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Technical diving - Books and blog by Peter M. Hunt

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We leave this place of interactive existence more naked than upon our arrival—when born, we are graced with the body’s solid mystery, while our departure heralds not just the relinquishing of all material possessions but potentially all of material reality. Even our body forsakes us as we embark on the great mystery.

In November of a year ago, my son and I embarked on our last shared underwater adventure, after 44 years, my final scuba dive. I knew before suiting up that this would be it for me. It was a balanced decision, one that allowed for reversal if a dramatic change in circumstance occurred, such as a significant improvement in my Parkinson’s or if I ended up in a warm, relaxed climate, a far more forgiving dive environment.

A year later, I decided to give up boating as well, only to reverse course a few short months later, realizing that it was not consciously or intuitively wise to purge one of my few remaining hobbies simply because of hazard. I knew without a doubt that keeping the boat meant frequently operating it solo and sometimes in questionable circumstances.

Danger, however, is a two-sided coin. The ready challenge with the boat ten minutes from home and then only five minutes to Deception Pass’s whirlpools and vicious currents tests me, allowing me to operate at a normal person’s margins despite Parkinson’s. Daring with dire repercussions for miscalculation, I enjoy playing under the bridge.

Reflecting on these two life examples of letting go, what strikes me is that both are inconsequentially trivial in long-term physical, psychological, or spiritual effect when compared to life’s most heart-wrenchingly inevitable liberations from connection: breaking the attachments to my children, my wife, my family, and my friends.

These are life’s true treasures. Flushed in the bonded correlation of being, clinging in alternating passions of desperation and joy, here lies meaning, open to the alchemic ken of the genuine, the moments we spend with those we love.

Coexisting realities

The deep brain stimulator surgically implanted in 2014 has served me well, but its effectiveness wanes each day. A persistent brain fog hounds me, often leaving imagination as my only reliable companion in adventures of memory.

Today, I traveled back four years to share the water—from the safety of an underwater cage—with Great White sharks. Rounding off each day of diving, an informal tutorial on the behavior of this apex predator would be held in the vessel’s common area.

When two Great Whites meet while hunting, the pair will swim alongside each other to determine which shark is longer, with the “winning” fish continuing to predate in the disputed waters. The smaller shark moves to other hunting grounds, bowing peacefully out of the contest.

But occasionally, the two fish skirmish for reasons unknown to me, leaving many Great Whites scarred from the violent encounters. These physical anomalies serve as the primary basis for identifying the approximately 400 Great Whites living seasonally in the waters off Guadalupe Island, Mexico.

While peaceful collaboration appears to be their initial conflict resolution strategy, bite scars lasting the animal’s lifetime leave the impression that violence is the sharks’ reaction of choice. It can seem that there are two valid, coexisting realities, and perhaps there are.

Allowing nature’s clarity to relax the mind enlivens the spirit. Breathe deeply while strolling in winding woods or swimming circles on a quiet ocean. Animate the soul with the possibility of eternal truth, intertwined in the mutuality of authentic witness, permitting the unseen to appear.

Courageous kindness

While The Lost Intruder was certainly about deep diving, Naval Aviation, and underwater exploration, these perspectives merely provided the framework for the book’s genuine aspiration: describing the re-discovery of my soul. Despite countless hours of reflection, however, the mechanisms at play behind the scenes during the 18-month search remain, for the most part, a comforting mystery to me. 

Intuitively, I knew to avoid gleaning from the experience inevitably incomplete, although important, interpretations of meaning—The Lost Intruder was only one segment of a very long journey. Instead, I relied on the calming conclusion that, without knowing exactly why, I could trust in the process of life.

Despite a frequently circuitous path forward since then, I still honestly believe that regardless of individual struggles, life really will turn out okay. Just writing that makes me smile. What, do you want to live forever?

