A glowing ball of fire ascends the sea-green horizon, sending flecks of light through my apartment’s sun-faded curtains. It’s Sunday morning in the Bahamas. When Chris Maxey — founder of the Island School where I teach — says it’s time to go to church, what he means is that it’s time to go free diving.
Part of me wants to sleep in, to remain blissfully, lazily hidden in the comfort of clean sheets. Another part of me longs for adventure and thrill, and for the kind of kinship that comes from ritual and communion with the natural world. I slip into my bathing suit and head to the boathouse with fins and snorkel in hand. I join a group of faculty and students gathered in a circle, where we welcome the day by drawing our attention to a subtle miracle that connects us to every other living thing: the simple rhythm of respiration.
With each deep inhale and exhale, time slows. My senses awaken from the stupor of routine, and the residual frenzy of a hectic week at work melts away. All around me, I notice the small heart of things: sunlight trickles warmth through wooden slats in the boathouse roof. A lone seagull glides overhead, squawks gleefully and lands on a conch midden at the cut’s sandy edge. A curly tailed lizard darts across a path of crushed shells, disappearing beneath roots of fragrant hibiscus and sea-grape. A gentle breeze keeps the sand fleas at bay — intermittent relief from the damp air that drapes around me like a shawl, salty and sweet.
I was lured from Montana’s mountains to this remote Caribbean island for a teaching job with a nonprofit marine conservation organization. At the Island School, high school students and staff live together on a campus powered by solar and wind. Rainwater trickles from roofs into swimming pool-sized cisterns beneath buildings. Boats and vehicles burn recycled french-fry oil from cruise ships, converted to bio-diesel in the campus lab. Everyone, understanding that fresh water is scarce, adheres to the 1-minute shower rule: (30 seconds to get wet, shut off the water to soap and shampoo, then another 30 seconds to rinse off). After each meal we take turns doing dishes together by hand in small, water-efficient tubs. Three five-gallon buckets sit outside the dining hall for different kinds of waste: some goes to feed the pigs, some to the compost pile, and some to the recycling center. The campus has a “poo-poo garden” — Maxey loves to boast that “every time a toilet flushes, a flower blooms!” — and the Island School is home to the Bahamas’ first bio-digester, a renewable technology that turns human and animal waste into fuel.
Maxey is a former Navy SEAL turned educator. In a TED Talk, which I watched online before accepting the job, he tells a story about how he and his former Navy buddies used to blow up coral reefs around the world for fun, laughing as schools of dead fish flew by. That was many years ago. Now, his organization’s mission is to promote conservation education and model sustainable development in the Bahamas, a region of the world where the tourism industry is poised for exponential growth. He believes that education is the most powerful way to change the world, and I do, too.
Free diving — the act of diving underwater on a single breath of air — is a salient feature of Island School culture. Maxey was, after all, a Navy SEAL, and he needs to get his adrenaline fix somehow. It’s a modern pastime with ancient roots. Traditional ocean hunters practiced free diving for millennia in order to gather food. The Bajau-Laut people of Southeast Asia still do, and are considered some of the best free divers in the world. They dive to depths of 100 feet and spend several minutes on the sea floor gathering pearls, sea cucumbers and fish. Recreationally, free diving has grown in popularity, practiced by thousands of sport divers worldwide. Free diving schools are multiplying in destinations as wide ranging as Hawaii, Egypt, Indonesia, Greece, and the Bahamas.
It’s not hard to understand why St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott once said, “Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of history dissolves.” Early dawn light illuminates the resolute green tips of baby mangroves newly planted in a tide channel along the beach. Palm trees rise from slumber, spreading their limbs wide. It’s a gift to witness this world awakening, and I have already forgotten the comfort and ease of my bed. “You can sleep when you’re dead!” Maxey shouts as he ignites the boat engine, his impressive fifty year-old muscles bulging beneath a bright blue rash guard. We load up our gear and leave the rest of the sleeping world behind.
Our destination is Cathedral Rock, an outcropping of coral that rises like a small village from South Eleuthera’s flat, shallow sea, before the ocean floor becomes a dark cliff that dissolves into the depths of Exuma Sound. When we reach the bright orange buoy that marks our spot, Maxey brings the boat to a halt. I strap my mask to my face, sit on the boat’s edge, and jump in.
