Listen to this story, narrated by Daniela Acitelli:
Deep, dark, and far underground are the world’s mysteries that remain, and I have been trying to discover them for my entire life. I stand here knowing that I am about to leave everything and everyone on land behind. As I slip into the warmth of the water, it surrounds me. Every time it is an embrace, a homecoming. One that even a hooded wetsuit or equipment or tanks does not distance me from. It is the unexpected that calls me. The thrill and sense of impending discovery and wonder that draws me back over and over and over again.
I see the rest of my team of three, Tim and the new guy, who are bobbing in the water, watching me expectantly as I check my instruments one last time. We signal to one another to begin our descent. I look up at the blue of the sky with its white clouds and then dip below. My team, like me, is here because of the lure and excitement of the unknown. One of them is new, which is why I chose to bring up the rear this time and put him in the middle. Everything about this dive has been planned to the abilities of the least experienced member. It has to be. In this case, it is our new guy.
We all laughed when we found out his last name is Karst, like the type of cave systems we often explore. “You were meant to do this,” we said, teasing him.
I know that I was meant to do this too.
It is true that I never imagined this could be my life while growing up in our D.C. rowhouse. Brown girls like me were thought to be worried about messing up their hair, but I was always the first in the pool. I guess I was a little different? And I wanted something different too. I was a quiet kid who pored through all the books I could get my hands on about the underground world. I didn’t fit in well with the other kids; I was told I talked about rocks too much. My mother indulged my passions, gamely taking me to cave attractions when we traveled, and she gave me an allowance that usually went towards increasing my rock collection. When I discovered there were scientists who explored underwater caves, I knew that speleology was what I wanted to do.
I can hear my mother’s voice in the back of my head, saying, “Maileen, you don’t have any business being under the Earth! And underwater at that?!”
I bristled when she called me “crazy” yet again before I left for this latest diving expedition, a deeper one than normal. I thought she understood, but I realized that, even after all of this time, maybe she didn’t know me as well as I thought.
“I am a scientist, Mama. I need to know. We all need to know what is down there.”
Her mouth twisted as she looked at me with sad, fear-filled eyes. “But why, baby, why do you have to be that scientist?”
If only she could see what I see: The beauty of geology. These ancient places only a few — or no — humans have ever seen. Forests of delicate stalactites and stalagmites. Limestone formations like something out of a sculptor’s imagination. Ones like bells. Others like frozen curtains of flowstone waterfalls. Shafts with walls that remind me of chipped arrowheads. Cream and rust colors abound. Water so pure that it changes from crystal clear as the air itself to teals and midnight blues. I love these places with their recesses and nooks and their isolation. Of being beyond everything. There is a stillness that I move through. There is also a stillness of my mind in these places that are so otherworldly and alien although we have not left Earth at all.
Our descent is quick. The entrance is still filtering light above us, but we will be going beyond the cavern into the depths of the cave itself. I have done this hundreds of times, but I have never dismissed my mother’s concerns. All explorers face naysayers at some point in their lives, but this? Arrogance and mistakes down here can mean certain death. Perhaps from nitrogen narcosis. Perhaps from simply running out of air. Blacking out first almost seems merciful before drowning. I know the risks. All of us know the risks. But the risks are outweighed by one simple driving force: curiosity.
The passage has become narrow and low. I am aware of so much stone. The whole of the Earth is above me. It will not bear down or press upon me. This stone will not crush me. I can truly just let the weight of the world be as I calmly frog kick and glide ahead.
I am just passing through.
The idea of being beneath and within the earth, like a child in its mother’s womb, never bothered me. You are ensconced and enveloped within stone and water, and there is absolutely nowhere to go but back the way you came, which can be a kilometer away. And if you are claustrophobic? This isn’t for you. Some people like to jump off of bridges and out of planes. I like the quiet order of it all. Or at least the order that it forces me to have.
We ease ourselves forward carefully.
So much of doing this is about control. How important it is to be horizontal. How to make sure you can touch and follow your guideline. How to kick and move. How to not destroy those delicate mineral formations as you move through and around them. How to check your emotions and remain calm. How to manage decompression and especially your air. We have a rule of thirds as a bare minimum: enough to go down, enough to get back, and enough to have emergency reserves. You need enough to get in and get out.
