In the first few months of my PhD I paid a visit to the wonderful Diving Museum in Portsmouth. Run by volunteers, the museum is a collection diving equipment past and present and details of particularly interesting salvage operations and Navy exploits. The people manning the museum (many of whom are former Navy divers) were extremely friendly and welcoming and we soon got talking about the reason for my visit. One of the first questions I was asked (and have been since when discussing my research) was ‘do you dive?’ It’s a perfectly reasonable question given my research topic! I always rather sheepishly respond that ‘no I don’t but would love to learn’. Usually this is followed by a fleeting moment of disappointment before I’m enthusiastically told about why diving is brilliant. One man, for example, described how ‘it’s like another planet – you feel like superman, it’s like flying’.
As someone who has never dived, this is clearly an experience I can’t share in and it’s occurred to me that this could be a substantial barrier in my research given that many of my participants will be experienced divers well versed in both the practicalities of diving and the ‘feel’ of breathing and moving whilst submerged underwater. As Straughan asserts, diving is an obviously ‘deeply embodied experience’ involving a haptic system that registers the contact between body and environment, with nerve endings, somatic receptors, hair cells, bodily fluids in the canals of the ear all working together create the sense of space and balance experienced by divers. If we are to understand the sea, as Merchant suggests, as more than an inert background, then we must get to grips with the ‘underwater seascape’ as practice, coming into being through embodied and material domains. Moreover, in her chapter on ‘deep ethnography’, Merchant highlights that by engaging with diving as a practice within geography, we can begin to move beyond scholarship on performances taking place on the water’s surfaces. Like landscapes, writes Merchant, ‘the sea is constructed as something to be on’ rather than in.
Diving offers an opportunity to explore the ‘the three-dimensionality of ocean space by delving beneath the water’s surface’ (Merchant) and in doing so highlight the ways in which ocean space is inhabited and moved through (albeit briefly). This, in turn, opens up geography – and in the case of my project, geopolitics – to underwater spaces. To this end, I’ve booked onto an Open Water Scuba Diving course and have just picked my homework for the next couple of weeks before we take to the water. My budget means that it will most likely be quite a chilly and murky experience here in England and, whilst I will never be able replicate or observe Navy diving in action, I hope at least to get a sense of the ‘feel’ of diving that seems so important to the diving community and to be able to answer the question, ‘do you dive?’ with a very tentative yes.