The bluest water I’d ever seen. I stood at the boat’s rail looking down. The sunlight hit the surface and drove rays of light downward—all that energy, who knows how much candlelight power, the sheer wattage boggles the mind– toward the ocean’s bottom, a mile below the hull of the boat. But sunlight won’t ever make it that far. Complete absorption happens around 600 feet, in an area known as the twilight zone.
We were swordfishing in U.S. waters up near the Canadian Line. Nantucket and Cape Cod were about 200 miles inside of us. The captain, a man named Mike, who fought in Vietnam as a grunt, saw some serious shit, came home, found God, and bought a fishing boat. Over the years he developed the skills to find swordfish. Today he found an eddy of blue water loaded with marine mammals. The pilot whales and porpoise are toothed whales, meaning they eat squid and fish–so do swordfish. That’s why Mike was fishing here. On one side of the blue water was green water, water that was spilling off from Georges Bank. The blue water was a meander from the Gulf Stream. Most offshore animals that can swim will collect around these edges: warm water on the edge of cold.
My mask was on and the snorkel was in my mouth. I chewed the rubber mouthpiece of my snorkel, tasting the silicone and dried salt. One of the deckhands, a big black guy from Trinidad, weighing well over 200 pounds (he played football at the University of Rhode Island), kept saying to me, over and over, that I was fucking crazy to go swimming out here.
Around the boat swam a pod of pilot whales and dolphins. The boat drifted with its engine off. The animals were blowing air all around us. Acres of them. James said that the sharks would be attracted to the splashing dolphins. He had a big grin going, flashing me his white teeth. Come on crazy college boy let’s see you jump in..
We had some time to kill before we set the net back in again. James was in the galley fixing a sandwich. The other two deckhands slept below in the bunkroom—a place with no windows, down the rabbit hole you go into the cave. By the end of the first week of fishing it stank of bodies and wet socks. Different species of mold grew in the carpet. The rising odor of pain cream was strong enough to singe your nose hair. Men at night moaning in pain. Flakes of dead skin would float down from the upper bunks to the lower ones, as the guy above you picked constantly at his cracking hands.
Flat seas, diamond-bright. We’d be spending the Fourth at sea. The nearest bottle rocket launched from a beer can at a beach party was miles from us. I stood at the rail. The bright overhead sun glared the retinal nerves from my eyes. A week at sea so far. The sea’s boredom, the pull of home, the annoyance of every man on board. Each one of us dealt with this differently. It was always easier when the fishing was good. Downtime hurt the inside of your head bad, made it too easy to think yourself in crazy loops and circles.
I jumped off the rail, barefoot, no different than a summer boy taking a leap off a stone bridge crossing a tidal creek. A sinking body in a column of rising bubbles. Then, surprised by my own buoyancy, I quickly rose to the surface. Fast breaths—in and out– coming hard through the snorkel tube. I’m guessing I could see 150 feet down and 300 feet to the side. But the distance was hard for me to judge—what does 150 feet look like when there is nothing but more water below it?
The porpoise and pilot whales were gone. They must’ve sensed me in some ancient echo translation that said, bolt the area. No sharks yet either. I was still alive. I felt tiny, diminutive. Completely insignificant. My kicking was erratic. I broadcasted outward an electromagnetic song that no human can hear. How far do these signals reach? 500 feet, 1,000 feet. How sensitive is a shark’s lateral line? Millions of years of continuous evolution has shaped it as acutely as evolution has shaped human consciousness. There had to have been a predator in range. Some tiger shark or oceanic dusky, great machines of reflex, swimming below my toes in the twilight zone—that place of ultimate transition of light to eternal darkness—deep down it’s caudal fin pumping side to side, its lateral line picking up the traces of an animal in distress at the surface. I stayed close to mom, which in this case was the hull of the 66-foot boat. Several minutes had passed and I started feeling more confident, confident like a baby fur seal going for its first frolic outside the kelpy haven of a tidal pool.
A good predator hits by stealth. A hawk’s plunge from a tree limb hits the rabbit before the rabbit can blink; a barracuda on a reef’s dropoff attacks the blue runner faster than the shutter of the camera can record it. I decided to swim out from the boat. I wanted, in an odd way, to feel what it would be like looking down into 6,000 feet of water without a boat around. I suppose it’s one of the hazards of consciousness. The open ocean is the biggest habitat on the planet. How much mass is the ocean? And that percentage that we always see in newspapers that something like 72 percent of earth is composed of ocean. I took a deep breath and dove as far down as I could go, serene and vulnerable. Then I stopped. I looked around at the world a swordfish might see or a tuna or a leatherback turtle. Clearly they don’t get freaked out. Because it’s freaky. The blue and purple light; the feeling of being in a bottomless well without sides.
I came to the surface. I swam to the boat. Once I got to the boat’s transom, I noticed an inch in front of my mask, tiny swimming animals. I’m sure they were all around me the whole time but I failed to notice. I was fixated on seeing something thousands of times larger. These were tiny creatures with tiny legs kicking like lobsters; and micro jellyfish that slid through my fingers when I reached out to touch them; and long chains, links half a foot long, of animals made from a thin glass-like material. When oceanic plankton dies their bodies sink. The bottom of the oceans are covered in animals from the sunlight zones. Those fortunate enough who have been down in submarines describe the falling organisms like underwater snow.