When My World Turned Liquid

It was 1997 and I was given an opportunity to experience a truly amazing new world, and unlike any I had ever seen before, and for the lack of a better word, I was afraid, just a little. For two years I worked in Jervis Inlet, on the beautiful west coast of British Columbia, Canada. A magical, breath taking inlet located in the heart of the Coastal Mountain Range. At the very tippy top, Princess Louisa Inlet, so unbelievably beautiful I still have trouble getting my mind around the visual impact it had on my soul. At the mouth of the inlet, an open ocean so full of life, it begged me to come have a look. Working both above and below the surface of the water, gave me a three dimensional experience I never could have imagined.

My job as an occupational diver started rather coincidentally, and surprisingly, fast. Further proving to myself, that if you follow your instincts, and pay attention, good things will come to you. I decided, rather spontaneously, to become an open water S.C.U.B.A. diver. I figured if I was going to live on the pacific coast, I should see what's in the surrounding water. So, I took my Open Water Diver certification, and absolutely loved it. Recognizing my comfort in the water while on course, my instructor suggested that I think about taking it on as a profession. To be honest, the thought had not even crossed my mind, I just wanted to dive in the ocean to see what was in it. So I filed the thought away in my brain as something to look into. Being a big believer in the thought that we create our own realities, it came as no surprise that within a few weeks I started working on a fish farm out of Powell River, on the sunshine coast as an Occupational Diver. They were looking for divers, and I was young and strong enough to think I could do it, so off I went. I applied for the job via personal interview, where my future manager asked if I was willing to work in somewhat “uncomfortable weather conditions” at times, and be okay with the fact that at night I would be left alone to float on the ocean in a house that looked as though it might sink at any moment. I started the following week, three weeks out of my Open Water Certification course.

My “comfort” in the water as my instructor had suggested, was apparently restricted to the pool, and the confined shallow water used for certification. This I know for fact, as my first dive on the fish farm, was a far cry from comfortable. At this particular fish farm there were two sections. The smolt farm, which is basically a big nursery for twenty-six gram babies, fed and raised until they were a healthy two pounds. After the fish reached their target size, they were moved from the smolt farm to the second section, known as,... the grow out farm, to become big fat salmon for the Japanese market, usually around sixteen to twenty pounds.

On this particular smolt farm, it was now my job to dive down to the bottom and collect all the little dead fish. More commonly referred to as a “Mortality Dive” or a “Mort Dive”. If you think that sounds disgusting, it is every bit of what you can imagine. As I geared up for my first dive, I began to feel nervous. I pushed it off as first time jitters, and thought nothing more of it. Instead, I focused on everything I had learned in class. Keep breathing, do not hold your breath, watch your bottom time and air pressure. Relax. Over and over I recited my instructions from both my diving instructor, and the head diver standing beside with a look of anticipation that was almost palpable. “Wow” I thought. “this guy must love working with new people, he seems really interested that I am here.”

With a final check of my gear, I was good to go. I hopped in the water and gave the okay. They gave me my ring of mesh used to collect and carry the dead fish from the bottom to the surface, and I was off. Releasing the air from my Buoyancy Compensator, I began my slow descent underwater. Relax, breathe, watch my bottom time...collect the morts, pull on the rope when I am done. Okay, I feel calm. This is good, wow. I can hear myself breathing, it is really loud, and fast. Slow down. There's a fish. Check my bottom time. One minute. No problem. There's another fish. Wow, the water is really clear, far out. Whoa. There is more fish, and more. They are swimming straight at me what the hell? They are small, but there is so many of them. Stay calm. My breathing sounds really loud! Check my bottom time. Three minutes. That's it? Relax. Stay calm. Air Pressure. Two thousand pounds down from three thousand. Did I have a full tank? Depth. Fifteen feet. Really? What's that? That was too big to be one of these little fish. Where did it go? I can't hear anything over all this breathing. Slow down. Relax. More fish. Bottom time. Four minutes. Wow. Pressure. Fifteen hundred. I must be leaking, shit. Breathe. No panic, lots of time to get to the bottom, check it out, they expect little on my first dive I am sure. But I have to do well. There is no other option. Bottom time. Five minutes. More and more fish. Okay, that's a lot of fish. Wow. Kinda freaking out. How many fish are in here?! Look at them all. Hey what's that? Shit, that stings. Jelly Fish. My lips are burning! Damn. Not comfortable with all the fish. Breathe, Relax. Air. Twelve Hundred pounds. Breathe. Relax. What the fuck is that?! I can see a big, big black blob moving toward me, getting closer, undulating unpredictably, I have no idea what that is but I do not want to be near it. Swim away, stay focused. Breathe. Bottom time. Six minutes. Air. Eight hundred pounds. Depth. Thirty Feet. Is that it? How deep are these nets? Right, seventy feet. Wow. I am not going to make it. Breathe. GO. Blob is getting closer. Breathe. Stay calm. Time. Twelve Minutes. Air. Six hundred pounds. That can't be right.

