Taking A Dive

© 2012 Steve Hathcock

It was a FABULOUS age when gods, long since forgotten, ruled the destiny of man. In those days, few people dared sail very far from land, fearing what might lurk beneath the white-capped waves.

Travel by land was not only dangerous but it was expensive, too.

Roving bandits picked off small groups of travelers. Larger caravans were often the targets of petty tyrants who ruled the lands through which the caravans passed.

Phoenician merchants, whose livelihood depended on the ability to move goods from one part of the known world to another, are generally credited with establishing the first maritime trading routes. These intrepid businessmen, dodging taxes levied on wares moving through various cities along the land routes, took to the sea in an effort to keep their goods affordable.

The holds of their ships were full of spices from the East, strange new metals, rare silks, wines, and other exotic merchandise. The prosperous Greeks were always happy to see them sail into port. “The ocean is good to us,” people said, quaffing strange wines and sampling the cuisine of countries they would never see. “We’ll feel the wrath of the gods,” muttered others as they nervously watched blacksmiths forging new alloys into weapons of war.

In a way, both points of view were correct.

Ships were soon carrying passengers as well as trade goods. It was now possible for people to travel to exotic lands without risking the dangers that lay along the overland routes.

But sea travel had its own inherent dangers. Navigation consisted of good fortune, prayers to Neptune, and a keen eye on the shorelines. Nobody dared venture out of sight of land. But terrible storms had a way of springing up seemingly from nowhere and the floors of the oceans were soon littered with skeletons of crews, passengers, and less than seaworthy vessels.

Merchants decried their terrible losses but few tears were shed for the people in their watery graves – life was cheap and the whims of the gods were unpredictable. The merchants were far more concerned about their valuable cargoes. A pound of iron was worth five pigs, or maybe an Egyptian slave. The concept of insurance had not yet been born. It would be 2,000 years before Lloyds Maritime Insurance Company opened for business in a London coffee shop.

The enveloping mists of time have hidden forever the identity of the first brave soul who ventured beneath the waves of the ocean but early Egyptians are generally credited with developing the new technology required to recover lost treasures from beneath the waves. They built a simple bell-shaped chamber. With a man inside, the bell was lowered from the deck of the ship. Weights on its bottom stabilized the descent of the contraption until it landed near a shipwreck. Taking in a big gulp of air the diver would swim the few feet to the sunken vessel, salvaging a sizeable amount of goods in a short period of time.

It was dangerous work. If a diver, running out of air, followed his natural instincts and headed for the surface he risked disaster. Within half an hour or so, the unfortunate victim would exhibit the classic symptoms of “the bends.”

The pain was unbearable. Blotchy red spots bubbled up on the skin. A wave of dizziness and staggering, followed by collapse and unconsciousness, would cause the diver to foam at the mouth and wither helplessly on the deck.

“The gods are angry at us,” the crew would cry as they watched the dying man thrash about. But despite all the dangers, the science of diving continued. There were always those who would brave the unknown if the incentives were sufficient. And the incentives offered by these early salvagers were powerful enough to provide plenty of volunteers. Convicted criminals and slaves were given the option of diving and possibly surviving to see another sunrise, or of being run through and tossed overboard as a sacrifice to appease King Neptune. It was better incentive – and cheaper, too – than mere money.

The concept of diver safety gained momentum over the next few centuries and by the mid-1600s, divers were outfitted with a leather suit and head covering that utilized goggles with quartz crystal lenses to protect the diver’s eyes. A long leather air tube extended upward to a boat where a man was assigned to keep the other end high in the air, allowing the submerged man to breathe. Again, several hundred more years would pass before any significant advances were made in underwater diving.

In 1865, Benoit Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouse connected a horizontal steel tank of compressed air carried on a diver’s back to a mouth-piece. A hose from the surface pumped fresh air into the tank allowing the diver to disconnect the tether and dive with just the tank on his back for a few minutes. All that was needed now, was for someone to invent a breathing apparatus that allowed a man total independence from hoses and surface lines. Almost seventy years would pass before that goal was achieved. In 1943, Frenchmen Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan perfected a compact pressure regulator they named the Aqualung. It automatically provided compressed air to a diver on his slightest intake of breath.

We’ve come a long way since the first man risked his life, holding his breath long enough to retrieve a handful of lost booty from the grip of Davy Jones’locker. Today, an estimated half-million people receive their dive certification every year, making self-contained breathing apparatus diving, better known as scuba, one of the fastest growing water sports in the world.

Treasure hunting has never been quite the same since.

Email Steve Hathcock at steve@southpadretv.tv web site http://southpadretv.tv/ and on face book https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/South-Padre-Island-Texas/281464795204953



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