Whilst my PhD sits firmly within the school of thought that the sea (contrary to Schmitt’s assertions) is a space with geography and crucial to geographic thought and theory, I have come across a couple of instances recently that have further complicated my understanding of geography ‘in’ the sea. As my first post explains, I’m interested in embodied undersea geopolitics and in some of my recent reading it is precisely the embodied experiences of military divers that raise some interesting questions about how the geography of the sea is actively experienced.
The breakaway phenomenon
From 1964 to 1969, Dr George Bond led a team of navy personnel and scientists charged with establishing the feasibility of man living and working beneath the sea. In a series of three incredible, yet little studied, pioneering experiments christened Sealab I, II, and III, Bond and his team demonstrated that ‘man’ could live and work in the depths of the sea for prolonged periods of time. The men, in each study, lived at depth in specially crafted underwater habitats positioned on the sea floor. The habitats, filled with a pressurised, breathable atmosphere, enabled the men to move relatively freely from the sea to the habitat without having to decompress after each excursion allowing the gathering of important scientific data about both the seafloor and the capacity of their bodies to survive and carry out useful work at depth.
The list of hazards associated with living beneath the sea in artificially engineered atmospheres is long and complex – made even more so by concerns about ‘aquanaut breakaway’. For Dr Bond stationed on a support vessel above Sealab I, he placed the so called ‘breakaway phenomenon’ among his chief concerns alongside communication breakdowns. A term with origins in flying and aerospace, the breakaway phenomenon refers to a psychological sense of estrangement, ‘unreality or detachment from land’ (see Benson 1973), or as Bond would describe, disorientation ‘in space, time, and philosophy’. An aquanaut succumbing to the breakaway phenomenon would begin to ascribe the sense of safety and feeling of being at home usually preserved for terra firma to their undersea existence and seek to detach themselves from those issuing orders above the surface. In Sealab I for example, the official Navy video (which is well worth a watch – see below) stated that:
‘The men living in the still alien realm of the waters, lost all of their fear, began to feel that they belonged where they were, that they could go for a swim without their air tanks. ‘You even forgot you had to go back to Sealab for air’, (an aquanaut) recalls. ‘I dreamt one night I was breathing oxygen from the sea’’.
Similarly, on visiting the Sealab II habitat, Bond himself recognised that he was beginning to experience the symptoms:
‘light seemed to emanate from the ocean bottom while above us all was black. On a natural impulse, (we) rolled on our backs to stare up at the world from which we had come. It did not exist; only a forbidding black curtain lay above. Only below was there light and safety. Surely this was our refuge, our home… disorientated in time, space, and philosophy …this we realised for the first time must be the breakaway phenomenon of undersea existence, a profound revelation for divers, a frightening revelation to the topside watch-standers’
For the aquanauts in Sealab II, this manifested itself in a complacency about their undersea existence, mild indifference to the chain of command on the surface, and a sporadic lackadaisical approach to safety protocols. Intercom calls, for example, went unanswered for ‘long minutes’ and excursion dives took place on half empty air bottles with no reports on entry and exit time. ‘My suspicions of gross laxity’ wrote Bond, ‘are plentifully confirmed. The system of buddy checks has begun to go by the board and I recognise the first alarming signs of aquanaut breakaway phenomenon’. He later states that one of the aquanauts had asked for more ‘autonomy for the sea-bottom dwellers…I could not help remark to myself that more autonomy would have been fatal to the lot of them’.
To the aquanauts the sea was not the ‘hostile enemy’ described in the Office of Naval Research Report. On the contrary, it became described as a ‘back yard’, it was homely, even the fish were described as neighbours. The sea and the sea floor were not without geography, on the contrary when symptoms of breakaway emerged, they were geography for the men living and working there. It became familiar like terra firma and living beneath the sea dangerously became a matter of domesticated routine with those topside deemed a hindrance to undersea autonomy.
‘The blackness above’
On the other hand, people can also become ‘lost in sea’ in an entirely different way whereby the body experiences the sea as a space without geography. On his way back from Sealab II to the diving bell, for example, George Bond describes the complete loss of any sense of space. The sea, writes Ten Bos, is ‘pre-eminently apt as a means of surrounding’ and Bond found himself engulfed in blackness from which he saw no way out. Having falsely concluded that a nylon line leading up to the surface had been rigged by an aquanaut to guide him back to the diving bell, Bond began to swim to through the ‘black strata of water’. He writes:
‘as I ascended the line no diving bell came into sight; for that matter, nothing was in sight since I had penetrated the black cloud. Venting of my middle ears and common sense told me that I had ascended several atmospheres – far above the level of the bell’.
Bond survived because two aquanauts had spotted his plight and redirected him but it serves as a powerful example of feeling lost in sea, with nothing in sight to re-orientate. Similarly, Dr John Clarke, an esteemed Navy Diving Scientist writes in his fiction book ‘Middle Waters’ of a sense of being disorientated and lost in a space that felt like it had no geography. His protagonist Jason Parker:
‘felt like he was in empty space: Initially he could see nothing but the cable above them and the shadow of the ship’s hull, The bottom wasn’t yet in view, and since he could see nothing horizontally, the feeling of being suspended in space was almost dizzying’.
The above examples perhaps illustrate that the body, when operating in the depths of the sea, can introduce new dimensions to our understandings and dislodge preconceptions about the geography of the sea. Whilst in reality, these geographies are both materially ever present and ever changing as parcels of water are constantly on the move and turbulently exchanged with one another (see Bremner 2014), when this matter is inhabited and the body engulfed, these geographies are actively experienced in different ways. Both the breakaway phenomenon – wherein the geography of the sea is experienced almost as something static – and the feeling of being surrounded and lost in an endless, undifferentiated, all engulfing body of water – wherein the sea may feel as though it lacks geography – point to need to engage with geographies of the deep as they are corporeally experienced rather than merely focusing on the sea’s deep material properties as they are ascribed.