I took a few days off to travel to the Balearic Sea, off the east coast of Spain, to search for the famed Russian free diver Natalia Molchanova after she disappeared on a recreational dive a few weeks ago. I was suspicious of the cover story. It seemed a little too pat. After all, Ms. Molchanova could hold her breath underwater for NINE minutes, and could dive to a depth of 233 feet without an air tank. Even with this incredible ability she submerged into the waters on a casual dive and never returned. I know whales that have trouble holding their breath for nine minutes. She wasn’t even competing. Just messing around with some friends in the western Mediterranean. There had to be something else going on. I decided to investigate.
I am a water person. I like to float around. Some of my astrology friends tell me that, based on my zodiac sign, Capricorn, I’m an earth person. I say sure, just like most of earth, which is underwater. I can hold my breath for about fifty seconds before it seems like an extremely good idea to stop doing it. I have a little trouble with the mental aspect. My body likes to breathe and will lobby my willpower after about twenty seconds of stanched air flow to start inhaling. It goes from, “Ha, ha, very funny,” to “I think he is serious” to “Alright nervous system, shut it down, we’ll take it from here,” at which time the whole factory fades to black so the brainstem can override. It returns everything to normal, decrying my stupidity and lamenting having to deal with such a stubborn and idiotic caretaker. I wake up on the floor, massage the bump on my head, and continue on with my day.
Anyhow I refused to believe that Ms. Molchanova could have died while taking a casual swim. The Russian phenomenon could go 233 feet deep on one breath of air, which means that she would also have to return to the surface on the same breath! Almost 500 feet. The mind reels. Sure, I’ve been on dates with women who could cram five thousand words into one sentence, possibly more, since at that point I’ve stopped listening to exit the restaurant in order to stand in traffic. Once there I perform my own endurance test to see how many cars can run me over (my record is five) before I hobble back inside the restaurant and stiffly take a seat at the table to endure the conclusion of “The time back in college when my sorority sisters and I drove to Miami and got so wasted and slept on the beach and met these guys that turned out to be total assholes.” But that is a different kind of stamina. The “endurance talker” uses a complicated air flow method that takes in from the nose while the voice box expels, a seamless and exhausting system. Underwater there is no such luxury. The expert free diver must rely on a natural slowing of the body processes, utilizing a minimum amount of oxygen to sustain consciousness.
Maybe she got eaten by the Kraken. Nessie. Jaws. Nemo. Some type of creature must’ve intervened. It’s hard to believe that people who master incredible feats of physical skill can succumb to a minor fraction of their achievements. I remember reading about the famed Hollywood stuntman Dar Robinson, who among other acts of lunacy once jumped off the Space Needle in Seattle with nothing more than something akin to dental floss attached to his ankle. He was a master of cinematic exploits–jumping from helicopters, falling from cliffs–never so much as breaking a bone, yet he died in a motorcycle crash while driving home from a movie set. That’s like Thomas Pynchon, the author of the labyrinthine novels Gravity’s Rainbow and V., suffering an embolism while jotting down his grocery list.
Ms. Molchanova has been praised as history’s greatest free diver. The Global Federation for Free Diving, known as “AIDA,” expressed their shock and sorrow at the disappearance of the beloved athlete. Yet given their adoption of an acronym that seems in no way to represent the larger title of the association, the group itself may harbor a certain careless attitude in general. Harbor. Subconscious joke. Anyway spelling is not necessary underwater. If you can cackle like a dolphin and throw out some sonar you can call your global federation anything you want.
I puttered around the shores of Ibiza for a few days, keeping my eye out for any dangerous sea creatures or human remains. I did find a few bodies on the beach, but they were just drunk ravers. I considered that maybe Ms. Molchanova had journeyed to some type of “Atlas Shrugged” style underwater bubble community where all the masters of the universe hang out, a secret society that only the most intrepid of athletes, explorers and inventors can access. Then it occurred to me. I was searching in the wrong place. Ms. Molchanova wasn’t missing. She was attempting her greatest underwater record. A swim along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to the western hemisphere. So simple, how did I not realize it before.
Other than being a Capricorn, I am also a descendant of Isaac Hull, the early nineteenth -century Commodore of the USS Constitution. Sea navigation is in my blood. Dead reckoning is a natural family ability. I did some calculations and then set off from Spain to Eleuthera, a thin island east of Nassau in the Bahamas, where I am currently awaiting the arrival of Ms. Molchanova with a celebratory bottle of Pisco and a sliced lime. It is the closest thing I can find around here to vodka. According to my careful plotting, she should be emerging from the Atlantic side of the island, up from the surf, any moment now. I have put up a shoddy welcome banner that I made from an old jib sail. I strung it to a couple of palm trees. I watch the horizon, waiting, practicing suspension of breath to pass the time. I hold it all in and count backwards.
“100…99…98…97…90……80…..70…..60….” ;ahdfahpfkdasn gdlk;nkla;neklsng dasV (Indicates unconscious head smashing into keyboard. I need more practice.)
More Alembics to come