The moment I realized I could just chill out underwater, everything changed. I was twenty-six. This was ten years ago. I was in Saba, a Caribbean island devoid of sand beaches but rich in coral reefs and sponge-jeweled protrusions of volcanic rock. You had to be scuba-certified to see those submerged wonders, and so I spent a morning in a hotel swimming pool with my instructor, a young Englishwoman named Deb, learning the basics of diving with oxygen. For the first half hour, I failed to notice anything more than a few inches in front of me. I was entirely fixated on the breathing.
I’d snorkeled before, but breathing through a scuba apparatus was a different thing entirely. Each exhale produced a column of jolly bubbles, but also the deafening sound of my own lungs emptying through the regulator. My breathing seemed to roar mere inches from my ears, while everything else seemed to come from miles away.
Eventually, the racket of my respiratory system incorporated itself into the slow, frictionless experience of being underwater. I relaxed. Each asthmatic intake of breath encapsulated my anxieties about being in this unfamiliar world. Each unhurried release – a low, flappy gurgling that brought to mind a Jurassic oyster, filtering through the centuries – summed up the newfound sense of calm it offered.
Hisst-gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. Hisst-gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. My mind rarely strayed far from my breathing during those early moments underwater. The effect of it was more hypnotic than the shallow, reedy rhythms of the snorkel. And it was certainly more placid than holding my breath – the last thing you want to do while scuba diving, Deb warned me. Before this, going underwater had been a panicky affair, a twenty-second submersion that ended with a sprint to the surface and a desperate gulping of air. Now, it was a place to bask in.
I’d been wrong to think of diving as enhanced swimming, as an extension of another outdoor sport. The seasoned amateurs on my excursion were not chiseled athletes. But the paunches bulging in their wetsuits were irrelevant to their purpose. Rather than exerting themselves, they minimized their movements. I could tell, based on the intermittent outflows of bubbles, that they were taking breaths in long, slow draughts. They descended like leaves from a branch, then advanced by means of long, slow kicks. I’d expected them to use their arms, because that’s what frogmen in the movies do. But they didn’t. Some let them dangle at their sides, while others folded their hands neatly together behind their back, or on their stomach, in the manner of a country squire taking a stroll through his garden. These techniques made their oxygen last longer, extending the time they could spend underwater. Taken together, especially for a neophyte like me, they cast a certain spell. Underwater, it was almost as though people became different beings – and that by extension I could, too.
Humans are not an aquatic species. There’s a cult theory that our ancestors were, but evolution experts dismiss it as ‘wishful thinking’. Yet water is our medium of arrival in this world. An embryo becomes a fetus in the saline fluids of the womb. While still an embryo, humans develop the beginnings of gill slits – suggestive openings that soon reform into the jaw, middle ear and larynx. While children must learn to walk, they are born swimmers. The moment a baby’s face plunges into cold water, a whole set of unconscious reflexes activate – a ‘diving response’ that lasts for more than six months after birth. Children are about 75 per cent water, while adults are closer to 60; by the time a person is very old, he or she might be only half made of water. Approaching the end is a process of drying out.
It’s worth asking, then, whether cultivating a certain wetness of body, mind and spirit might keep that creeping sense of decline at bay. Marine scientist and activist Wallace J Nichols makes a compelling case for this in his 2014 book Blue Mind. We should spend more time in and around water, he urges; we should value it more than we do, and, channeling Bruce Lee, maybe even strive to be like it. (Lee: Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.) Nichols cites plenty of research to boost his argument, and lets these findings flow into a conclusion that I find hard to argue with: that water is a gateway to a healthier and ultimately more constructive way of seeing things. This is what Nichols calls ‘Blue Mind’: ‘a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.’
We are aware, to an extent, of these benefits already. The balm of water is an established object of desire: it’s why seaside houses are coveted, why images of paradise invariably include a lagoon or beach, and why people spend the ridiculous amounts of money that they do on boats. It’s why we draw a bath in the evening after a stressful day. Being in water slackens and invigorates; it washes away the sediments of terrestrial life, flushes open the paths for creativity and clear thinking.
