It’s a dirty job, but…

by Justine Saracen

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

I'm at the center, 'on the line' for the decompression stop

The Initiation ceremony. Quel horreur!

47 Responses to “It’s a dirty job, but…”

  1. 1 Readings Host February 9, 2012 at 8:06 AM

    Love it, Justine. Thanks for sharing.

    ~ Lara


  2. 2 Denna February 9, 2012 at 9:22 AM

    Wow Justine, I felt like I was reading one of your books. I could read your blog’s all day. Great stuff. It’s great to hear the inspiration behind the stories.



  3. 4 VK February 9, 2012 at 9:26 AM

    I’ve always wondered about scuba diving…now I know how it feels.
    Can’t wait to read this book. It sounds fantastic.


  4. 6 Laydin February 9, 2012 at 9:45 AM

    That was fantastic! Though I think the initiation was a but strange, I wonder how the fish feel about eggs and flour? Sounds like you gained a great deal through your research. Where will you dive next?


    • 7 Justine February 9, 2012 at 12:29 PM

      Yeah, the initiation was strange to me too, but apparently it’s common for new divers. My next dive will probably be in the same place. Egypt is easy to reach from Brussels, and I am still a novice. The Red Sea is a gentle place to dive, generally. The killer sharks seem to prefer the snorklers.


  5. 8 Sue Edmonds February 9, 2012 at 9:56 AM

    Well now I know had your first trip went, question is will there be anymore diving holidays and the chance to meet up in the beautiful Red Sea :o)


    • 9 Justine February 9, 2012 at 12:31 PM

      Sue, I plan to spend the rest of my life and all my money diving. Surely one of these days you and I will meet up. I’ll be the one hanging around on the periphery with a wax writing tablet. Come say hello.


  6. 10 Lilaine February 9, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    Oh, poor Justine 🙂
    Donne moi un sale boulot comme ça tous les jours! 😀
    You lucky one, doing this arduous and perilous research in such a wonderful place. 😉
    It does feel like home, there, in the Monde du Silence. 🙂
    I like how you overcame every hardship and sacrificed yourself to gather all the background data and experience you’ll need for your book. All that for the readers’ enjoyment! Thank You so much. 😀
    Er…btw, horreur is a bloody French feminine noun (always wondered why…), so the correct caption on the last picture would be : “The Initiation ceremony. Quelle horreur!”. Though I think it’s not as horrible as being crowned with a living-octopus coif after first snorkeling with my brother and his pals. :p 😀


    • 11 Justine February 9, 2012 at 12:22 PM

      That little error shows how frustratingly difficult it was for me to make all my preparations in ‘bloody’ French. I can speak it pretty well, but have trouble hearing it and if you nail me down on gender, I’m cooked. After all, Quel horreur and Quelle horreur sound exactly the same. Have you tried scuba, or are you primarily a snorkler?


      • 12 Lilaine February 12, 2012 at 11:30 AM

        I feel for you, poor non native French speaker. 🙂 One of the reasons I’m happy to be French is that I don’t have to learn the language as a foreign one: it was arduous enough (worth the effort, though) as my native tongue! :p
        I’ve tried scuba diving *and* I’m primarily a snorkeler. 🙂
        One of my childhood’s snorkeling pals has become a professional scuba diver and instructor and, about 25 years ago…, taught me the basics and took me with him on a couple wonderful though somewhat shallow dives around my hometown(Cap d’Antibes). I never got to be certified, though. Should have, I guess.
        I am a snorkeler at heart, anyway. And to hell with sharks! :p
        I’m looking forward to read your book. 🙂


  7. 13 Eileen February 9, 2012 at 10:04 AM

    Scuba diving, obviously isn’t for the faint of heart, thanks for sharing your research experience.
    Look forward to Beloved Gomorrah, but first Tyger Tyger Burning Bright next month.


    • 14 Justine February 9, 2012 at 12:34 PM

      I’m so glad to know you’re waiting for Tyger, Tyger. That’s at least one sale. A whole different world from the sea and another kind of survival story. I’ll be blogging on Tyger next week, just before the release.


  8. 15 laurie salzler February 9, 2012 at 10:32 AM

    Wow! Your blog put me right alongside you while down there….but of course I didn’t have to worry about running out of air. Looking forward to the book Justine!


  9. 17 Debby Eisenberg February 9, 2012 at 11:22 AM

    WOW! You certainly aren’t faint hearted. With research like you do, it’s no wonder your books are so great.



  10. 19 Lisa Girolami February 9, 2012 at 12:06 PM

    Fantasic write up, Justine. Your words colored a new found desire within me to submerge to the depths of the cobalt blue sea!


