Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks,
Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon,
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scattered in the bottom of the sea.
I was in Bermuda 16 days. Fourteen of them ranged from drizzly and bad to torrential and foul. They were not days on which an experienced and prudent instructor like Park Breck would take a rank amateur diver into the open sea. We continued to make shallow dives in the coves from sheltered beaches. I learned to clear my mask under water, to make the proper underwater signals, to judge how many weights I needed in order to sink or rise without fighting the water. I saw little interesting. I picked up a shell or two deep from the bottom. And once I saw an angelfish lurking in a dark cave. In the murky waters he looked like a sunset seen through smog. He didn't count.
Meanwhile, Park Breck and Jeanne, his attractive blonde wife and partner, generously sought to divert me, and at the same time maintain my interest in diving. They asked me to parties with their fellow-Bermuda divers and their wives.
There were the Teddy Tuckers; the Ted Goslings; the Henry Whites; the Freddy Hamiltons; Peter Stackpole (who was doing an underwater movie documentary about treasure diving) and his wife; and the Mendel Petersons. Mr. Peterson, curator of naval history for the Smithsonian Institution, was in Bermuda studying the underwater artifacts brought up by the Bermuda divers, especially those brought up by Teddy Tucker, the 33-year-old diver who, it seemed, had done more "bottom time" than any diver of his age in the West. Divers all, they welcomed me warmly.
September 15, 1957
"So you've joined the Flipper Fraternity?" somebody said.
"I suppose, at my age, I am mad even to try."
Mr. Peterson then said, "The best diver I ever knew was a California woman 73 years old."
(Nice people, divers.)
Someone else commented, "Oh, everybody's diving; lung-diving is the fastest growing sport in the world. I saw in the Times today, it's a 30-million-dollar business."
Breck said, "It would grow a lot faster if they'd make equipment easier for instructors to handle and safer for amateurs."
"Then you'd have every tourist in the island out on the reefs. In the end, they'd be plastering underwater signs in every lagoon: 'Use Breck's Polyps Paste for your ginger-coral itch.' "
" 'Do you get the bends? Use Tucker's Little Decompression Pill.' "
Divers are as generous with their talk as they are with their energies. In the moist Bermuda evenings, I listened to diver talk.
Talk about equipment: some liked hard fins, others softer. Some liked the Squale mask, others the Pinnochio. Some swore by Cousteau's scuba, others by the Scott Hydro-Pak. Teddy Tucker, the treasure diver, went down without any flippers, breathing from a tube that stretched all the way back to an air compressor unit on the boat. But he worked for hours on end at the bottom. They all agreed on only one thing: no matter what kind of equipment you use, don't use it after late evenings and many drinks. And most of them were off smoking.
They talked: about how many hundreds (or thousands) of dives they had made. And about what ill fortune they or their comrades had suff ered on them; about how eardrums had cracked and bled beneath the pressure (especially when you forgot to equalize); and how a man's sinuses could swiftly plug up at certain depths; about how it felt to have sharks smell your knees, or to have your breathing tubes get tangled in the rigging of new wrecks; and how nitrogen narcosis, called the rapture of the depths, can make a man so drunk he can throw away his mouthpiece thinking himself Neptune, only to join the God of the Sea and his wrack forever.
And everybody talked of wrecks.
"There are more wrecks lying on the Bermuda barrier reef than in any other area in the world."
They showed me their diving treasures, while the Smithsonian man beamed with antiquarian joy: artifacts they had plucked from the ocean floor, all encrusted thickly with centuries of sea lime. There were ancient pewter porringers, long-barreled, clay smoking pipes, breech-loading swivel guns, jugs, breastplates, sword hilts and scabbards, a pair of dividers like those Amerigo Vespucci used in discovering the New World.
I whispered, laughing, to Jeanne, "I suppose that bobby pin would be an artifact of our civilization if someone found it a hundred years from now out on the reefs."
She laughed and whispered of her own favorite artifact, which she had brought from a 60-foot dive she had made on a new wreck. It was a shining brass plate marked, "Captain's Entrance." It was now nailed to her small son's bedroom door.
