Issue Nine, Nonfiction

Breathing Underwater by Judi Anani

Rabaul, Papua New Guinea (PNG), August 2016  

I am on board a 5-meter-long aluminum dinghy, Miss Ginny, as it unapologetically carves a path through otherwise serene blue waters. Squinting against the sun, three of us propel across the tropical expanse. We allow the shore to shrink behind us until the ever-intimidating volcanic mount Tavurvur becomes a mere wisp in the horizon (1).   

Jonathan, our local guide, sits with a hand casually placed on the tiller steer and stares ahead thoughtfully. Our eyes meet and he smiles genuinely bearing red buai stained teeth (2).   

Everyone I have met on this island nation smiles like they mean it. As if they do not mind at all an arduous trek up the mountain in the tropical heat to access freshwater. As if they do not care that the lime powder they mix with betel nut has eroded their teeth. As if they are not perturbed by foreign-owned mines growing rich from local commodities, while the local economy struggles.   

Nathan, my employer, and scuba companion sits across from me and fiddles with a Go-pro camera. He owns the Golden Sunset, the 30ft sailboat that is our home and my workplace as we sail around Papua New Guinea and the pacific. I watch him grow increasingly frustrated as he struggles to fit a waterproof case on the small device. He looks at me, grins, and lets out a frustrated grunt. His smile seems somewhat less sincere, even if well-intended. In a couple of minutes, he points the camera at me.   

“Smile!”  

I do, but it is a well-practiced smile, even if there was nowhere else I would rather be. Internally, my thoughts race as I come to terms with the confusing events of 2016 so far. (3)    

I have been in PNG for two weeks now and have known Nathan for precisely that length of time. He contacted me, offering adventure, work, and, perhaps what was most needed, a distraction. I answered his phone call absentmindedly, standing on a beach in Newcastle, Australia. Earlier that very day my sister had sent word of our father’s death. I could go back to Canada for the funeral, and act as a mourning daughter is expected to, even though I hadn’t spoken to my father in years. Or I could get on a flight to Port Morsby, meet this stranger, and help him sail to New Zealand. I did not give it much thought.   

I am brought out of my reverie as we slow to a complete stop at what might mistakenly seem as a random location, on the northern part of the island. Jonathan turns off the motor and we each take a moment to take in our surrounding to the sound of the ocean gently lapping against the boat. In front of us, a jungle covered cliff meets the deep water. The Japanese used this bay to provision submarines during the war. Precise coordinates bring us to the base and not chance at all. Our plan is to scuba dive alongside the reef wall that drops over 75 meters below sea level.   

Nathan and I, both avid scuba divers, are ready within minutes. Having gone through the necessary gear safety checks we jump into the water and stay afloat only long enough to wave to Jonathan and secure our regulators in our mouths. In unison, we descend, each with a hand on the BCD valve allowing air out of the vest, the other hand on face mask, occasionally squeezing nostrils shut as we blow, allowing our eardrums to equalize against the water pressure.   

There are perhaps very few other places in the world, if any, that offer the diversity of sites that PNG does. The marine life is relatively intact, largely due to the fact that locals do not have the fishing gear to create irreparable damage. Nathan and I have already encountered more reef sharks on this trip than I have in all my, albeit limited, travels. Today we are hoping to get footage of these adrenaline-inducing creatures.   

At a depth of ten meters, Nathan gives me the OK sign and gestures in the direction we will be heading. The reef wall to our right, we travel with the mild current, increasing our depth, until the sky is no longer visible through the ocean’s surface. I trail a few meters behind Nathan. His long legs give him more distance with each kick, and I like to take my time, appreciating the micro marine life as well as the bigger creatures. Occasionally he looks back at me and signals “OK” as a question not a statement. I confirm by returning the OK sign, thumb to forefinger, creating an O shape.   

Having logged many more dives than me, Nathan is also more comfortable flirting with a 50-meter threshold. I find myself continuously glancing nervously at my depth gauge as I follow him. When circumstances allow, I decrease my depth a bit, as long as we don’t lose sight of each other. At 40 meters below sea level, the gas mixture in my air tank is under 4  times more pressure than it would be on the surface. Each inhale requires approximately that much more effort, making me appreciative of each breath I can take. Yet the cold and the laborious breathing are small prices to pay if they give one access to the largest,  unexplored playground on earth.  

Covering most of our planet, the ocean gives us life, inspiration, mystery, sustenance, economy, and connects us all. It is believed by some that the human body’s reliance on, and composition of, salt, and water, is directly correlated to the ocean. As indeed, Arthur C. Clark was quite on point when he stated, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.”   

