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Mind is deeply blowing

[Title is a hat tip to the recent Bollywood masala flick where the character Simbba turns a perfectly legit American phrase into the endearingly Hinglish “mind is blowing”.] There’s much to say in this post but let me start by urging you to watch this short video where Hanli Prinsloo, competitive freediver turned ocean conservationist, talks about her organization’s simple philosophy – make people fall in love with the ocean because (obviously) once that happens, they’ll want to protect it.

Last month, my friend Ashwin unsolicitedly loaned me a book with “you must read it.” Not since Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel (over a decade ago) and Harari’s Sapiens (more recently) has a book so completely blown my mind as James Nestor’s Deep. A few top learnings from the book below, followed by excerpts and an entire book review (by the Independent) at the end.

  • In 1949, Raimondo Butcher won a 50,000 lira bet by freediving 100 feet, off the coast of Capri island, and survived with no damage to his lungs. The three centuries old Boyle’s Law appeared to fall apart underwater.
  • Submerging humans under water always reduces their heart rates.. even when they are exercising underwater. Peripheral vasoconstriction is the underwater phenomenon that diverts blood away from the less important areas of the body towards the heart and brain thus oxygenating them longer. The Swedish researcher Scholander called this the Master Switch of Life.
  • Magnetoreception, the ability to navigate using the earth’s magnetic north exhibited by birds, bees, fish, shark and bacteria is impressive in itself but.. humans have access to this ability too!
  • Sharks assess the calorific value of their food on the first bite. If the prey doesn’t register enough calories to justify a full-scale attack, the shark will release it and move on. Before they bite, sharks often conduct a kind of taste test by bumping their noses into prey and emitting a short blast of electricity. Wetsuits dull these signals, telling sharks, “that we are not on the menu”.
  • The Japanese ama represent the longest known tradition of a freediving culture (women only) from 500 B.C. An ama quote “when a man comes to the ocean, he exploits it and strips it. When a woman puts her hand in the ocean, that balance is restored.”
  • If you thought dolphins and sperm whales echolocation techniques are wow, check this out!
  • The sperm whale brain is six times the size of ours and in many ways more complex. Most researchers believe it allows them to engage in sophisticated communications. Whales have spindle cells, the long and highly developed brain structures that neurologists associate with speech and feelings of compassion, love, suffering, and intuition – those things that make humans human.
  • Gunter Wachtershauser’s iron sulfur world theory – that all life on Earth started from a chemical reaction between two minerals, iron and sulfur, that life originated near seafloor hydrothermal vents.

Idabel passes two thousand feet. The hull’s fizzes and creaks grow louder and more frequent. The pressure outside is now more than 900 psi. If a pinhole leak suddenly appeared in a wall, the stream would cut through the flesh like a scalpel until the stream got bigger and the Idabel’s walls collapsed. Death at this depth wouldn’t happen slowly; we’d be crushed in an instant.

Oddly enough, I feel comfort in this. Before the dive, I expected to feel panicked and stressed at these depths, but now, beneath two thousand feet of seawater, I feel calm, almost serene. Absolutely nothing is in my control – I can’t get off, I can’t stop the walls from caving in. There’s no use complaining and worrying about what will happen next.

It reminds me of a passage from George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London in which Orwell, having just been fired from a job washing dishes at a restaurant in Paris and entirely penniless, describes the joy of suddenly reaching rock bottom. “It’s a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.

Resting my chin on open palms, listening to Idabel’s steel frame creak and groan, I realize that if we all die down here, nobody will know what happened. Not even us.

The above excerpt is from the Deep. Ideally, I would have written a succinct book review but The Independent did such a fine job back in 2014 so here’s their take.

This idiosyncratic and illuminating book begins with a collection of oddballs competing to see who can hold their breath for the longest time while diving deepest. Some surface covered in blood, others unconscious, one is rushed to hospital. The winner is a New Zealander who dives thirty storeys down and reappears looking bored.

