This week, we are presenting two stories from people who took to the open ocean.
Part 1: As an irresponsible 17-year-old, Brian D. Bradley volunteers to spend two days living at the bottom of the ocean for a research study.
Brian Bradley started writing because he couldn’t draw. At first he wanted to be a poet, but he quickly discovered that poems are pretty difficult. Next, he tried dramatic stage plays, but the results were kind of embarrassing. Finally, he gave up and started writing television for shows like MadTV, Scrubs and Happy Endings. He co-created for television Uncle Buck for ABC and is the writer/producer of a number of TV pilots he’s very proud to have been paid for, but that you will probably never see. He’s very pleased to have a chance to share a story for Story Collider and he still can’t draw.
Part 2: As an undergrad, Beryl Kahn takes a semester at sea after a bad breakup and gets rocked by the swells of the sea -- and her emotions.
Beryl Kahn is finishing up her second year as a Masters' student at Columbia University's department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, or E3B, where she's been studying the genetics of pollution resilience in oysters. Prior to starting grad school, she worked as an educator and restoration tech at Randall's Island Park in New York City, which cemented her niche as an urban marine ecologist.
Part 1: Brian D. Bradley
Before I tell you my story about my one and only brush with actual real-life science and how I came to spend 48 hours with a very strange man in an underwater habitat, I need to let you know that I do not come off terrific in this story. In fact, I’m a real turkey in it. I make no excuses ahead of time but I thought I would give you a little context first so maybe you won’t think I’m such a turkey at the end.
So what do you need to know? Well, this story takes place in 1988. Yeah. Let me tell you about 1988, my friend.
I was seventeen years old. Ronald Reagan had been president since I was nine. The Soviet Union was dead and, just like today, nobody could find Iraq on a map. If you turned on the news you'd see a story of the Jamaican bobsled team and Kokomo was a legit radio hit. What I’m trying to say to you is this was a very, very stupid and shallow era and I was a child of it. Please bear that in mind.
So I learned to scuba dive when I was fifteen years old. The year before, my parents had moved us to Florida and my father had seen me go from a happy kid acting out, I kid you not, Kenny Rogers’ Gambler in my bedroom to a sullen kid listening to metal and just acting out. He really was worried about me so he signed us up for scuba diving lessons.
It almost worked. I loved hanging out with my dad and I really love scuba diving but, unfortunately, by seventeen I had also become a very skilled drug user. Mostly just like marijuana and mushrooms but I'd also really gotten into amphetamines in the form of prescription diet pills that I got from my brother who managed a Walgreens. Yay, family!
So that was the 1980s teenage stew I was swimming around in and it’s also the reason that when my friend Matt and I got the opportunity to spend 48 hours in an underwater habitat helping the Canadian Navy to recalibrate the dive tables, I didn’t say, “Adventure in science!” I said, “Rad place to party, bro!”
So we gathered up all of our diving equipment and all of the speed and we drove down to Key Largo, to a marine research center down there that operated one of these underwater aquatic habitats, this one a 1960-zero model, and it was going to be great. We were going to spend 48 hours underwater and then we’d spend another 24 hours topside where a Canadian naval officer would use a Doppler machine to count the individual bubbles of dissolved gasses in our blood stream. This was in order to help correct the dive tables which were the calculations that scuba divers use to tell them how long they can stay at depth without getting decompression sickness, a.k.a. the bends.
It’s very, very important work. Thank God they had two 17-year-old hashers high on speed racing down in my mom’s convertible Mustang to help them out.
When we got there, we were very stoked and very stoned and things went pear-shaped almost immediately because we were told that we were not going to be alone in this habitat. In our anxiousness to get kind of crunk under the waves, we had somehow missed the fact that this was like a three-person operation. So we were going to have a roommate down there and that roommate was a 50-year-old man from Long Island named Joe.
Let me tell you about Joe. Joe had answered an ad in the Key West newspaper to put himself into this study. He's not what you would call an adventurous man. He was short and squat and very, very nervous. During a simple scuba proficiency test at about three feet of water, he tripped on a mangrove root, fell face forward into the lagoon sending all of his unsecured gear floating off in all directions. It sort of told us that should this habitat flood in the middle of the night, Joe was not going to be a lot of help. But then again we were high on speed so que sera, sera.
