“You can say this to yourself:
this I saw, this I experienced, and this I know to be the truth.
This experience is a precious thing; it is known to all researchers, in whatever field of endeavor, who have ventured into the unknown and have discovered new truths.”
Marion Carpenter to his son, Scott Carpenter
the first American in space,
on the eve of his flight: May 23, 1962
My sixteen year old blue-eyed daughter, her strawberry blonde hair blowing in the breeze, sits on the wet sand at the edge of the Pacific Ocean about fifteen minutes west of Santa Barbara. Her slender figure dressed only in a lime green and yellow, much-too-small-for-this-dad bikini, she turns away from pulling apart the coral like tendrils of an amber kelp foot that has washed ashore to look up at me.
“Saving brittle stars again?”
Apryl smiles back.
Before she is done, she’ll pull dozens of tiny animals I don’t even know the names of from this drying, former home of theirs and put them back in the ocean.
“Where’s the camera?”
“I thought you took it diving dad.”
Still dressed in my red and black, two-piece, “farmer john” dive-suit, I answer:
“No. I was spear-fishing. No big calicos today.”
“Well I don’t have it. Maybe Kevin has it.”
I look to the thirty and forty foot tall, limestone cliffs behind our beach gear. The absence of Kevin’s fluorescent yellow, single fin, six foot two inch surfboard tells me he doesn’t have the camera.
“I thought you had it Apryl!”
“What’s the big deal dad?”
Picking up one of our three GI green Navy issue sea bags, I point two hundred yards offshore where a pod of at least a half-dozen gray and black humpback whales are taking turns catapulting themselves through the air, explosions of water marking their “landing.”
I turn the bag upside down, not wasting any time worrying about breaking stuff while Apryl turns around to look.
Apryl jumps up, runs to one of the other bags and grunts as she dumps it out on Kevin’s orange and yellow striped, oversized beach towel.
“Did you remember to pack it dad?”
I pull the red and clear plastic digital camera from a pile of clothes, water bottles, fruit and sandwiches from the pile at my feet.
“Here it is.”
Moving back to my dive bag, I pull out my yellow and black underwater camera housing, fitting and securing the camera inside.
“Dad! Are you nuts? They’re huge. You could get killed!”
“I’ll be careful.”
Apryl grabs my shoulders and looks into my eyes.
I fasten my weight belt, strap the camera to my left wrist, grab my fins and head for the surf. At the water’s edge I put on my three foot long solid black dive fins, pull down my mask, insert the snorkel and back into the water quickly.
Thigh deep in this warm for the northern Santa Barbara channel waters, I turn around and face the surf. Through my mask, I sight another whale breaching.
These glorious, longitudinally ribbed, black and grey creatures reach fifty feet in length and weigh as much as forty tons. Even the babies are huge, weighing from two to three thousand pounds at birth. Calves are known to drink as much as one-hundred pounds of milk daily.
Maybe I am crazy.
Ignoring my time-consuming entry rules, I dive through a three foot, about-to-crash blue-green swell, holding my dive mask and camera firmly. On the far side of the surf, I remain on the surface snorkeling with-out diving, storms of sand and ribbon kelp swirling below me. After a quick minute of intense kicking, the visibility clears to a murky ten feet as I reach and snorkel around the scattered first stalks of amber giant kelp. Thirty yards out to sea and in about fifteen feet of water I stop, turn right and then left as I confront an imposing underwater wall of amber and brown giant kelp with no break in sight.
Time for a gear check.
Floating upright in the water, the ocean surface splits my dive mask view in two; half above and half below the water line. In rhythm with the waves, the slight amount of saltwater inside my dive mask alternately swishes back and forth across the bottom of the mask, occasionally splashing into my eyes and up my nose.
I take a quick look at my bright yellow underwater camera housing strapped to my black glove-covered left wrist, turning and flipping it around with my right hand, ensuring there are no leaks. I press the on button and am quickly rewarded with a green L.E.D. on the top and observe the start up routine on the one and one-half inch LCD on the back of the camera. Wanting to conserve the batteries, I turn the camera off.