Initially readers may struggle to share the excitement of James Nestor, whose life was changed by the scene, but freediving becomes Nestor’s way into the engrossing strangeness and scope of the oceans. We have wanted to fraternise with fish for as long as we have wished to fly with birds. While industrialising peoples worked their way down through wooden cylinders, diving suits and submarines, archipelagic cultures preserved relationships with deep water based on a single breath. Nestor meets the last of the Ama, freediving Japanese fisherwomen who gather sea urchins. “When a man comes to the ocean he exploits it,” one says, watching trawlers set sail, “When a woman puts her hands in the ocean that balance is restored.”

A balance between the scientific and the spiritual is the major concern of Nestor’s cast. He joins underwater cameraman Fred Buyle on a shark tagging trip to Réunion, where they eventually succeed in understanding and helping to prevent a spate of attacks by bullsharks which “eat anything with a face”. Buyle seems more at ease with them than he is on land. A former champion, he believes freediving has lost its meditative dimension and become a numbers game.

The numbers are arresting. At 250ft, lungs are the size of fists and the heart beats at half speed. Gravity draws you deeper into the nitrogen narcosis zone, 300ft, where survival depends on physiological changes known as the Master Switch of Life: organs and blood vessles vent blood and water into the thoracic cavity, preventing them bursting.

By the time Nestor makes it past 50ft, after months of pain, panic and training, to a place where “all directions glow the same neon-blue and it goes on forever” you want to join him: 10,000 freedivers in the US suggest there is something special down there. Nestor embarks with a maverick inventor in a homemade submarine to explore the bioluminescent world of the Cayman Trench, two and a half kilometres deep.

Earth’s largest animal communities and the greatest number of individuals live below 3,000 feet. “This is the real earth, the 71 percent silent majority. And this is how it looks – gelatinous, cross-eyed, clumsy, glowing, flickering, cloaked in perpetual darkness and compressed by more than a thousand pounds per square inch,” Nestor writes.

Sharks navigate here by the Earth’s magnetic pulse. They can detect the electric field generated by neurons in a swimmer’s body with a sense which is five million times more acute than any of ours. While Nestor confesses that knowing this does not make him less afraid of them, his renegade scientists and activists, freedivers all, treat communion with the sea as a first step to communication with its inhabitants.

He joins amateur scientist Fabrice Schnöller, whose tools include a hyrdrophone, broomstick and pasta strainer, and who has gathered an unrivalled archive of sperm whale and dolphin communications. By their clicking echolocation dolphins can detect objects six miles away. They “see” into two feet of sand and straight through human bodies.

An adult sperm whale’s clicks can kill: they are the loudest animals on earth. The pasta strainer picks up what may be a sperm whale’s “gunshot” click, used to stun prey at distance, a sound only recorded twice before. Nestor is so engaged and Schnöller so engaging that you cheer for them: Deep is a passionate celebration of the possible and the unproven. The huge brains and complex clicks-within-clicks of whales and dolphins lead Schnöller to believe that dolphins exchange three dimensional images. Having sonically mapped an object, Schnöller speculates, they may then transmit that pattern to another individual.

This seems plausible as Nestor pushes into unfamiliar waters. In Los Angeles he meets a blind man, Brian Bushway, who navigates the city with sighted confidence by clicking. Nestor tries it too, as he continues to work on his own powers of breath-holding in order to freedive with sperm whales. The whales’ clicks “sound like jackhammers on a pavement,” as they close in, scanning Nestor inside and out as he strives to think good thoughts.

“The calf floats just in front of its mother and stares with an unblinking eye. Its mouth is turned up, like it’s smiling. The mother wears the same expression; all sperm whales do,” Nestor writes. “I felt a sudden recognition, an instant and ineffable sense of knowing that I was in the presence of something extraordinarily powerful and intelligent. This is not a scientific observation of course, but an emotional one.”

Nestor’s story is satisfying on both levels, and teaches that we live on the shore of an invigoratingly alien world. On returning from bathypelagic depths in the homemade submarine Nestor reflects, “The azure sphere we see from space is only a veneer. Our planet isn’t really blue, it’s not filled with leaves of grass, clouds, colour and light. It’s black.”

Deep demonstrates that a rich, life-filled, mysterious realm of vast possibility is contained in that blackness. It will certainly enrich the thinking of anyone planning to spend time at the beach.

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