With some fifty pounds of lead and equipment weighing down my poor body, I leapt from the boat into the sea. Instinctively, I held my breath, then released it and took a long inhalation through the regulator. Bemused, I heard my own exhalation bubbling up over my head toward the surface. All the rest was silence. The only voice was the one in my head, congratulating myself on my first dive in ‘wild waters’ with full scuba gear.
The idea for the novel had come first, and so had the title. Beloved Gomorrah, and a heroine named Joanna. Another ‘ancient artifact’ thriller, in which my brave lesbian would make a shocking discovery that could shake the world. But having my heroine flee the bad guys across desert dunes, war-torn Berlin, or along Venetian canals just wasn’t heating my blood any longer. It had to be Really Dangerous. It had to be where there was no air. In a distant sea, with biblical associations, perhaps. The Red Sea, for example. Egypt, for example. Which would require a research trip. No problem.
To be sure, I had to learn how to scuba dive, get certified, buy a ton of equipment, and join a club that would take me on a scuba diving cruise. Moreover, living in Brussels, I had to do it all in bloody French. No problem.
And OHMYGOD, was it worth it! For there I was, finally, in that amazing blue world. The first thing I did was turn slowly on my own axis like an ice-skater, to get my bearings. The sense of three-dimensionality was so completely different from the horizontal of solid ground where you never need to look overhead or beneath your feet for orientation. Here I was suspended at the center of a sphere, seeing divers above, beside, and below me, all with long column of bubbles rising from their heads. I recognized no one, for all were uniform in wetsuits and masks. And yet, in that warm nutrient-rich water, that eons ago had spawned our most ancient ancestors, every nerve of my body told me I was home.
Then I saw the fish, in such gaudy glowing colors they seemed cartoons. They swam by unfazed, and a few hovered teasingly within reach until the last second, then darted off. A shoal of silvery sweepers engulfed me, like a shower of coins, surrounding but never touching me, as if magnetically repelled, then swept away. It was so awe-inspiring, so – literally — breathtaking, that in twenty-five minutes I was already on my reserve air tank. Oh, Joanna was going to LOVE this.
But if under water was paradise, on-board reality was tough going. The gear was heavy and cumbersome, and being a woman d’un certain age, I dreaded stumbling on the boat deck. Fortunately, the Egyptian team helped us loading and unloading, and at the end of the dive someone was always at the ladder to remove my tank. All I had to drag on board was the leaded weight belt and my own exhausted. derriere. Much harder, though, to remove the wetsuit and attach the vest and regulator to a new tank in preparation for the next dive. It was tortuous to stand lurching back and forth on the heaving stern while peeling off skintight neoprene as the dive-master took roll call. Then, with teeth chattering from the cold wind blowing along the port side, and without my glasses, I had to squint to thread the regulator screw into the new air tank pipe. This part, obviously, was not going to be in the novel.
While the boat moved on to the second dive site, we went below decks for lunch. Though largely vegetarian, the meal sometimes had little sausages, which the men referred to as “Camel poo.” They weren’t, of course, but I did not inquire further. Joanna was not going to eat those.
After lunch we geared up again and I discovered that the only thing worse than peeling off dripping wet neoprene in cold wind was wrestling it back on again.
But by the second dive, I was becoming adept at snaking, eel-like, over the vast gardens of soft coral. I could not have landed on them anyhow since they were huge spongy growths that, even if they didn’t sting, would swallow me up like gargantuan overcooked cauliflowers. What would Joanna think of them, I wondered. Or should I entrap her in one of them?
Knowing my fast consumption of air, I regularly checked my tank pressure, made the “T” sign for “Half tank” to my monitor and he signaled back “fine.” We explored the terrain, coming across a moray eel, scorpion- and stonefish, both of which are in the “for-godssake-don’t-touch-if-you-want-to-live” category, and a variety of more benign flora and fauna. We were not allowed to dive with gloves, so all of us fastidiously obeyed the No Touchy rules. But after another twenty minutes, I checked my pressure again and had to give the fist on the head sign that meant “I’m on reserve. Get me the hell out of here!”
I got better and went deeper every day, and on the sixth dive went down to the Giannis D, a wrecked cargo vessel that lies about 90 feet below. I was struck first by its size and I felt quite small as our group swarmed around the vast steel hull like so many seagulls in slow motion. My monitor suggested entering the bridge and the engine room, but since I was at my depth limit and had visions of being trapped and DYING A HORRIBLE DEATH, I declined. Watching from outside, I was entranced to see glass fish in the thousands in the interior spaces, and brooded on how to trap poor Joanna inside until her air nearly ran out.
Because we were at 90 feet, nitrogen accumulation in our tissues became a factor. But we had been trained in the dangers of decompression sickness and knew to ascend from the wreck in timed stages, letting the nitrogen dissipate. My wrist computer indicated the required time at each stop, and my monitor also confirmed when it was safe to move on up. Could I torture Joanna in this way too, or should I save it for one of the villains? So much pain. So many characters to spread it over.
All went well until the last dive when perhaps the spirit of Joanna took its revenge. Typically, I hit reserve long before my monitor did, and before he had time to lead us back to the anchor rope, so when we surfaced we were very far from the boat. Bloody hell. With no more air to submerge, I had to surface swim, which is very difficult with a tank and inflated vest. I paddled and crawled and breast-stroked like a crazy woman, but I could make no headway against the current. The boat was still ominously distant, and I was spent. O crap, I thought, momentarily panicking. I’m going to be swept out to sea and they’ll find my shark-shredded remains washed up on the shores of Saudi Arabia!
Fortunately both my monitor and dive partner were stalwart men, and when they noticed my helpless thrashing and my fading into the background, they returned and towed me much of the way back. Humiliating, but way better than ignominious death.
Alas, more humiliation was to come, in the initiation ceremony for first-time Red Sea divers. After we repeated a long oath to the sea, in barely comprehensible French, mind you (so I think I may not be legally bound) the veterans smashed eggs on our heads, rubbed flour into it, making a sort of cake mix, and dumped us back into the sea without benefit of wetsuit and fins. All in good fun, of course, and there were no fatalities, but sea water is not optimum for washing egg paste out of one’s hair. I was pulling tiny shell fragments from my scalp for days.
The heroine of Beloved Gomorrah will not have egg shells in her thick amber hair, nor will she need to be hauled by strapping men back to her boat. She will be pursuing villains, surviving explosions, falling in love with dangerous and impossible women, and discovering truths that will astound the world. It was to bring her to life that I leapt into the sea in the first place.
Greater love hath no author than that she risketh her neck for her characters