Anyway, we dove down to the habitat on scuba and it came into view. This was about an 18-foot steel, pill-shaped structure floating in about 30 feet of water in this murky mangrove lagoon. In the distance, you could just see the shapes of these mangrove snappers which are large, scary predator fish with lots of gnarly teeth. They were super scary but they were also very metal. I was pretty into it. It was pretty cool.
The way that you entered the habitat is through up underneath the habitat there's something called a moon pool. When you come up into it, we got to see where we’d be sleeping. It was basically a dorm room under the sea. There were three little bunks. There was a galley kitchen and a marine chemical toilet for your business and then there was a hatch that you could open up in the floor and climb down this little tube. At the bottom if it, suspended underneath the habitat, was a plexi glass observation sphere that you could sit in. It was really, really rad.
We were super excited to go diving. We had been told we could dive nonstop for the first day and night but they told us we needed to wait because they had to bring all of our stuff down to us.
Now, because it’s underwater a bellboy doesn’t bring your luggage. Instead, a diver brings your sundries down in something called a dry pod, which is a sealed container. Since they only have one of these dry pods they had to bring them down one at a time and so we had some time to sit around with Joe and we learned about his life.
Joe had worked for Pan Am Airlines until he had gotten into a dispute with the union. Then he won a court case and then some very scary dudes came to his house and said, “You should leave New York permanently.”
He did. He took his windfall. He moved to Florida, he bought a boat and was living on it. So it was kind of weird but also pretty cool.
The scary part came when Joe’s dry pod arrived. So inside of the dry pod was of course his toothbrush and change of clothes but also in there were about six or seven library books all of them chillingly about sharks. Kind of a strange thing to bring to an underwater house.
We asked him like, “Are you afraid of sharks?”
And he said, “No, I’m not afraid of them. I’m apprehensive of them certainly. They're nature’s greatest predator. They can kill you from below.”
Okay. Maybe it was a good thing we weren’t going to be able to sleep tonight. You know what I mean?
So we decided it was a good time to go diving and that’s exactly what we did. One of the cool things about this habitat is that you didn’t need a tank to go diving. It was complete with a Hookah System which is a long hose that you can use for unlimited air. That’s exactly what we did. For the next few hours, Matt and I would pop some speed, go out, go around the lagoon a little bit, come back, pop some more speed, go do the same thing.
But that is not what Joe did. Joe did not dive at all. Instead, what he did was sit in his bunk in his comfy sweats and read his shark books.
Let me just recap here very quickly. We were stuck in a metal tube 30 feet underwater with a 50-year-old drifter who was afraid of sharks and was kind of running from the mob. That was weird to us. And because amphetamines make you chatty, we wanted to talk about it a lot. But there's no way to talk about it there because there's no privacy so we went down into that observation sphere to talk.
So we’re down in there and we’re chatting and, I mean, we are high on drugs. I mean we are really going at it. We’re talking shit about this real-life SNL character that’s up there. We’re having a good time. We’re laughing. It was really awesome, or it would have been if that thing had been soundproof at all. But of course it was not.
And so when we came back up into the habitat we could see that Joe had heard every word we had said. I felt really, really bad but we thought, “Well, this has gone from weird to weirder. Maybe we should go for another dive.”
So we started to get into our gear. It was dead silent in there. And I said to him, “Hey, man, do you want to come with us?”
He's like, “No. I think I'll just slow you fellas down.”
Well, out we went into the lagoon and at night it was an amazing thing. The whole thing came alive. Every hard surface, the rock, the habitat, everything was covered in this bioluminescent tube worms that just glowed with the moonlight and when we’d shine our light on them. Then if you ran your hand across them they'd retreat into their little holes and it would leave a dark space, so you could like write your name in tube worms.
Or if you're a couple of 17-year-old metal heads from Boynton Beach, a pentagram and a dick and balls, which is what we did. I told you I don't come off great.
After about an hour of this, we started to get pretty cold and it’s time to go back in. We come up to the moon pool but there is a problem because the opening, the entrance into the habitat is now crowded with about seven or eight of those mangrove snappers that I was telling you about before, the big and the scary and all that.
Things had gone from metal to life threatening very quickly because we could not swim through that school of fish because if even one of them kind of struck at bait and accidentally hit us, that would be a disaster. So we just floated there panicking, wondering why they were hanging out there.
Until we finally figured out that if we took our regulator, which is the part that you breathe with, the piece of equipment that you breathe with, and you clear it, a column of bubbles will go up through the fish and would startle the fish away, just for a moment, so that we could swim through that fish-free window and get back into the habitat, which is what we did in a hurry.
