by B. N. Sullivan
I doubt there's a serious diver or ocean lover who has not read, or at least heard of, Jacques Cousteau's landmark book, The Silent World. For many of us, it was our first introduction to the notion that people could put on a mask and fins and underwater breathing apparatus and explore the wonders beneath the surface of the sea.
I still have the paperback copy of the book that I acquired as a kid. That's it on the right. It's been read and re-read more times than I can count, and lent to more people than I can remember. Somehow it always managed to find its way back to my bookshelf.
The pages are brown and brittle now, and the binding barely holds those pages together, but I still like to look at it. The photos are as amazing as the text.
The book was first published in English in 1953. The paperback edition I have, from Cardinal Books, was published in 1955. I probably acquired it a year or two after that, although I'm not certain. I only know that it's been on a shelf in my personal library as far back as I can remember. It's still a good read.
The Not-So-Silent World
The Silent World figured as a great lure to visit the underwater world, but as it turns out, that world often is far from silent. Some sounds are annoying -- loud engines on boats passing overhead, for example. Other sounds, like whales singing or dolphins chattering, are sheer delight. Many kinds of marine life make clicking sounds, always amusing. A strangely soothing sound is pouring rain splashing on the water's surface, or a strong wind whipping across, creating a visible froth and an audible shhh, shhh, shhh for divers below.
Then there are the startling sounds. One instance that stands out in memory was the sound of sonar pings from submarines. We heard those while diving in the Straits of Tiran, in the Red Sea, during the first Gulf War.
In another instance, we were in the Caribbean, diving at the top of a wall near the southwest tip of Grand Cayman. We were by ourselves and just poking along, taking pictures and watching a hungry hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) lay waste to what had been a large sponge. We heard what at first sounded like a low thrum, and then sounded like an intermittent whir. We could tell that whatever was making the sound was getting nearer. We craned our necks, looking this way and that, but we couldn't see any boats passing overhead. Then one of us looked down.
There was a strange light well beneath us, and it appeared to be ascending the wall toward us. We were transfixed. We had no idea what it was. After a few minutes we could see that the light actually was several lights, and they were attached to a bright yellow mini sub. It was a deep-diving mini sub -- the kind that operates as a tourist attraction -- and its pilot was shining spotlights on the wall to illuminate the scenery for the sightseeing passengers. Since we were positioned literally right above the sub, they couldn't see us.
For a moment we looked at each other, considering whether we should stay put and surprise the tourists -- maybe even give them the scare of their lives. But we quickly came to our senses and swam away, well to the side of the sub's path, fearing the whirling propellers. We stayed clear as it reached the top of the wall and then motored away across a sand flat. The people in the mini sub never did see us.
In case you are wondering, I didn't get a photo. As luck would have it, I was set up for macro photography that dive -- and you can't change lenses underwater. My luck!