Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Dead Zone

Complex slabs and knobs of rock awaited us just below the surface almost as soon as we entered the swishing surf. It surprised me. I assumed that the expanse of sand on the beach would continue on into the water, providing easy access to the deep. But no, treacherous footing awaited us almost from the instant we took our first steps off the exposed beach sand. I couldn’t even go to my knees or to my stomach, so close to the surface were the rocks. What made them dangerous was the inability to see the presence of holes, loose stones and narrow fissures below the foaming surf.

Slowly, ever so carefully, I moved through the pulling and pushing waves. Their overwhelming power compromised my balance already made tenuous from the massive weight of my dive equipment. I constantly worried that I was about to snap an ankle from falling into some unseen chasm in the invisible rocks all around me.

Twenty feet from shore I finally found a hollow area where I could lay out. With that, I could easily see through my mask a route through the jumble of stones out to deeper water. Breathing through my regulator I pulled on my fins. Changing to snorkel I continued away from the shore, mostly pulling my body over and between stones until at last there was only rippling sand beneath me.

Don made his own way out unmindful of my travails. His robust legs allow him to give him no mind as to footing; it's just the opposite with me, what with my damaged and puny lower appendages. I don’t think he’s turned an ankle in his entire life whereas I’ve turned mine more times than I can count. It was never far from my mind that a broken ankle or wrenched knee would cause an immediate inglorious end to our expedition.

Finally, almost chest deep, the two of us were able to stand, more or less. Moderate waves rolled through us forcing us to bounce with each one, constantly causing us to struggle to regain our footing. Eager to get underwater we quickly went over our plan once again before going to regulators. We gave each other a thumbs down, deflated our BCDs and submerged to begin the dive.

Looking around me far and wide I knew right away that this would be a dive like no other I’d ever experienced. Everywhere I looked all that could be seen were endless sand rows, like waves frozen in time. The suspicions I’d had on shore while examining the beach sand, where it seemed to indicate that the sea here was devoid of all life, was being proven true right from the outset.

We reached a depth of 15 feet when Don signaled that we should head diagonally back toward a cliff face around a point just down from where we had entered the water. It was good by me—surely there were fish or ANY kind of life, somewhere over there, maybe in and around a different part of the shoreline. That's what I hoped anyway.

Nearing the coastal boulders and cliff face the wave action irresistibly pulled and pushed at us, first in, toward shore three or four feet, then away. We struggled to keep from getting too close to the shore rock, but at times the surge would shove us toward one. There really isn't much a diver can do about it; the water takes you where it takes you. I kept my gloved hands up and ready to fend off a collision.

It wasn’t long before we could see that there was nothing alive there either. We abandoned the shoreline and headed back out to the deep.

Away from the shore again I was struck by the never-ending monotony surrounding us as far as the eye could see. I pushed up five or six feet from the bottom as we swam out trying to see anything at all besides sandy bottom somewhere in the distance, but there was nothing out there. Ten feet, Fifteen, Twenty, my depth gauge showed us going deeper, but that was about the only discernible change. Don paused, turned toward me, gestured around him and shrugged. I could read his mind, “There’s nothing out here.”

I held up my console, pointed to the depth gauge and then showed three fingers followed by a closed fist to signify a zero. Then I pointed out to the deep direction. He knew from all that I was saying that we should keep going deeper until we hit at least 30 feet. I figured if nothing changed by then that nothing would and then I’d defer to whatever my dive mate decided.

Hugging the bottom I noticed that the unending rows of sand collectively resembled an underwater plowed sand field. We began to pull ourselves along by the sand rivulets, using them as handholds. Soon we reached a depth of 30 feet; we were now hundreds of feet out and still there was nothing to see but more of the same.

‘I give up,’ I thought, ‘There’s NOTHING out here. Evidently, these people have killed this part of the South China Sea. HOW is that even possible?’

Don looked at me and shook his head. He couldn’t believe what he was NOT seeing either. I’ve snorkeled and swam in lakes, ponds, rivers, oceans and seas all over the world and NEVER have I seen a body of water more devoid of life than THAT section of coastline. A phrase to describe the lifelessness around me came to mind and began to bounce around in my head. I know what I’m going to call this place, I thought, ‘The DEAD Zone!’

Don had me wait on the bottom of that dead sea while he popped up to get a direct bearing back to our section of beach. In short order he returned and we quickly headed back in. Another oddity was that even though we were hundreds of feet from where waves were breaking on shore we could still strongly feel their ebb and flow. We deduced that such a thing was happening due to the total lack of coral and rock formations. With nothing to impede the water after it crashed on the beach it had full reign to flow strongly right back out to where it had come from.

I felt sick as I carefully made my way back to the beach. Thankfully, I found a much easier path to egress the water than the way I had entered. Trudging together back up the slope, we began to discuss the awful thing we had just witnessed. Obviously, what we saw, the complete lack of ANY life, is NOT the normal condition of any tropical body of water, and I have been in many all over the world. It was amazing to consider that the environment there wasn’t just damaged, it was completely destroyed. The entire ecosystem somehow has been removed. The question we had was “How had they done it?” How could EVERYTHING be dead and gone? I just didn’t see how such a thing could be possible. Poison? Dynamite? Huge nets? All the above? HOW?

Truthfully, at that moment, I was ready to pack up and head back home.

Leisurely stripping off my gear I stared thoughtfully out at the water. In the past, after a dive I would marvel at the wonderful world hidden like an alternate universe under the waves. This time though, I felt none of that wonder, only nausea. I looked over at my dive partner and offered, "Man, that was just awful. How about we try another spot tomorrow and if its like THAT I think we need to drive on and try our luck at some other part of the coast."

"Yeah, you're right; but tomorrow we'll try diving at The Claveria Lagoon. I think we'll have more luck there. If not, we'll follow your suggestion. What do you think?"

I knodded and with an exaggerated sigh I responded, "O...kay."

Sitting heavily on a little grassy hummock near the car, I stared out at the sea, now dark from angry storm clouds above. The rain, no longer occasionally spitting on us, was increasing in intensity; I hardly noticed as I intoned, almost despairingly, "Sounds like a plan dude. Tomorrow the lagoon it is. It can't be any worse than the underwater desert we saw out there today. Just the thought of what's been done here makes me want to cry."

Next: The Lagoon

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