Studies show that convalescents are less depressed, office workers more productive, when they can see a water feature out the window. Even the presence of a fish tank helps. Nothing beats full immersion, of course, as any number of successful people can attest. Hilary Mantel’s cure for writer’s block is a warm shower. And the late Oliver Sacks used to come up with so many ideas in the course of his epic swims that he’d race ashore to scrawl them down – then dive back in again.
Nichols contrasts Blue Mind with ‘Red Mind’ (anxiety, overstimulation) and ‘Gray Mind’ (indifference, depression). We default to Red Mind if we’re caught in a riptide or at risk of capsizing – and with good reason. But often, we are in Red Mind even when not confronting urgencies of this order. If neuroscience reveals anything about everyday living, it is the brain’s stubborn tendency to stay in high-alert mode, even among those who would seem, in sociological terms at least, to risk the least by switching off. We should be lolling through the reefs, enjoying the scenery. Instead, we are hyperventilating about trivialities and treading water.
More people are coming around to the notion that – to borrow the tagline of Blue Mind Summit, a conference that Nichols has been organizing for seven years now – ‘water is medicine’. Surfing, wild swimming and Ku Hoe He’e Nalu (otherwise known as stand-up paddleboarding) have congealed into cultural phenomena in a way that few of their early devotees could have predicted. But contemporaneous with this wave of interest in hydrotherapy is a deep foreboding about the future of water.
The effect of climate change on the waters of the world is a looming problem of global proportions. We are fast trending towards having far too little for comfort in some places and rather too much of it in others. Industrialized humanity’s carbon output is at a minimum hastening this state of affairs, if not creating it. And no one who forecasts this redistribution, it should be noted, suggests it will leave us with prettier beaches, vibrant former swamps or better drinking water. It is true that a bigger, warmer, more acidic ocean may bring some changes that could be spun as benefits. But the sea performs two enormous, underappreciated services for the global ecosystem: moderating temperatures and sucking up excess carbon. You might think that its expansion, from melting polar and glacial ice, would provide a welcome boost to these processes. It doesn’t look like that will happen. Warming waters stagnate, preventing the circulation required for carbon uptake. In the North Atlantic, absorption rates actually dropped by 50 per cent between the mid-nineties and mid-aughts. Meanwhile, fishing will get worse as overharvesting continues and ocean acidification kills coral reefs. Phytoplankton may bloom in new places as water temperatures rise, but this is unlikely to offset its decline elsewhere – and the marine food chain it anchors will suffer further as a result. Overall, the outlook is not good.
What the swelling oceans will do instead, if recent events are any indicator, is swamp low-lying coastal areas. They will dump sand into parking lots and send marine life swimming down flooded roadways, as happened in Hawaii this spring. Experts had expected the high-water mark of a predictable ‘king tide’ to be a full nine inches lower than it really was. A warming climate brings bigger storms, which further erode the dubious boundary we have built between land and sea. Meanwhile, the rising tides release elements we mistakenly thought contained. In industrialized southeast Texas, Hurricane Harvey has sluiced pesticides, spilled fuel, chemical waste and E. coli into the streets.
Residents of climate-change outposts like the Maldives and Marshall Islands have been responding to tidal creep for years now. But what has seemed remote and therefore ignorable is now affecting the world’s power centers. Rising seas are expected to double the frequency of serious floods in parts of Texas and California, America’s biggest states by both population and economic output. Louisiana and Maryland will be exposed to ‘chronic inundation’. Two per cent of American homes may well be underwater by 2100, and more than 12 per cent of homes in Florida. Hurricane Irma destroyed a quarter of the homes in the Florida Keys and damaged 90 per cent of them. Images of Irma and Harvey, whose full effects are just starting to be understood as I write this, have made it easier to envision the coming deluge; anyone in the storm’s path, including the oil industry, has felt the wrath of the thing itself.
If inundation threatens to become ‘the new normal’, is it then strange to seek solace in water? I am following Harvey and Irma coverage from 1,500 miles away, sitting on relatively high ground in Brooklyn. I was living in New York, but on lower ground, during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Memories of that storm – pitch-black streets, basement-dwellers hauling their soaked belongings out onto the sidewalk – have stuck with me. One lingers: dozens of fish tanks in the windows of a Chinatown market that had lost power, the fish in them floating upside-down.
