Friday, September 08, 2006

The Sump

Went back to The Beach yesterday, this time to meet my little brother for a snorkel. Almost a complete novice, he'ld had to buy some gear specially; however, his shopping list apparently didn't include a snorkel. Or a mask. He did have fins (albeit the "wrong" kind - designed for bare feet) and a pair of goggles, so we set off along the old clifftop route to the (smugglers?) steps.

We stepped in cold green water; sun already hidden from us behind the cliffs, but a beautiful evening for a swim, with no swell to speak of, and only the lightest of zephyrs remained to tease the surface into tiny ripples. Near our jumping-off spot, we looked for the entrance to a very long and narrow sea arch which he said he'ld walked once at low tide; couldn't find it, and decided it was flooded (it being after high tide). In the next cove, though, we did find the other end - not particularly large, but big enough to look friendly and inviting. I was curious now - having missed this one on all previous trips - so I led the way inside, and found it deep enough to require swimming, but quite narrow once past the entrance.

And long. Forty or so feet in, it was getting quite dark, and no sign of an exit. The walls were closer, and the roof was at times uncomfortably low; a swell that had been undetectable in open water was now large enough to occasionally inconvenience me. Navigating forward by touch, the entrance eventually vanished behind a bend in the cave, although wet walls still caught a little reflected daylight. There was air movement now, apparently increasing...

Then, just when the blackness seemd to be about to close in completely and force us back, the bend in the cave brought a new sight into view- daylight! Ahead lay a fork, with sunlight at both ends: directly visible on the left, through a slit-like exit, and indirectly, as a green glow beneath the surface on the right. Paper-thin exit with air, or broad channel without? The subsurface light from the flooded sump was luminously beautiful; couldn't resist it.

We reached the limit of the of the right hand fork and considered our position, floating in soft glow of that extraordinary light; then, ducking down, I looked out into apparently open water: no obstructions visible - but also no direct sightline to a visible surface. Came back up: "I'm going to try it". Down to the bottom, then roll, onto my back: this way, I can save my head from floating upwards into unexpected rocks. Ten feet or so of blackness - then, light, air.

I rested on the surface, but not for too long: my brother was waiting in the darkness. Back below the surface, I found the mouth of the cave again, and realised that the return journey wasn't quite as easy - instead of swimming into a green glow, I must now move into total darkness. How as I going to find air - and my brother - again?

Upside down again, I crawled the roof of that flooded sump, searching for the mercury-glint of an airpocket. Nothing accelerates time like the awareness of not having it; after passing half a dozen tiny and useless air-traces - nothing breathable - doubt set in. Could I have gone too far? Was there another fork, diverting me into a trap? Then, at last, an air-puddle wide enough for head and shoulders, the sweetness of the first breath, and a reunion with a remarkably nonchalant little brother.

My poor brother received a brief crash-course in the nicities of swimming through submerged and lightless caverns on a single breath - "swim upside down, along the roof"; then I left, to lead the way and do lifeguard duty. Allowed myself a few breaths of fresh air, then down to the bottom just outside the cave, latching onto a fallen boulder to keep myself in position. Nothing at first to see but a black void. How long should I wait? Then, a small pale shape - a hand - came forth, moving in exploratory sweeps, and the long black wetsuited form of my brother rose face up from the darkness of the tunnel to join me, smiling, in open water.

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