    • 20 Justine February 9, 2012 at 12:18 PM

      Lisa, get credited and join me the next time! You’d be a great diver. Maybe we can talk Shelley into it too. She’s very experienced, but hasn’t done it for a few years.


  11. 21 dani frank February 9, 2012 at 12:10 PM

    >Well done! I admire you all the way.
    Such a dedicated writer!!


  12. 23 Morgayne February 9, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    You are my literary heroine and I’m inspired by your blog to do amazing research.


  13. 25 Barrett February 9, 2012 at 12:48 PM

    A wonderful adventure, shared from my comfortable desk chair. I’ve enjoyed some snorkeling in Belize and appreciate the beauty.


    • 26 Justine February 9, 2012 at 12:50 PM

      Yes, snorkeling is great fun too, though, for some odd reason, sharks prefer to munch on snorklers. I think when they spot a diver, they know it’s not a seal, but the shadow overhead suggests maybe….


  14. 27 Jo Brower February 9, 2012 at 1:13 PM

    I can hardly wait for the book:)


  15. 29 Karen Wolfer February 9, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    I love this blog! You made me feel as though I was right there with you. I could feel the salt water on my skin, the slow motion movement in the water, and the swaying on the boat. This is going to be a thrilling book! Joanna can handle it all, I’m sure.
    Thanks for not being a snorkler! We need more books from you.


    • 30 Justine February 9, 2012 at 5:42 PM

      Thanks for your enthusiasm, Karen. If you felt the salt water, you’d remember it. It’s much saltier than the ocean, and you don’t want to get it in your mouth. (Hmm. Must remember to put that in the book).


  16. 31 Erin Saluta February 9, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    I have to agree with most of the posts above, you made me want to put my gear back on at the same time as run away from it. You have a wonderful way of writing that I’ve enjoyed in your stories and now in your blog. Thanks for putting everything out there to make the realism.


    • 32 Justine February 10, 2012 at 9:54 AM

      Erin, sorry if I’ve caused your brain to send mixed signals. I’d say, go for the putting it all back on. I hope you get to enjoy the diving experience both vicariously AND directly.


  17. 33 Andrews & Austin February 9, 2012 at 8:12 PM


    You are among the gifted! Miss you.

    Andrews & Austin


  18. 35 Carol February 9, 2012 at 8:35 PM

    Fantastic adventure and a wonderous description. Thank you for sharing it with us. Now I’m going to have to go take a refreasher course and activate my certification!


  19. 37 kurt February 9, 2012 at 8:48 PM

    Love it. Love reading about it. Love that you’re the one doing it, and that I can enjoy your adventures (and eventually, your characters’) vicariously!


  20. 39 jenlavoie February 9, 2012 at 9:25 PM

    Wow! That’s really incredible that you did so much research for your book. I would love to scuba dive and your post inspired me to think about it… but… I’m afraid of deep water. I can’t wait to read the book, though! It sounds like it’s going to be excellent. I’ll live vicariously through your character.


    • 40 Justine February 10, 2012 at 2:52 AM

      Do think about it, Jen. The first lessons are always in a pool or shallow water. And if you obey all the safety rules, the danger is less than driving a fast moving car (and it’s way prettier).


  21. 41 julie February 9, 2012 at 9:51 PM

    A beautiful adventure! Loved it! It has been a long time from when you were teaching!


  22. 42 Sheri Campbell February 10, 2012 at 12:16 AM

    All sounds rather scary to me. I admire your courage and devotion to acquiring the research and feel for your craft. Thanks for the story.


  23. 44 lynchly February 10, 2012 at 2:30 PM

    Fantastic blog and story! Thanks, Justine.


  24. 45 Colette February 13, 2012 at 7:05 AM

    Dear Justine,
    Thanks for explaining me how I should survive when I will obtain my first-star-certificate. Nevertheless, I continue and will be happy to know all the sensations when I will dive for the first time in the Red Sea !
    I thank you again for your persuasion force to involve people in this crazy goal !



  25. 47 Anne Hagstrom March 5, 2012 at 5:23 PM

    Loved the blog and it brought back memories of having to swim back to the boat (gasp, why are we always DOWN current?!), diving wrecks, and just enjoying the quiet of the water with just the lulling sound of the sand rolling with the current or the rhythmic sound of inhaling and exhaling. I’m lucky in that I don’t seem to consume a lot of air (I do a little breathing exercise to help) so can stay down a bit longer.
    After experiencing all of the wetsuit on and off struggles, I now prefer to dive in WARM water where I don’t need a wetsuit! I LOVED Curacao – they have some WONDERFUL dives there so it might be worth a trip! Then again, once you dive w/out a wetsuit, you may never go back (kind of like shore diving vs. boat diving)! Looking forward to the book and keep on diving!


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