Fear of the flood means respect for the sea. Any community with room for nature in its worldview understands, I think, the essence of this equation, whether it is near the sea or not. The ‘wild and distant seas’ that call to Ishmael in Moby-Dick were interstates in Melville’s day, and have since then become multi-lane superhighways, flying the flags of even landlocked nations. The mistake we make is to assume that these seas are entirely at our service. The forces of nature not only demand respect, they reward it; to live in greater intimacy with them than we do at the moment is to get closer to an essential sense of equilibrium, reality and – I hesitate to say it – salvation.
Flooding is only half the story. There’s also the issue of water shortage. Even as the planet prepares (or doesn’t) for rising seas, an impending disaster of dryness looms. In the US, ongoing drought in California has forced civilians to embrace the un-American concept of water rationing. Droughts of ten years or longer – like the one recently seen in Australia – may soon be coming to America. The agricultural sector has managed so far to avoid utter catastrophe, thanks in part to an ‘overdraft’ of ground water that shifts the burden onto future generations.
But hasn’t that always been the way in the American West? Wallace Stegner, who devoted his life to studying the region, argued that aridity is its defining factor. For him, the tragedy was that Americans chose to fight the landscape with engineering rather than adapt to it.
Groundwater levels in the West have been getting lower for decades. Snowpack, an important feeder of streams and rivers, has declined nearly 25 per cent since the eighties. Reservoirs are draining, leaving bleached bathtub rings as a visible measure of all the water that has flowed away. As in coastal areas, environmental calamity both sneaks and rages. The West’s wildfire season has lasted longer than expected this summer, despite record snowfalls. Montana’s governor, faced with more than a million burned acres, has declared two separate states of emergency. Meanwhile, ‘flash droughts’ in other parts of the state have left farmers with nothing to harvest. The gains of our hard-bitten ancestors, like so many that involve bending a landscape beyond recognition, may well be provisionary. And this is just in the US (Heck, it’s almost just Montana.) If history is any guide, water scarcity will affect poorer people and poorer countries more. The residents of the Sahel in North Africa will suffer more than Phoenix suburbanites. L.A.’s water shortages have nothing on Bangalore’s.
Drought and inundation: ascendant ordeals in an age of ecological extremes. Though contrary, they are hardly self-canceling – if anything, quite the opposite. Thinking about these disasters is no way to get into Blue Mind. But getting into Blue Mind could be the best preparation for thinking about them. And so, yes, it makes utter sense to enter the water after all, grateful that it is still there to be entered, and to seek a way forward.
Partway into that first scuba dive, I calmed down and managed to mimic some of the deliberate movements of the divers around me. Wary of the pressure, and of a pain in my ears, I didn’t go down as far as they did. But I let go of Deb’s hand, and in doing so became even more attuned to my body’s relationship to this new medium. I found myself drifting up and down. Each time my lungs filled with air I bobbed towards the surface, as though a small life vest had inflated inside me. When they emptied, sending out a stream of bubbles, I gently sank back down again.
Writing up his test of the first aqualung in 1943, Jacques Cousteau explained this sensation precisely: ‘My human lungs had a new role to play, that of a sensitive ballasting system.’ I bobbed up and down a bit helplessly on that first dive, and never really did achieve what divers call neutral buoyancy. But this was a small price to pay.
The reef was alive with barracuda, grouper and beautiful darting parrotfish. I followed a sea turtle, mesmerized by his paddling. And I basked in an hour that felt, in its ease and softness, as though it might only eat a few minutes off my earthly limit. More fully than swimming, I think, diving allows you to feel – once you trust the breathing equipment, that is – the resistance of surrounding matter to your body in space, the weight of the water as it reforms around you. That each action stirs a reaction, and how this might be a metaphor for something larger, isn’t something I dwelt on at the time. Instead, I felt liberated: to go and look where I couldn’t go and look before, to try out cheeky inversions of my body and seal-like rolls, to commit myself to the deep in a way I never could when snorkeling. To make this state of being a habit – wouldn’t that be something?
I’ve only been diving a handful of times since that Caribbean trip ten years ago. That first experience is with me every time I am in water and, occasionally, when I am simply sitting in a room and breathing. As the oceans pound our coastlines and the desert reservoirs dry up, I think of the equilibrium I have felt while underwater, and wonder how we might achieve something like it as a species.