Air is life.
Tim took the lead this dive. A jokester with an unruly shock of graying hair, he is serious underwater and has done more cave dives than I can count. I know and trust him.
My mentor Rick trusted him. “Maileen, he’s as good as they get,” he once told me. “You know, besides me.”
I miss Rick. I miss his gutbuster of a laugh. I miss his dry wit. His sharp mind. I miss him so much. One time he went down.
And then he didn’t come up.
The water is so clear that we can easily see ahead of us with our lights. We have made it through the narrow passage and there are junctions that branch off to other ones. Karst makes a stifled noise and shifts over as if startled, his tanks knocking into the stone and fins hitting the bottom. He swings his arms wildly in front of him.
What is going ON?
He moves erratically again, backing up towards me with his fins stirring up the sediment even more. I can’t move backwards, but in the commotion I move sideways, my fins scraping along the bottom too.
No, no, NO! What is he DOING?! He needs to calm the hell down!
Wait…. Where is the guideline? I…. I can’t find it. I don’t feel it. That damn Karst has caused a silt out! My visibility is zero. I stop and swim upwards, but the water’s no clearer. I cover my light against my chest but I can’t see theirs. Control. Control. There’s no need for me to panic. I’ve done the drills. I know what I’m doing. I’ve been through silt outs before. Yes. They would have put it towards the ceiling or near the floor. It must be here. I just need to feel for the guideline and follow it. It shouldn’t be more than an arm’s length away. Maybe it is along the wall? I reach out and there is nothing.
I tie off my safety reel to the bottom and swim forward a bit more.
I stop and gather my composure. I’ve got to get it together. Stressing will just make things worse. I don’t want to use more air than I should. Down here, survival is measured in breaths. I need to think.
I check my gauges. Still good for the moment. My equipment still works. My air is still good. Wait, one of my three lights has gone out. Seriously? It must’ve gotten damaged somehow. But it’s all right. I have two others. I have two others and my air is good.
I reach out again for a guideline.
I swim forward again.
There is no calling out to the rest of my team. They will tie off feeder lines and go back and forth along the guideline to try to find me, but that jeopardizes them as well once their gas supply dwindles. I know they will eventually have to call this dive and resurface. There were so many passages at that junction crossing. There is no telling how much farther I could have gone into any one of them. All of my training….
Lines from Coleridge’s Kublai Khan come to mind to calm me: “Where Alph, the sacred river ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea.” Maybe I will come out of this in Xanadu and discover paradise itself.
I swim forward again.
I reach out.
Goddamn you, Karst!
I stop. I reach out for the guideline.
We are losing time. I am losing time. I am losing air. I am lost.
I reach out for the guideline again. This time someone takes my gloved hand and tugs, urging me along. Yes! They did not leave me! I’m going to get out of here. I’m going to be all right! Everything is going to be okay. I’m going to be okay. I turn to look at Tim or Karst, signal thanks, anything, as I am so glad to see them. Yes, even Karst. As one of my lights twists around in the darkness, I scramble backwards. I don’t know what this is, but it isn’t either one of them!
Oh God…. Is this what Karst saw earlier?! Is this why he was behaving like that?! What if there are more? Don’t panic, DON’T panic.
_Control. Control. _
The creature is about four feet long and the size of a child, with thin, translucent skin. I can see its veins and even the outlines of its organs just beneath. There’s nothing where its eyes should be, just recesses suggesting ones were there long ago. They are unnecessary down here anyway. What must have been its legs are now fused into what looks like an undulating tail. Gills flutter at the sides of its head, and feathery feelers protrude from what would have been ears.
I don’t know its intent, but I just don’t have the luxury of being panic-filled right now. What if it is a scavenger? What if it wants to eat me? But no, if it had wanted to do that, it could have attacked me before.
Down here, there are certain truths. Nothing about this is suitable for humans. We are so vulnerable. Normally I find comfort here, but I know that this is not our element and there is no comfort to be had right now.
