You have never heard of John Chatterton. Why would you?
There are perhaps only about 200 or so individuals in the United States who regularly participate in the sport of deep water wreck diving. The reasons for this are many, from it being insanely dangerous—a handful of men die each year—to the decades of experience it takes to develop the necessary skills to function at those depths.
On my trip to Australia, I have been reading an exceptional book called Shadow Divers, about three unbelievably brave and determined men, John Chatterton, Richie Kohler, and Bill Nagle. To put their skills and place in history in perspective: If Bill Nagle is wreck diving’s Julius Erving—the man who revolutionized the sport and a legend—then John Chatterton is Michael Jordan, the man who perfected it. Kohler, in this analogy, would be Magic Johnson or Larry Bird.
About the same time Michael Jordan was taking the Bulls to six championships and making history, these three men were re-writing it.
Six hours off the coast of New Jersey, a shipwreck was found by Nagle. Nagle, who no longer dives, recruited Chatterton to identify the wreck. After a few dives, Chatterton determined without a doubt: It was a sub. But not just any sub—a German U-Boat.
But which one? There is absolutely no record of a German U-Boat sinking or being sunk at that location, that close to America’s shoreline. The book details these three men and their determined—and sometimes, insane—attempt to put a name to the boat. And to the dead men inside.
I will not spoil author Robert Kurson’s excellent work by telling you any more of the story. I only tell you this much to get you to pick up the book and read it yourself. It is a story of life and death, for those three men and for the men aboard the boat who perished while doing their duty to their country.
I was infatuated with every aspect of this story, but with an opportunity to go diving just around the corner, I paid close attention to the diving aspects. I realize reading this book and thinking about diving for the first time is the same as reading about the NBA and picking up a basketball for the first time. I was under no illusion as to what I was about to undertake. All I know is it inspired me to attempt diving in the first place, something I was on the fence about.
I know no one who would describe me as a thrill seeker. Reckless, perhaps on occasion. But I am petrifyingly afraid of heights—bungee jumping, skydiving, all of that is out of the question. I will undertake nothing that actively courts death. I believe it’s far too easy to die as it is, and I enjoy life far too much to leave early.
(That reminds me: For all of you crazies who implored me to do the Sydney Bridge Climb, you are out of your fucking minds. I couldn’t even walk across the bridge without freaking out—I made it to the first pylon, which I was impressed with. Also, the Bridge Climb costs $250. Me doing the Bridge Climb would be equivalent to someone paying $250 to see a real-life version of Saw IV.)
The technicalities of diving combined with Chattertons and Kohlers passion for it enveloped me, and I knew I’d have to try it. I booked a tour with a company called Reef Experience, who run a charter out to the reef and let you do an included introductory dive. You also have the option to snorkel instead, and you can do a second dive in the afternoon for an additional $55. (The trip costs $128 and was all-inclusive except beverages.)
They are also one of the few companies that will take you diving to the reef as an amateur. Usually this requires earning your certification, a process which can take up to five days and costs roughly $500. I only had three days and no desire to spend that much on something I may greatly dislike, so that was out.
The day of the trip was ideal. There was a slight wind, but the sky was clear and the sun was shining. I had woken early, partially excited, and partially afraid of being late and missing the boat. I scurried through the sleep streets of Cairns—think Ft. Lauderdale—down to the pier.
The dive boat appeared big and sturdy. It held about 30 people in all, and the majority would only be snorkeling. On arriving, you fill out a waiver—for obvious reasons—and then are issued a wetsuit, mask, snorkel and fins.
(For the record, wetsuits are not flattering unless you are an 18-year-old german girl. On everyone else, not so much.)
As we pulled out of the dock, we were taken through a briefing of the days events, followed by another briefing on the basics of diving and snorkeling, as well as the rules. Most important are the hand signals that you communicate with the instructor underwater.
The two most important:
The familiar thumb-to-pointer finger in a circle and other fingers extended: Im okay.
Palm flat in front of you, then wiggling it side to side: There’s a problem.