There’s something humbling, almost transcendent, in the experience of being submerged. I remember all the times I’ve been swept up in muscular currents — in the Atlantic Ocean as a child, trying not to get sucked beneath the waves; in the Pacific Ocean, learning how to surf for the first time; and in the glacial run-off of icy Montana rivers, standing thigh deep with a fly rod in hand, trying hard not to lose my balance in the forceful flow. In wild bodies of water, I’ve always felt the intoxicating pulse of something much larger than my own. I’ve learned that I can listen to what the current has to teach me, or struggle to defy and swim against it.
The boat’s engine sputters into silence. Bobbing on my back like a cork in the waves, I close my eyes and prepare for the dive. It’s important to spend a few minutes on the surface like this, breathing in and out, in and out, relaxing and readying the lungs for the plunge down. My dive partner, who will stay at the surface and watch in case I need help, signals that she’s ready. Three … two … one … I drink a slow, careful gulp of air and duck beneath the surface. Sounds from the human world fade, and before long, I’m hovering above the elaborate coral head mosaics and arched reef tunnels that lend Cathedral Rock its name.
I’ve stepped momentarily from one world into another, all of a sudden floating in unearthly stillness and grace. The reef hums with tranquil activity. Beneath me sits a gray brain coral the size of a small boulder, with ridges and valleys intricately crafted, as if they were carved by sea-worms wriggling through molten rock.
The reef itself is an impressive work of ocean architecture. An ancient animal related to jellyfish and anemones, coral is made of billions of simple organisms called polyps that open their tiny tentacle-mouths at night, feeding on microscopic bits of plankton. Each polyp has an algae heart that circulates oxygen and nutrients. Polyps shed calcium carbonate skeletons, the minute building blocks that eventually flower into a coral reef. Like plants on land, they derive energy from the sun, which is why reefs only exist in shallow water. Reefs are one of the world’s largest habitats for biodiversity, second only to rain forests.
Pressure mounts in my lungs as I dive down, past delicately swaying purple and golden sea fans. Queen Parrotfish and Nassau Grouper, bright and bug-eyed, float cautiously beneath me. A spiny lobster with a brilliant red shell pokes a foraging antenna through his coral cave dwelling. Translucent moon jellies pulse to a secret rhythm. In the distance, a leatherback turtle beats wing-like flippers in extended, elegant arcs.
It’s a complex orchestra of symbiotic relationships, from the single-cell algae to the sharks at the top of the food chain. Everything participates in a mysterious dance of interconnectedness.
Each thing seems to know its place.
I descend further: 30 feet, then 40, and my lungs yearn to rise to the surface like a balloon. Tightness creeps like a fissure through my ears, generating a dull ache that threatens to burst. I push myself to keep going, increasingly mindful of the single breath of air I rely upon. Humans are not, after all, designed to spend any length of time underwater. Butterflies swirl in my chest.
Am I diving too deep?
From the air, Dean’s Blue Hole looks like a massive, omniscient eyeball, with dilated pupils surrounded by cerulean blue. A thin lens of freshwater, percolated through porous limestone, hangs above the denser salt water. Blue holes are submerged caves found inland and at sea, and they are among the least studied and most threatened habitats on earth. They can run extremely deep underground, and contain a series of maze-like passageways going miles in many directions. They attract everyone from climate researchers who want to learn about global sea rise to recreational divers who are infatuated with their depths. Dean’s Blue Hole, on Long Island in the Bahamas, is one of the world’s deepest.
Locals have long advised staying away from it. Based on stories handed down through generations, some Bahamians believe that blue holes were dug by the devil — and that humans ought to exercise a stronger sense of caution and reverence towards the natural world.
When a thirty-two-year-old from New York named Nicholas Mevoli arrived at Dean’s Blue Hole in November of 2013 for the Vertical Blue Dive Competition, he had the invincible confidence of someone who’d survived traumatic dive incidents in the past. During his first year as a competitor, Mevoli broke all existing international depth records. He was the only American free diver to go deeper than 328 feet, and his natural talent quickly landed him in the sport’s top tier.
The ocean poses a unique challenge for free divers. Unlike sea creatures composed almost entirely of water, humans are full of voids. When a human dives deep underwater, the rising pressure forces the lungs to shrink in size. As free divers descend, especially beyond 100 feet, their lungs rapidly contract. The gases inside their bodies are compressed, enriching the bloodstream with oxygen and nitrogen, the two main components of air.