While it’s taken years and may take many more to fully comprehend the ultimate value of The Lost Intruder’s chapter of my life, thorny insinuations of higher purpose have mostly been put to rest by a realization of practical magnitude. There is no higher meaning than to love without judgment or reservation in recognition of collective beauty, life’s sincerest identity. It’s that simple.

A gentle humility lies within us all, ready to be put into everyday service by an individual’s courageous kindness. Maybe deep down, that will make you smile; I hope so.

Ambushed

Ambushed

Four years ago, I was preparing to go to Guadalupe Island in Mexico to cage dive with the 400 plus Great White Sharks that congregate there from summer through mid-autumn. I did not realize it at the time, but it was my final organized diving adventure before hanging up my fins for good.

It was a 180-nautical mile boat ride from Ensenada, Mexico, to our anchorage at Guadalupe Island, where we would spend four days. It was a fantastic experience, more than living up to the hype it received in dive circles, particularly because of a viral video that burned up the internet a week before we left.

The video showed the “unlimited” cage at the boat’s stern, where divers and even snorkelers could jump in as often as they liked. The cage was secured to the dive boat’s stern from sunrise to sunset, just feet away from where a crewmember was throwing hunks of roped frozen tuna into the water to lure the magnificent beasts closer for dramatic photo ops.

The video caught our attention. It showed a stout, six-foot shark shoot out of the water and land in the opening at the top of the unlimited cage, trapping two divers. Divers eventually enticed the shark out of the cage, freeing the divers before disaster struck in the cramped quarters.

The trip was a resounding success, but one fantastic encounter surpassed all. I was in the starboard cage (in addition to the stern cage, there were also diving cages at the boat’s starboard and port sides), gazing into the transient nothingness at 30-feet when my vision was startled into focus by an unseen sense of implausible energy approaching from the depths. Preceded by a bow wave of rippling water, the shark appeared as if conjured up by an illusionist’s trick, hurtling perfectly upward, deviating not a degree from pure vertical.

The Great White moved so quickly, fully committed with no sense of reservation, that it was difficult to track. Each slight flutter of its tail fin propelled the ton of rough-skinned behemoth faster as it accelerated for the final 50 feet of the attack.

No doubt or hope or thought of future or past dimmed the Great White’s sense of purpose as it ambushed its prey as nature’s perfect creation. The shark broke the surface in a plume of whitewater before vanishing, never to be seen by me again.

The scene lulled me into a feeling of peace, the remnants of the Great White’s attack hanging heavily, slowly decompressing in my silent mind and soul. Witnessing nature in its most uncontaminated state, I stared into the enduring water ahead until vision dissipated in obscurity, thankful for this final gift from the depths.

Farewell, old friend…

Aging is a constant cycle of releasing: letting go of those things closest to you in the recognition that, ultimately, “things” are unimportant. Thus far, letting go of “things” as my Parkinson’s disease progresses has been easy for me. Flashy cars and ostentatious homes never held value in my heart, and we successfully avoided their trap into a superficial vision of the world.

There may be an exception, however: our boat, “Sea Hunt.” I staged almost all my boating adventures from the Deception Pass Marina, home to a Hunt boat continuously for the past thirty years. I met some of my best friends on the marina’s creaky docks.

Soon after picking up Sea Hunt in 2006, my wife, two children—ages eight and twelve at the time—and I struck out on the 180-mile journey to Desolation Sound. Over the years, we took multiple family trips to Hotham Sound, Princess Louisa Inlet, Victoria, and the Gulf Islands, as well as countless local San Juan Island visits.

We made hundreds of dives in the off-season from Sea Hunt, many in Deception Pass. The family would return to the boat when summer arrived for crabbing and socializing with boating friends.

Sea Hunt found the Lost Intruder, an A-6 Attack jet that I had personally flown. It crashed in Rosario Strait in 1989, but the Navy—despite the use of four ships and state-of-the-art search equipment—could never locate the wreckage.