The hand-sized, eighth-inch thick kelp leaves aren’t too thickly piled on top of each other here on the edge. A few yards into the bed they will be clumped together as thick as a foot in places.
Drifting on the shoreward side of the kelp forest, I take a deep breath, hold it in, lower my head and lift my fins into the air. I dive effortlessly to five feet above the reef and sand bottom, blowing air into my ears as I hold my nose. I confirm that my mask doesn’t leak and the twenty pounds of lead weights on my belt remain tightly in place. After a persistent, twenty-five yard kick through the kelp bed, I rise to the surface, blowing out the saltwater as the snorkel top breaks through the surface.
Desperate to save time, I dive a mere two or three feet down, kicking through channels of now three-quarter inch thick, amber stalks which anchor the kelp leaves above to the brown and gray, life speckled reefs below. The path in front of me darkens as I make my way deeper into the kelp jungle. Overhead, the kelp ceiling is a shadowy brown as the sunlight fails to penetrate the thick mat. After more than a minute of pushing, my lungs scream for air. Getting vertical, I raise my right arm above my head and push the foot-thick kelp carpet aside. As sunlight spills through the newly opened hole above me, I blow. Hovering in my spot in the middle of the kelp island, I bring my right hand to my brow above my dive mask to block out the blazing sun and the rays which bounce off the myriad ripples around me. I search left and right repeatedly looking for any sign of the whales.
Without warning, two calves launch into the air about one-hundred and fifty yards ahead and to the left. Mesmerized, I watch the water stream off the adolescents’ black on top, ribbed gray bottomed bodies, seemingly in slow motion.
Quickly, I take my camera in both hands preparing to point and shoot, but kelp strands caught on my arms foul my efforts. I pull the strands off and over my head with my free hand. Finally, I lift the camera to my mask forgetting that it is turned off. I turn it back on, but it is too late. The gray youngsters and their splashes are gone from sight.
Humpbacks range all over the earth’s oceans, avoiding only the Arctic polar ice cap. This pod and many others like it, spend late summers feasting on krill here in the Santa Barbara channel off the Central coast of California and winter down south, where these two were probably born a few years ago in the tropical waters off Mexico. Near me, they are massive, but against the backdrop of the channel with Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands rising over two thousand feet high twenty miles away, the whales are dwarfed in this tiny slice of the Pacific.
The immensity of it all humbles me.
The scientific name for Humpbacks translates to “Giant Wings.” Their pectoral flippers grow as long as one-third of the whale’s overall length and are the largest fins of all whales. Not to be outdone, their tailfins grow as wide as eighteen feet. This all combines to give the behemoths the ability to lift their hulk fully out of the water and become airborne.
Reaching a surface channel running in the midst of this huge mass of kelp, I snorkel again for a while, kicking with everything I’ve got. The deep low, hollow sound of my breath blowing through the snorkel is unusually loud.
Every now and then I lift my head up hoping to get another sighting just in case the playful ones decide to breach some more or maybe slap their pectoral fins on the surface. I have no luck most of the time. Finally and spectacularly, twenty foot tall columns of water geyser into the air directly ahead of me, accompanied by splashes and slaps.
Maybe I can get out there before they take off.
Running into the beginnings of the outer kelp forest, I again drop down to three feet. But before starting off, I pause, hoping to hear the whales’ songs they are widely known for.
A cross between a cow mooing and a cat meowing, the hum starts low and rises in pitch to a high squeal.
Whistles accompany the serenade.
The very water around me seems to vibrate violently but the fog horn like blast quickly drops off in intensity.
Oh no! They’re leaving.
Desperate now, I kick hard for another minute, quickly burning up my air.
It’s not fair. They can hold their breath anytime from fifteen to forty five minutes. I don’t stand a chance.
