Imagining the Journey

Shannon Switzer is an award-winning photographer, published
writer, and National Geographic Young Explorer whose work focuses on
ocean conservation.

Diving down in a sub to the Challenger Deep, which James Cameron successfully accomplished Sunday, is pretty incredible. But my dream is to free dive to the bottom and walk along it, exploring with my own two feet and hands, instead of via a machine.

It’s crazy talk, but often the craziest ideas are the most fun to imagine.

Shannon_Jellyfish.jpgTry this with your class: Have them envision a trip seven miles down to the bottom of the ocean at Challenger Deep. Ask them to describe how they would get down there and what they think they might discover, both as they descend and once they’ve reached the bottom. Have them pay attention to specific sensory details in their narrative: the temperature of the water as they go deeper, the colors they see, if they taste anything, and how things feel when they touch them. Encourage them to think about and elaborate on the way they use each of their five senses as they interact with the environment in their story.

To help get their creative juices flowing, conduct a short lesson on deep-sea life that has been documented, showing them photos or illustrations of deep-sea creatures. Encourage them to be as creative and out-of-the-box as they so desire. For example, perhaps they feel like having a conversation with a dumbo octopus at six miles down–great! This is a unique way for them to practice constructing dialogue.

In addition, the exercise provides an opportunity to discuss concepts such as “show, don’t tell,” by encouraging them to use literary devices like similes, metaphors, personification, imagery, and sensory description to create a scene. Write one yourself and share it with the class. Push your students to get as far-out as they like. The more creative they are, the more exciting of a mind journey it will be.

Now let’s go!

I inhale deeply at the surface–deep enough to hold my breath for ten hours, no big deal–and begin kicking down.

After only fifty feet, I see a disk-like shape heading toward me. As it
approaches, I make out a shell. It’s a turtle. A big one. It begins to
circle around me in a sort of ballet and we descend together. I see the
beautiful pattern on its shell and realize it’s an endangered green sea turtle. We continue our downward spiral and then, as if on some specific cue, my tango partner departs.

SLR10.jpgI keep kicking down. For a while, all I see is shimmering blue surrounding me on all sides. It’s as if I’m swimming through the heart of a topaz. Then, after a few hundred more feet, it begins to look more like a sapphire as less light pierces through the growing wall of water above me. I’m constantly equalizing as I go down to keep my eardrums from bursting, but the pressure is beginning to strain the rest of my body, too.

SLR5.jpgAs I continue, my body gets colder and my muscles feel fatigued. I begin to wonder if this wasn’t such a great idea.

Click-k-k-K, cliiiiiickkkk  

It gets louder until I see a large, dark silhouette in the distance. I realize the sounds are the coda clicks of a sperm whale. It approaches and pauses just beneath me. I, unfortunately, don’t know how to speak whale, but he seems to be waiting for me. My hands are already outstretched in front of me, so I reason that if he doesn’t move, my arms will protect my head from ramming into him.  But, as I close the last few feet of the gap between us, he pivots and turns his tail toward me. I grab on to the rubbery appendage and together we rocket straight down.

I know these creatures have been documented diving up to two miles under the sea, and I wonder if he’ll take me that whole way. I’m grateful to be able to rest my legs. I’d gone one mile down on my own, and it had taken longer than I’d anticipated. Now the water blurs by as we fly toward the depths. I have no way of knowing how far we’ve gone. I drift in and out of consciousness and feel as though I’m in a dream. I see a giant squid swim by, smiling at us. I imagine it’s delighted that the sperm whale is too preoccupied to make him lunch.

We continue into a black abyss; my eyes are closed, I think. It’s so dark it’s hard to tell. Then we stop. I try to open my eyes but can’t see anything. I blink, but black is still all I see through my mask. I kick my legs and strike something hard. It must be the ground. I feel my helper’s tail slide free from my hands, little barnacles on it scratching my palm as he does so. Then I feel him nudge me with his massive body, and a burst of air envelops me. The pressure on my body is gone; the air surrounds me like a bubble. My aching lungs spasm and I suck in involuntarily. I wait for the burn of salt water but air fills my lungs. He’s given me his breath.

I stand in awe of what just happened and wonder what to do now as I hear faint clicks in the distance. I wish I could click back a “thank you,” but everything’s happening too quickly for me to keep up. I can breathe but I still can’t see, so I keep standing in the same spot at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

A few minutes pass like this, then something absurdly bright assaults my eyes. It takes a moment for them to adjust to the neon glow. Then I make out hundreds of spots that look like clouds of fireflies but are in the shape of tiny squids. There are at least a dozen of them headed straight for me. When they hit my bubble, they lift me a few inches off the ground and begin carrying me along the sea floor. As we glide along I can see the rocky bottom just beneath me. In one spot I see steam rising from the sea floor through a hydrothermal vent; I pause to let the warmth defrost my frozen body.  

A megamouth shark cruises a few feet over my head, his mouth agape sifting tiny plankton out of the water. I follow him with my squid and my bubble.

“Why don’t you eat fish? Wouldn’t it fill you up faster?” I ask him, using more precious oxygen than I probably should.

He pauses, looks at me, and asks “Why are you in a bubble?”

“Well, that’s a tough one to explain,” I respond.
At that, the megamouth shrugs his fins, as if to say, “Then I’m not telling either,” and continues swimming past.

I notice my bubble is shrinking, and my firefly squids’ phosphorescent light is fading. I’m also as cold as an ice cube again. I know it is time to make the long journey back to the surface. I try to prepare myself mentally for it and hope I won’t blackout in the shallows. As I begin to ascend, all the visions of what I’ve seen play through my mind, somewhere in that fuzzy place between dreams and reality.

-Writing and photographs by Shannon Switzer

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