When we got inside, the mystery of the fish was solved because there was Joe, sitting on that chemical toilet and he was fishing with some kite string and a bread tie that he fashioned into a hook and baited with a Kraft American single. He was trying to catch these very powerful predator fish with cheese and kite string, which is of course impossible and also insane.
He didn’t mean it, of course. He apologized profusely. We know he didn’t mean to hurt us. But I will tell you that as we were up all night unable to sleep because of these pills, he was over there just snoring and smiling. I really felt, I think, the scales have been balanced here. We were absolute jerks to him and he kind of tried to kill us, so that’s a wash right there.
So this is the big insight moment, and I thought I knew what the insight would be at this because I'd been going out to dinner on this story for a long time. I thought it was about the stupidity of youth and adventure and that Matt and I were the flawed heroes and Joe the rube, but now I really do not know if that’s true anymore, because now I’m 46 years old. I wear my dancing shirt with a cardigan.
I’m just about as old as Joe was in that story, you know what, and just like him I find myself full of fears these days. Fear of everything, fear of that little pain in my neck. What is that thing? Fear of spiders and strangers on my street. I’m afraid to drink the grapefruit LaCroix because I think it will fuck up my Lipitor or something like that. I’m afraid of losing my relevance now as I get a little older, especially in the entertainment business.
And I'll tell you what I’m really afraid of these days. I’m really afraid of losing the people that I love. If someone came to me right now and they said, “You want to spend 48 hours in an underwater habitat,” I do not know what I would say. I cannot tell you what I would do.
But Joe did. Joe knew. He put all his fears and all his doubts in that dry pod, he took them down there to that habitat and, no, he did not go diving one time while he was there, but he was there. And he said yes to that. He kept saying yes to that. That’s why Joe is the hero of this story.
My insight is this. My insight is that the facts of our stories remain the same but, as we grow older, as we evolve, their meaning can really profoundly change.
I just want to say this. Joe, I’m really, really sorry that we were turkeys to you. I want to let you know, Joe, wherever you are, that as I kind of swim through the murky waters of middle age, you are an inspiration to me, sir. And these devil horns are for you.
Part 2: Beryl Kahn
So the motto of the ship that I did my Study Abroad Program on was ‘Ship, Shipmate, Self’. Unfortunately, I spent a lot of that trip focusing mostly on the ‘self’ part.
I was a junior and, obviously, a little bit in my junior year my first semester things started to go wrong pretty early on when I was still on campus. I had my heart broken and just went into this spiral of self-loathing and just getting into a darker and darker place which, obviously, was a little tough considering I was about to go out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean at the next semester.
Unfortunately, that spiral kind of blossomed into full-on anxiety and depression, great things to be going out into the middle of the wasteland of the ocean a semester later, but I went out and did it anyway.
So it was a tall ship, only about 134 feet. So full rig, sails: triangle, square sails, etcetera. I had only been on very tiny boats before so this was a huge learning curve. And when you go on a tall ship, especially, there's a whole new language you have to learn when you're going aboard.
First of all there aren’t walls anymore. They're called bulkheads. There aren’t floors anymore. They call them soles. And I can’t tell you how many times I got yelled at for calling the head the bathroom. They're like, “What are you? Some kind of landlubber?”
I’m like, “Yeah, actually. Sorry about it.”
In addition to all of that, you have to throw some seasickness in there. Not only is your sense of motion and sense of balance completely thrown off but I also had this extra layer of emotional balance that was thrown off. I found that I couldn’t really relate to my shipmates. It seemed almost that every interaction with them was as if it was happening behind one of those cheap, acrylic glass plates that are in those liquor stores and you kind of have to talk between a tiny little space at the bottom.
It was really hard in order to actually be on this ship so closed into myself and yet we’re in the middle of nowhere. The first week was me just trying to get my sea legs and figure all this out and just everything seemed to be going wrong. Not only could I not figure out how to walk on this boat but I'd be smashing into the sides so I'd be getting bruised. I had bruises on top of bruises and just getting yelled at for making stupid mistakes, because with this loop of anxiety in my head I was screwing up the most basic instructions. It’s like, wow, I can’t even pull on a rope. Something is wrong here.