For over a decade, the beat-up 32-foot “motor yacht” (the official Model name) was probably the most used boat in Coronet Bay. Midnight runs with half the marina aboard were common, battling the swift currents in tiny Canoe Pass at night, occasionally going through backwards. We put the 1987 Bayliner through the wringer, adding 2,200 hours to each diesel engine.

With do-it-yourself maintenance becoming problematic and the boat increasingly less comfortable for me, the time has come. Sea Hunt is the sole “thing” that I will truly miss from my life.

This morning, to prepare the boat for sale, I took down my AARP card collection from where the fifty or so cards had accumulated above the helm. Why AARP cards? If you refuse to join, the AARP keeps on sending them. It was my version of giving a not-so-subtle middle finger to aging.

Maybe the AARP got the last laugh, after all, I consider, smiling broadly, shake my head, and marvel, “Ain’t life grand?”

Smashwords interview of Peter Hunt

What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
The prospect of touching a single individual and making a positive difference in his or her understanding of life, especially if they have Parkinson’s disease. I strive to be the best listener possible. This often means traveling with another down their personal path of self-discovery, an always fascinating and sometimes enlightening invitation to view another’s soul. If this sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, please remember that I used to be a Navy carrier combat aviator and commercial airline pilot, as well as a former deep-water shipwreck diver; in other words, one accustomed to life’s harsh perceived realities. But there is so much more out there. By inviting a reader into my story, I might be able to offer a glimpse of possibility and hope for those with incurable disease.

What do you read for pleasure?
Until relatively recently, I read nothing but books on history, politics, and biography/autobiography. Now I look for books that tease the imagination and stir the soul, stories and nonfiction which inspire both deep thought and an unconscious connection of commonality, kindred tales of our society’s generational myths. For me, it is all about trying to understand the experiences of others, be they real or fiction, not to find fixes or cures. There is no cure for life. All we can hope to do, I believe, is to ease another’s path towards a settled, inner peace.

Describe your desk
Moderate clutter with a large, printed sign at the top of the window that says, “Boldly going nowhere.”

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
Six years of my childhood in the 1970s was spent in Athens, Greece. These were the magical years of spiritual alchemy before I was poisoned by the societal sanctions of adulthood. Anything was possible, and time was immaterial. There was no TV, just ancient ruins along every roadside, spilling over with stories to tell, sparking imaginative travel far beyond the realm of our family VW bus. I miss those days, back before life was overthought. In my opinion, modern society needs to feel a whole lot more, and think a whole lot less.

When did you first start writing?
When I was 38, five years before my Young Onset Parkinson’s diagnosis. In retrospect, I probably had the disease back then, though. Parkinson’s has changed my life for the better in so many ways. Without having contracted the disease (what an odd word, “contracted,” used in this manner), I would likely have gone through a life unexamined, unfulfilled, and never at peace or happy. I see writing, Parkinson’s, and who I am today on the deepest level as so intricately connected as to be unfathomable.

What’s the story behind your latest book?
“The Lost Intruder, The Search for a Missing Navy Jet,” is on the surface about my discovery of a Navy A-6 Intruder that crashed off the shores of Whidbey Island in 1989. The jet was from my squadron; I had flown that specific jet both from the aircraft carrier USS Ranger and ashore from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. But that merely provides structure for the book. The underlying story relates my battle with Parkinson’s disease during the project, and how it transformed me into a more caring and happy person. It is a soulful revel in life’s mysteries, as well as an informative look at Naval Aviation, technical wreck diving, underwater sleuthing, and Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, among other things. Oh yeah, and a page-turning adventure; don’t want to forget about that!

What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Hearing from readers who connect with my experiences and have somehow benefited from them. Four years of research, searching, and writing balances nicely with deeply relating to another human being.

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
Yoga, exercising, occasionally Scuba diving, some volunteering, and enjoying nature. Thinking a lot followed by doing my best not to think at all.
Published 2018-03-03.

