By definition, depth is the distance from the top or surface to the bottom of something. But can it be truly expressed in meters or feet? Is there any gauge to measure the scope of elation and unrest one feels under the surface? Depth is cold, silent, and still bewitching. It is fraught with threats and undiscovered creatures. It lures you to go one meter deeper, and then one more again till you don’t see the sun and hear nothing but your own breath. With every inch depth exposes new scenes to engulf your attention and mind. It seems that the time has come to lose your head and swoop down as deep as possible to witness what the bottom conceals. Yet you still have to go back to the warm sun and unlimited air, so you stay cold-hearted and embrace the peaceful grace of the underwater world with a single dream to go back there again.
The very bottom of any body of water, whether a lake or an ocean, is something that leaves no one indifferent. Some are frightened of it and don’t go into the water any further than where they can feel the firm ground under the feet; others, on the contrary, are constantly raising the bar and ploughing new depths to discover what lies there dozens and hundreds of meters under the surface. The former find their personal depths in something that is not water: they reach for a better job position or set personal goals, while the latter make it their major life purpose to reach the bottom regardless of what the depth gauge reads.
If one would like to understand what the title of this article is questioning, one would need to watch “Le grand blue” directed by Luc Besson in 1988. The questions brought to the surface by the director can be interpreted in a number of ways, but the story in a nutshell tells of a competition between two free-divers and the reasons why they dive deeper and deeper, why they try to reach levels never achieved by others, and what the cost of such yearning is. The film provides a classic example of where a passion can lead to. You won’t find any spoilers or other references to the movie further, but if you still don’t get the answer to the raised issue, please spare two hours of your time and enjoy the classic.
People started discovering the underwater world many centuries ago. Their aim was not to reach unbelievable depths, but to find some sea-urchins, sponges or algae as food for their families and get pearls to sell if they were lucky. The oldest tradition of pearl diving found in Japan is called Ama and dates back to the third century. Interestingly, it was mostly women who were diving deep in search of food because it was believed that women’s bodies were better built for such kind of work. Yet the maximum depth they were able to reach was 15-25 meters. Diving, or free diving as it is called today, did not change until 13 centuries later. In the 16th century an improvement to Aristotle’s diving bell was built by Guglielmo de Lorena. And that was the foundation of modern scuba-diving. The bell allowed people to stay underwater for a much longer time and to reach much deeper in the search of pearls and sponges.
The game changer in diving history came in 1943. The invention was the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus in the world – the aqualung, which was designed by Emile Gagnan and Jacques-Yves Cousteau. This discovery gave people the possibility to dive independently from the surface and reach a depth of 90 meters. While the history of breathing apparatuses can be interesting, it still doesn’t answer the question of why people continue to dive.
Cousteau was interested in the deep blue from the scientific point of view. He was an oceanographer who tried to discover new species of fish, corals, sharks and any other marine animals he could find. He tried to get ordinary people to understand what the underwater world hides because at that time people knew more about space than about the ocean. Most people who started scuba-diving in the middle of the 20th century also admit that research and interest were the main driving forces for them.
Today, people have conquered the deepest place on the planet – the Marian Trench. The Trench has been visited 3 times already and the last and longest dive was made by the Canadian film director James Cameron in March, 2012. So now the deepest place has been reached and there is no curiosity left anymore; one can watch videos from Cameron’s expedition and observe what’s there at a depth of almost 11 kilometers. So the question “why” remains.
There is no need to look for a universal answer to the raised question because it would have a variety of shades for a variety of divers. Some would opt for only the light blue depths of the 40th meter where most fishes and animals can be found; others would declare their feelings for the rich navy or indigo found at depths deeper than a hundred meters. The former love water but they only admire it without questioning what lies there, below the 40th meter. The latter are trying to reach places that fewer than 10 people on the planet might have seen. They are not satisfied with ordinary manta rays or whales, they seek new species and landscapes that leave even the most advanced divers speechless. These pioneers of the unveiled secrets of the oceans and seas are called technical divers.
There are two typical answers for technical divers to the question “why”. Some are trying to get a grip on themselves. Diving for them is a possibility to assert themselves: they enjoy complex mathematical calculations and the laws of physics that allow them to go deeper and get a bigger number on the depth gauge. One of them is Evgenia Kush; she is a deep diver who has conquered 145 m and confesses that this is not the limit for her: “It was during my very first dive within the basic course of scuba-diving when I realized that I wanted to dive deep, really deep. I knew nothing about deep diving at that time, but was absolutely and completely sure that I need to get there – I need to reach the depth.”
The second category of technical divers is the Cousteaus. These are the researchers of the underwater world who admire it without setting any precise goals. Diving for them is only the means to see what’s there in the tempting deep blue water. One of them is Nikita Azarenko, who became a technical scuba diver not merely to advance professionally, but mainly to uncover depth in order to get to something bigger and deeper. When asked if there were a limit to that “bigger and deeper” he said that “perfection knows no limits”. Nikita also draws a parallel between technical divers and cave divers because both have the aim to find places that nobody has seen before.
One can see that the reasons why people dive differ and they may change over the years. There are those who just want to see the symmetrical figure of 111m and just cross it from their bucket list; there are those who fight with nature and try to set records; there are just peaceful observers; there are scientists. Regardless of the aims each of them finds in their head, there is one linking factor for all of them – the love of depth.
Ordin Cave. Photo by Subal Pro Team
And now the time comes for you to see the depth with your own eyes again. It is the time for you to decide on your own about the reason why you would be willing to experience extreme pressure, dive into water that never gets warmer than 4°C, put on special equipment that weighs around 30 kg, spend hours and even years learning to make perhaps a single dive into the enticing waters of the ocean. What would you be expecting from the depth?
Photo by Anuar Patjane Floriuk
P.S. The reason I stepped on the path of scuba diving was a love of water and an interest in seeing what’s next. I was afraid of depth when I was a kid because all those scary movies about oceanic monsters told me that there is something huge and bloodthirsty living in the ocean. I was sure that once I swam further than the safety buoys, it would grasp and eat me. In the beginning, scuba diving helped me understand that there was no such thing as monsters in the ocean: those sharks, enormous whales and graceful rays are ordinary inhabitants that are happy to welcome you into their world unless you try to harm them. As I proceeded with diving and spent more than half a year under water in total I actually started looking for those monsters to see, maybe there are actually some to get acquainted with!