My underwater trip, or "Psychoaquanautics"

Let’s get a few things out of the way upfront so they don’t dominate discussion. I do not in any way endorse/condone any of this and urge those reading it not to try it without scuba certification and some acceptance of the risk diving entails, especially where DIY gear is concerned. If you’re not careful it’s real easy to kill yourself this way so don’t begin to consider anything similar until you’re certified to dive conventionally.

A few years ago I developed an obsessive interest in diving technology. Submarines, habitats, torpedos, exoskeletons, you name it. I knew I wanted to try diving but when I read about the regulatory barriers to simply buying gear and diving (for good reason. Basic pneumatic principles are not as intuitively obvious to everyone as I wrongly assumed then) I got frustrated and, in keeping with my nature, instead went and built a diving helmet.

There is very little in the way of regulation for this because nobody’s done it recreationally in any real numbers since the turn of the century and diving helmets are sufficiently simple to build that you cannot stop those who want to from fabricating their own diving equipment. With scuba it’s easy, they have to go to a guy to get their tanks filled. That guy checks your certs and (if he’s responsible) turns you away if you haven’t got any. With diving helmets the air supply is an electric oil free continuous duty cycle automotive air compressor rated for 3.0cf/minute. Air compressors have all kinds of legitimate, sane uses such that requiring diving classes to buy one isn’t going to fly with people.

Diving this way is safer than it sounds provided you have someone manning the compressor and managing the umbilical. Again don’t do this unless you’re okay with risking your life but if you do, make sure there’s an inline air filter. The silica dessicant ones are okay but require a consumable. The water trap types don’t. A filter is necessary to absolutely ensure what you’re breathing is as clean and dry as it gets, since the little atmosphere your head’s in is what you have to breathe and it gets replenished faster than you can foul it by the compressor. Any kind of contaminant however slight can cause serious health problems at depth. Sorry to spend so much time stressing all of this but I don’t want anyone to read this then go out and drown themselves.

What it taught me is that there is an experience you get with helmet diving that cannot be had with scuba. Your head is in air, peering out through large windows into water, very cool Jules Verne feeling. You breathe naturally with no regulator in your mouth (the helmet, technically, is the regulator) and you can speak via wired intercom with the surface. Feels a bit like walking on the moon in a spacesuit as you’re necessarily upright and can bounce a little with reduced gravity due to buoyancy. But you can’t get very far horizontally like this because you’re tethered to the compressor on the surface. And if it’s on a float, it can’t be grid tied which is one of the major perks of helmet diving at all.

What I determined I really liked about helmet diving was stationary observation. I could set up a chair maybe fifteen feet deep, sit still in it and after the initial disturbance, marine life would resume it’s normal routines all around me. Because the compressor is grid tied (with a UPS in case of momentary outages) you can just sit there in your comfy chair as long as you like watching fish go by. If you designed the helmet for it you can reach up inside to wipe away condensation and to snack on granola bars or whatever in ziplock bags. You can literally spend all day underwater if you want. Which is what I did today, high off my tits.

I dosed 2mg of 25C at 11:30am and waited for the comeup to end before getting in the water as I had reservations about cold water + vasoconstriction. I’m pretty far north in a cabin I’ve spent Summers at since I was a toddler. All of my fondest formative years memories took place here. What’s funny is even at ten I was devising diving helmet schematics and plans for a self sufficient habitat at the bottom of the lake with huge dome windows. It took me another decade and a half to develop the understanding necessary to make good on any of it, but damned if I didn’t actually go through with it. Those drawings of my rad lake bottom base with hydroponic gardens are in the bottom of a drawer in the cabin somewhere. I’ve lived my life so far with the philosophy that who I am as an adult should impress and realize the dreams of 10 year old me, or at least never disappoint him.

I was raised on a diet of Asimov and Frederich Pohl’s science fiction (think David Starr: Space Ranger or Undersea Academy) so I got my moral instruction from the omnicompotent, unflappably rational protags of books like that who always solved their problems by studying them carefully and devising a technological solution rather than the Flash Gordon “crash land, punch everthing to death that you cannot fuck, fuck everything you cannot punch, kill a poorly disguised racial caricature of a Chinese man in a dress, then return to Earth for a parade” approach.

It’s thoughtful young adult scifi that teaches you anything is possible if you are unstoppable in your determination, methodical and analytical in your approach and ideally a little bit mentally unhinged. This is how I wound up tripping balls at the bottom of a Minnesotan lake.

First thing was to get my breathing under control. It was a bit of a trek from shore and I was very CO2 conscious. I forgot the fucking chair too. So I knelt on my knees and waited, eyes wide open, to see what might happen. The visibility is poor, less than ten feet but what you want to see down there isn’t far away so it doesn’t matter. I got settled, crosslegged on the lakebed and began to closely study what was in front of me.

The gentle undulating surface resembled a stormy sky overhead, casting down radiant golden beams of light. There was a gradient from gold to deep green with depth. I could see an everpresent cloud of little floating organic particulate which my brain began to see false organization in. They were atomic particles with vectors between them, like models of molecules you may have been given as an educational gift by a well intentioned grandmother one Christmas.

