Depth Wish

A new breed of scuba diver is testing the limits using experimental gases, advanced technology, and a compulsion to take risks

The U.S.S. Wilkes-Barre lies deep. The ocean's surface offers no hint of her presence, only the clear blue waters of the Gulf Stream a dozen miles off Key West, like a vastly thick, indigo-tinted window with nothing on the other side. But there is something on the other side of this window, something so big it takes 250 feet of water to hide it A a hulking mass of steel two football fields long and eight stories high, broken in half but still sitting upright, as though steaming across the sandy bottom. Fish drift in huge undulating clouds above the remains, schools of jack, snapper, tiny baitfish, permit, African pompano, all swaying slowly to the rhythm of the currents. Somewhere down here in the dimness there are monsters: groupers the size of Volkswagens; giant, gape-mouthed moray eels; the occasional hungry visitor from even deeper waters who arrives for the oceanic equivalent of an all-you-can eat buffet. And swimming slowly through this strange bestiary are the most alien-looking creatures of all -- bubbling, beeping, bright lights beaming, wrapped in hoses and strapped to steel cylinders, humanoids from another world. Divers.

But they're not the divers you know from magazine ads for tropical resorts, those tourists floating blissfully through bright coral gardens. These divers are to that color-coordinated bunch as test pilots are to weekend aviators; to put it simply, they operate in an entirely different milieu. They go far deeper and stay down much longer. They leave the comparative safety of open water -- with its promise of a quick swim to life-saving surface air -- to probe the dark, labyrinthine interiors of shipwrecks and submerged caves. They venture to depths where pressure distorts the rules of respiration in new and lethal shapes, where the gases that have supported us all since birth -- oxygen and nitrogen -- can poison, intoxicate, cripple, or paralyze, and where a tank filled with enough air to keep a diver alive for an hour in shallow water can be breathed empty in a matter of minutes. They tend to know people who have drowned. Often they know details of these deaths most of us would rather not think about. Sometimes they have had to help recover the bodies. They carry extra tanks filled with special gas mixtures designed for the depths they plan to visit. They train with ritualistic intensity. And they plan and execute their dives with all the thoroughness of mountaineers making a winter assault on a tricky Alpine summit.

Ten years ago divers with the expertise and the desire to venture down to places like the Wilkes-Barre were rare indeed. With the notable exception of cave divers in North Florida and elsewhere, they had no consciousness of themselves as a group, and no inclination to talk to other people about what they did. One survivor of the period puts it this way: "You didn't want your neighbors to know that you were doing this crazy thing." Five years later, however, the number of divers had grown to the point that this crazy thing needed a name, and somebody coined the term "technical diving," using it to describe any diving done below the recreational scuba limit of 130 feet (20 feet above the top of the Wilkes-Barre's smokestacks) or in what are euphemistically called "overhead environments" (caves, wreck interiors, and so on). Today the worldwide technical diving community is burgeoning, and has spawned instructional agencies, a glossy magazine called AquaCorps, and an Internet E-mailing list devoted to serving its mushrooming membership. It even has its own annual global conference, created in response to a cold shoulder from DEMA, the annual dive industry megaconvention put on by the Diving Equipment Manufacturers' Association. Held this year in San Francisco, the conference -- dubbed TEK -- is now sponsored in part by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, about the most mainstream diving organization one can imagine.

Florida is for technical divers what Switzerland once was for mountain climbers -- the closest thing their small but rapidly expanding universe has to a center. Rooted at one end in the caves of the north, anchored at the other by the chain of deep wrecks that stretches from the Dry Tortugas to the Palm Beaches, and inhabited by a large population with plenty of disposable income, the state functions as a kind of giant laboratory for the development of advanced diving. In the warm waters, dive shops, and garage workshops of the Sunshine State, the evolution of homo aquaticus proceeds at a pace unrivaled anywhere in the world. For the people caught up in it, that process can be both exhilarating and terrifying. Simultaneously pushing the limits of technology, physiology, and psychology, they have discovered a surreal realm straight out of the cinematic nightmares of James Cameron or Ridley Scott, a weirdly beautiful place with a mean streak and a Darwinian agenda all its own. As ever, the rewards of exploration are great. As ever, the costs are terrible. As ever, there are those who will reap both.

Billy Deans was a teenager when he first saw the Wilkes-Barre, not long after he and his father had moved to Key West from Daytona A "the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon," he remembers A in the wake of his parents' divorce. A veterinarian and avid skin diver, the elder Deans had chosen to rebuild his life in a diver's paradise. That was all the encouragement young Billy needed. Already he had improvised his own kid-size diving gear, cobbled together from household materials, and he was trying to figure out where he could get money for fiberglass and wood to build a shallow water submarine. In the aquatic environment of Key West, his underwater impulse went into overdrive. He quickly learned to use scuba equipment, completing the rigorous YMCA dive course at a young age. And he turned himself into an expert spearfisherman, spending endless hours developing the skills demanded of undersea hunters, learning to go where the big fish lived -- deep.

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