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Slices of Life: Seawater the Colour of Lapsang Souchong

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The boat is full to the brim with gear. Tanks, boxes, backpacks, dive gear, four people. There’s barely room for one person to stand on the actual boat deck without standing on some piece of gear or other. I’m sitting on the back bench, struggling to bow down low enough to get my fin on my feet. The driver grabs the fin and starts helping them on, her red hair falling from under her inca wool cap. No need to do everything by yourself, this is work diving – ask for help.

(Photo: Metsähallitus / Janos Honkonen)

(Photo: Metsähallitus / Janos Honkonen)

“Give me the algae battery on my right hand when I’m in the water”, I tell her and turn around, waddling in my fins, trying not to snag them under anything. I sit on the railing, put in my regulator, press it and my mask down and lean back. I go in clumsy, and my calf hits the railing. “That’s gonna leave a mark” I have the time to think before I hit the brown water.

I let myself sink for a second or two, looking at my feet and legs flopping straight up, the sun shining through the water that’s the colour of Lapsang Souchong. The seawater is brown in northern Ostrobothnia, it’ll take me some time to get used to it. I kick myself around and let the BCD float me to the surface. I surface staring directly at the sun, and need to turn a few times before I see the boat. I signal an OK by touching my head and start swimming towards it. The driver is waiting with the algae battery, a series of small canisters attached to some surgical tubing, a sample bag and a set of tweezers. I hold up my hand and she wraps a loop of tubing around my wrist.

A few minutes later we are at the small buoy that marks the deep end of the transect. My dive buddy signals thumbs down, I respond and start emptying my BCD. Underwater the light vanishes fast, and the water under me turns quickly from dark brown to almost black . The buoy rope runs past me, particulates suspended in the water speed past like a star field. I turn on my little dive lamp, which is better than nothing, but not by a big margin. The seabed appears suddenly half a meter in front of my mask. I start to fill my dry suit to arrest my descent speed, but too late. Thump. The bottom is silt.

The world is a combination of pitch dark and shades of brown. I can barely make out the transect line 20 cm away from me. A white rope, with a measuring tape attached to it. The only thing I can see of my dive buddy is the faint outline of his slate, a yellow blob of his tank, and the beam of his powerful dive light slashing the water as he writes on his slate. He’s writing the survey on the first grid point right at the buoy. I know what it is: 100% mud, no plant coverage. I turn to undo the bowline knot that’s holding the buoy down, trying to move as little as possible. Every little movement makes the silt billow even more, and the visibility is already almost zero.

(Photo: Metsähallitus / Janos Honkonen)

(Photo: Metsähallitus / Janos Honkonen)

When I get the knot untied, my dive buddy is gone. I wait at the concrete block holding the other end of the 300 meter transect line, until I make out his faint form. I move to his right side, my only points of reference his light and the faint outline of his tank and slate. For dizzying moments I lose the track of what way is up and what way is down, I’m diving almost totally blind.

We lose the transect, even though it’s a bright white rope – the visibility is just so bad. We search it, masks on the muddy seabed, going in circles, bumping masks and spreading our hands in an international sign of “dunno”. He thumbs the dive, we ascend.

***

“Right, let’s forget about that whole ‘I’ll stay on your right side’ thing”, I say, changing my tank. “The visibility is too shit, so let’s go cave diving on this. I’ll swim behind you and hold the transect, literally hold it, and try to signal you with my light. I’ll be just a transect marker.”

“How are you going to find the line, the buoy is up here now”, the driver says in her bubbling Oulu accent. She has a point.

“We need to start from the shallows”, my dive buddy says.

***

We are standing in middle of the sea, knee deep, in full dive gear. This is Osthrobothnia, and you can walk into the water for 100 meters and still be chest deep. These shallows are on a large expanse of sea, not even close to a shore. I keep racking my memory about wrecks this far north. There was a lot of tar exports from here, so shouldn’t there be quite a few?

(Photo: Metsähallitus / Lari Järvinen)

(Photo: Metsähallitus / Lari Järvinen)

We go on all fours, try to float, my dive buddy keeps surveying grid after grid. Four meters by one meter, centered around the transect line. Writing down the composition of the seabed, what species of plants there are and what substrate are they living on. Soon we can get from going all fours to crawling, then floating, then finally diving in the depth of one meter, one and a half, two meters… I am the sampler, the technical helper and security. The surveyor points at plants he wants a sample of, I swim there, take my tweezers, struggle open a film canister from my algae battery, try to pinch up the whole plant, and get it intact to the canister. The thing is, everything is complicated underwater. If you put a piece of a plant in a film canister on the surface, it stays there. Underwater, when you pull the tweezers out, the current sucks the plants out. When you start closing the film canister, the same thing happens. The canisters float on your face, the sample bag wraps around your arm and head. Staying level on the depth of 1,5 meters is a hundred times more difficult than staying level on a depth of 10, 20 or 40 meters.

It’s utterly goddamn fascinating and fun.

(Photo: Metsähallitus / Suvi Saarnio)

(Photo: Metsähallitus / Suvi Saarnio)

As we go down the three hundred meter long transect, the light starts to wane and the vegetation peters off. We settle into a routine. On every concrete block that marks 10 meters, and on every even number of depth we stop, turn around carefully, and look at the seabed we just swam over, going high and steady so we won’t silt it up. My buddy’s notes become more and more brief, I don’t need to take samples anymore. My mind starts to wander, I start composing a short story about following an endless rope into darkness.

The water gets darker, I start finger walking on the transect rope, feeling the nubs of zip ties, marking the centimeters and meters. It gets dark and silty, I circle my fingers around the transect. I won’t lose the fucker again.

Finger walking into the darkness, 300 meters of rope and measuring tape, settling into a steady rhythm of swim, stop, turn, okay, turn, swim stop turn, until we reach the second big concrete block. The surveyor signs a thumb up. We ascend in midwater.

The sun floods my face. I float on my back for a bit, looking at the 22 degree halo ring around the sun, breathing air that doesn’t come from a tube, tasting vaguely like machinery. Feeling pleasantly tired, and utterly content.

This is what I was meant to be doing all along.

(Photo: Metsähallitus / Lari Järvinen)

(Photo: Metsähallitus / Lari Järvinen)

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