After which, you point to the problem. So wiggling your palm and pointing to your mask means, Theres a problem with my mask.
While this was being taught to us, the water got choppy. The boat began skipping on the water. Immediately, a little Asian girl seated in front of me dashed from her seat.
I immediately became nauseous as well, as I dont get along with boats myself.
The chop got worse, but you couldn’t leave the briefing, which was on the lower deck, inside the boat. I needed air. Couldn’t leave. Sat there, praying they would finish.
They did. I darted up to the top deck, but the boat was still chopping. The wind helped, I fought off the nausea. But I really wanted to get in the water.
About an hour from the dock, we got to the reef. Much to my relief, I was assigned to the first group of divers. I attempted to put on my wetsuit, but it didnt fit. I had a hard time extricating my leg from it. But I managed to make it out and exchanged it for a larger one—which barely fit as well.
I got it on and headed for the dive platform in the rear of the boat, mask around my neck and fins in hand. I was that always strange combination of nervous and excited that were all familiar with. My heart was jumping.
For roller coasters or bungee jumping, this may be okay. This is not a good thing for diving. Excitement—or panic—is what kills divers. I knew I was not facing death—this crew was too good and experienced, that much was clear. But that doesnt prevent you from being nervous when you need to be calm.
I sat on the edge of the platform, already breathing hard. The giant tank is attached to a vest, your rig, which also is capable of inflating with air and pushing you to the surface, should there be a problem. I slid my arms through as the crew put the rig on me.
The dive guide dove in—there were two of them for four of us. To prevent your mask from fogging, you spit in it and rub it in. I did so, and put it on.
“Put the regulator in your mouth a breathe.”
I did so. Sitting on the dive platform, it became clear to me this was going to be exceptionally difficult. It seemed like not enough air was coming through. I said so to the crew member. He checked a dial.
“Youre good. It just feels that way. Youll get used to it.”
I wasnt so sure.
“Roll forward off the platform, then turn around and grab the platform.”
I was thinking, “I can’t breathe in this thing!” as I rolled off.
That is not how you dive successfully. Panic, as I mentioned, is what causes all problems. In Shadow Divers, panic kills more divers than anything. I can’t help but think about that as Im plunging into the water. Remaining calm is absolutely essential, and I am far from calm.
I went face first into the water. I turned. A wave hit me in the face. I was instantly disoriented. The waves were only a foot, but when you are neck deep in water, that means every wave covers your face. You have a giant tank on your back, a heavy weight belt on, a mask that limits your vision, and you are breathing out of a straw attached to said giant tank.
Everything about this makes your brain say, GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE! I’M GOING TO DROWN!
This is not good. I immediately rip the regulator from my mouth. I get a mouthful of seawater as a reward. Choking, I struggle to reach the platform and I death-grip onto it.
The crew member flashes me the “You okay” sign, with a question in his eyes. I return the sign, even though I am not okay. I put the regulator back in my mouth as the dive guide checks my boyancy. I put my face in the water to look at him. He flashes me the, “Youre okay” sign.
I let go.
The waves thrash at me. I can’t see anything. I can’t see the boat. I can’t see the guide.
I start to lose it.
The guide swims to me and grabs my rig. He pops up. His bushy brown hair is matted against his mask as he breaches the surface.
“You okay, mate?”
“No! I shout. “I can’t breathe.”
“You gotta calm down, mate. You’re set. Lets go.”
I shout through the regulator in my mouth, “No! I should go back to the boat.”
He laughs. “No way, mate! You’re coming!”
I try to calm down. He’s holding me afloat. We sit there for a second.
He looks at me. “Lets go.”
He yanks me underwater.
My brain does not like this motion. YOU CANNOT BREATHE! I resist. I go back to the surface, but I can’t, he’s holding me. I grab his hand and point up. He nods. We go back.
“Whats wrong, mate? You were doing great!”
“I dont know about this.”
“Youre set! Youre great!”
“I dont know.”
Then he pulls out the stops: “Hey mate, are you an AmeriCAN? Or an AmeriCANT!?”
