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Wrecks from the past, cameras from the future

It was during our last dive in Coron, in the Philippines.  For three days, we had been descending on Japanese shipwrecks from WW2 — the Sangat gunboat, the Morazan Maru, the Akitsushima and its crane for lifting seaplanes out of the water, the 170m-long Okikawa Maru oil tanker — all sunk on the same day, September 24, 1944, by the US Air Force.

Swimming around — and sometimes inside — these behemoths was truly awe-inspiring.  It almost reconciled me with diving.  Over the year, I had grown out of love with the activity.  My discomfort had started in Sharm el Sheikh, where some sites were so crowded — people everywhere, around, above, and below you — that you sometimes couldn’t see sh*t between the rising bubbles.  Not to mention all the damage caused by such traffic, whether by negligence or simple inadvertence.

But the real heartbreak was in Bali, when I returned where I had passed my original certification.  I still have beautiful, almost mystical memories of those days: experiencing weightlessness; discovering incredibly colorful, vibrant reefs for the first time; and, more amazingly, swimming into a shoal of groupers, and hovering for a minute at the middle of a massive, shimmering sphere of identical fish.  In the 40 or 50 dives I’ve done since, I’ve never been able to do it again — I’ve never seen fish so placid and in such quantity.

Yet when I returned, 8 years later, the site had experienced massive bleaching. The beautiful garden had become a murky dead zone, a wasteland of broken coral branches, with a few scrawny inhabitants scraping the sad little algae that grew on top.  Everything had gone.

That day, I decided that fish and corals were better off without me — it’s hard enough resisting global warming, without having to deal with bloated, bubble-blowing apes like me on top of it.  So when the opportunity came to dive in Coron Bay, I wasn’t exactly holding my breath (which, anyway, is a very bad idea when diving).

How wrong I was.  As I swam along the hundred-meter hulls, I followed the soldering lines and thought: 70, 80, 100 years ago (in the Morazan’s case), people assembled these machines; and others walked these corridors, manned these stations.  A porthole was still rotating in its hinges (Japanese quality!); a gaping door opened on utter darkness; a flight of stairs reminded the levitating diver that gravity had once applied here.

But this was no longer the realm of mankind.  Water and undetermined particles (sand, plankton…) now drifted in those corridors, like an alien atmosphere.  Wide pink roses of lettuce coral bloomed on the hulls; luxurious anemones; unidentified stems, pointing haphazardly from windows and holes in the decks, like fixtures in a Dali painting…  On the mooring rope, barnacles waved their legs like so many tiny hands, snatching the flowing plankton.  A completely different world.

At some point, I saw the instructor suddenly duck, and grab something on the sand floor:  a light.  I didn’t pay it too much attention then, thinking that he had lost and recovered it.  But when he came back on the surface, he showed it to me, with a big smile on his face:

“I got a new light… It’s my third!”

Laughing, he showed me his collection — three flashlights, from the sturdy (aluminum) to the, well, flashy (fluorescent plastic).  “And the funny thing,” he added, “is that I didn’t buy any of them: all recovered from the floor!  I got three GoPros, too.”

My neighbor frowned.  “Why didn’t these people recover their cameras from the floor?”

“Because of decompression times.  If you lose your camera at the start of the dive, it’s OK, you can go deeper.  But if it’s at the end, you’re screwed.”

“So did you return their to their owner?”

“Most of the time, there’s no indication on the case, or it has faded too much.”  He winked:  “So I sold them.”

My neighbor was nonplussed.  “If I had a camera, I would record a message on it, with my name and address, so that anyone could return it to me.”

The instructor nodded.  “I thought of it too, but there wasn’t any.  Well, there was one, but…”

He winced, visibly uncomfortable.

“What is it?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “Nah, it was probably a prank.  It went like that: ‘Hello, my name is so-and-so.  The date today is September 2, 2018’ — with a zoom on a newspaper showing that date — ‘and we are on the verge of nuclear holocaust.  This is a message from the future: do not elect D… T….  I repeat: do not elect D… T….  I’m sending this to the past, hoping that you will receive it in time to change the future.  For the love of everything alive, please do not elect this man.'”

My neighbor and I exchanged a look.  “And this newspaper, how did it look?”

The instructor shrugged.  “It looked legit alright.  But come on: it was obviously a prank.  I erased it, and sold the camera for a few bucks in town.  No such thing as time travel, right?”

He winked and moved away to dry his equipment in the sun, which was blazing gloriously.  Yet somehow, both my neighbor and I felt a chill…

(With respects to John Carpenter)