Okay, okay. If we were attacked by something, there would have been nothing we could have done. So there it is. My decision is rational under the circumstances, as I have nothing more that I could possibly lose at this point: The only thing that I can do now is trust the creature.
It tugs on me gently, encouraging me to follow.
I do. Time is running out. I pause, then reach out. Its short arm is slim and, as I take its paddle-like, webbed hand I can only marvel at how the creature is not as fragile as I thought. In all of my dives, I’ve never encountered something so truly amazing. I wanted to find an untouched place, and a new species has found me instead.
The creature is quick and moves with certainty through the passageways. I can’t take my eyes off of it, not just because it is my guide but because I realize it is as unknown as everything around me. It is, in a word: wondrous. Sometimes it stops and circles me, graceful as it effortlessly navigates the passage formations. We pass one I noted earlier in our dive, limestone flowstone like yards of supple fabric wrapped over and upon itself, pooling upon the bottom.
We… are going back! It is taking me back out to the cavern! I look and feel around, and that’s when I find it: the guideline. My team left it in place in case I was somehow able to find my way out. I almost want to laugh but find myself just shaking my head instead.
The creature releases my hand and goes ahead of me when we reach the low, narrow passageway. I take the guideline, just in case, as we make our way through. The creature slows down, pausing just ahead of me until I catch up. It goes forward. I catch up. Forward. I catch up. But it is never out of my sight. It never leaves me behind. Sometimes it makes burbling chirps at me that are almost startling in the silence. I want to smile, I am so honestly happy to hear it. To see it. I thought that I was glad for isolation and took solace in it, but right now I could not be more happy to not be alone.
I check my gauges and motion for it to stop. If we are really heading back, then I need to start to decompress as I ascend. Getting the bends would be painful, if not deadly. It makes a noise again, the loud echolocation sharp and clear in the water. It is amazing to me that, even in my fear, I can’t stop thinking about how I have found something new. Something that I cannot even begin to explain, but I want to try.
The creature swims up close to me and chirps again, its hands patting me, touching my head. It is really curious, touching me with its feelers and short fingers. I allow it to continue to outline the contours of my mask, my face, but gently steer its hands away from my many valves and gauges. It burbles as it touches me, and there is a part of me that feels honored to have made this first contact. I can’t stop looking at the creature. The way its gill stalks flutter. How it moves. That it even exists at all. It’s so incredible, so unbelievable and beyond my dreams of what I hoped would happen down here. I am enraptured but need to draw my attention away, if only for a moment. I look at my gauge and signal I am ready by swimming ahead a bit, and it darts forward, reaching out for me.
I take its hand.
We come through another passage and it feels as if the space around me has become more expansive, more open. Although still surrounded by stone, I know this means that we are now in the initial cavern. I can see trickles of light above me. My air is running low, but I know that I just might make it.
I will make it.
I look at my guide and it chirps to me again, swimming around and around me, refusing to go any farther. It must not be able to. I realize it has reached its own physical limits, a mirror of my own. My body cannot handle too much pressure. Its body cannot handle the lack of it. I understand and reach out for it once more. I take its hand and hold it in both of mine. I don’t know if it would respond well to a hug, so I stroke it along its back like I would my cat, surprised at how much it feels like that of a salamander or axolotl.
Far above me, I can see the backlit shadows of my colleagues hovering at the surface in the final stages of their own decompression. I know that they are concerned and worried. I grab the reserve tank they left at the cavern’s edge for me, just in case. There is something to be said about that kind of hope. That even scientists — maybe especially scientists — who know the odds still have faith in possibilities.
I don’t know how to explain what happened but, now that I am out of harm’s way, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Why me? Why did it do this? Why did it choose me? All I know is that I owe my life to a creature no one in the world has ever seen before, and no one in the world may ever see again.
I reach out and hold the creature’s hand again, giving it a light squeeze before letting go. I don’t really want it to leave. I wish the others could see this too, but I know it can’t be with me much longer. It is hesitant to leave, giving me another chirp. Then it zips away, its pale body a blur as it recedes into the darkness below.
This time I went down.
I am going back up.