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Hacktreks under water

Why I Stopped Diving
Jeffrey Beyl

The seafloor under the pier is a nightmare world of death. It is littered with the remnants of once living animals

Photo of prize winning Sturgeon by Jeffrey Beyl

I have always wanted to venture into the underwater world. Since I was a young boy I longed to enter the "silent world" that Jacques Cousteau wrote about in his book of the same name. Cousteau was, at least to me, every bit the hero that Scott Carpenter and John Glenn were.
This yearning to go underwater cemented into my psyche when I was eight years old. I was swimming in the ocean below our house. I was treading water about ten yards offshore when suddenly, to my amazement, an octopus jetted by. An octopus! I was able to catch it by an arm and drag it into the beach where my mother promptly freaked out. The octopus was scared to death also, I’m sure. It measured about four feet from tip to tip. I remember my father jumping up and dragging it back out into the surf to let it go. But I was snagged. An octopus, wow! To an eight year old kid that was about as cool as it could get.

I remember another occurrence around this same time frame; we were all at the beach again. My brother and I were out body surfing when my mother suddenly rushed out into the water, grabbing both of us and dragging us back in toward shore. Parents were running around hysterically yanking their kids in from the water. It was like that scene from the movie Jaws. What was happening? A pod of Orcas, although in those days we called them Killer Whales, were swimming out beyond the breakwater. I remember standing on the beach transfixed and I wanted, oh so badly, to see one of them up close. What were these things, I thought. What is this ocean that houses so many strange and wonderful things? I was scared. I thought they’d kill and eat me but I was still fascinated. I had to find out.

So I learned how to scuba dive. I spent most of my teen years snorkeling out over the inshore reef in front of our house. I’d grab a handful of kelp, pull myself down under the waves to simply hold on and watch. Sometimes I used a Hawaiian sling to spear fish. I would frequently build a driftwood fire on the beach before submerging under the water so that whatever I speared I could eat right away, fresh. Not only did I eat the various fish I speared but I also cooked many types of shellfish and kelp. I had visions of being "One" with the ocean.

I sometimes dream I can breathe underwater. Like a fever dream that reoccurs, I sense that I’m under the water and have no air and I’m too deep to reach the surface in time. But just at the moment of panic when the realization hits me that I may die, I part my lips and…..inhale. When I open my eyes under the water I can see. This amazing ability comes true for me every time I scuba dive.

I love it. I’ve dived all over the world. I have dived Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. I have dived in Hawaii, the Caribbean; the giant kelp forests off the coast of southern California, the glacier cut walls of the San Juan Islands in Washington State. I live in the Pacific Northwest so I often dive in Puget Sound which is considered world-class diving. I now have, indeed, seen Orcas underwater. I have photographed the Big Skate (Raja binoculata), petted wolf eels (Anarrhichthys ocellatus) and helped capture the giant Pacific Octopus (Octopus dolfleine) for tagging and research that measured up to eleven feet across tip to tip.

One of my favorite dives in Puget Sound is under a local pier called The Edmonds Oil Dock. It lays out into a section of water where the currents flow quickly by. When diving the Oil Dock one must be cognizant of the ebb and flood of the water. It is best to dive here at the slack before the flood. That way when the dive is nearing its end and you are swimming back toward shore you use the flooding current to help you in. If you did it on the ebb you’d be fighting the pull of the current and could tire and be swept out into the middle of the sound.

It is a picturesque scene with the rugged, snow peaked Olympic mountain range looming in the distance and the southern end of Whidbey Island off to the right. Container ships pass through carrying their cargo down to Seattle and ferries cross the water to Kingston and back. The Oil Dock itself stands out over one of the better dive sites in the region. It is looked upon by local divers as a site with "a lot of life". The pilings are covered with mussels, anemones and tube worms. Swimming around and through the pilings divers get to see an incredible array of invertebrate sea life. To look through the plate of a face mask one would say it is beautiful. There are colors and textures and swaying patterns one can only imagine. There are undulations and hypnotic movements as mesmerizing and entrancing as anything we can see on land.
This is why we dive.
I have dived below this pier many, many times both in daylight and in the darkness of night. I carry an underwater camera now rather than a Hawaiian sling as I did in my youth. The walls of my study are adorned with many photographs that I have taken from under the pier. I particularly enjoy submerging and just sitting on the bottom in anywhere from twenty to forty or fifty of water, out before the steep drop off near the end of the Oil Dock. I calmly sit or lay on the sandy bottom, breathing slowly and watching. Invariably after a few minutes of doing nothing the world below the pier begins to move and go about its day around me while I watch. Dungeness Crabs (Cancer magister) lift up from the bottom, sand cascading from their carapaces, and crawl away sideways in search of food. Sometimes they rear back and brandish their claws at me in defense. Various species of rock fish and sea perch tentatively fin inward to look at me while staying just beyond arms reach. Plume worms (Eudistylia vancouveri) along the base of the pilings slowly, tentatively poke their maroon and purple feathery plumes out of their tubes. Giant Barnacles (Balanus nubilis) sweep their fanlike cirri in and out to catch any passing microscopic plankton. Huge, white Plumose anemones (Metridium senile) billow forth thick and muscular to sway in the current. Rays of sunlight shaft down through the water column casting an eerie yet spellbinding luminosity to the exotic scape.