Saying goodbye to Ron Akeson – my final lesson

Death is the great unknown, a fact that if viewed objectively by anyone who enjoys adventure would seem to be a final-days positive, a climax of exploration to cap life’s end with a curious optimism, if not actual excitement.

But—as we all know—the unknown, uncertainty in general, is scary stuff. The reality that death comes to us all may be superficially accepted, but that has little to do with the denial most of us live with every day.

If you have read Setting the Hook, then you are familiar with the name Ron Akeson. I don’t believe that Ron lived in such denial, but rather took the risks of what he was doing underwater seriously and thoughtfully.

Ron Akeson was the owner of the “Adventures Down Under” dive shop in Bellingham, and as my trimix and technical diving instructor in 2000, he played an integral role in bringing my long dormant deep diving skills up to modern standards.

Those astute readers will have noticed the uncomfortable use of past tense in the above sentence. Ron died one week ago, much as he had lived – diving. I honestly believe this, despite the technical medical perspective of death coming days later in a hospital while in an induced coma.

I did not know Ron well. He was a difficult person to get to know, and our conversations in 2000 were almost exclusively about the dive training track. He was an excellent instructor, which really means that he was an open learner, willing to pick up what he could from whoever was able to provide a tid-bit of additional knowledge.

It wasn’t until while at a DEMA (Dive Equipment Manufacturers Association) trade show in Las Vegas, a year and a half ago, that I had my first “real” conversation with Ron. He walked up to me out of the blue and asked real questions and listened intently while I gave what I considered thoughtful, honest answers. Maybe the entire 2000 episode had been a warm up or try-out of some sort before he committed to getting to know me better as a person. The same might be said of my attitude toward him.

That doesn’t mean that I lacked regard for the man, much to the contrary, I admired and respected him greatly. It just seemed that once technical diving was no longer in my future, we had too little in common to keep in touch.

Ron died one week ago during a “routine technical training dive.”

There is a saying in the Navy: “Never go on a routine training mission” because that’s where the overwhelming majority of accidents occur (visualize headlines: “The mishap pilot was on a routine training mission at the time of the accident”). It’s an unsettling truism that holds water for diving as well.

Perhaps it points to the unnerving fact that the vast majority of us will not go out in some blaze of glory, but instead will succumb to some dreary illness or simply life’s tired story’s denouement. What possible meaning can be derived from that?

Although I don’t recall the actual substance of our hour-long conversation in Las Vegas, I clearly and distinctly remember the tone: honest, direct interest and engagement. Ron and I finally connected, if only briefly.

So what is one to take away from this? As Ron was being readied to go off life support in what has to be a sister’s most difficult task imaginable, I was doing chores and thinking about our talk, the tone, trying to figure out the inner core of this amazing individual who I had thoughtlessly brushed aside from my focus fourteen years earlier. I surprised myself with an unplanned, genuine smile.

And that, in my opinion, is the real lesson. It is not in the act of dying that we intercept meaning or obliquely touch upon purpose, but rather through the vibrant, daily connections with other living people that we might catch a peek at life’s essence.

I learned to honestly cherish human connection (again), a lesson as valuable as it is inevitable to be learned and re-learned countless times.

That was Ron Akeson’s final lesson to me.

So I lied a little…

The military was supposed to teach me never to “put myself on report,” not to admit to an error: if an act were truly an egregious offense, you would be caught. Otherwise, getting away with something was fair game. More honest tax payer money wasted on my military education…

If you look back through these blogs to the ancient date of Friday, January 31, 2014 (yes, only two and a half months ago), there is a well-meaning blog with the inspirational heading that reads:

Personal strategies learned the hard way for others afflicted with Young-Onset Parkinson’s.

Well, mea culpa (it appears Latin is destined to be my second language, maybe my first), again.