Exhausted, I finally pop up outside the outer kelp two hundred yards offshore, but it is too late. The whales are gone.
The disappointment fades as I realize: How many people get a chance to get this close in the water with these wondrous, playful and singing giants
In the now exaggerated silence, my daughter’s words echo.
“Are you out of your mind?”
Each time I take a new free diver out for the first time I tell them: “This is the most different thing you have ever done. Your instincts will literally scream at you “Don’t do this! It’s not safe.”
Fear is a natural part of every new endeavor we undertake. From learning to ride a bike as a young child to asking a girl to dance for the very first time, there is an element of risk because risk is a part of life. It hurts to fall off a bike. It is embarrassing to get turned down for a dance. Dads and moms hold onto bikes until their kid is ready for a solo ride. Teenage boys have the encouragement of their friends.
If we simply ignore the risks, there are good odds we are just being foolish. Jumping off a two hundred foot cliff is foolish. Add a hang-glider and now it is a challenge. Unsafe? Possibly. Risky? Yes. But we prepare for the risks. The only thing needed now is courage.
It is the same with free diving. Yes, there are dangers that must be faced. Thankfully, there are ways to face these dangers through proper physical, mental and spiritual preparation.
One must have some knowledge of how to go about free diving for the first time. That’s where my good friend Stan came in when I first started to dive. He showed me what I needed to do and informed me of what to expect and how to react to various situations. Carrying on this tradition of initiating others into the sport of free-diving, I take time to find out about any physical injuries or other issues my new divers have that could interfere with diving. I enquire about their ability to swim and overall comfort with the water. If they are suited for diving, I go on to tell them about the equipment that is necessary. While still on land, I demonstrate the correct procedures for using the equipment. I show them how to put the equipment on correctly. I tell them what to expect their first time in the water; for example, the visibility in the surf zone is near zero. This will cause them to feel claustrophobic. They must fight off the fear and keep kicking, trusting me that there is good visibility just the other side of the surf. You’d think that if I got them this far, they’ll surely get beyond the surf and murk, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Their curiosity, anticipation, and newfound determination to conquer a different world has been well fed by my own adventures in the sea: the excitement of discovery; the glories and freedom of flying like a bird through golden kelp forests; the utter marvel of snorkeling over a school of anchovies for fifteen minutes and never reaching the far side of the school; the inquisitive nibble of a harbor seal on my three-foot long dive fins; a pod of dolphins eying me from a scant five yards; the deep satisfaction of overcoming deep, primal fear; and overcoming the physical challenges of a cold, powerful and hungry ocean.
Still, the need for courage remains. Courage is not something I can give away. But just like the parents of an infant and the teenager’s friends, I can offer encouragement. Per Webster’s online dictionary, encourage means: “to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope.” Good examples of those who offer encouragement are coaches and teachers. That is precisely the way I see myself with a new diver. I am their coach, their teacher. Now it is their turn to join those who know the joys and freedoms of diving.
As vital as courage is, it is only the first vestige of character required for one’s first dive. As C.S. Lewis put it: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
Before the dive is over, many other virtues will be needed: self-discipline, wisdom, responsibility, perseverance, truth, loyalty and faith, for starters.
The first dive is where the questions: “Do I have what it takes?” and “What kind of man am I?” are answered and answered with a certainty that resonates deep within a man’s soul, possibly for the very first time. If the new diver completes his dive successfully, he will have passed this test of his courage. Does every man need to go diving or mountain climbing to get his answers. Plainly, no. But he will get them somewhere and the answer Yes, you have what it takes, through diving or any other adventurous test will echo throughout his life. This answer, if never heard before and in combination with other personal growth such as coaching or a mentoring relationship, will change a man’s life for his betterment and the betterment of family in particular and society in general.
This is not about being a macho man either.
Each and every man faces these questions at some point in his life. How will he answer? If he doesn’t truthfully and experientially get the right answer, he is doomed to face these questions again and again.
