Diving is fundamentally a relational activity. There’s an enormous amount of technical stuff, and protocol to remember, and physical effort and control, and the ineffable connection and wonder with what’s under the sea. But it’s also a deeply communal activity, dependent on interdependence.

Every level of diving instruction includes a drumming in of practices about how to rescue or support other divers in trouble, and the basic frame of diving is collective. You know that you listen to the divemaster, you are always buddied with someone, if you lose your buddy you surface after a minute or so, and the whole group’s experience is based on the profiles of the most vulnerable diver. If one person is diving on air and the others on enriched air, if there is one DM, you all stay at depth within the limits of the person on air. You are always supposed to follow your buddy’s needs from a safety perspective — if he’s low on air, you ascend, if he’s a weaker diver, you dive conservatively.

cate underwater

In reality, of course, it’s more unstructured, and a lot of the time buddying is a rather loose keeping track of the other person, or a small group more or less diving together — but the notion that the safety of the group is in interdependence is core.

When we were in Indonesia diving last year, the owner of the lodge had an outburst at Finch at one point, accusing him of buddying me incorrectly. It was about my 8th or 9th dive in total, and there was some chop when we’d entered the water, and as I was fiddling with stuff on the surface, I had apparently ended up under the boat, perilously close to the engine’s turning blades. I was blissfully unaware of this, and descended and had a lovely dive, but both Finch and the owner had been holding onto this the whole dive, and the moment we came up, the owner started yelling.

There was a lot of bluster in his rant I didn’t appreciate, and a certain “your job is to look after the little lady” undertone, but somewhere in there, I knew he had a bit of a point. “She’s a new diver,” he yelled on the boat. “We could have lost her! And you are a terrible buddy! She shouldn’t have to swim down and hit your tank banger to get you to pay attention to her!”

I don’t agree that it was Finch’s job to snatch me out of the boat propeller, even if he could have, and there was a little too much grabbing me and doing stuff like putting air in my BCD by that guy’s divemasters for my liking anyway. But his bluster made me think about the nature of what it means to dive together, to buddy, to be together.

There was a couple at that resort who did every dive completely in tandem. Swam decorously side by side by the reef, looked at everything together, took turns with photos. Pointed things out to each other. Ths is the kind of buddying that shows up in PADI videos, and it’s the kind of diving that the owner of that lodge took it on himself to demonstrate to me. He took me on an escorted deep dive to a seamount, and then buddied with me on another dive Finch didn’t come on, moving in sync with me, fastening me with one finger to the side of a reef to quietly wait for a flood of fusilier fish to gently surround me.

Not everyone dives like that, by any means, especially people diving with cameras. It’s more of a scattered approach, with everyone staying at the same depth and in close sight of each other, but until some necessity shows up — someone running low on air, or at decompression limit for that depth — the group is more loosely coupled. You are supposed to monitor your own needs and let the divemaster know. They pay attention, and check, but you are accountable.

I’ve been paying attention to what it means to be in relationship underwater, as my relationship with Finch above water has been in transition over this time. We knew the long distance thing would have an expiration date, and had decided before this trip that this would likely be our last one, that we’d most likely part, with gratitude for each other. And, saying that and being with it, being present to what that brings, are two different things.

I’ve been watching myself underwater, noticing how easy it is to float around noticing things calmly, and getting totally focused on photographing or really looking at something and losing complete track of everyone else. There was a point in one of yesterday’s dive where I almost lost the whole group in low visibility because I was focused on trying to photograph a nudibranch. I noticed that my breathing slowed down in that concentration, I was focused and perfectly buoyant.

This kind of pattern, of hyper-focus, frame-of-connection and individual wanderings off has been a feature with me and Finch all along. In this raw, ending space, I’ve been pondering the edges of generative independence within interdependence, and what the mix is. I know that Finch’s hyperfocus has been an irritant to me in many contexts, underwater or not, when I’ve been in a space to try to connect, or to have more of a flow to what we are doing that reflects both of us. It’s infuriating to not even be heard when you speak, or to have the person you are in a darkening clearing with just fade off into the woods without any discussion because he heard guans.

And, I have asserted endlessly since I was about 12 my right to hold my own needs and obsessions close and tight, and feed them, often at the expense of my partner’s needs. I have never been an “in unison” sort of person. And, underwater, as I ponder what a next chapter might look like, I am paying attention to what it means to be fluidly connected, to share what you see, to be attuned without attached. Just noticing.


3 thoughts on “

  1. I wish that unison came easier to everybody, and that the way to meet everybody’s needs was more intuitive instead of a mine-or-yours split, though I’m not devaluing independence and independent experience.

  2. Your writing is so artful and precise.

    Your description of connected interdependence resonates. It reminds me of pointilism, the painting technique. Individual, precise points in connection with others. Individual yet making up part of a pattern that can’t be fully seen from any one point’s perspective.

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