I have been dealing with some heavy-duty emotions as my youngest adult son battles cancer. I needed a “time-out.”
I called the dive shop and asked: “What do you have going tomorrow?”
“We have the little boat going to the Duane, wanna go?” Brenda Mace, who along with her husband Gary own Conch Republic Divers, responded.
“Great! Please add me to the manifest.”
Now, why would I arrange for a scuba dive to help alleviate emotional overload?
After I finished talking to Brenda, lyrics from the 1979 song Cool Change by Little River Band echoed in my mind. “Well, I was born in the sign of water; and it’s there that I feel my best.”
True that! It was time for some cool change.
I was lucky. It was the day after Memorial Day so the dive boat was uncrowded.
There was a gentle breeze; the water was calm and warm; there was no current on the Duane — a rare gift. And the other divers were very experienced — another gift.
We tied off a line from the stern of the dive boat to a line extending horizontally from the mooring ball
Normally, because of current, dive boats tie off from the bow and use a “granny line” secured from the boat’s stern to the bow line for divers to hold while pulling themselves to the mooring ball to descend a line fastened to the ship.
I stepped off the back of the boat; the warm water caressed me.
As I slowly sank toward the ghost-like image of the smoke stack of the Duane, I could feel my tension evaporate. My breathing rate and heartbeat slowed, and my blood pressure went down.
I was home — safe — away from the cares of the world above. Calm.
I turned on my camera, strobes and spotting light, and added a bit of air to my buoyancy-control device.
I finned into a hatchway.
I could almost hear the sound of the klaxon and see the men from generations past scurrying to battle stations. I remembered meeting one of those men, a retired Coast Guard officer who served on the Duane and later taught the safe boating course for the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane was born on June 3, 1936, at Philadelphia Navy Yard and intentionally sunk as an artificial reef on Nov. 26, 1987, off Key Largo.
She sits upright on the sand under 125 feet of water. Her deck is approximately 100 feet deep, and the top of the crow’s nest is about 50 feet below the surface.
Once known as the “Queen of the Fleet,” the Duane was among a group of cutters, or “327s” famous for peace time and wartime service during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, providing naval gunfire and search-and-rescue support, fighting off German U-boats, rescuing survivors from torpedoed convoy ships, and serving as amphibious task force flagships.
Her sister ship, the U.S Coast Guard Cutter Bibb, also intentionally sunk in November 1987, rests on its side near the Duane.
After reaching the bridge, populated by schools of fish, I drifted over the rail and kicked towards the bow. Someone had put up an American flag. The current increased and the flag fluttered.
Remembering that it was the day after Memorial Day, I snapped off a few shots of the patriotic new addition to the Duane.
I checked my computer — still plenty of air and “bottom time” left, so I turned and swam back toward the stern.
Soon, the iconic crow’s nest appeared with all manner of fish, large and small, encircling it. The morning sun sat perfectly off to the right. The visibility was spectacular.
I gazed enraptured. Then, remembering my camera, I captured several images hoping that one would do the scene justice.
I checked my dive computer again and realized that I might be holding up the morning’s dive schedule.
Easing up the mooring line I stopped at 50 feet for a safety stop to vent off excess nitrogen and then again at 15 feet for another stop. I looked up; the dive boat was encased in a halo of light from the sun.
It was time to return to the world above the sea. I climbed up the ladder and the boat captain said, “Welcome back.” I felt as though I actually had left where I belong.
But the day of diving and my opportunity to visit the comfort of the sea wasn’t over.
After a short ride, we arrived at Molasses Reef, located in a Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo to the east of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
Our boat tied up near a place called “Fire Coral Cave,” which is a shallow dive with an abundance of life.
Once again I stepped into the sea — back home.
Visibility was excellent. The shallow areas were filled with Elkhorn and Brain corals, sea fans and numerous tropical fish.
Small caverns and ledges provided me with opportunities to get close to filefish, lobsters, crabs, moray eels, parrot fish, angelfish, grunt, snapper and tiny marine life.
Turtles, rays, nurse and reef sharks, a goliath grouper and barracudas swam off the shallow ledges.
After an hour, my visit to Molasses Reef came to an end. Sitting in the sun on the boat ride back to Tavernier, I felt refreshed, calm and at peace with the world.
Ask a scuba diver why he or she dives and you will get a whole variety of responses. For me, diving takes me to a place of contentment — a place of refuge from life’s pressures.
So if you need a cool change, try diving. It just might improve your mood and provide you with a new perspective on life.