Each one talked about "my wreck." That was the next one he intended to dive on. He described it minutely, hinting at the significant signs of real treasure that he would find there; but he jealously concealed its exact location.
"There's gold in them thar wrecks...." "Teddy Tucker hasn't found it all...."
Then Teddy Tucker showed me his treasure: the greatest underwater bonanza found in western waters in this century. He had made the discovery at a depth of only 25 feet, in the remains of a Spanish wreck off the coral reefs. He spread the golden pieces before me, but not as a miser spreads his gold. He displayed them as a champion displays his trophies, a soldier shows his medals to good friends. There were a 16th century bishop's pectoral cross of purest gold, studded with seven sea-green, sea-smooth emeralds; pearl earrings; and a fist-heavy ingot of mellow Spanish gold with romantic markings, "Pinto" and "Don Hernandez."
I held the pieces one by one in my hand. I admired them, but I admired more the courage and patience of the man who had found them. Myself, all the treasure I wanted to find was a golden angelfish.
You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself flow eth in your veins....
At last, the sunny days came. Captain Taylor took us six miles out to the divers' Promised Land: the barrier reefs. We dived at the northeast point of the breakers; off the reef where the Elda wreck lies; and seven miles out to sea in the North Rock area, by the old beacon light, inside the barrier. In these areas we made four dives. Which was which, and where was what I saw there? As memory often merges the events of scattered days of joy into "the happy time," so I now merge my memories of diving off the reefs into one long dive.
As I remember this long dive, I see myself hauling my heavy tank-burdened body over the side of the Wally III and backing down the ladder. I am eager now to shed my weight under the sparkling waters. Happily, I let go. Splash, and down a few feet. I wait for my flippers to be thrown over the side. I tug them on, level off on my face, and look down.
There, 20 feet below, lies the liquid blue jungle of the barrier reef. The world of madrepores and polyps, where everything is endlessly living and endlessly dying to make the fretted vaults and cloistered crannies of the reefs, of rose coral, star coral and brain coral, coral with antlers and horns, coral formed like tree stumps, anemones and sponges; and crustaceans, worms and fishes.... And there in the midst of this wild calm jungle, lying 10 feet deeper, I see a lovely sandy cave.
Along its walls the waving purple fronds of the sea's fans beckon me in.... I glide down to the cave slowly, at a gentle plane. I can see a hundred feet in every direction. As far as I can see, the colors are Gauguin's and Cézanne's and Seurat's. Beyond, the dark blue-green sea belongs to Dufy and Chagall. I'm almost on the cave. I throw back my head and my flippers' tips touch the shining floor. I feel like a bird lighting on a bough. I sink to the bottom of the cave and, lolling, look up at the even feathers of bubbles which fly up from my neck, expanding as they go into shining silver mushrooms, little pearly parachutes, seeking the far sun. Overhead, the bottom of a rowboat is a liquid yellow plate, and on the distant surface, the shadowy silhouette of the Wally III is a salver of spinach jade. Circling high, 30 feet above me, looking like little frogs, are a pair of skin divers with spears. They drift slowly along on top of the waters searching out snappers and rockfishes below.
I look around. Park is there. He is pointing a camera in a plastic case at me. His body is the color of polished amber, his short hair is a dandelion going to seed. Jeanne is there, on her knees, head down, fingering through the creamy sand. It flows like gauze through her fingers. Her hair is floating straight above her, a restless golden halo. She looks up, as I sink beside her, and her eyes are smiling aquamarines.
She sees something and slides away, beckoning me to follow. We glide to the crannied wall, sink on our elbows and peer under a coral ledge. We see two crimson enameled wires and peer deeper and see an elegant lobster, rich with eggs made of old red Chinese lacquer. Jeanne tickles its antennae and it draws into its dark palace with mandarin dignity. She wishes to tease it more. I don't. I have only an hour to explore my enchanted liquid acre. Only an hour to find an angelfish....
I drift up the crenelated sides of the cave. I begin to see they are deliciously full of mysterious holes. A delicate, slightly open mouth pokes out of one of them. I flipper slowly over to the hole and stop. It is the white beak of a rainbow parrot fish. I see his body, the length of my forearm. It is all purple and red and gold. I swoon softly closer. We eye one another. I, in what delight can he know?
