Diving With Sons

Few fathers are fortunate enough to spend an extended period with their grown sons doing something each of them truly loves. Now and then, men who delight in fishing, hunting, camping or hiking experience deep contentment and solidarity by having mutual enjoyment with male offspring, but usually not for seven consecutive days. My boys, Brad and Peter, and I were among the lucky ones. We just returned from a week in Bonaire that was spent SCUBA diving its beautiful waters, filled with colorful tropical fish of all sizes and descriptions, incredibly abundant and diverse hard corals, and the soft corals that resemble waving sea ferns. All of this beauty flourishes on steep drop-offs or on level, incomparably lovely underwater gardens. Visibility normally exceeds 80 feet, there are no currents or rough seas, and the water is a pleasant 80 degrees all the way down to at least 110 feet, which is as deep as I went. Bonaire deserves its claim to be a diver's paradise. That's the way we found it.

My oldest boy, Brad, 36 years old, an experienced diver who had been there once before, proposed the trip as my Christmas present. His 26 year old younger brother, Peter, a good swimmer who had never dived, completed a SCUBA course in Minneapolis to earn his certification. They took their dad along for fun and to see how far he had advanced into old age. I, a former Navy frogman who hadn't dived in 20 years, used my discharge papers and a tall story to obtain a certificate, and hoped everything would quickly come back to me once I clenched the mouthpiece between my teeth.

Bonaire is a small island in the Netherlands Antilles, just off the coast of Venezuela. About 24 miles long and six wide, it was formed when volcanic rock pushed above the ocean floor. Curacao and Aruba are neighboring, better known sister islands in the chain. They are tropical, with a year round temperature averaging 82 degrees.

Most of Bonaire's dive sites can be reached from land, since the reefs are situated on the drop-offs adjacent to the shore. About a mile to the west of Bonaire is a small, uninhabited island named Kleine Bonaire. Its equally beautiful waters are protected from the easterly trade winds, so when the breeze picks up, dive boats head for its shelter. Getting there requires a boat.

Bruce Bowker's Carib Inn, where we stayed, had a pair of fast boats, each powered by twin 200 hp Yamahas that were ideal for the place. Bruce's resort is located on the water near the center of the island. Most of the dive sites we visited were less than ten miles from the dock. In fifteen minutes maximum, we sped from pier to our mooring and were putting regulators on our tanks. Getting spoiled rotten on that easy accessibility takes only a day or two.

The water directly off Bruce's dock was also excellent, and we made our night dives from that spot to the coral reef only 100 yards away. For a modest sum, they provided as much air as we wanted, and Peter's and my equipment. I would recommend the Carib Inn to anyone, skilled or novice diver.

Early in the game, Peter, Brad, and I decided to form a swimmer threesome, rather than find another diver to make two swimmer pairs. The questionable choice led to some interesting conditions. I found the paternal instinct that led me to be protective of them when they were little and growing up hadn't departed. Checking a depth gage 60 feet down, looking to the left to see one son occupied in finding a moray eel on the cliff face, then looking to the right to see another son headed after a big grouper that was retreating to open water, had me literally trying to swim both ways at once. Fortunately, the great visibility allowed us to wander a bit farther than I liked without getting out of sight of each other.

A significant portion of my Navy diving had been done at night in cold water with two feet of visibility. My swim buddy and I had been roped together for safety. Safety precautions, avoiding panic, never putting yourself into a needlessly dangerous situation, and keeping a clear head had been incessantly drummed into my head during training and while on operations. At that time I'd never have suspected that forty years later I'd be roaming around freely in clear, warm water with my own sons.