I cant help but laugh, but his ploy works. He gets me to ease up. He also challenges my nationality, and this works. It makes it clear to me that I’m embarrassing myself. There is nothing I dislike more than embarrassing myself.
I nod. He pulls.
I’m underwater. We’re dropping. He is facing me as we go. He can see the panic in my eyes. He takes two fingers and points to his eyes. Lock on me, it says. I do. He takes his free hand—the other is pulling my rig—and makes a smooth, rolling motion away from his chest.
I begin to calm down. I am rapidly realizing things are much better below the surface. On the surface there is wind and waves, there are people, there is a boat. Down here, it’s calm. I’m calming down. It turns out, I can breathe through this straw. For the first time, I take my eyes off my guide.
I look around.
“Holy shit,” I say through my regulator.
The reef. Words rarely fail me, as you can tell by the size of this blog post, but they will not do this underwater world justice. I will start by telling you what it is not:
It is not crammed to the brim with exotic fish everywhere, as you might see on TV. Fish, as you can imagine, tend to scramble away when clumsy humans come around. The instructor is dragging me, but the tank is still awkward. The proper technique is to swim horizontally, but this is difficult. The tank tends to want you to sit upright in the water. My flailing is disturbing the fish.
But there are still tons around to see, if only briefly before I wave a fin and send them scurrying. They are every color imaginable, but mostly blue and purple.
But actually, they may not be. It’s hard to tell. At a depth of 5 meters, the ocean begins to dim the sunlight. Sunlight is food and energy down here. The reef lives on it. The ocean and the reef actually play an optical illusion on you, and pull colors from the water and the marine life as they pull energy. After 5 meters, you lose most reds. By 10 meters, youre left with washed out dark colors. The blues, purples, and browns. The reds of the coral have turned to dull rust.
Almost immediately, I see an exception. An anemone. It’s brilliant. It is a crystal clear pink. And then I see a fish I know. A fish everyone knows.
NEMO! It’s a clownfish. In the anemone. The dive photographer is hovering over it, taking pictures. He flashes me the “hang 10,” a fist with an extended thumb and pinky, waving it side to side. This is the universal underwater, “Thats awesome!” I return it.
The reef here is not deep. It starts about 5 feet below the surface and extends perhaps 25-30 feet at most. I expected mostly a wall, but instead it is a series of little dunes of living coral, absolutely littered with edgy outcroppings of coral and rocks, anemones, clams, a limitless number of plants, and tons of hiding places for fish and crabs and other marine life. In between these dunes are flat patches of white ocean sand.
It is about this time I realize the instructor has let me go. Swimming gets difficult at this realization. Then, breathing gets difficult. My instincts begin to surface.
You are breathing through a straw. Underwater. This is not right.
You are NOT OKAY. Get out of here or you will die!
Right now, wherever you are reading this, take a second and think about breathing. Usually, the minute you openly contemplate your natural breathing pattern, even above water, you take an unnatural breath. It is short and choppy, or perhaps too deep. Or perhaps you paused and held your breath before you took your next. It throws you off, if only for a second.
Underwater, this is exacerbated. The first choppy breath becomes a second choppy breath. Your chest feels compressed from the water pressure. You feel the pressure just 5 meters below the surface, at which point most divers have to pinch their nose and unclog their ears. As a sinus sufferer, this is especially true to me. My head is pounding from the pressure, which gets noticeably stronger every 5 meters. I’m at about 15 right now.
My choppy breath gets choppier. I have a hard time breahing out—every time you breath out, you blind yourself with your own bubbles. This is again, disorienting, but only when you think about it.
As I’m on the verge of freaking out, the instructor is in front of me like a flash.
He holds up his hand, “You’re okay.” Again. “You’re okay.”
I look at him. I calm down. I take a deep breath. “I’m okay,” I signal.
“Awesome!” he signals back. Then he waves at me, follow me.