The longer I sit, the less movement I do in all of my unwieldy equipment, the more my breathing slows and the more I am accepted by the denizens of this curious littoral world.From out of the green eelgrass a Penpoint Gunnel (Apodichthys flavidus) snakes its green body along the sand, a dark, black line running through its eyes. It sees, or senses me, its six inch, eel-like body coming to a halt in a S-shape on the sand by me. I lean slowly toward it, taking my time. I place my 20 mm macro lens in front of its face and shoot its photo. I have that photo on my wall. There are other bottom dwelling fish nearby and as I become more accustomed to the great variety of life around me they blend more into my vision. Just to my left, next to one of the pilings is a Sturgeon Poacher (Agonus acipenserinus), (I have its photo on my wall as well. In fact, I won 2nd place in an underwater photo contest with this picture). With shiny plates along its sides and its whisker-like cirri pointing downward it resembles a prehistoric creature.

One of the prettier fish of the area is the Mosshead Warbonnet (Chirophis nugator). One is sitting among some rocks to my right. He blends in so well with his surroundings that had I not been so attuned to what was going on around me I would never have seen him. I take his photo as well. Then I notice another of my favorite fish, the Sailfin Sculpin (Nautichthys oculofasciatus) with its long dorsal fin undulating along the length of its six inch body like a flag in the wind. It is truly a beautiful fish. I have held them in my hand and watched in awe at the sinuous waving of their tiny dorsal sail fin.

When divers swim frantically along, making noise in their ungainly way they scare away more marine life than they’ll ever see. I prefer to sit on the bottom and let life occur around me. I try to become a part of the life going on around me rather than an intruder, an invader. I photograph the fish and creatures as they happen by. There are always many Hermit Crabs skittering across the sands inhabiting many types of shells. I like to think of the Hermit crabs as my principle friends under the water. They usually come right up to me. One time I reached out slowly to one and it actually left its shell house and crawled exposed and unprotected right into my hand. I always thought that was the ultimate in trust. When I set it gently down it inched back into its shell and scampered away.

And yet. Yet through that same face mask and from a different frame of mind these capturing visions can seem oh so different. I had a mishap one time under the pier, a friend had kicked his fin into my face and dislodged my mask and knocked my regulator right out of my mouth. I was ninety feet down. It was dark that deep. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t breathe. I was well trained, however, and I found my regulator and my mask and I was okay. I then lay on the bottom, calming down, and I thought, Whoa, that was weird! I looked around me and the same things that I once looked upon as beautiful and alluring were now rapacious and relentless incarnations of death. I looked at the world under the pier as a world of life and death on an almost sub-basic level. Every creature, vertebrate and invertebrate is always on guard of impending, imminent, sneaky, fast approaching and gluttonous death while at the same time out to inflict that same end upon another unsuspecting animal. Had I not found my regulator and drowned, they would have come to my body to……..well, that’s what I lay there thinking.

This is truly an outlandish and very hostile landscape. The Sunflower Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) for example, the largest sea star in the world, reaching at times upward of four feet across, is the most sanguinary, insatiable creature of the littoral zone. This creature has no eyes, no brain, and no head as we know, yet it is possibly the most voracious creature to crawl the surface of the earth. It is every bit, pound for pound, the predator monster that any T-Rex or Velociraptor ever was within its environment. The thought of drowning and descending to the bottom to be consumed by this monster is revolting. When it encounters prey (such as a clam) it wraps its muscular, ray-like arms around it, pulls it apart, everts its stomach to wrap around and slowly digest the hapless animal. I have a series of photographs of sea stars with their stomachs disgorged and feasting in this manner and I thought of this as I lay on the bottom that day.

