Sixty feet under

“A diver does not want to die in his bed”

In the warm lights of the late afternoon, the bay was all colors and long shadows; the best place in the world to enjoy such spectacle was the bow of the boat was sitting on, but my mind was elsewhere. Gunter’s words were still resonating in my head. A diver does not want to die in his bed.

With his long gray hair, unshaven beard and a passion for rum, Gunter surely did look like a pirate. But he wasn’t one. His controversial statements, as shocking as they sounded, were just the thoughts of a man who dared to say what others wouldn’t. Nobody knew those wrecks like him. Twenty-eight years exploring solo, mulling the risks of deep-ocean diving got him used to the idea of death. The possibility always looming didn’t seem to bother him, not nearly as much as the thought of getting old living somebody else’s life. He had the courage to pull the plug on the rat race and take that leap into the unknown, to start a new chapter made of water, nature, freedom and isolation. I respected him for that. But was he right this time?

The boat slows down, we are there. Time to analyze our gases, gear up and jump in. The falling tide was pulling out, mixing the flow from the river into the plankton-rich ocean: every dive the Okikawa can mesmerize you with a different hue of green and blue in ever-changing conditions: today it was dim and a flurry of golden jelly was backscattering like glitter in one of those water balls some keep on their desk; visibility on the descent was bad and we ended up drifting, searching and fighting the current. Until she appears out of the mist, showing her stern like a massive ghost.

We quickly seek shelter from the ripping current into a hatch, followed to the end of a corridor, turned left, and down into the engine room. Then we slow down: the water inside is undisturbed, still, clear. Beyond another opening we swam into a seemingly endless black void: the Okikawa used to be a 7,000 ton fuel tanker and we are hovering in the middle of its hollow belly like fish in a fish-tank.

The orange beams of rust that reinforce the hull are covered with 70-year-old stains of black diesel. Our bubbles run up along the structure, joining in what seem puddles of liquid mercury. We continue along the ceiling, out of the tanks and into a crawlspace. It runs along the structure, below the deck level for a few hundred feet. A faint blue halo filtering through cracks and openings is guiding us in this iron labyrinth that makes my compass go haywire.

There is no apparent life inside the wreck, just rubble and impalpable gray silt. Everything is quiet, silent, spectral, of a melancholic beauty. As we continue below the upper deck, my torch shines on a familiar shape: it's a rubber boot. I stop for a second as it dawns on me: we are swimming in a grave. The Okikawa was hit repeatedly in the fall of 1944, finally sinking after weeks of fire-fighting. Eight brave sailors lost their lives as the giant burning ship got swallowed by the water.

Does this boot belong to one of them? What was his name? Did he drown or did he die first? Nobody will ever know. Had he survived, he would be around 90 today. Instead he's been resting here, peacefully watching this blue halo brighten and dim every day of the last 70 years.

A blue-spotted ray comes around in small cloud of dust, like claiming possession of the boot. Stingrays have no feet, nor they speak Japanese, but if I believed in reincarnation, I would have no doubts... Would I rather rest in this blue limbo, under 60 feet of water than being covered with 6 feet of mud? Probably I'd take the ocean. We all want a nice resting place, the trouble is we don't want to die to get there.

I move on, to catch up with my buddy. We continue under the deck, squeeze through another hatch and back out into the open bright water and into the current. Jellyfish are drifting around us as we decompress, waiting to end what felt like a dream of the underworld.

As soon as we get on board I realize the sun is setting quickly and it's almost dusk. The lights from the bay are shining bright in front of us, we're going back home, to a warm meal and a dry bed. Does a diver really want to die underwater? Maybe, but not today.

© 2016 By Luke Franco