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 sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)