So, between my last day in Dunedin and my scheduled ferry to Wellington at the start of March, I had a week to kill. Originally, my plan was to visit Stewart Island, which had eluded me my whole time in Dunedin. For those not in the know, Stewart Island is south of New Zealand's South Island, a mostly unpopulated wildlife paradise. Also, by virtue of being closer to Antarctica than the rest of New Zealand, pretty cold. And as the end of February approached, and Dunedin evinced a complete inability to produce even a halfway decent excuse for a summer, I decided I was freaking sick of the cold, and that it was time to head north.
Where to? Golden Bay is a perennial favorite, and was on the table for a while, but surely there was someplace new I could go. Akaroa is on the Banks Peninsula, southeast of Christchurch, and off the beaten path. I'd only ever wind up there if I was farting around in the South Island with time to kill and could easily afford the time for a sideways detour.
Yep, that fit the bill. And so, after a detour for my friend Andrew's birthday in Christchurch (a late-night double feature of grindhouse absurdities), I headed out there.
Akaroa is not incredibly scary. But as I arrived, mostly with the plan of sleeping a lot, I started forming the balance of my plan, which was to get my advanced scuba certification in order to be able to dive shipwrecks while in Vanuatu. Which meant heading further north to the Marlborough Sounds, an area I'd never explored at all. In amidst sleeping, hiking, and nice meals, I called ahead to book my course, with a dive shop that also dives the biggest post-Titanic shipwreck, the Mikhail Lermentov. As it turned out, the boat wasn't doing the Lermentov the Wednesday or Thursday - which, truth be told, was pretty fine with me because, not having dived for 2 1/2 years, I wasn't remotely prepared to do a challenging dive - but I could do the course those two days. Sounded great. Sounded like a plan.
So I arrive in Picton and pick up my advanced text, and have a brief chat, and learn that, in fact, we ARE diving the Lermentov, because the people who had wanted to go on Tuesday couldn't go because of bad weather. So I'll be diving it the next day. Still tired, I read the requisite coursework about wreck diving and deep diving, most of which reads to me like YOU CAN DIE SO MANY DIFFERENT WAYS IT'S NOT FUNNY blah blah DO NOT EVEN CONSIDER DOING A PENETRATION DIVE UNLESS YOU KNOW YOUR SHIT AMAZINGLY WELL blah blah LIKE REALLY ALL THIS IS INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS, WE'RE NOT KIDDING blah blah OH BY THE WAY, IT'S EVEN MORE DANGEROUS IF YOU HAVE ANXIETY OR ARE FATIGUED OR INEXPERIENCED.
So I have anxiety about being fatigued and inexperienced, and then have anxiety about having anxiety, and manage to wake up every single hour between 1 am and 6 am, and get picked up at 7:15. Meet the other divers, load up the truck, take everything down to the boat, take the boat out.
On the way out, the light is beautiful, transformative. Any idea that I had made a mistake is lost from my mind, watching reddish-gold light reflected off the waters. Suddenly, the boat drops to a near-halt. Our laconic captain informs us that there's traffic. I look in front of the boat: dolphins. All around us, groups of dolphins, jumping in and out of the water. In the distance, a playful dolphin trying to keep up with the passenger ferry as it comes into the bay. I had passed up the chance to pay money to go see dolphins on a boat in Akaroa, for reasons not entirely clear to me at the time, but subconsciously I remembered: go out for a scuba dive, and you get all that for free.
And after we resumed our trip, and reached the tail end of the 2-hour boat trip to the Lermentov wreck, I was informed that we'd be doing a penetration dive on the Lermentov.
I should probably pause to mention what a penetration dive is, though perhaps it's obvious: basically, a penetration dive is any dive on a wreck where you go inside the wreck. In the case of the Lermentov, most of its structure is still there, minus a lot of missing windows; it just happens to be on its side (well, and at the bottom of the ocean, but you knew that). The deepest point we hit on it was about 26 meters; I'm sure there's deeper parts.
I should also repeat a couple key phrases from my text (paraphrased), running through my head:
- DO NOT EVEN CONSIDER DOING A PENETRATION DIVE UNLESS YOU KNOW YOUR SHIT AMAZINGLY WELL
- YOU CAN DIE SO MANY DIFFERENT WAYS IT'S NOT FUNNY
- OH BY THE WAY, IT'S EVEN MORE DANGEROUS IF YOU HAVE ANXIETY OR ARE FATIGUED OR INEXPERIENCED
I should also mention that I do not consider myself a lucky diver, thus far. When I did my training, we learned various procedures for air emergencies. I asked my instruction how often she used them; she said she'd been on 100 dives and never had to use them.
