Magazine article The Spectator

Day of the Scuba Diver

Magazine article The Spectator

Day of the Scuba Diver

Article excerpt

Much editorial acreage is wasted discussing the charms of space -- inner or outer. Vast sums are spent reaching it. Forget it -- there's nothing there. Not even thin air. By contrast, six sevenths of the earth's surface is covered by the sea and beneath that glittering or raging surface there lies a world of limitless life, beauty and fascination.

Man, it is true, has sought since Icarus (only a legend anyway) to fly like a bird. But he has been going down to swim with the fish since before that. Until recently his efforts were pretty fraught and terribly limited in both directions. The Wright brothers changed the first and Jacques Cousteau the second. Now, with a hang-glider or microlight a man can almost become a bird, and with much less kit he can nearly be a fish.

This he can achieve by making four basic changes to himself. First, buoyancy. Fish (sharks excepted) have flotation bladders to enable them to hover at any depth they choose.

To emulate this we have a buoyancy compensation device, a BCD. Basically, it is just a weskit with air in the collar and a ring of lead weights round the waist. These drag you to the bottom; a blip of air in the BCD achieves negative buoyancy. Utterly weightless, you hove like a fish. It is a wonderful sensation. A tiny twitch on the fins that extend your feet and you move forward. Hands become direction guides. You can roll, rise, descend, curve round an obstacle like an astronaut in space.

Second, we have to breathe down there.

This is done by the tank of compressed air (not oxygen, if you please) lodged in a webbing harness behind the shoulders. The air inside is compressed to a fearsome 3,000 bars, but a gizmo called a regulator brings this lungbursting pressure down to a nice trickle of fresh air sucked in via the mouthpiece and expelled in a stream of bubbles that drift upwards and away. So now you are 60 feet down on a coral reef drifting silent and amazed, part of a brilliantly coloured, teeming-with-critters ecosystem, hearing only the steady pulse of your heart with the rhythmic gurgle of air coming in and bubbles going out.

Hence Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus -- Scuba.

Ah, but there is pressure down below.

Where we live we are constantly subjected to one atmosphere -- 14.7 pounds per square inch. We feel no pain because all the in-body cavities are at the same pressure. Heading downwards, the pressure goes up one atmosphere per ten feet. The body cavities adjust, except the ears. They have to be 'cleared' in the same way as when your airliner comes down to land. …

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