THE WRECK OF THE PRINCE ALBERT
A week's SCUBA diving in the coral reefs and beautiful water on Roatan, an
island just off Honduras, was drawing to a close. My two sons, Brad and
Peter, and I had enjoyed seeing the fantastic underwater scenery, soft
corals, sponges, and gaily colored fish on fourteen day and night dives.
As part of a larger group, we had not often dived together this trip, since
Brad's wife and Peter's girlfriend were in the party. Consequently, some
of our submerged excursions had been pretty indefinite with no diving plan
in mind, as the swim pairs wandered helter-skelter wherever they chose.
The last day of any diving vacation has to be a bit different from the
others, since most people must fly at high altitudes in commercial planes
to get home. Diving while breathing compressed air is quite easy but,
neglecting a small fraction of rare gases, air is roughly composed of 80
percent nitrogen and 20 percent oxygen. Depending on the depth people go,
some nitrogen under pressure is absorbed into the bloodstream in the form
of small bubbles, and it takes time for the human body to slowly release it
from the circulatory system. As a precautionary safety rule, no diving is
permitted 24 hours prior to air travel. While commercial aircraft are
pressurized, the altitude inside the plane may be equivalent to seven or
eight thousand feet, meaning the external pressure is much less than at sea
level. Any residual nitrogen within the body expands, and if it
accumulates in larger bubbles that move to joint areas, can result in
caisson's disease, or the bends. We had dived to 80 feet that morning, and
our final swim would be on the surface with snorkels.
Just before we began to swim in deeper water, I told Brad and Peter we had
not yet devised a plan. Brad admitted we had been lax in preparations all
week, grinned, and said, "Follow me!" I ruefully nodded my head, agreed
that we at last had a minimal operations plan, and chugged after him.
The resort we'd selected for our stay, CocoView, had claimed in its
advertising to have very accessible snorkeling immediately in front. Since
those kinds of claims are common, I'd been suspicious of them until I
grabbed a snorkel, fins, and mask to check it out. Everything they said
was true, and to the east I found three hundred yards of pristine coral
reef that paralleled a steep drop off to deeper water. It was gorgeous to
swim along in this marine fairyland with French and Queen angelfish,
parrotfish, blue tang, jacks, grunt, damselfish, grouper, lobster, crabs,
and fifty other varieties of tropical fishes I recognize but can't name.
Amid the profusion of soft and hard coral, with tubular and huge funnel
sponges growing from the reefs, one feels an integral part of a huge
aquarium. It is an experience that is better felt than described.
This time, however, Brad turned to the right on our way out, and we
followed the reef to the unfamiliar northwest side of the boat channel.
The drop off was steeper, there were less fish, and the coral reef turns
out to sea and climbs right to the surface, giving us less than a foot of
water in which to swim, so after a quarter of a mile Brad turned around and
headed back across deep water to the CocoView reef. On the way, we passed
buoys marking the wreck of the Prince Albert, a freighter deliberately sunk
as fish habitat in seventy feet of water. The ship lies with its bow
facing westerly in slightly shallower water, perhaps thirty feet down to
its superstructure. The water was clear, so we could see the vessel. Peter
took several deep breaths, then surface dived down to the forecastle. As
soon as he came up, Brad repeated the procedure, swam down and touched the
ship and returned. They slowly swam off, as I contemplated making a dive I
didn't really want to take. Well, Brad had said "Follow me," and that's
where he'd gone, so I inhaled, relaxed, said a quick, silent prayer, and
stuck my head underwater. My left ear wouldn't equalize readily, so I had
to descend more slowly than I'd liked while keeping the pain manageable.
After what seemed much longer than it really had been, I got down, touched
the superstructure, looked at the surface way above me, and started up. It
probably wasn't the brightest thing I'd ever done, but I made it up safely.
I think the boys had watched me, though neither Brad at 39, nor Peter at
28, would qualify exactly as boys. My own social security check makes me
more like the Old Man And The Sea.
I swam behind them until Brad reached the stern, which lay in perhaps seven
more feet of water, hoping they'd had enough and would go on to the bright
shallows of CocoView reef. Unfortunately, my sons didn't fall too far from
the tree that bore them. Peter paused, filled his lungs, and dived down to
the distant stern, touched it, then leisurely made his way to the surface.
Brad casually duplicated the process. Cued to my entrance point, or EXIT
POINT, as I was thinking, I relaxed, took the deepest breaths I could
manage, thought how far 35 feet looked today, and started down. The ear
was better this time, but my chest was getting a bit uncomfortable as I
neared the stern. Getting within two feet would be good enough, I thought,
but when I got there I remembered, "Follow me." Wondering just what really
makes me tick, I kicked down the last two feet, touched the ship, looked up
at the surface which seemed twenty yards above, and started back. Pushing
a little tinge of panic away, I forced myself to again relax and eased my
way toward the surface. Breaking the surface and blowing out my snorkel
was a welcome experience, but not nearly as glorious as that first fresh
breath. As I followed my sons to the CocoView reef, I gave thanks the
Prince Albert hadn't been sunk in water ten feet deeper, and vowed never to
follow Brad or Peter on a swim over the Titanic.
The male ritual my sons and I had just performed says much about hierarchy,
dominance, stubbornness, and stupidity. There probably really is no hope
for the species, but life can be fun as long as a man is able to retain his
designated slot within the pecking order of the tribe, and has the sense of
humor to poke fun at himself and joke with his sons about it later.
Sam Orr firstname.lastname@example.org