Authors: Willard Price
By Willard Price
The gallant little ship, Lively Lady, rode at anchor in the lagoon of Truk, paradise atoll of the South Seas.
On every side rose high islands, clothed from base to summit with coconut palms, breadfruit and mango trees, and blazing bougainvillaea.
There are two hundred and fifty islands in Truk lagoon. The lagoon is huge, forty miles across, a veritable lake in the ocean. It is girdled by a low coral reef. Four breaks in the reef allow ships to pass into and out of the lagoon.
Below the Lively Lady the water was so clear that Hal and Roger, looking over the rail, could plainly see the gorgeous coral gardens on the bottom forty feet down.
The two brothers, Hal in his late teens, Roger in his early teens, had been allowed a year off from school to make certain expeditions for their father, John Hunt, the famous animal-collector. They had spent the summer in journeys through the Amazon jungle and the Pacific, collecting wild animals and great fish for the zoos and circuses - a story already told in Amazon Adventure and South Sea Adventure.
Now they were to go beneath the sea. Their father, following his plan to give them a practical education in natural history, had lent them to the Oceanographic Institute.
The Institute had outfitted the Lively Lady with diving bell, aqualungs, submarine cameras, and other equipment for deep-sea operations to study the habits of great fish and capture specimens. Bob Blake, doctor of science, had been assigned by the Institute to direct the work.
Dr Blake looked more like a lifeguard than a scientist. His skin, where it was not covered by the yellow bathing trunks, was tanned a deep mahogany. His shoulders were broad and his big chest and tough arm muscles suggested a powerful swimmer. His face was intelligent, but just now it was screwed up into a gloomy scowl. He sat on a hatch and studied the two boys at the rail.
‘Why, oh why …’ he was thinking, ‘why did I have to draw these two amateurs? What do they know about deep-sea diving? They’ve probably never been deeper than the bottom of a bathtub.’
His eye followed Hal from head to foot.
‘A lot of man there,’ he had to admit to himself. ‘Half my age and bigger than I am. A steady, sensible fellow. And his kid brother is a likeable youngster. But that doesn’t make them deep-sea divers. Well, if I have to play kindergarten teacher, I may as well get started.’
He called the boys. Time for our first diving lesson.’
They came eagerly and joined him on the hatch. Captain Ike, owner and skipper of the vessel, edged closer. Omo, a young Polynesian seaman, dangling above in a
bosun’s chair, rested from his job of sandpapering the masts and listened.
‘You boys know,’ Dr Blake began, ‘that seventy per cent of the earth’s surface is water. Most of the land has been explored. But we have only begun to explore the water. The world beneath the sea is yet to be discovered. The great explorations of the next hundred years will be in the ocean depths.
‘Scientists have tried to learn what goes on down there by letting down nets, then studying the fish and weeds that come up in the nets. That’s a very poor way of going at it. A much better way is to go down and see for ourselves. But this was not easy in the old-fashioned diving suit because it was so clumsy and dangerous.
‘Recently there have been some marvellous inventions that make it possible for us to go down into the sea and feel at home there. One is the snorkel. One is the aqualung. One is the diving bell. One is the undersea sled.
‘We have all of these on board. What I want yon to do is to become familiar with their use so that you can help me study deep-sea life, take underwater photographs, and capture specimens. I know you have had some training in zoology in your father’s animal business. And they tell me you made a fine record on your Amazon and Pacific expeditions.’
Hal and Roger glowed with pleasure. Dr Blake took the wind out of their sails with his next remark.
‘But all that won’t help you much. The main thing in this job is to be able to dive. How much diving experience have you had?’
‘Mighty little,’ Hal said truthfully.
‘I thought so. Now the first thing I want you to do is to jump over the side and let me see how far down you can go. If you have sharp pain in the eardrums, come up at once. You’ll be lucky if you swim ten feet deep on the first &y.’
Roger leaped up on the rail. He would show this doubting professor. He prided himself on his ability to make a clean high jack-knife and a deep plunge. But Blake stopped him.
‘Hold it! Not that way. No plunge. That would scare the fish.’
‘How else?’ asked bewildered Roger.
‘Go in the way an old woman would. Let yourself down into the water, gently, without making a splash.’
Hal and Roger eased themselves over the rail and into the lagoon without raising a ripple. Then they upended and swam down.
It was Dr Blake’s turn to be bewildered. He had expected the boys to go only a few feet deep and come up gasping and spluttering. Instead, with long, even strokes, they swam down, down, down. Ten feet, twenty feet, thirty, on down to the forty-foot bottom.
Their brown friend, Omo, watched their performance proudly and enjoyed the look of surprise on the professor’s face. Omo himself was not surprised, for he well remembered the experience his companions had gained in diving for pearls on their previous expedition.
Dr Blake threw a line over the side. The two boys rose swiftly to the surface, shot out like porpoises, seized the line and swarmed up it to the deck.
There they stretched out in the sun. Their breathing came in gasps and their faces showed the strain of the dive. They waited for Dr Blake to say something.
But their instructor did not believe in distributing praise with a lavish hand.
‘Not bad,’ he said, ‘for beginnings. But you’d do better if you bounce first.’
‘Bounce?’ queried Hal.
Blake let himself down smoothly over the rail, then swam slowly to a point where the lagoon was about sixty feet deep. He sank until only a bit of his brown hair could be seen. With a sudden thrust of arms and legs, he shot up out of the water waist-high and sank, still is an upright position, to a depth of eight or ten feet. Then he doubled and swam down, so swiftly that it seemed he could not have gone half-way to the bottom before he popped from the water holding a sea fan plucked from the coral floor.