This medium was in constant motion around me so these hallucinatory molecular connections were moving, three dimensionally, rotationally on both axis, along with the water motion. It felt immensely good to accurately track this motion and I could conceive of it happening around me in terms of water atoms conveying wave motion to each other with me immersed in all of it.

I thought I was seeing and taking part in abiogenesis. I could see tiny little organisms swimming from speck to speck. That’s their whole world and what they do with their day. In my mind I could see rudimentary prebiotic chemical replicators stirred around like these particles. I could see lipid molecules forming bilayer films on the surface of gas bubbles, as lipids are hydrophobic on one end and hydrophilic on the other, such that they self configure into a bilayered membrane around bubbles of gas.

When the gas escaped, the shell of lipids remained and wherever a replicator was caught inside, it found a sheltered environment where it could self copy with fewer errors. This allowed it to become considerably more complex than it could’ve unprotected. Self copying peptides gave way to RNA, then DNA. At the same time a separate mutually valid but then-independent microorganism began visiting these protocells, living within them, feeding off waste. Eventually trapped in an ongoing symbiosis, they became mitochondria. The green specks now resembled stars in a galaxy I was seeing edge-on, so that they were denser at the ‘horizon’ which swirled and pulsated a deep rich green.

A little fish swam up to me while I was deep in thought. The larger ones I’d seen earlier generally don’t get close because of the bubble plume but this little fucker got right up in my face and for a while I felt like this was first contact. For him, encountering something vastly larger and from a realm outside of his experience, face to face. “What the fuck are you doing here?” He seemed to say.

The fish raised an interesting point. Which is a sentence you’ll only ever find yourself writing as a consequence of mind altering substances. What was I doing there? It was easy. And comfortable. The water supported my body and the little swimming organisms obviously had everything they could need here. But they were wholly dependent on the medium. The conditions in this lake and how slowly they change is what permits them to make a good living here, and they cannot control that, nor can they leave the lake. Too hard. Their bodies too soft, land too hot and dry. I was evolving along with them in my mind. Developing a spine, rudimentary legs and lungs like a lungfish, mudskipper or Tiktaalik.

I began to see shadowy monstrous forms all around me. What I thought was a civil war cannon then resolved instead into gigantic tarantula legs, moving around me. At their center, a writhing skeletal Giger-ish mass of spidery tentacly shifty nope-ness. This is something I hadn’t counted on happening. I manage bad trips reasonably well by staying grounded in materialism but the 25C was showing me decidedly non-ghostly creatures out in the water around me. Mostly gigant thick legged spiders with an incomprehensible writhing mass of HR Gigeresque shit where the body should be. As I gaped at it, some kind of orifice opened like a six petalled flower. Inside was a massive eye with a + shaped pupil. It looked at me and narrowed. “You don’t belong here. Leave.”

As I trudged onward towards shore I thought of our ancestors fleeing incomprehensibly terrifying, massive aquatic predators that even today trouble our thoughts. To escape them we had to stiffen up. Become stronger, able to survive out of water. I really had second thoughts at this point. I felt so incredibly at home in the water. Like it would be much harder to drag myself out of it with all the heavy sopping wet gear than simply to live there indefinitely as a purely aquatic organism.

Too easy. I’d be extinct when conditions in the lake changed. I had to become harder and crucially, able to survive independently of any medium. Because after committing to land we became something able to return to the water as needed for farming, energy and mineral extraction purposes. We didn’t really lose that ability. But the predators we see down there, nearly unchanged since they snacked on and terrified our primordial gilled ancestors, are now subject to us. They’re food, but we also concern ourselves with maintaining the substrate they need to survive, which we now operate independently of.

If I could just make the few steps up out of the water to land, the rest would follow. Amphibians. Reptiles. Mammals. Then humans. Who can build and propagate their own ideal growth substrate wherever they want to explore, not limited as fish are to their lake. If I could crawl out of the water onto land, and breathe. I had to. The long air hose was to me like the umbilical of an embryo. Which was about to be birthed from the water, onto land.

Lugging an armful of hose I’d coiled up on the way, and with no small effort I stood up from the comforting, supportive medium of the water. Now upright, I trudged one foot in front of the other, onto land. I lifted the helmet off and breathed deeply, then shut off the compressor. After stripping down to swimsuit, I laid on the dock and let the sun dry me while I watched dancing skeletal configurations of atoms behind my eyelids. Later on the trek up the hill to the cabin I appreciated the beauty of the forest and felt glad I’d forced myself to commit to leaving the water. I was dry now and unencumbered with gear, and now finally felt at home on land again.

That seemed like a very fundamental barrier life either crosses or doesn’t which determines longterm survival: medium-dependent, which is comfortable and easy (aquatic monsters notwithstanding) or medium-independent which is extremely difficult, ardruous and at times painful to achieve. Which we still haven’t fully achieved. I could imagine our descendants, self replicating intelligent machine life, no longer dependent on Earthlike conditions (whether planet or large space habitat) to support them. Now harder, stronger, thriving in radiation blasted vacuum but still able to descend to the surface of Earthlike worlds as needed for practical reasons. Or maybe as a kind of diving. To remember what it was like to live down here.