September 23, 2016

WEISSMANN | Far Below Cayuga’s Waters

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The first time I went scuba diving, I saw nothing but mud. The last time I was diving, I hovered just above the ocean floor as hungry sharks fed on our “chumsicle” — a frozen mass of fish designed to attract the finned creatures.

Last fall, a friend of mine enrolled in Cornell’s Open Water Scuba gym class. After an Oscar-level performance of puppy-dog eyes and some well-timed Jaws jokes, I agreed to take the class alongside him. I was terrified; who breathes underwater for fun?

The process of becoming a certified diver necessitates a series of small tests, the more difficult of which involves removing your mask underwater and wrestling it back on again. These are done in the aquatic safety of the Teagle Hall pool and its very visible depth, costumed in thick black wetsuits, an inflatable vest to control buoyancy, a weighted belt and a 50 pound lime green tank of filtered oxygen. It’s not unlike wearing a snowsuit in a steamy sauna.

After two days in the pool, we were deemed ready for the lake. We were motored to the north shore of Cayuga, by which time I was sweltering inside my gear, reduced to squinting through a fogged mask and tripping over my flippers in a vain attempt to have any autonomy at all. But as soon as I went underwater, I was weightless. As a diver, you don’t sink and you don’t float. You drift parallel to the muddy bottom of the lake, dodging small fish and trying not to stir up too much mud. You monitor your compass, aided in your navigation by underwater landmarks and the muted sounds of faraway boats. And you return to the surface an hour later, waterlogged and wide-eyed, to calculate your body’s nitrogen levels and maximum depth. Scuba is as much a science as it is a recreational sport.

On our final day a thunderstorm rolled in, abruptly foregoing my certification. I had not spent my weekends in a translucent brown lake to fall just shy of the goal and so, in spring, in an effort to avoid redoing the whole thing, I enrolled in Cornell’s intermediate-level class, which takes place aboard a dive boat in the Caribbean over the course of eight days. There were nineteen of us on the 42-foot vessel, including the balding captain and his crew. Nobody showered; it didn’t make sense to rinse saltwater off your body when we were diving three to four times a day, descending to nearly a hundred feet below international seas. This was no longer the murky water of Cayuga — in fact, the water temperature was warmer than the air most days, and crystal clear. We surfaced with vivid mental images of colorful parrotfish, polka-dotted sea slugs, poisonous lionfish, sleepy sea turtles. We dove at night to explore underwater planes wrecks, we let the current whoosh us past coral like a kaleidoscopic lazy river, and yes, we fed the sharks.

I returned to campus exhausted but exhilarated. On the Hill, it’s not hard to feel distanced from a world outside prelims and papers, to become mentally isolated from the things we read about in textbooks. I’m no great lover of science (in fact, I readily avoid it), but there is something positively grand about the natural world that reminds you that you in fact occupy a very small place on this earth, this country, this campus. All it took was a 5-millimeter wetsuit and a few sharks, and my world was that much bigger.

Ruth Weissmann is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. A Word to the Weiss appears alternate Fridays this semester.