A great risk associated with free diving is nitrogen narcosis, also known as “rapture of the deep” — a saturation of the bloodstream that causes giddy stupidity, poor judgment, and loss of reasoning. According to experts in the field, there is no limit to lung compression when divers go too deep. Free diving is always pushing that limit.
Mevoli was aware of the dangers. In the past, he had blacked out under water and surfaced a few times coughing blood. He wrote candidly about these experiences on his blog: “Numbers infected my head like a virus and the need to achieve became an obsession,” he admitted. “Obsessions can kill.”
Nobody knows what went through Mevoli’s mind on that tragic day at Dean’s Blue Hole. The safety divers who accompanied him on his way down report that he paused at 223 feet and turned upright, as if to ascend. His body was surely signaling for him to head to the surface, emitting warning signs of imminent system failure. Instead, to the consternation of many of his fellow athletes, he decided to face downward once again, pushing himself to 236 feet.
3 minutes and 38 seconds after he began the dive, Mevoli surfaced looking like a stunned fish with blank, terrified eyes. Thirty seconds later, he lost consciousness and blood began to pour from his mouth. He suffered a depth-related lung injury, and despite emergency procedures on the scene to keep him alive, he died minutes later on the dive platform. It was the first death in the 21-year history of the sport. The free diving community was stunned; nobody had thought it possible to push the limits of survival so far. After his death, experts said that he lacked the slow accumulation of knowledge, experience, and humility that staying alive at exceptional depths often requires.
I peer up through prisms of refracted light and trace the shape of our boat’s white hull floating like a giant pear in the distance. There’s an odd juxtaposition between the aquatic world’s calm and my own escalating anxiety. My lungs are aching now, begging for air. I’m fairly new to this sport, and I try not to panic. I remember Maxey’s advice: remaining calm is the hardest skill to master underwater, but it’s the most critical. If we can’t think clearly under pressure, we’re likely to make poor decisions. With arms pointed up above my head, I use my fins to mermaid-kick towards the surface, exerting as little energy as possible. When I breach, I gasp for air, feel momentarily light-headed, and signal to my dive partner that I’m okay.
Out past the boat, where ocean meets sky, a massive object crawls like a snail across the horizon. A cruise ship inches towards Atlantis, the popular mega-resort in Nassau, an award-winning example of extravagant waste and resource consumption. Picture thousands upon thousands of air conditioners running 24 hours a day. Golf courses plaguing the island landscape with a non-native shade of green. Enormous tracts of pristine coastline dredged for shipping channels and ports. Hotels looming over the beach like skyscrapers. Numbers and dollar signs infect the heads of CEOs profiting from endless development. This tourist industry, like the fossil fuel industry, seems to know no limits. Mangroves and trees breathe for the earth.
There are very few mangroves in Atlantis.
Trees and mangroves inhale carbon dioxide and exhale it as oxygen. What process is more miraculous? Since the 1960s, when humans began clearing the Amazon rainforest, levels of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere have soared. Scientists question whether the earth’s lungs will collapse under mounting pressure from climate change.
And what’s happening in the rainforests isn’t isolated from what’s happening in the oceans. Warming sea temperatures cause ocean acidification, which leads to mass bleaching of coral. Entire reef ecosystems are collapsing — some estimates suggest that 20 percent of the world’s reefs are already gone, and another 24 percent are gravely threatened. When the delicate relationship between the coral and algae is disrupted, the polyp ejects its life sustaining heart.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote about the mythological Atlantis — a utopian civilization on an island founded by people who were half-god, half-human. The island was lush and rich with gold, silver, and exotic wildlife. It was nothing short of paradise, the same kind of imagined perfection that’s marketed and sold by the Bahamas mega-resort of the same name.
But that’s only half of the story. The full legend of Atlantis tells of a people who became greedy, petty and morally bankrupt. The gods, angry because the people had lost their way, sent a terrible night of fire and earthquakes as punishment, causing Atlantis to sink forever into the sea.
With Atlantis to the west and the Island School to the east, I pull myself out of the water and back onto the boat. I try to imagine what Cathedral Rock will look like fifty to a hundred years from now. Will the color have drained from the once vibrantly pigmented sea fans? Will the Queen Parrotfish and Nassau Grouper perish in search of a new place to call home?
I fear the spiny lobster may leave nothing behind but a hard, empty carapace — a ghostly reminder of what once was.