It is an interesting thing that of the men I take diving, the most boastful of them, the “macho men,” take the longest time to work through the fears of diving.
So what’s with the boasting?
I firmly believe the boastful ones answer the above two questions with lies to others and worse, lies to their selves. As John Eldredge puts it in his book Wild at Heart, “They’re posers.”
The challenges to a man these questions put forth are critical to a man’s definition of himself as a man. If a man cannot truthfully see himself as a man, simply because God created him a man, these questions become even more important. Odds are, they will negatively dominate his every thought and action or lack thereof. The question: “What is it that makes a man a man?” echoes throughout our troubled society. Isn’t the answer fairly obvious? When my son was born, the obstetrician didn’t hesitate one bit. He took a look at Kevin’s equipment and announced: “It’s a boy!” How have we turned such an obvious fact of sexual identity into the mess that is manhood today?
Unfortunately, in this age of knowledge, machines, insurance companies and lawsuits, being safe is the number one priority. In the conquering of the wild and unknown, comfort and complacency inevitably followed. For men, life lost many of its challenges.. Life became predictable uninspiring and boring.
Too many men lead forty hour lives of meaningless work; boring, traffic-filled drives home to a house that looks like everyone else’s house. They arrive hoping that everything is okay: the appliances didn’t break, the plumbing’s fine and little Johnny doesn’t need to be disciplined for shaving the cat.
What happened to the dreams of yesteryear? Where is the young man who used to go dirt bike riding or water skiing to within inches of his life, screaming with wild delight every second? Where is the man that dreamed of taking on and conquering the world?
Is it merely a man is going through a mid-life crisis? What if the said man is only twenty or thirty years old? How can that be a mid-life crisis? Is there even such a thing as a mid-life crisis?
Why did he stop pursuing his magnificent dreams? Is it because the dream isn’t safe anymore? Has society told him it is wrong to take risks? Has he bought into the lie that he should take no risks; that he should play it safe?
Whatever answers the individual man comes up with, none seem to satisfy the emptiness in his soul. Some decided the correct answer is to act as if nothing really matters or that they don’t really want something more than life seems to offer. For them, 17th century writer Jonathon Swift was correct when he said:
“The stoical scheme of supplying our wants, by lopping off our desires, is like cutting off our feet when we want shoes.”
For too many men, the desperate longing for something beyond the life he is leading continues. Is this all there is?
The emptiness grows like a cancer. Why do we even have this longing for something that transcends life? Why do we: climb Mount Everest, spend tens of billions of dollars exploring our vast universe, and chase after forty ton humpback whales?
Are we, as my daughter put it, “out of our minds?”
The first time this question struck me was when I was reading the all-time favorite book of every spear-fisherman I know: “Last of the Blue Water Hunters,” by Carlos Eyles. In the prologue of the book, Carlos recalls a fellow free diver’s encounter with a great white shark:
“My first thought when I first saw its massive girth was ‘I am a dead man.’ There was no doubt that it was a great white shark…the shark turned and headed right for me. It covered the fifty feet and was on top of me with its mouth open in half a second.”
Several divers on the boat had heard Harry’s shark cry and could see him floating on the surface. Then they saw Harry suddenly thrust backward, lifted waist high and spun out of the water…
In a last act of desperation, Harry pulled the trigger on his spear-gun just before the shark hit him…The force of the shark’s momentum drove the butt of the spear-gun into his left shoulder, spun and lifted him just out of reach of the jaws.
Carlos concludes the prologue:
“What motivates a man to such a degree that he is willing to drop his vulnerable self into one of the wildest, most prehistoric territories on the planet? Indeed, why is he drawn to such a wilderness, and how did he find his way into those waters in the first place?”
As a Life Coach, I recognize great questions when I see them, and these are great questions.
I’m no theologian, but I believe the answers to these questions are all found in the bible.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
According to the latest science, these vast heavens stretch over twelve billion light years across. And that is only what we can see so far. The psalmist went a little further describing how God made these heavens:
“By the word of the LORD were the heavens made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth.”
