“AS we dove into the abyss, the surface light faded first to blue then gray.  Colors washed out until the multi-colored world of the reef gave way to the black and white of the deep.  Even my own fins, which sparkled a brilliant yellow on the beach, had muted into dull white.  But the most alien aspect of the dive was the pressure.”

To this day, it stands as the deepest dive I have ever made, also one of the most fascinating.  The day Bob Balagot and I glimpsed into the deepest region of the ocean changed both of us.

As readers know, the Marianas sit on the western edge of the sea trench named after them. Beginning at the beaches of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, the sea floor slopes down continuously until it sinks into a massive undersea canyon.  In the waters close to the islands, one is not technically in the Mariana Trench, but it is sobering to consider that once the bottom starts to drop, it does not stop dropping until it is nearly seven miles deep.

Bob and I had been diving the Grotto regularly, passing between it and the open ocean through cavernous underwater openings.  Swimming out the northern-most passage, we found a wall with many caves and several drop-offs that enabled us to see for a long distance in each direction.  Exiting the Grotto from the southern passage, we found crevices that acted as water chutes as the surf pulsed through them.  Sometimes we would enter a crevice and let the current push us through like a natural water slide, delightfully emerging hundreds of feet away.

After one such ride, in the distance and below us we saw a large rock that did not fit its surroundings, almost as if it had been placed there by a giant.  We swam to investigate it and as we neared, it grew bigger and bigger in our vision until the rock was the size of a house.  We swam around it, exploring its contours and abundant life that had taken up residence there: plants, crustaceans, fish, sea cucumbers.

On checking our depth gauges, we saw that we were around one hundred twenty feet deep, and as we looked down the slope in the direction of the Mariana Trench, we had the same idea at the same time.  After an exchange of glances, we started down the slope into the inky depths. 

I keep a color chart in my pocket when diving that shows how much light is washed out.  By the time we reached the giant rock there was little light and almost no color.  But as we dove deeper, even the faintest color washed out from my chart.  The pressure grew intense, and we paused from time to time to clear our ears and sinuses.  During each stop we checked each other, giving the OK sign to continue, and down we pressed.

At one hundred eighty feet, we stopped to examine several life forms that clustered in one spot.  Having gone past the depth range of corals, these were actually animals in the shape of bushes, their long arms reaching into the water in search of food.  Why had they chosen this spot, and why a cluster instead of the occasional loner we were used to seeing?  Was this the final resting place of a long-gone fish?  Was the ground here more nutrient-rich than elsewhere?  Did an unseen water current draw food to this spot more regularly than in other places?

We checked our air supplies and were nearing our limits.  We must return to the surface, making decompression stops along the way.  Then I saw a large fish, as curious about us as we were about him.  I decided to swim with him for a while and see where he went, and of course he went down.  Just as I started to descend further I felt a tug on my fin.  Bob recognized I had nitrogen narcosis, a condition that affects divers in the deep.  Had Bob not gotten my attention I may have followed that fish until my air supplies were exhausted, a good lesson in always diving with a buddy.

During our ascent to the surface, we paused to allow our bodies to adjust to the easing pressure.  It stands as the deepest dive either of us have done and possibly always will be, although I entertain hopes of returning to the Trench.   

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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