It’s not the points made that a now sage-75-days-older-in-life-experience-me takes issue with, but rather the embarrassingly specific examples used in “Pete’s perfect universe.” Here is what it (i.e. “I”) said:

“Here are some personal examples. I still serve on the local school board, often run public meetings, and have given two graduation speeches (a third one is coming up in June) to about 5,000 people. I also occasionally have the opportunity to present on scuba diving and writing to at times hundreds of strangers in different parts of the country. Just traveling to these locales can be a physical challenge.

It is not easy. I always have second thoughts before such events, I’m always scared and stressed, and so far, I have always followed through anyway, usually with my walking canes nearby. But guess what – so far, I have never had to use them: just as it was prior to PD, the bigger the challenge, the greater the reward.”

Anybody who has taken on real personal challenge knows that it’s not the direct, in your face threat that will get you; it’s the simple things, in this case the statements uttered in apparent total ignorance of life’s recent and not so recent jovial retributions. Here is what happened.

In February, I traveled to the Midwest’s largest Dive/Travel Expo, “Our World Underwater,” to speak on the Andrea Doria. I was scheduled for two separate, 35 minute, no-notes PowerPoint presentations, each slated for the last daytime seminar slot of their respective days, Saturday and Sunday (start time 3:15). I jumped at the opportunity.

I knew this would be a big problem five months earlier when I received the invitation to speak; 3:15 Midwest time – 1:15 pm West Coast time – was my absolute lowest point. On most days, I could barely move for the hour before and after 3:15, but actually believing that snapshots of life hold true five months later – at least if you have Parkinson’s – I replied in the affirmative.

I never mentioned a word about the timing of the event to my gracious Midwest hosts, who would have undoubtedly made other arrangements to accommodate me if they had only known what an intimidatingly exhausting challenge it presented.

Things change with time. So what was the end result?

I spent months attempting to adjust my round the clock medication routine, altered my life style in an attempt to change my severe “down” time by just one or two hours, and actually tried to live “right.” Here’s what happened.

Saturday: I give a reasonable presentation, which is great, because there’s a bunch of world reknowned long time deep wreck divers in the 100 person crowd who are well versed in what the heck they are talking about, as opposed to a long dormant pretender like me. And they are not unkind in their critique, for which I am genuinely and eternally grateful.

Sunday: I hit a wall. Despite not going to the film festival and instead catching an honest 3-4 hours of sleep (pretty much a normal night), I got big-time off mid presentation and literally fell apart. I didn’t quit, but it wasn’t pretty. The good news was that there were only 25 in attendance. The bad news was that they were 25 great people who had paid good money to listen to me, a fact which – all kidding aside – simply awes me, disappoints them, and teaches a good lesson.

The lesson learned was one I thought pretty much nailed down after writing Setting the Hook: Soulful challenges are not static and go the direction that is right, not necessarily the one that is desired.

Why bring this up now? As an aspirant to higher primate decision making skills, I made a call tonight in regard to the first personal challenge listed in above embarrassing quote:

“(I) often run public meetings, and have given two graduation speeches (a third one is coming up in June) to about 5,000 people.”

It became clear to me that my Parkinson’s was a distraction at best during school board meetings and my communication skills (verbal) were getting untenable. I stepped down from the Presidency, but opted to stay on the board (wait for it, here’s where I learn something…) until something else changes to make that a bad idea.

And I feel great. Folks (not that many – it’s a school board meeting, for crying out loud!) got to see how things really are for me, I sort of relaxed and only expended a modicum of energy so as not to freak out too many people, and the meeting was far more effective than if I had been still running things. That was the reason I got involved in the first place, to do good (just like Underdog) and now my place has changed, and that’s all very, very good.

Oh, and did I mention that I’ve got a new challenge? One that involves long hours on the boat with the new sonar two of my best friends gave to me (yeah, I know how to play this…)? Stay tuned, probably no diving for me, but who knows where it will lead…

Life can be a shaky, writhy, pain-in-the-butt, but that’s part of what makes it so good.

