Seeing the Invisible
By Brigid O'Kane
One morning in November of 1997, I experienced something that changed me forever. I had traveled to Key Largo, Florida, for a well-planned scuba diving adventure. On the first day, the boat pulled away from the dock and slowly maneuvered through the canal. As we entered the open water, it quickened forward. Standing at the leading edge of the boat, I could see the vessel's bow divide the undisturbed water. This was exhilarating. A soft, cool mist met my skin as massive heaves of water were pushed aside. I kept my eyes open for signs of dolphins and jumping fish. The air rushed over my face and body, igniting a sense of feeling new.
The dive boat began to rock to and fro with the rhythmic pulse of the swells. As it moved swiftly across the surface, I remembered how much I loved being on the water. My last dive was almost one year ago. Far too long to have been away. The vision of seafoam green stretched and distanced itself to the horizon, where it met the vast slate blue of the clouds that blanketed the sky. In this open space, calmness transcended through me to a state of peacefulness, a stillness I had not felt in some time.
I thought of my dive gear in the back of the boat, carefully secured next to the tanks, and my underwater camera safely hidden under the bench. For the first dive of the day, I planned on using my macro lens, which was excellent for magnifying vivid details within the width of my thumb. Small elaborate features of various textures submerged underwater are challenging to distinguish with unassisted vision. I find them visually fascinating. These seemingly insignificant surfaces found only on the ocean floor depict the multitude of textures and hues of life. I intended to photograph the exquisiteness of this underwater life and share it with my colleagues. I would do this by projecting images of these miraculous life forms on a 12-foot-tall screen to reveal this authentic beauty.
As I looked down through the clear water, I saw that visibility was excellent; shapes on the ocean floor were easily seen. All the conditions were perfect for diving. Then I saw something I had never seen before, which made me pause. Growing up on beaches and as an experienced scuba diver, I was comfortable getting wet, diving deep, and swimming far. But this, what I saw, was highly unusual. Through the visual barrier of dancing reflections at the water's surface, I could make out large white objects on the sandy bottom. Could this be garbage? These organic blobs were scattered about at various intervals on the ocean floor, some side-by-side while others were 30-40 feet apart. The moving waters made it hard to decipher exactly what I saw, but despite the optical veils obscuring the underwater world, I found these shapes to be curiously odd.
Concerned by what I saw, I went to the back of the boat and asked my dive buddy what these white forms in the water were. Mike was a professional underwater photographer and lived in Key Largo. He explained that the coral was dying because of changes in the water temperature. This explanation took me back. It was the first time the concept of coral bleaching and global warming had entered my mind.
Arriving at the first dive site of the day, I was eager to get into the water. I was always the first diver to plunge in because the first one into the water usually sees something that none of the other divers see. I held my mask and jumped. Looking around me, I hoped to glimpse a sea ray, a turtle, or a school of fish before they scurried away into the deep. As I descended into the depths, a small group of barracuda repositioned themselves close to the bottom of the boat. As I quickly dropped 42 feet, I settled deeper into the unfamiliar feeling of peacefulness. I loved the sensation of a rapid drop as I sensed my weight drawing me downward. Reaching the sandy bottom, I found neutral buoyancy as I began swimming against the forces of the current. Looking back over my shoulder, I could see Mike close behind as he adjusted his gear. Moving forward, I gazed into the blue and inspected the otherworldly environment. Then I saw it, the bleached coral. My gut lunged as I felt a prickling of pain in every cell of my being.
Monuments of dead coral were everywhere. Large silent colonies stood like colorless statues made of bone with intricately detailed architectural structures that life had abandoned. Some of these formations looked like huge piles of melted marshmallows that had hardened into drooping lifeless configurations. Pausing to observe it up close, I removed my glove and ever so gently touched one of the hardened skeletal structures with my hand. Something profound shifted in me.
Gone were the mesmerizing colors with their infinite variety of value and tone. Gone were the polyps that hid themselves by day inside the coral, revealing their true beauty only at night with stunning soft tentacles that danced and waved in the surge while they fed. Gone were the elaborate textures that covered the coral-like delicate layers of flesh. Gone was my feeling of peace.
My vision blurred as moisture filled my eyes. I sipped air from my regulator. My mask filled with fog, making it even harder to see. I took a deep breath and removed my mask. Cool water rushed over my closed eyes and warm skin. Blowing air out of my nose, I cleared my mask of water and repositioned it back on my face. With my underwater camera in hand I began shooting images of a new series of photographs. I was no longer photographing life on the ocean floor. I had started documenting its death.
There I was, 40’ beneath the ocean’s surface, and I was utterly alone. A cavernous void of absolute loss hollowed me, and I felt thin, like a sheet of wet paper adrift in the ocean surge. I sensed myself sinking into grief while, at the same time, my heart ached and swelled to the point to which I wanted to rip it out. My interior world was being torn to pieces as I slowly swam forward against the current.
When shifts like this materialize so abruptly, it can hurl us sideways through life in such a way that inside, we feel as if we are smashed to pieces. We fall apart. At these moments, we can only hope to find the wisdom to put ourselves back together. When the pieces come back together, they are never really the same.
After the dive, I surfaced and reappeared on the deck. My physical appearance had not changed. To everyone else on the dive boat, I had returned just as I had left. I walked back to the place designated for my gear and removed the physical weight I was carrying with my camera, tank, and buoyancy vest. I tucked my mask and fins in safely as I gauged the heaviness inside me. Nothing about my physical appearance changed, yet everything in my interior world was altered.
Speechless, I tried to process what had happened. I have a deep affinity with Nature. I felt a profound connection to the ocean coral, which was now dying. At that time, I did not know that I had begun a philosophical journey, a path of intellectual inquiry that would lead me to places I could not have imagined. This was the beginning of a transformation that would change my life beyond all expectations.