From the surface I could see a large dome about fifteen feet
below. I took a deep breath, folded my body at the waist then lifted my legs out
of the water. Their weight caused me to slide effortlessly down. The mask
squashed against my face and it felt as if a needle was being inserted into my
ears. The water was closing in on me. Everything with air in it my lungs,
sinuses and ears was being compressed. Even a foot below the surface the
compression on my chest was equivalent to a weight of over 180 pounds. It was
the same on my abdomen, pushing the diaphragm up into the chest cavity and
squeezing it still further. Three feet underwater the pressure differential is
so great that it is impossible to suck down air through a tube from the surface,
but I soon learned that snorting into the mask pushed it out again, and
swallowing hard took care of my ears.
It was a painful lesson, but I couldnt be distracted. Being
underwater was more exciting than I had ever imagined. A kaleidoscope of new
images overwhelmed me: the elegant untidiness of lazily swaying seaweed, the
uncontrived encounters with silver sand eels and crusty crabs. I had walked
through some woods without seeing a single squirrel or badger, but here wild
animals came out to meet me.
On the bottom, the dome I had seen turned out to be a ships
rusty boiler and I stared into its dark and dangerous interior. Who knew what
might be lurking inside? In the surrounding sand, softly lifting and settling in
the swell, I found a rudder and a brass propeller with its shaft. It was my
first wreck and it had waited sixty years for me to find it. I surfaced
breathless, more from excitement than lack of air.
I went down again and again. Suddenly, while I was below,
something stabbed the water in front of me, a dark javelin in a cone of bubbles.
It transformed into a cormorant. Having misfished for a sand eel, it escaped
back to the sky. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen and I have
never seen it since.
This, I decided, was the real world. The air-bound attic up
there beyond the surface was no place to live. This fresh and alive sea was
everything that the land wasnt. We plod around on land, victims of gravity. It
is merely a surface on which to stand, the wind a mischievous nuisance. But
underwater, weightless and often powerless in the current, you become one with
On my final return to the surface a fluttering shoal of
pollack parted to let me pass. They were neither anxious nor curious. I was just
one of the boys. It was as if the sea had been expecting me.
Sitting on the rocks and trying to dry myself in the wind, I
watched a heron pluck green crabs from the pools then soar away like a tired
pterodactyl. Flights of knots and oystercatchers came in with the tide to feed
or to loiter on one leg. It was a super place to shiver. There were a couple of
cormorants chatting on a rock. Perhaps one was
boasting to his chum about the one that got away: I saw the queerest thing
today. Put me right off my fishing. So
ugly. And it couldnt dive for toffee.
The next day I sawed off the end of my snorkel and threw
away the ping-pong ball. I would never again mind the taste of the sea. After
all, the world was seven-tenths salty water and so was I, and the chemical
composition of my blood was almost identical to that of sea water. The ocean was
truly in my veins and briefly, when still in the womb, I even had gill slits.
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