Science fiction and scuba diving -- are they really far apart?
When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut; still do, but I recognize it's not goiing to happen. So I read, watch and write science fiction, the next best thing. And I scuba dive. What's the link?
Well, first, astronauts are trained underwater, as it's the closest feeling to the actual weightlessness of space. Second, it's an unforgiving environment -- there are serious risks when scuba diving. Third, it's 'tekkie': equipment, computers, dive profiles, deco stops, etc. But mainly, it's adventurous, and every dive is an exploration of another world, and alien life ...
Today another instructor and I jumped off the boat, checked our gear was working in-water, gave the thumbs-down signal, and slipped beneath the lapis waves of the Indian Ocean. All I saw was blue as we free fell, parachutist-style, drifting down through shades of blue looking for the reef, equalising my ears every few metres, checking the depth on my dive computer, falling, into space, blue not black, listening to my breathing. Fifteen metres, twenty, twenty-five, still no sign of the reef. I check my buddy is still there, still okay, no nitrogen narcosis. Thirty metres, still blue. At thirty-five the coral reef looms into view, like planet-fall. I squirt air into my stab jacket to slow my descent. I don't use my fins. My arms are folded in front of me, one hand on the air button for my jacket, the other tilting my wrist computer towards me. Forty-five metres. I stabilise, so does my buddy. Forty-six metres.
My Suunto spyder computer tells me I have four minutes before I should ascend to a lesser depth, or else incur a decompression penalty. If I continue to ignore it, then when I finally ascend, or if I ascend too quickly, nitrogen will flash out of my bloodstream forming bubbles that get trapped painfully in the joints (called the Bends, because divers bend their joints to relieve the pain), or worse, a bubble in the heart, brain or spine. I never, ever ignore my computer. If I dive really deep, I carry two.
I look around, and see many huge gorgonian fans at this depth, each one like a slice cut out of a massive orange tree, two metres across. I know how fragile they are -- I touched one once and several centimetes snapped off -- a year's growth -- I've never touched one since. My arms stay folded as I fin slowly and glide half a metre above the coral. A moray eel snakes through the rocks and watches us, opens its mouth showing three white razor teeth. Large outcrops of rock and coral stick up from the floor, called 'bommies', each one a hub of activity, lobsters underneath and some baby catfish, black and white striped, whiskers trailing in the sand, a sea anemone on top, pink tentacles waving in the current, extracting nutrients while its guardian clownfish, a thousandth my size, moves towards me to fend me off.
A caranx -- jack, bluefin, there are many local names -- silver with an electric blue fin shaped like an arabic dagger, predator's eyes and a muscled jaw, darts around the bommie, looking for smaller fish, prey. Each bommie is like an alien citadel, a market place for trade, black and blue cleaner wrasse going inside the mouths of snapper as well as the gills of a puffer fish, never eaten no matter how tempting. Shrimp and lionfish huddle together in a cubbyhole, the lionfishes' poisonous spines mingling with the blind shrimp's whisker-like antennae, the latter so much more beautiful when not on a dinner plate.
Moving up the slope we come to a desert, a stretch of sand between two strands of coral. The sand isn't flat, small dunes stretching into the blue. We cross it, as if in an aircraft, the desert looks devoid of life, but I know it isn't -- eels, crabs, shrimp, sole, and maybe sharks could lie out there. No sharks today, too many are being fished by human invaders.
At the other side, shallower waters at fifteen metres, the colours of the coral are more intense, purple, blue, green, red corals, primary colours, and the fish -- no colour clashes, perfectly designed. I see a black surgeon fish with a slash of blue on its tail and a hint of orange around the eyes; picasso triggerfish whose patterns almost suggest something, but I'm not sure what; small purple and yellow neon fish, hundreds of them nestling safe in a mass of stag coral; grey and black feather stars, like silk flowers pouting. I click finger and thumb near one and it vanishes back inside its wormhole.
The fish cohabit with ease, but always wary, always aware. A school of yellowtail pass overhead, agitated but moving in unison, turning and darting in perfect choreography. I wait, and then see the caranx, three of them, herding the school out into the depths, looking for any stragglers or weak ones. A game of nerves.
The menagerie of fish and coral is alien, another world, its rules and survival tricks, its hierarchies, alliances, and pack and predator instincts, its vibrancy, makes me wish I could stay longer.
I remember getting narked (nitrogen narcosis) in Sulawesi, while diving with a school of tuna. Sharks were in the area, bullying them. For a while I felt I was part of the tuna school, I swam with them, turned with them, watched for sharks. I went native for a few minutes before my buddy hauled me out of there.
When I try to develop alien species in my science fiction, I often consider undersea life, not only the big stuff like manta rays and whales, but often the smaller species which can look very strange. The really small stuff, which you only see with a microscope, gets really interesting if trying to imagine a new design for a space-ship, for example. One of my nastier species in The Eden Paradox is partly based on the mantis shrimp, a six-inch long creature that sits in a hole in the coral wall, then at an incredible speed attacks a passing fish with its claws, shredding it in a second. Another in Eden's Trial is based on something I saw on Devil's Thumb in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, which to this day I have not been able to identify.
Another scifi-like aspect of scuba diving is the technical gear and risks -- this is a serious sport, with risks ranging from decompression sickness to oxygen poisoning to getting stung by a camouflaged stonefish that can paralyse your limbs and lungs within minutes. The gear is also a serious consideration, and diving with computers is the norm.
But an ever present real risk is running out of air, at which point space and water have a strong similarity -- needless to say, you can die quite quickly underwater without air. These risks mean there should be no complacency when diving, and safety is always the priority -- which means it is exciting, adventurous. I've done five rescues for real under water, and been rescued once. After any such event, you develop a healthy respect for the sea.
Maybe in the next few hundred years, many more people will travel to new stars, to new planets. We'll look for new landscapes, animals, sentient life, and may find it thriving, or else find archeological ruins, the latter reminding me of wreck diving. Funny thing about wreck diving -- wrecks -- particularly in tropical waters -- are often rendered stunningly beautiful as they are colonised by coral and become homes to countless fish.
So, if you want to explore another world, there's one not too far away, and the training isn't so tough ...
I also wonder about us finding sea-based alien life on other worlds. This hasn't been played with too much in science fiction (a notable exception being the film The Abyss). So I'm writing a short story at the moment (Diplomatic Solution) based on an alien force that invades our oceans, with no interest in land or land-based life-forms.
In any case, I'll keep diving as long as I can.