With the subsequent thought, a dark shadow moved over my horizon, partially blocking the sunlight as it entered the water. Moving left to right. Okay that was definitely not a fish. That was a LOT of fish. Holy hell they are everywhere! Breathe. Fish swimming everywhere. At me, around me. over me, under me. Breathe. Loud, uncontrollable breathing. Depth. Forty feet. Time. Fifteen minutes. Air. Two hundred pounds. Time to go. Shit.

I start swimming for the surface, trying not to panic. They didn't tell me there was going to be so many fish in here. Crazy. Where did they all come from? Man alive. Breathe. Exhale. Slow your rate on accent. Breathe. Wow. Decompression Stop. Screw it, I wasn't in long enough. Okay that is embarrassing. Breathe. Slow down. I hit the surface, inflate my BCD and swim to the side. My recovery net completely empty.

“Had a leak. Need a new tank.” I yell up to my dive supervisor. Panic in my eyes.

Looking down at me not believing a word I just said, he just smiled at me. “Want a new tank?” he said challenging me.
Bastard! That's why the interest earlier. He was waiting for this moment of terror to hit the new guy.

As a child, swimming in local fresh water such as Graham Lake, and the St. Lawrence River, I had developed a healthy fear of fish. Why? I do not know, but I wanted nothing to do with any of them. I remember as a kid feeling fish swimming around my feet and getting all squirmy, which inevitably lead to getting out of the water. As it turns out, I kept that little nugget of neurotic brilliance as an adult. This I did not know, until it was too late.

“Yeah, give me a new tank” I said, determined not to be beat at his game. After a few minutes on the walkway, switching tanks and getting ready for my second dive of the day in less than an hour, I was lost in my mind. To myself - “Put your fear aside, don't worry about the fish, or anything else in the water, you're covered head to toe in a dry suit. You can do this.” With a tap on the top of my head from my supervisor, I was good to go. Again. So back in I go. This time armed with the knowledge of "many" fish in the pen, I was a little more relaxed. I put on my blinders, and swam for the bottom ignoring any and all fish that came into view, large or small. At seventy five feet below the surface of the ocean, I was on the bottom of the net. It was much cleaner than I thought it was going to be. These little fish have tiny little poop so it falls through the ten millimetre mesh with little restriction. Here and there I found little fish dead on the bottom, so I grabbed them in my hand, and at first placed them gently in the mesh bag trying to give respect to the dead. When there were no fish left to collect, I stopped, tugged on the rope, and up it went. Being pulled from the water by the “Mort Crew” on the surface to do the final body count. Looking at my gauge, I noticed that it took less then fifteen minutes, and five hundred pounds of air, to do the work that was needed to be done. However, with this dive and the bottom time from my last attempt, I was done for the day. I needed to get out, do some serious off gassing to get the nitrogen out of my body, and rest. But not yet. I stopped and enjoyed where I was. Seventy feet below, in the Pacific Ocean, alone. I looked up to see a huge school of tiny fish swimming overhead. Circling, they all swam in the same direction except for the few that dared to challenge the system. They just swam wherever they wanted with no particular cause or direction. It was absolutely beautiful. The water was crystal clear, and I could see the team standing on the surface, having a smoke, talking. I was mesmerized and before I knew it, another ten minutes had passed. Now I was really in need of some surface time. With a new found appreciation for this liquid world, I made my way to the surface, but not before I had come to the conclusion that this was my new profession. For another two years I worked with the fish farm learning many new diving skills, and a new appreciation for the ocean and all things in it. I will never forget my first work dive. It was both embarrassing, and empowering. It made me a stronger person and to this day, I no longer have a fear of fish.

At the end of my first day I talked with my manager and confessed that I had a bit of a panic attack while in the pen of fish. He just laughed, shook his head and said,

“I know, everybody does. It is not an everyday thing, people swimming with sixty thousand fish confined in a pen, it can be overwhelming. But you are the first to admit it on this farm. Welcome to the team.”