I do. He turns, and points. Right in front of me is a giant clam! It’s enormous. The length of my leg and the width of a fat man’s torso. It is rust-colored on the outside and a brilliant green that sparkles on the inside. The instructor pats its gums. It snaps shut. He lets go, it opens, He points to me.
I touch it. It is soft and slimy and smooth. It is amazing. It snaps shut, and I jerk my hand back. I laugh.
He signals, “Thats awesome!” I return it.
We go up over the cliff, and I’m snapping away with the underwater camera I rented, forgotten while acclimating myself to the dive until I saw the clam and remembered I had it. I’m not even aiming at things, I’m just snapping away. There’s too much to see.
And just like that, the instructor points to the sky. Time to go. We’ve been underwater for about 18 minutes and it felt like 30 seconds. As I clamber up the dive stairs,
I’m in shock from what I’ve just done.
It was the most terrifying and exilirating experience of my life.
I get my gear off. I’m still thinking about the reef. We have another hour before we go to our second spot. They tell me I should snorkel for a bit.
The minute I get back on the boat, the nausea returns. It is lessened from the dive, but likely enhanced from the adrenaline. I decide to go snorkel.
This is a mistake. The problems with my dive happened on the surface, with the choppy waves and wind. I jump in the water, Im getting lashed with waves. I grab the edge of the platform. I take out my snorkel. I get a mouthful of saltwater.
That does it. I puke into the ocean. And again. I realize that I’m potentially puking on water that is brushing past peoples legs. I swim down current to the other edge of the platform. I puke again.
I climb out and sit on the edge of the platform. And puke again.
The crew member, a marine biologist, asks, “Are you okay?”
I can just manage the hand signal to the affirmative.
She laughs. I say, “I’m sorry.”
She says, “You fed the fish.”
I look up and she’s right. There are scores of giant fish around the platform. They’re swarming after my regurgitated breakfast. The snorkelers on the platform want to dive in, because the viewing doesnt get better than this. But they don’t. For obvious reasons.
I take my gear off and head topside. I pass one of the dive instructors, not the one with me in the water. (I’ll personally chat with him, shake his hand, and thank him later.) The other instructor asks me, without knowing that I just vomited into the ocean, “Are you going to do the second dive?”
I contemplated my mistakes of the first dive. This is something I’ve learned from Shadow Divers. Much like professional athletes and coaches, the great ones watch plenty of tape and study their performances. This is how you improve. This is how you eliminate mistakes.
After reviewing the dive, I develop a plan for the second dive:
1. Get underwater as fast as possible. The surface is unpredictable. Everything is easier in the calm below.
2. Dont think about it. Dont think about anything. When you think about breathing, or what you’re doing, you start to lose it, because it is not natural.
3. If you start to think about it, fixate on the reef. It will distract you.
4. Take pictures. Lots of them.
The second dive goes nearly perfectly. I get underwater immediately. But I can’t stay there. My vest is too inflated.
The instructor deflates it a little. I start to sink. This was the only problem on the second dive. If I can pat myself on the back, I follow my rules perfectly. And if I broke rule #2 once or twice it was quickly corrected by rule #3.
On the second dive, the instructor made me hold a cheesy underwater sign for a picture, which I did, knowing full well I wasnt going to buy this picture. (My only regret of the day is that I didn’t buy a picture of me with the giant clam, which came out really well, because I was too nauseous on the return trip to find the photographer. But I have other pictures aplenty.)
My first dive experience was an absolute success. I have never done anything like it, and if not for boats featuring prominently into this experience, I would be doing it again right now.
In Shadow Divers, a young Richie Kohler is determined to become an astronaut. He wants to explore the moon. As he grows older, he realizes this is not a realistic option. Instead, he ends up turning his desire for exploration on to the last unexplored region of the world, the ocean. This becomes his passion.
I am not Richie Kohler or John Chatterton, but I can see why they are obsessed with diving. Diving, in many ways, is like space exploration. It is a passage into the unknown, with many similar perils. But the reward of discovery, of seeing for yourself what the unknown holds, is why you do it.
And on the Great Barrier Reef, that was one hell of a reward.