The seafloor under the pier is a nightmare world of death. It is littered with the remnants of once living animals. I lay upon layers of shells piled up to twelve and eighteen inches deep like dead bodies. There are creatures crawling and slithering over this killing field in constant search of other creatures to consume, leaving their calcareous, skeletal remains to pile up on top thus continuing the process. The ocean floor below the pier is home to a never ending quest for food and sustenance thus inflicting death. At the same time it is an unending existence in fear of horrific massacre and utter consummation by another. And these were were my thoughts as I lay there gathering my wits after my friend kicked my mask and regulator away.

The Moon Snail (Polinices lewisii) is another common predator that crawls around under the pier in constant search of food. It has an interesting and reviling way of consuming its prey. It licks the prey’s shell with its rasp like tongue, or radula, thus creating a hole through which it tears out tiny pieces of meat and sucks them into its mouth. If you have ever found a clam shell on the beach with a tiny hole in it this is evidence that this clam was killed and eaten by a Moon Snail. Oh yeah, that’s real nice.

My next dive under the Oil Dock I decided to do a different kind of dive. Instead of taking my camera I took a baggie filled with small chucks of baitfish that I had bought at a local tackle shop. As I found various creatures I held out pieces of the fish to watch them eat. In each case the animal took the piece of food and in its own specialized way consumed it while I watched in fascination and horror. I hand fed these little pieces of fish to other fish. I fed them to anemones, sea stars and watched as crabs took them from my gloved fingers and tore them apart in their pincers to stuff them into their mouths. During this dive I picked up any Cockle shells I found so that I could place them next to a Sunflower Star or a Moon Snail and watch as the terrified Cockle pushed out its muscled foot to flip itself frantically away from death.

Wow! No wonder I got creeped. These were living animals I was playing with. I thought about it after the dive. What if I had drowned that day? How would I feel? We all know how it works in the ocean. Every fish is eaten by a bigger fish. Life and death, the circle of life; call it what we will. I started having bad dreams. Tyrannosaurus Rex? Saber-Toothed Tigers? These animals under the pier could be used as monstrous aliens in any scary science fiction movie. That was it! I decided I had had enough. I cleaned my diving equipment and put it away in the shed.

People began asking me "Why don’t you dive anymore?" How could I explain what was going on in my thoughts? My usual answer became a quick one geared toward getting off the subject fast. "Oh, I’ve been busy." Sometimes I blamed others, "I’ve been helping out on my son’s basketball team." How could I tell people that I had given myself the willies? Soon enough people stopped asking and I stopped diving for over two years. My dry suit and gear bag collected more and more dust in the shed. My underwater camera reposed in its case untouched.

But one day a friend was over and he was looking at the photos on the wall of the study. He asked me about them and as I explained them to him my interest rekindled. Later on I dug out my underwater slide show and as I looked at my own collection of photos cast upon the wall I began rediscovering what had been so interesting about the underwater world all along. I realized that I had many books about the ocean and diving. I had many shells that I had collected the world over and I went about touching them and remembering finding them, I thought back to my last dive under the Oil Dock where I had fed the various denizens of the deep. I began to understand that, yes, it is the circle of life I had been a part of. And I realized that that was okay. It is nature in all of its glory. This is what had so fascinated me about the ocean and its strange inhabitants.
This and very act of diving itself. The freedom while under water is something I have always loved. The weightless, buoyant feeling of passing freely through the water column surely must be what the astronauts feel in gravity-less space. We may have a steel tank strapped to our back, we may be all wrapped up in our dive suits, breathing through a hose but it is a feeling of freedom and release. I remembered how I would sit on the bottom and blend into the underwater surroundings as much as I could and how the animals under the pier began accepting me and allowing me to witness their life and death. I remembered that little hermit crab leaving its shell and crawling into my hand. I remembered that this was precious to me. I began to understand all over again the balance of nature and our place in it.

So, did I stop diving or did I just get busy doing other things for a while? Those other things are important and I will continue doing them but not to the extent that I no longer don my face mask, place the regulator into my mouth and descend to the silent world that Jacques Cousteau told me about when I was young.

© Jeffrey Beyl August 2003
Seattle, Washington

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