 As such I continue, eyes darting between depth gauge, Nathan, and the rich marine life surrounding the reef. The current is much slower now, I decide I can take a few seconds to clear my mask. This requires lifting the bottom part of the mask off my face while I blow with my nose any water that had seeped in, something which I had done many times previously but, on that day, the band holding the mask to my face broke, and the mask slipped out of my hands. Immediately, the sea water reduces my vision to dreamy shades of blue and black. My hands desperately search the area around me to no avail.  

In recreational diving, the recommended depth limit is 40 meters. The breathing gas inside the air tank consists of a mixture of Oxygen and Nitrogen. The deeper one ventures, the more pressure is being applied to this mixture. Breathing pressurized Nitrogen can cause a reversible euphoric / anesthetic effect that could hinder a diver’s judgment and decision-making process. 

At such a depth, the gases in our lungs and veins are also under pressure. As pressure is decreased gas expands, if the gas in our bodies expands too quickly it causes decompression sickness. For this reason, divers use safety stops, brief but necessary intervals as we ascend.    

As quickly as my fingers lose touch of the mask, the consequential reality sinks in. Without it I could not see Nathan, my depth gauge, or any possible threat. Without the depth gauge, I wouldn’t know where to do a safety stop. I decide to hold on to the wall on my right to avoid drifting up or down. I hope that Nathan will quickly realize that I am not behind. I hope that his instinct would be to come back rather than wait for me to catch up.  I start counting in my head. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four……  

I remember that the last time I looked at the gauge it indicated 8 bars left. That would give me a maximum of ten minutes bottom time.   

…..Fifty-nine one thousand. Sixty one thousand…..  

OK, 9 minutes.  

…one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand…..  

I wonder how many bars Nathan has left and how much time that would give him to find me.  

….Thirty-three one thousand. Thirty four one thousand.  

I start to consciously slow down my breathing to save oxygen.  

8 minutes.  

….One one thousand, two one thousand,   

I look around uselessly. The only noise I hear is my exhale breath generating bubbles that float upwards.  

….Sixty one thousand. One one thousand.   

7 minutes.  

I am cold.  But I am strangely  calm.  Alone here, holding on for dear life, the political climate of the world is irrelevant. Relationships with dead fathers, or lack thereof, seem trivial. My first world problems are laughable.   

….Fifty-eight one thousand. Fifty-nine one thousand….  

6 minutes.  

Keep breathing.  

I think I feel myself kick something. I turn quickly but nothing is there.  

…. Thirty six one thousand…  

5 minutes.  Thirty-six

Ha! How’s staying alive for a distraction Judi?   

4 minutes.  

….One one thousand, two one thousand…..  

Should I try to ascend on my own? How much air do I have?  

….Forty-nine one thousand…. Fifty…  

I feel a human hand on my shoulder and in my relief, I almost lose my regulator mid cry.   

Nathan shoves his spare mask into my trembling hand. The band does not break this time and I am able to see again. Nathan gives me a thumbs up. I have maybe three bars left, and he has less than two. We begin our return to the surface.   

We make a safety stop at 6 meters during which I try to signal my appreciation. Nathan in return signals that he saw a shark seemingly oblivious.   

I look up at the sky which is again visible through the ocean’s surface.   

The three minutes pass and we surface just as we are using the last few breaths in our tanks. We send a signal to Jonathan who finds us bobbing in the water soon after. His smile grows wider as he gets closer with the dinghy. 

Nathan is recounting the details of the white tip shark he saw with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning. I grin at him gratefully and close my eyes to the sun’s warmth.    

We smile at each other. This time, for my part at least, it was entirely honest.  

(1) Tavurvur is an active volcano near Rabaul. It erupted in 1994 destroying a large part of town. 

(2) Buai is mixture of betel nut and lime. Its effects include increased stamina, alertness, and euphoria. It tastes quite vile.  

(3) Clearly, I could not imagine then a year like 2020! 

About the Author

I moved to Canada from Lebanon when I was 12. As a child, I was encouraged to read (we didn’t have a tv) which led to a strong interest in writing. High school in a new country was a little tough, so I dropped out and dedicated my late teens and 20s to travel. I covered a lot of ground and learned much, but didn’t improve my career prospects. So now at the age of 33, I am back in school taking a mixture of upgrading and UAS courses. This time around, and so far, school has been more enjoyable.