Oh, small squamulose miracle, do you know what we say on the land above? "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." These blue fins I wear are for your sake. This monastic silence I keep is in order to share yours.
Gently I reach out, hoping he will let me scratch his beak. He withdraws, flicks around, shoots out another hole and, squittering delicately, hovers in the clear water ahead. I pursue. He moves and hovers again. We repeat our little ballet.
Three little sergeant majors, gold with black stripes, draw across my chase. They tipple at me. I bubble at them. Delighted to meet you, young gentlemen. They pass, and I glide, like a gondola, among waving gorgonians, in and out of madreporic crevices. I am careful to skirt the ginger coral—the poison ivy of the sea. I am cautious with my hands and knees lest they be punctured by the waving black needles of the giant sea urchins, like pincushions in their coral waterpots.
Now I see another parrot fish nibbling on the rocks in the distance. I cruise toward him, among the sea plumes and antler coral. I stop. Down behind a mauve sea fan I see a childhood friend, a starfish. I float down and pick it up and carry it to Jeanne, as a child on the beach carries a shell to his mother. Jeanne sees my delight. She takes it, caresses it knowingly and lets it float away.
I float away, too.
I no longer think whether I am cold or tired, or down too far, or breathing right. I no longer struggle against gravity. How can one struggle against what does not seem to exist? I am living in the sea, outside myself. All but my eyes, which are seeking that angelfish....
Park taps me on the arm, points. Jeanne is examining something on the reef. We swoop down. Park makes a sign of a pistol pointing. Jeanne crawls along the pale pink and green lime-encrusted thing he is pointing at, and I crawl with her. I do not know that I am looking at the barrel of an ancient Spanish cannon from a wreck come to grief in the days of the conquistadors. I swim away. I prefer the great bonito that I see in the distance. (Had I known, I would have swum off "anyway. I am definitely allergic to all artifacts, regardless of size, which are even remotely shaped like bobby pins.)
The bonito is a quarter of the size of me, and much prettier. Park follows with his camera, resigned to my disinterest in artifacts.
Park points again. I see two lean, gaunt, steely fish, two and three feet long, swimming toward us. Barracuda. I stop and hover. They do, too.-They tipple and show their ugly teeth. I flipper and push my ugly mouthpiece in their direction. "Plug-uglies, that's what you are. Git!" They flick away.
Near a tiny waterpot, I meet a little fish, no larger than the palm of my hand. He charges my mask furiously. It is a demoiselle fish, spunkily guarding his coral garconni√®re, where his mistress lies sleeping. If the demoiselles could talk they would talk like sharks, surely.
Now I see a shimmering cloud moving toward me. It is a large school of small fry, curtaining a spear diver who searches the waters below, his long steel spear glinting in the blue. I swim deliberately through it. The cloud shatters-into a million soft glassy splinters all around my body, and reforms into a silver curtain in my wake. I turn to Park, laughing with glee. My mouth opens. Water rushes past my mouthpiece. I experience a moment of terror. I spit out the water through the tube, breathe slowly, spiral, and drop to the floor of the cave, and rest.
How long have I been here? I do not know. Time, under water, is not a mechanical thing. It is organic. You judge it by the strength and slant of the light, the warmth of your blood, the rhythm of your breathing. But for dark and cold, and weariness and lack of air, you might stay there forever and call it a minute.
In the cave, I have a sudden visitor. It is a man-fish. He shoots across the sandy floor pulled by a small yellow submarine half the size of his body. It is Pete Stackpole, who has joined us in his Link underwater scooter. He rollicks around in the cave like a dolphin, shoots away, comes back, and lets go the power-diver. It drops to the sand. Park, Jeanne, Pete and I huddle around it. Pete explains by signs how to use it. Park wafts Pete his camera, and he and Jeanne take turns with the scooter. They disappear and reappear out of the dim green where, visibility stops. 77 must be my turn now. When Jeanne comes by again, I flipper hard and take the handles from her. I press the switch and am away, sweeping over cranny and cave, sheering through sea plumes and grasses. They break into brown clouds as I reap them. I see fish torpedo away from me as I come toward them. I can't find an angelfish this way.
