What Lies Beneath

I became a diver in 1986, taking an open water SCUBA class at the YMCA on Huntington Avenue in Boston. I was in my early 20’s and had always been drawn to the ocean. Growing up through the 70’s, Jacques Cousteau and his boat Calypso were huge influences on me, but also my father was an early and enthusiastic diver, and I loved hearing about the adventures he had off the tip of Provincetown as part of a diving club.

Enter Ed, my boyfriend at the time (now husband of 28 years) who loved the sport, and showed me his log describing dives he’d done all over the world, including one in Mexico that took him to the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks. (He says he’s fortunate that they weren’t home.)

My motivation for getting certified myself was complete when we became engaged, and so, the spring before we left Boston, before we packed up and moved to Maine, before we got married (at which time Ed gave me a mask, fins, and snorkel) and before we honeymooned in Mexico (at which time I did my check-out dives)  before all that —  I rode the T every Wednesday night to the Y for my SCUBA instruction.

I will never forget one of the classes. The instructor had us:sitting on the bottom of the pool without masks, practicing something called “buddy breathing” with four other people. If you’re not familiar with SCUBA, buddy breathing is an emergency technique designed to save your life should you ever run out of air underwater. Back in the mid 1980’s when I was first learning, it meant sharing someone’s demand valve on a regulator, the piece of equipment that goes in your mouth and from which you breathe.  Today, virtually every regulator worn by divers has two hoses with a second mouthpiece called an Octopus, used by a diver in trouble. (In fact, buddy breathing isn’t taught anymore because of the new equipment.) But back then, there were only single mouthpieces, so buddy breathing meant relinquishing (temporarily, you hoped) the source of your precious air.

The exercise on the bottom of that pool felt like a kind of torture: the water pressing against my face, the rising panic as I waited for my turn at the regulator, my lungs desperately wanting that piece of rubber hose that meant life. Lifeguards know that a drowning person will do anything to get air, and after my experiences on the floor of that old pool, I  believe it.

Of course, I had only to swim upwards fifteen feet or so, and I could gulp all the air I wanted.  No fear of sharks, or nitrogen narcosis. We were in a pool, in the middle of Back Bay – not the middle of the ocean.

Now imagine that scenario in open water – 80, 100, or maybe even 140 – feet down, and you’ll see where my head’s been at the past few days.

Vicki Doudera here. Today I’m flying back to Maine after spending a week with my family in St. Croix, where our oldest son, Matt, is the Captain of a 120-foot yacht. It’s been a fabulous week of sunshine, sandy beaches, cool rum drinks and warm ocean water, along with several dives to explore the island’s coral reefs. Matt’s a dive master, and the yacht has all the equipment necessary – tanks, regulators, weight belts, buoyancy compensators – to take our family of certified divers out to explore what lies beneath the pretty turquoise waves.

All three days of diving were impressive, but our first excursion, on a part of St. Croix called Cane Bay, was one of the many experiences that got my writer’s mind thinking. 

We’d driven out to Cane Bay the day before for “Mardi Croix,” a fun, funky, all-day Mardi Gras celebration complete with a festive parade, strand upon strand of colorful beads, and the requisite rum drinks served from beach bars full of locals and a few vacationers like us. Located on the North Shore of the island, Cane Bay boasts beautiful sand, gorgeous vistas, and, a hundred yards or so from the beach, “The Wall,” a drop-off that descends 13,000 feet down from the reef. 

That’s right – thirteen thousand feet, down into a dark blue void.

Except it’s not a void, even if you peer into it and see nothing. Matt told us as we were strapping on our tanks and preparing to wade into the ocean that we might see humpback whales, and a guy at a shop (where I made the last-minute purchase of a rash guard to keep the steel tank from chafing my back) said he’d seen them from shore.  WHALES???  Never mind sharks, which Matt mentioned we might also see (and in fact did see, although on a different dive) but WHALES?

We dove that day to 140 feet, one of the deepest dives I’ve ever done. We did not see any whales, although on another dive we heard their eerie, echo-y underwater cries.  We did see some spectacular sights – massive, globe-like brain corals, schools of blue tang, skinny pilot fish, and big-eyed squirrel fish. And we saw the very impressive drop-off: The Wall.

I have to admit that it freaked me out a little. Okay – a lot, although I was the only one in our family that it seemed to bother. I just did not like the sight of all of that deep, dark blueness so close that it could swallow me up. I don’t think it was what could come swimming up from out of that blueness that panicked me (although I knew it would if I let myself ponder it for even a second) but rather the fact that it was so dark, and so deep. To say that I found The Wall unsettling is putting it mildly.

After our dive, while we sipped rum drinks (you do a lot of that on St. Croix) and ate burgers with a reggae band jammin’ in the background, Matt told us about the only recorded shark attack at Cane Bay.  It happened back in the 1980’s. Two guys were diving The Wall when a shark rose from the depths and grabbed one of the men, dragging him down into the cerulean fathoms.  His body was never found, and none of his equipment was recovered.

I took a big swig of my rum drink, thankful my son had shared his tale after the dive and not before, but he wasn’t quite finished with the story.

The shark attack is the official, accepted version of what happened some thirty years ago. But Matt, who has lived on St. Croix for close to three years now, says he’s heard a few locals describe a very different account.

Apparently the two men were more than just dive buddies. They were business partners, known to be in the middle of a disagreement regarding their finances.

We sat with our rum drinks and discussed how easy it would be to kill someone while diving, especially in that incredibly deep water. A simple matter of cutting the oxygen supply, watching the victim drown, and then weighting the body — perhaps by releasing any remaining air from the buoyancy compensator, or adding a weight from one’s own weight belt. In 140 feet of water or deeper, a body wearing a steel tank and other weights would never float up to the surface, and most likely an Apex predator or two roaming the depths would enjoy the unexpected snack.

I’m pretty sure most families don’t sit around sipping rum and contemplating murder, but when Mom writes crime novels, it’s bound to happen.

I used the drama of the deep in Killer Listing, writing the SCUBA scenes from my own experiences with Matt as my consultant.  I’d originally thought that my character, a depressed diver, would commit suicide underwater, but as I got further along with the writing, it became clear that a planned suicide with a last-minute change of heart was what needed to happen. Reading those scenes makes my heart pound, and hopefully yours does, too.

The thing of it is, diving is a dangerous sport, often done in very small groups. If two people are diving and one of them disappears, no one but the survivor can relate what happened. A shark conveniently putting an end to a messy quarrel?  Here’s my theory. Many misdeeds can be buried in the vast ocean – perhaps forever.

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6 Responses to What Lies Beneath

  1. Gram says:

    There are some gorgeous underwater trails just off St. John as well.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    What wonderful adventures you’ve had! ASCUBA diving is one of those things I’ve always dreamed of, but now probably will never do. Thank you for sharing! And what a fantastic scene in your book .. I’m looking forward to reading it!

  3. Great post, Vicki! Having just returned from a sailing trip that included St. Maarten and the B.V.I.s, I can picture the scenery you describe. Although I’m not a diver myself (your pic of the shark with jaws gaping is a big reason why), my husband is. In fact, he runs dive tours here on the Bold Coast (Dive Downeast). To wussy me, though, the Caribbean sure beats immersing yourself in the cold Gulf of Maine!

    • I hear you Sherry! I have never gone diving in Maine and I feel a little guilty about it. Both Matt and my other son Nate did their check out dives in 40 degree water in Maine. Brrr….! Not me. PS I am afraid of sharks too. Blame Peter Benchley.

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