Liquefied Fears

Liquefied Fears – published in Egoist and Morski Vestnik

Asked what gives me the greatest pleasure, my answer is instantaneous: to roam underwater in perfect peace, watching the bubbles of exhaled air float up to the surface. The underwater world kindles my imagination – conjuring images of the mythological monsters of the ancient world, through the science fiction of Jules Verne and Belyaev’s Amphibian Man, right up to the present when I am able to turn my dreams into reality. In 1947, when Captain Cousteau, together with the French engineer Emile Gagnan, perfected the aqualung, allowing man to move freely underwater, he probably never imagined that this would lead to scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving – a terrifying multi-billion industry for man’s underwater entertainment. Its slogan is popular, easy and catchy. Diving is FUN. At present more than 10 million people throughout the world are regularly practising scuba divers. They are of the kind – let’s go take a stroll underwater, take a look at the fish with the nice instructor, to give us something to tell our neighbours back home.

On the other end of the diving adventure you have the record of another Frenchman – Pascal Bernabé, who in 10 minutes on 9 July 2005 dived to the incredible depth of 330 metres in the waters of Corsica island using fairly conventional scuba diving equipment. The time he needed to swim back to the surface alive was 8 hours and 49 minutes. I can assure you that compared to this the climbing of Mt. Everest is child’s play. The Frenchman trained for three years and only succeeded the fifth time round. His method is laconically named “technical diving” and differs from the other mainly because of the changed composition of the gas mixture you breath underwater. Something like mixing a cocktail according to the place and state you’re in, if you see what I mean.

The air we all breathe generally speaking consist of 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen, plus 1% rare gases, which I won’t go into. Nitrogen is an inert gas, possessing the property to pass from a liquid into a gaseous state under pressure. And after spending some time at a greater depth, it starts running in your blood. If you surface in this state without reversing the process (known as decompression) your blood will fizz like champagne and the bubbles will want to escape from your every pore, causing a rather unpleasant sensation… and sometimes even death. This is what is known as Caisson disease, named after some of the first equipment for work underwater (invented by yet another Frenchman – Monsieur Triger in 1839). Another interesting property of inert gases is their narcotic effect. Ah, I see you pricked up your ears! If you had paid attention in your physics class, you would know that any chemically inert, but fat-soluble, substance possesses a narcotic effect. To put it otherwise, if you are breathing normal compressed air, containing 78% nitrogen, at a depth exceeding 45 metres, you’ll get to the state of not knowing where you are and what you’re doing there. I’m sure you agree that this is not such a good idea in this seemingly hostile environment. That’s why you won’t find many drug addicts underwater either. The development of “technical diving” (with its gas mixtures) in the last 15 years enabled Pascal Bernabé to dive to 330 metres, and a large number of technical divers to work calmly at depths of 80-110 metres. They already have followers in Bulgaria, too. See or

If, after what you’ve read you are still interested, simply forget all you’ve seen or felt until now. A step forward, a short drop, splash, water envelops you, it’s wet… So far, so good, but what about breathing? You take a gulp of air from a tube in your mouth (some say it reminds them of a hospital with all the life-support drips) and here you are in the Looking Glass World. You experience two unique feelings for the first time – that of weightlessness and that of visual perception (a mysterious life unfolds before your eyes, like the figment of a sick imagination). If it looks vaguely familiar it is because you’ve already been there for nine whole month at the beginning of your existence. Surely you remember, it’s wet, you’re breathing through a tube. OK, it’s not very visual, but at least mom’s nearby. Where I want to take you, mom is usually absent, and you’re alone, as alone as no place else. At least the chance to hear the familiar ring tone of your mobile phone is equal to zero. You’re facing your own fears, which can sometimes grow into panic that engulfs everything else. Who of us does not love life? In case you don’t know, panic is the pause between two familiar states. And at the beginning of your underwater adventure in the blue expanse of the sea there is nothing familiar. I will try and refute some of the most popular myths, feeding the fears of diving.

It’s dangerous! Dry statistics show that more accidents happen in the world every year in the bowling alley than in recreational scuba diving (diving for fun at a depth of up to 40 metres without decompression).

I have to be a good swimmer! Arguably the best Bulgarian technical diver today is Vlado Yavashev, and he is a terrible swimmer.

I’m too old for this! Here I’ll digress for a bit and tell you about a woman of exceptional courage – Leni Riefenstahl. Born in 1902 in Berlin, she reached the pinnacle of her fame in 1934, when she scooped the world movie awards with her documentary Triumph of the Will (about the Nuremberg Congress of the Nazi Party). You might recall the military marching at night, left, right, in endless columns, armed with torches. Anyway, her triumph turned into her downfall when after the war she was accused of love of the Third Reich and the Fuehrer. What’s the connection with the underwater world, you may well ask, impatiently and not without reason. Well, it’s a direct one – Leni deceived her scuba diving instructor about how old she was and dived for the first time in her life at the age of 71. Followed two albums with underwater photos and the documentary film Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions) screened at Cannes to mark her 100th birth anniversary (see )

It is seething with dangerous creatures underwater! Basically, this is true. Here you have fire corals, poisonous jelly fish, morays - half fish, half snake with crooked teeth - the dream of any dentist, fish with bloodcurdling names such as surgeonfish, scorpion fish, stonefish able to blend with the rock to such an extent as to cause even the best paratrooper to despair, as well as many other creatures, incompatible with us human beings. True, they are potentially dangerous, so – look but do not touch! After a time, equal to some hundred dives, suddenly there you are –swimming comfortably and confidently, enjoying the fascinating underwater world. Everything is going well in your life and fate (in exchange for your uniqueness) has given you the chance to immerse yourself in one of the warm seas of your dreams. But here you will again be confronted with fears, with one of the biggest human fears – the so-called Ruler of the Seas and Oceans – Ms Shark.

Last summer in Sozopol, a week before departing from this earthly life, one of the great gods of the underground world asked me what it feels like to swim in the company of sharks. “Well, it’s like entering this restaurant with all you bodyguards, looking around sullenly and asking without knowing me – Who and where the hell is this bastard called Michael? That’s more or less what it feels like,” I replied amid merry laughter. And to my suggestion that I teach him how to dive, he replied that he preferred to swim in his own waters… May God have mercy on his soul!

Sharks have been swimming in the world oceans for more than 300 million years. Compared to them, our presence on this earth is but a moment of eternity. Most people instinctively fear them just like they fear snakes, spiders and all sorts of other creatures, which are actually beyond our experience and understanding. The data for 2004 are: 104 accidents involving people and sharks in all the world’s oceans and seas. As a result a total of seven people died. A large part of these fateful meetings took place in the waters of North America and Australia. Come to think of it, people there are a bit crazy, it is normal for this state to be passed on to the sharks in some way. For the sake of comparison, during the same year 1,587 cases of people being bitten by other people were registered in New York alone. Swimming with these large pelagic fish is undeniably a thrill, and there is little danger unless you get it into your head to pull at the shark’s fin or to snatch a small fish from under its nose, which would make me angry as well.

Look at it this way, in the final analysis 97% salt water covers 71% of the earth’s surface. You have five world oceans and God knows how many seas for the greatest adventure of your life. What are you waiting for? Go and get wet!