning how to ride a bicycle, and even little old ladies from Dubuque can do it. In fact, a little old (and mighty plump) biology teacher from Texas did do it. "I put 10 pounds of lead in that woman's hand," says Gardner, "and the top of her head was dry. It took 22 pounds to sink her, but she was as happy as a clam. She had a net bag and a hammer and she collected coral samples. I'm sure that after she checked out the Royal Victoria had to fumigate her room, because of the lingering aroma of her samples, and I'd hate to have had to pay the overweight on her baggage."
You barely have to know how to swim in order to dive, but it is helpful if you do not have too lurid an imagination, and, of course, you cannot be afraid to put your head underwater. Actually, it's a big help not to have too many fears, atavistic or otherwise. Take me. I'm a strong swimmer, but I'm a coward. Every shred of seaweed I collide with feels like the hide of a hammerhead shark. When I was swimming off the Nassau Beach Hotel, where my room overlooked a beautiful parking lot, I encountered an enormous blue jellyfish, gently writhing. It had some curious markings on it: "Warning—to Avoid Danger of Suffocation Keep Away from Babies and Children. Do Not Use in Cribs, Beds, Carriages or Playpens. This Bag Is Not a Toy." On the other hand, while the Youngs were in New York for an appearance by Doris on To Tell The Truth, Gardner happened to be standing on a subway grating when, with a terrible roar, a train passed below. "He jumped eight feet in the air," says Doris.
Underwater Tours hasn't lost anyone yet. Indeed, it claims it is the first in its field to fully insure its clientele. Each lunger (UT's word, not mine, thank God) is covered by Lloyd's of London with a �25,000 accident policy. The closest call was with one customer who surfaced, palpably choking. Gardner took the man's regulator out, pushed up his mask and, as a matter of course, pounded him on the back. His false teeth came flying out; they had slipped and lodged in his throat. "We had 100 divers down from the Atlantis Divers Club of Chicago," Gardner says. "There were two accidents. One diver fell off a scooter and one was bitten by a dog in front of a police station."