So after that first week I decided, okay, I’m on my deck watch. I’m going to go down below decks and do an inspection of the engine room, because we had to do that once every hour to make sure the ship is not going to explode, so kind of important.
I went down into the hold, checked on everything. It seemed like the engine was running just fine so I was ready to head back up above decks. And the bottom of the hold has all these watertight doors that are in this passageway. It’s basically a crawl space. It’s airless down there. It’s hot down there. It smells like engine oil. It smells awful and you can feel all the motion of the boat because you're right at the very bottom of it.
You're supposed to close the watertight doors after you leave because, I don't know if you've seen the movie Titanic but that is kind of an important safety measure. So I try to shut this door behind me and the door does not close. It will not seal for the life of me. I’m struggling. I’m sweating. The air and the oil-smell is starting to get to me and this door is just defeating me at every turn. And that added to what the whole week had been of me falling and me making mistakes. It just became too much.
Of course, my inclination was just flop onto the floor, or I guess I should say the sole, and just start bawling. I just lay there in this pathetic little heap in the hold and I was very grateful nobody was there because it was really sad.
Then after a while it started to occur to me that if I was going to let myself get defeated by a door there's no way I was going to survive and make it to the rest of the trip. So I got up and I kind of pulled myself together and then just threw my entire weight at this damn door and twist it into place and it worked. It was like, “Oh, okay. I did something right. This is amazing.”
The rest of the weeks began to proceed. I was going on from there, went into this kind of stasis where I was still really anxious, still unable to connect with my shipmates, but I was able to go about my days. I collect zooplankton. I identify their species. I would collect sea surface temperature. But it’s always happening pretty mechanically, like it was kind of as if I was working in a fog.
One day, I was not on duty, which was quite nice. I got to go up on deck and of course we’d sailed from Hawaii so the weather was beautiful, extremely just gorgeous so I got to go up on deck and do some reading, because I was off duty. I was walking up out onto the decks and all of a sudden the ship’s bell started ringing and people started shouting.
They're like, “Man overboard. This is not a drill.”
Of course everybody just snaps into action. We had rehearsed this when we were in the harbor in Honolulu, luckily. And that loop of anxiety that was causing me to screw up everything else fortunately broke, because my instincts kicked in and I'd been positioned to go up on the lookout in this event in this kind of drill.
So I ran up to the bowsprit. Everyone else, the whole ship was in action. People were throwing life preservers over the side. The people who were on sail handling duty were hauling down the sails and slowing our trajectory to try to turn the ship around.
Meanwhile, from my lookout point on the bow, I look back and there's my classmate Dan just a tiny little speck zipping away into the distance in the smooth wake of the ship. It was just this moment of like, “Oh, my God. We’re really out in the middle of nowhere.”
Fortunately, because my shipmates had thrown over life preservers and poles and things, he had grabbed onto some so he was managing to stay afloat. That was lucky. And he was holding onto what was known as an MOB Pole. It has this flag at the top so just in case you lose sight of somebody in between the troughs you can still see them.
That was exactly what was happening. These swells were probably between twelve and fourteen feet. They were giant. So he would get lost in between these giant swells but we’d see just the tip of that flag so, thankfully, we knew where he was. And fortunately, the team who were actually on the sail handling side of things managed to pull the ship around and eventually we got so that he was in front of us.
Now, here I am on the bow and he ends up directly beneath me. I’m looking down between the netting on the bowsprit and he's just there with his life preservers. He looks up through the netting at me and he seems very mellow, considering that he could potentially die, and he just looks at me and he goes, “Please don’t hit me.”
So I turn around and I shout over my shoulder, “Turn to port.”
So I go this as really down the length of the ship, 130-feet worth of, “Turn to port, turn to port, turn to port.” Whoever is at the helm turns to port and then he drifts to port with us.
So I have to yell, “Turn to starboard.” And then there's this, “Turn to starboard, turn to starboard, turn to starboard,” all the way back to the helmsmen.
Eventually, Dan drifts alongside us. Fortunately, the first mate has some like badass cowboy skills with a rope because he gets this knotted rope and he swings it around and flings it over the side, like he's in Pirates of the Caribbean or something, and pulls Dan back to safety, thankfully.
There was this moment, once we got him back on deck, we all just gathered in the stern and just kind of stared at each other and all of us just hugged even though he was soaking wet. It was just this moment where I could definitely begin to see why they have that motto and why ‘shipmate’ comes before ‘self’.