I whoosh back, gripping my mouthpiece which loosens in the wash of the scooter's propeller. I drop the scooter when I pass over the cave. It sinks to the bottom like a sodden banana. I feel freer—and fishier—without it. I resume my whimsical game of floating tag: with silver breams, with a platter-shaped, navy-blue doctorfish, with gray snappers and chub, with a pink and black Spanish hogfish and a speckled redhind. I encounter a pair of brown pipefish. They have seahorse heads, but their bodies are straightened in a stiff horizontal. I wait for them to race by me into the stretch. Unexpectedly they become a medium's trumpets: they fly backward.
Now I notice with delight that a large rockfish weighing about 30 pounds is swimming in a friendly fashion at our flippers' tips. I test his friendship. I spurt away. He spurts after me. Aha! Monsieur Cousteau! Let me present you Ulysses, Junior!
Suddenly my rockfish friend whooshes away, toward a rock ledge. Too late. Overhead a skin-diver has been stalking him. The skin-diver comes down in a long powerful diagonal. His steel spear speeds through the water. My friend is impaled and is carried struggling and bleeding to the top.
I am angry. I breathe harder. I lie on a rock to rest.
I know about the feeding cycle. Little fish eat plankton, bigger fish eat the little fish. Why should I care if man then eats the big ones? Have not many fish eaten man down here? I remember Teddy Tucker's gold and emerald pectoral cross.... They have even dined on bishops.
I go cruising again in the gorgonian forest. And then—there, in a perforation of the coral maze, I find my treasure. I find the jewel of the lapidary sea, the rarest gem of ray serene the bright and fathomed caves of ocean bear. He is as large as two of my fingers. His body is all lapis lazuli; his brow is sprinkled with turquoise. He glows all over. I don't move, for I know now that a teasing movement will drive him away. Oh, to be a Saint Francis of Assisi among the Fish! Poor Saint Francis, born out of time, never to have met Brother Jewel Fish and Sister Sea Fan at their own level! What canticles you would have sung to them! What holy converse held with them about their Maker!
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent and kind:
And under that Almighty Fin
The littlest fish may enter in.
The Jewel fish sinks, forever, from my eye. Never from my mind. I slide away. I still hope to see an angelfish, a heart-shaped angelfish, a Fra Angelico angelfish, a Queen of the Angelfish, in all her sunlit glory.
I see a shark instead. Out there where the waters grow dim, the ugly gray squaloid form is cruising toward us. My finger shoots like a rifle barrel, pointing it out to Park. Pete sees it, too, and flippers hard toward it. Park snaps its picture. Breathlessly watching, I sink to the floor of the reef. Park swings his camera toward my face to catch my expression. Then he swims after Pete. The shark disappears in the gloom. Overhead the spear divers are still floating and stalking. I remember that the blood of wounded fish sometimes attracts sharks. So does Park. He thumbs everyone up. Only Saint Francis would feel completely safe down here. The day is ended.
You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins....
I sit alone in the stern of the Wally III and look back to the jagged reef. Gentle waves kiss its rough lips. u-The sea around grows wider and the reefs disappear. A flying fish shoots out of the azure veil that conceals their beauty. Foolish fish to flirt with gravity! Oh happy mortal who has for an hour eluded it!
I had indeed rejoiced and delighted, "as do misers in gold and kings in sceptres," in God's Little Underwater Acre.
'A SCUBA BEGINNER CALLED CLARE...'
A second selection of undersea humor from Clare Boothe Luce's album
A scuba beginner called Clare
On a dive got a terrible scare.
A shark that was grosser
Than P. Rubirosa,
Came in and sniffed at her hair.
An orchestra member called Gruber,
Essayed a deep dive with a scuba,
As he panicked for air,
He was heard to declare,
"It felt like I'd swallowed my tuba."
There once was a diver called Linz,
Who guzzled on tonics and gins,
And he went under water,
Which he sure hadn't orter.
Now the fishes are nibbling his shins.