Hal and Roger realized their good luck in having a diving master who could do as well as teach.
Blake clambered aboard. His breathing was normal and he looked as calm as if he had dived six feet instead of sixty.
‘Lesson number two,’ he said. ‘Have you ever used a snorkel?’
The boys shook their heads. Blake opened a case and took out face masks, swim fins, and snorkels.
‘Then you’re in for a treat,’ he said. ‘Put these on.’
The boys were familiar with masks and fins and easily slipped them in place.
But the snorkel! They examined this device with curiosity. It was a plastic tube about two feet long. It looked like a snake bent up at one end and down at the other. On one end was a mouthpiece.
‘Put that in your mouth. The rubber flanges go behind your lips and you grip those rubber nubbins between your teeth. Then it doesn’t matter if your head is under water - you can breathe - as long as the other end of the tube is above the surface.’
‘But,’ objected Roger, ‘suppose the sea is rough -waves splashing against the snorkel - won’t you take in water instead of air?’
‘See the ping-pong ball in the little cage at the top end?’ said Blake. ‘When a wave comes it throws the ball up, closing the opening. No water comes through the tube. When the wave falls away, the ball drops and you breathe again. You’ll find with a little practice that you won’t even notice these interruptions.’
‘How long can you keep your head under water with one of these?’
‘Why, all day if you like. It’s as easy as breathing. The only difference is you breathe through your mouth instead of your nose. That’s no trick. Lots of snorers do it every night.’
‘Why do they call the thing a snorkel?’ Roger wanted
‘During World War II one type of German U-boat had a schnorkel - a tube to bring down air to the submarine. Our word is the same, only simplified.’
The diving master put on a mask and fins, and selected a snorkel. ‘I’ll show you how it’s used.’ He slipped the rubber mouthpiece behind his lips. He went over the rail and lay in the water, face down, almost submerged, only the back of bis head above the surface. The end of the snorkel rose out of the sea tike the head of a sea serpent.
When a ripple splashed against the serpent’s head, the ball it held in its teeth popped up, and momentarily closed the opening. Blake swam about lazily, viewing the coral gardens below through the window of his mask Then he dived. As the upper end of the snorkel sank into the sea, water pressure forced the ball into the end of the breathing tube. When the diver rose and the snorkel emerged into the air, the ball fell away and the diver could breathe again.
For fifteen minutes Blake swam about, just beneath the surface, diving occasionally, and never once took his face out of the water.
‘It’s as easy as lying in bed,’ he said as he climbed on board. ‘Try it. One at a time.’
‘Me first,’ said Roger eagerly.
He clamped lips and teeth over the snorkel mouthpiece and slid into the sea.
He floated face down as Blake had done. But old habits were too strong. He held his breath as he had always had to hold his breath under water. Then he tossed his head out of water to take air, but when he opened his mouth to breathe, out fell the snorkel. He could hear Blake scolding him. He replaced the mouthpiece in his mouth. He reminded himself that with the snorkel you could actually breathe under water.
He deliberately sank his face into the lagoon and kept it there. He tried to breathe - through bis nose. Since the face-plate that covered his eyes covered his nose also, inhaling gave him no air but merely tightened the mask on his face.
Of course - he must breathe through the mouth. He tried it, and the air flowed easily into his lungs. He exhaled, inhaled again, exhaled … why, there was nothing to it. All you had to do was to forget that you were in the water. Forget that the sea was your enemy. Make it your friend. Rest in its arms.
He relaxed. He was breathing regularly now, although it still seemed strange to be inhaling fresh, dry air under water. Although he was a good swimmer, he had always had to fight the sea. Fight to breathe, fight to keep water out of the nose, fight to avoid swallowing a bucketful, fight to stay up, fight to swim down, fight to force a passage through the waves.
Now there was no fight. The tension left his arms and legs. He lay in the warm tropical water as in a feather bed. He knew there were waves above him because he had seen them before he went down. But now they merely washed over him and he felt nothing but a gentle swinging motion. Now and then a wave would bury the snorkel and the ping-pong ball would shut off his air, but it would be only an instant before he could breathe again. Soon he did not even notice these slight breaks.
He thought of how different this was from floating on the surface with your face up. Then you had no peace. You had to be on guard every moment lest a wave slop over your face and bring you up choking and gagging. You couldn’t look down. You could see nothing but the bare sky. You had to keep your lungs well filled. If your feet were heavy, as his were, you must struggle to keep them up.
Lying face down, he had none of these troubles. Why his feet didn’t sink he could not understand. Perhaps it was because his head was completely submerged. Anyhow, he had never been so comfortable in his life. Every inch of his body was supported. The finest innerspring mattress could not support him so evenly.
He was not swimming. His arms and legs lay motionless, resting. Why, anybody could do this - anybody, even if he had never swum a stroke in his life. All you had to do was lie there.
If you wanted to move, you didn’t need to know any
professional swimming strokes. You could dog-paddle yourself along with your hands or, if you had fins on, any sort of kick would send you forward. Just to try it, he dog-paddled and kicked and moved smoothly through the water.
What a wonderful way for beginners to get used to the water! Fear is the greatest hoodoo of the beginning swimmer. He is so afraid of drowning that he can’t keep his mind on his strokes. Using the snorkel, he wouldn’t be afraid, and could work out his strokes slowly and carefully.
His paddling had taken him to a shallow part of the lagoon and the coral gardens lay only some ten feet below him. He floated above this lovely landscape as if he were in a helicopter, or on a magic carpet.
Below him the coral heads stood up like castles with holes that looked like doors and windows. Others were more like fine palaces. Fish wearing costumes as colourful as those of the knights and ladies of olden times passed in and out of the castles and palaces.