Our own Milky Way galaxy is so vast that traveling away from and perpendicular to the plane of our home galaxy at the speed of light, it would take us one-hundred thousand years to fully see the spiral nature of the Milky Way!
And yet for all its unimaginable vastness, God holds all of creation in His hands. God is big…very big…unfathomably big.
Genesis goes on to tell of God’s completion of creation, topped with the creation of mankind:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness’…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Ecclesiates 3:11 states: “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men”
The creation of man is not a mere visual representation of God. Rather it is a resemblance in the same way that a child looks like his mother or father. This view is reinforced in the New Testament where many references to us as children of God sharing in the inheritance of Jesus Christ. In other words, we have the spiritual DNA of the infinite, creator God. We share in His traits in every way.
God is not only big, but eternal.
We are eternal.
But there was truly trouble in paradise: Mankind chose to sin against God.
Separation from God.
Could this be why most of the human race, whatever the nationality, religion or other background believe that there is more to life than this present physical existence?
The lyrics of a tune made popular in the movie “Bruce Almighty” capture this idea particularly well:
“There’s a God-shaped hole in all of us
And the restless soul is searching
There’s a God-shaped hole in all of us
And it’s a void only he can fill”
Let me clarify a bit: It’s a God-sized hole. That’s pretty big. Are we spending our lives trying to fill this emptiness with things or activities that can’t possibly replace God?
The beauty of God’s creation calls to us all. The ocean is no different, but as inspiringly beautiful as the underwater world is, it is a dangerous and great unknown to the beginning diver. They must choose to leave behind the comfort zone of land for the chaotic environment of the unpredictable sea. The cold water; the power of the pounding surf; man-eating sharks and drowning all assault the reason of every sane person. As a friend of mine once said while turning down my offer to teach him to dive: “Never willingly insert yourself in the food chain.”
Diving is certainly not for the faint of heart. Like myself before them, I know the gripping fear that is so strong, so real, that it is a wall – a tangible, physical force-field of sorts.
Why break the rule of “safety above all else?” What motivations can drive a man to conquer these well-founded fears?
While motives are individualistic, there are some incentives that are fairly common to most men: a simple need for recreation; the excitement and adventure of exploration; a deep need to prove to themselves that they can overcome their fears; a yearning to experience beauty and an inexplicable need to touch on the infinite.
I want to explore this last one a little deeper if I may. Other ways you might hear this expressed are “living on the edge,” “extreme sports,” “transcendent,” or simply “beyond.”
One thing is for sure about diving: Once you’re in, you’re in. Even at the edge of the breaking surf, the dangers of sharks and all else are magnified for the new diver. In actuality it is no more of a risk than the last time they went swimming or bodysurfing. But somehow, the wearing of a wetsuit and a snorkel in the mouth magnifies the fear of what awaits them. The truly most dangerous part of the adventure is the drive in the car to the beach.
Everything is different upon entering the water. The only way to survive is to be transformed from a land animal to one of the sea. And it will take more than a snorkel, fins and dive mask. It will require a complete leaving behind of who you are. Gone is the familiar feel of land underneath your feet, replaced by cold, salty water stinging your eyes, going up your nose and slapping you in the face, daring you to continue.
Yet deep within there is a knowledge that if one perseveres – stiffens their resolve, fears will be conquered, boundaries expanded as one reaches the “undiscovered country.” New divers will journey not only into deeper waters but find deeper truths about themselves as men.
This gets to the heart of the journey. What exactly is the purpose anyway? Eventually, for experienced divers, it may merely be to put food on the table. Whether from books, magazines, movies or online research, We have the testimonies of those who have preceded us and return speaking of ultimate freedoms and living large. But not the new diver. Whether consciously or not; new divers are looking for something more out here. They are looking to define themselves as men. Do they really believe they will find what they are looking for?