My buddy had an air emergency on my very first post-training dive. Which is to say: when people talk about the worst shit that can happen on dives, I don't think "Oh, that's something that will never happen"; I think "Wow, that's another thing that could happen".
If everything inside me wasn't clenched like a drum, I probably would in fact have shit my pants.
Do I go? Of course I go. Of all the stupid things that I let fear paralyze me from doing, backing out of activities I've spent money on isn't one of them. Some part of me, that I rely on for moments like this, takes over the body and just goes through the preparation autonomously; and the boat captain has dived this wreck hundreds if not thousands of times, and assures me that as long as I stay right by him, everything will be fine.
And so, five of us descend, 26 meters, to our entry point to the Lermentov.
What none of us knew, before we went down, was just how bad the visibility would be. Visibility is highly variable, and the single variable that can separate a great diving day from a bad one. Particulate matter in the water can do a lot to reduce visibility. And on this day, the visibility on the Lermentov was about 5 meters. Put differently, roughly 2 1/2 body lengths.
Another little scuba fun fact. Generally, everybody starts with the same amount of air, but not everybody goes through it at the same rate. Lots of different factors, but a huge one is inexperience. If you're unnecessarily panicked (because, say, you're under 25 FUCKING METERS OF WATER AND INSIDE A SHIPWRECK AND HAVEN'T DIVED FOR 2 1/2 YEARS), you are apt to breathe heavier as well.
Conversely, on a deep dive, you can't come up particularly quickly, because you need time to decompress, so you have to have a decompression stop. Now this stop does have air, if you need it; you just have to be comfortable taking out your regulator and putting in another one. For experienced people, I'm sure, ain't no thang.
All of this is to put you in my shoes as the five of us enter the swimming deck of the Mikhail Lermentov, turned on its side. Ahead of us, a bar on its side. As we get close, I can see the one remaining bar stool that's still attached. And then, per our plan, we go up - which, in terms of boat layout, is sideways - to the deck at the side of the craft.
Which is windowed in.
And as I guzzle air, and we swim along, and I can barely see past my instructor in front of me, I realize I have no idea how long we're going to be in here, or how I'm going to get out if something goes wrong. We pass under window after window, but they all seem to be intact.
I eye my gauge warily. It's going down. Too quickly for my liking. How far do we have to go?
But wait for a moment. Because this narrative is oversimplified. To say this is an exercise in fear is accurate but incomplete. It is also an exercise in beauty. The beauty of decay is something I love; I take heaps of pictures of rusted and demolished things everywhere I go. The beauty of light through water is something else I love. And here are both, and as we pass through, and fish pass atop the windows I swim under, and light bounces off the silt in front of me, and as I look at the ship walls, walls I can already barely recall in the face of the surreality of the whole experience, I appreciate it is all, despite the compromised visibility, incredibly beautiful.
Which doesn't keep me from imagining horrific outcomes.
Finally, we reach an escape point. There's another passageway, going down into the ship, into darkness. (I should mention I'm the only one without a flashlight, on the entirely reasonable grounds that being the least experienced I'd be the most likely to drop it.) The captain and I briefly confer, with the limited sort of sign language and sharing of displays that's symptomatic of underwater communication, and I make it clear that I think I'm going to run out of air if I stay down, or at least make it clear that I want to go back up. (If we could talk, I would have said "How far is the next bit and do you seriously think I have enough air for it?". In lieu of that, I wasn't about to take a chance. So the rest of our party continues and, after our decompression stop, I come to the surface, still with about 70 bar left. (I left with 200 bar; generally, surfacing at 30 bar is a good target.) I talk with the captain, he says it's the worst he's seen visibility on the Lermentov this year, and is convinced we should do the second dive of the day elsewhere.
In the day and a half since then, I've done four more dives, including two on other shipwrecks, and now have my advanced certification. And the paralyzing fear has largely dissipated, replaced by imagining how I could handle the Lermentov with more skills under my belt and in better visibility. As I said goodbye today, I mentioned that I'd love to see it sometime with better visibility. Brent, the captain, said September's a great time for visibility.
Somehow, I'm actually considering it.