Diving, I found out, is far different today than the macho activity it had been in my youth, when we operated underwater on and off submarines, and swam under ice floes at Point Barrow, Alaska. We didn't carry a spare regulator and mouthpiece, or depth and pressure gages on our equipment. Instead, we depended on a swim buddy who would share a mouthpiece in case yours failed. Our night attacks on ships with mock limpet mines often took place in 50 degree water with three feet of visibility using only a depth gage and luminous compass for direction. In those days, when a regulator sucked hard, the diver reached back on his manifold to pull down the reserve valve that had to be in the up position when the tank was filled. If it wasn't, he was out of air and perhaps out of luck. Many of our dives weren't made on air. Frogmen couldn't afford to leave the easily spotted trail of air bubbles that stream from an aqua lung, and we had to use our gas more efficiently to increase underwater stay times. Consequently, we swam rebreather rigs that used either pure oxygen or various nitrogen/oxygen mixtures, exhaling into a bag that was tied into a cannister filled with barrel-lime pellets. The purpose of the pellets was to remove CO2 from the system so it didn't build up in the breathing bag and render a swimmer, who didn't get much advance notice, unconscious. It was easy to set rebreathers up wrong or overswim them, that is, work too hard for the barrel-lime to remove enough of the CO2. They were tricky and could be fatal, unless you were very careful, in great shape, and lucky.

Who knows if I could still dive that equipment? Fortunately, I didn't have to find out. But that background really made me appreciate diving in warm water with unlimited visibility, using SCUBA gear that included a redundant air supply. Diving under those conditions with modern equipment is so safe and relaxing that anyone can do it. All of the worry was pushed from my mind by the reliability and quality of today's aqua lungs and the undescribable beauty around me. One really has to be immersed within it to comprehend the scope of a coral reef. Pictures, lovely though they may be, don't do it justice.

Evening things out a bit was Peter's propensity to enjoy swimming directly above Brad and myself. Losing contact with him, whirling around like a pinwheel, looking down, and vainly trying to peer up with a regulator preventing my no-longer supple neck from arching back, I usually failed to locate his lanky 6'3" frame. All I could do was turn around and swim rapidly back to the spot where I'd last seen him. At that point I'd generally either catch sight of him or feel a tug on my fin as he reached down to let me know he was OK. The best I could do was scowl through my face mask, relieved at his happy presence and irritated with his free-spirited ways. If cowbells worked underwater, I'd have hung one around Peter's neck.

Seldom in my life have I found anything that all of us agreed on or could do as equals. When they were boys, I taught them to snorkel. For years during summer vacation, we swam with masks and fins, looking for muskies, bass, and wall-eyed pike at Archibald Lake in Wisconsin. That was fun, but visibility was never better than fifteen feet, and the water rarely more than 70 degrees. Only the hardy would do it. Ten years ago, as a reward for Brad getting his doctorate, I took them both to Cozumel for a week. We spent hours each day snorkeling all over the island from any spot we could enter the water by land. One day we went along on a dive boat just to snorkel, watching the divers 60 feet below as we cruised along the surface. Snorkeling among the fish, limited to the top 30 feet for whatever time we could hold our breath, was thrilling for a brief minute at a time. It was also hard work. Perhaps that's where Brad got the idea diving would be worth learning: he took a SCUBA course afterwards and bought diving equipment.

The earlier preludes with snorkeling gear, both in fresh-water lakes and once in the tropics, had been enjoyable. But this trip was different and intensely rewarding. Some of it came from the fact Peter was now also an adult. But the real satisfaction to me was, at a depth of 75 feet, to look to each side and see a grown, athletic, physically fit, responsible, thoughtful and caring son that I was proud and safe to dive with. After decades of time and effort spent trying to raise my sons to be fine men, I was metaphorically able to pass the flag to this next generation with the assurance they will carry it well. And I was able to do it as an equal, not as a tottering, sea-story telling remnant of what I had once been. I hope.

No, old frogmen, unlike old soldiers, don't die or always fade away. With God's grace, some of them keep on swimming. Too many wars and 64 years of experience have taught me not everyone is that lucky. Keenly aware of my good fortune, I am blessed with the fundamental satisfaction that comes to a father who successfully raises his male offspring from babies through boyhood to become kind, decent, capable men. Quite literally, I wouldn't trade it for all the money, power, or success in the world.


Sam Orr

World Traveler

and Philanthrope

(Location Unknown)