Different worlds: scuba diving

If you want to visit a truly different, fascinating, varied and colorful world, try scuba diving. Yes, it can be dangerous, so you should not venture below the surface with a tank of air unless you get certified. But once this is done, you will be entering a wonderful if not magical new world.

Scuba stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, and consists of a tank of compressed air, which is strapped to your back, air hoses and a regulator for breathing. The original “aqua lung” scuba gear was co-discovered by Jacques Cousteau in 1943, and he went on to study all forms of life in the water and to become a pioneer in marine conservation and photography.

My first duty station when I was in the Navy was the U.S. Naval Air Station in Guam, and it was there that I became certified in scuba diving. In fact, I quickly formed the belief that the best part of Guam was under water. We could dive — always with a partner — on coral reefs, and a World War I freighter that sank in the harbor. And, because most of the “action” occurs at night, we also took underwater flashlights and made some night dives.

At that time, I hunted for shells and retrieved coral from the reefs that I still display on my shelves at home. I wouldn’t do that anymore because of the increased fragility of the reefs. At that time I knew some divers who would actually take a crow bar to large coral heads and pry them up while looking for shells, because the critters housed in the shells tended to hide under the coral. But it was tremendously destructive of the coral reefs, and in most places that practice has long since been prohibited.

I was also able to dive in the best spot in the world for scuba, which is the Truk (or Chuuk) Lagoon, in the Caroline Islands. This 50-by-30-mile lagoon surrounded by coral reefs was the base of naval operations for the Japanese in the South Pacific during World War II. But in 1944 the Allies attacked and sank about 12 Japanese warships, 32 merchant ships, and hundreds of aircraft, and people can now dive on them. And since the government has prohibited the removal of anything from the area, the ships and airplanes are mostly still the way they were back then. It is a fascinating thing to do!

We dove down to the Fujikawa Maru, which is a six-hold armed freighter. Still found in one of the holds was an actual Zero, which is a Japanese fighter airplane that was being transported intact. So we were actually able to sit in the cockpit of this plane, and that was an experience I will never forget. There also was lots of machinery in the hold of the ship, including an old outboard motor that I will always remember.

I also vividly remember diving in about 30 feet of water around the large guns on the bow of the same ship. But the guns had large coral heads growing on them, and several colorful fish were lazily swimming all around them. So to see this ship of war with all of its guns surrounded by such an idyllic and peaceful situation was something that will always be burned in my memory as the most ironic scene of my life.

After being discharged from the Navy I have only been diving one time in my life, and that was in Laguna Beach. Even though it was August, we still had to wear a wet suit because the water below about 10 feet was cold. And the water was not nearly as clear, or the fish as colorful, or the scenery as interesting as in the other areas I had been. We did explore the world of the kelp beds, and that was interesting. But not interesting enough to bring me back.

I do understand that the diving on the other side of Catalina Island is fun, and more colorful. In addition, divers can also go spear fishing or hunting for lobsters, so maybe some day.

Basically, the only dangerous things about scuba diving are getting panicked from lack of experience in unusual situations, or diving too deep for too long without taking proper steps for decompression. Both of these underscore the need to get certified, so that you can enjoy this wonderful activity safely.

But otherwise, experiencing the wonders of life beneath the seas is one of life’s most interesting adventures. So even if scuba diving itself is not in your future, please treat yourself by going to a warm-water climate, putting on a mask and snorkel, resting on the top of the water, and just quietly observing what is going on below. You will be able to see almost as much as a diver, because below 30 feet the sunlight begins to fade and so do the colors. Or at the very least go on one of the glass-bottomed boat excursions (and not just at Disneyland) and experience these wonders first hand. You will never be sorry.

Finally, if you want to learn more about underwater conservation, please visit the Nature Conservancy at https://www.nature.org, the Cousteau Society at https://www.Cousteau.org, or other similar websites. We all need to do what we can to protect and preserve these amazing, fascinating and diverse underwater lands.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)