My girl

From the “don’t take life too seriously” department.
Dedicated to wreck divers everywhere of all generations.
(Warning: if you lack a sense of humor, in my rarely humble opinion, you are not a true wreck diver and should read no further…)

And there are ships afloat,
and ship’s a-wreck,
Ships without planking,
beyond wooden decks,

Ships so big they fill the sea’s sky,
Wrecks so deep they tempt all to die,
Cluttered passages stacked high with the dead,
Sharpened steel edges eager to shred,

Holds of oblivion dark as the sun,
The lingering brilliance of past flash of gun,
Littered with soulless, pitiless ghosts,
Enticing finned warriors, the most evil of hosts,

The dice are rigged; the game fully stacked,
Zero percentage of emerging intact,
the cocky young warrior pulls into the trap,
a Stygian hell with no help of a map,

The silence roars, blood coursing in ears,
Instinct demanding most primal of fears,
Raise the light slowly with finger on switch,
And with eyes fully open scream, “Gonna make you my bitch!”

With apologies to Ricky Bobby of the movie Talladega Nights for the rough paraphrase of his son – Walker’s – delicate praise of his father, “Dad, you made that grace your bitch.”

Savage simplicity

Growing up for six years in Athens, Greece allowed me to spend a lot of time underwater long before first strapping on a dive tank. Free diving and spear fishing were starkly honest expressions of young adventures in body and spirit. Our family friend – Anastas – taught me how to do both at age ten.

Anastas lived nearby only in the sense that all English-speakers within five miles or so were loosely considered “neighbors” in the sprawling Athenian suburbs. Anastas was a World War Two hero, professional pensioner, and exhibited the obliquely idealized model of Greek manhood upon which the movie “Zorba the Greek” was based.

The first two descriptors of Anastas were never in doubt, and whether or not his consistently strident claim to Zorba’s bona fides was actually true, it certainly could have been true. Anastas overflowed with a passion for living. His favorite expression in self-taught English was “To be in life”: to live in the moment and wrestle the day’s chores with rippling biceps from obscurity with fervent energy as if his very life was dependent upon their completion. And maybe it did; he was in his late seventies at the time.

Move over Homer; Anastas was both actively living and telling his personal “true life” stories to all who would listen and many who wouldn’t (sound familiar?).

With no access to a scuba diving class until our return to New York, my obsessive routine of free diving was pure and free of internal conflict. Hours floating and miles of swimming and submerging tied each summer day into a cohesive package that was never long enough, but also seemed to strangely never end.

There was no option of a wetsuit, weights, gauges, dive bag, or real stringer, and none were missed. Never having experienced these luxuries meant putting them outside my realm of conscious thought. Armed with my trusty olive-oiled Balco double rubber-banded spear gun and a total absence of reluctance to swim to an often distant shore with the catch, my only other companions of gear were a simple mask, fins, basic snorkel and a bathing suit that might as well have been tattooed on.

Early on, my father had pulled me aside and asked that I snorkel closer to shore out of concern that he could not reach me in an emergency. He realized that he would still be compelled to try to affect a rescue, and would probably die in the attempt. I ignored him, never had an emergency, and he seemed to learn to live with the situation.

I relished the unfettered attitude of youthful certainty, a streamlined thought process that flowed effortlessly into a cleanly executed pike before slipping silently in a perfect vertical toward the bottom and my prey. Hiding in a crevice, the small (compared to Pacific Giant standards) octopus would lie still, barely exposing evidence of its presence from a rocky lair. With the bottom sixty feet below, I would repeat and repeat the free dives until the poor mollusk finally gave in and I could shoot to the surface, fighting the tentacles as they wrapped around my arm in an attempt to “bite” me with its sharp beak.

Occasionally the octopus was successful, but more often than not I won. I would reach behind the head, break through a membrane, and literally turn the octopus’s head inside out while aching lungs arched for the surface air. One move of my bare hand and the octopus would be gutted and still, the only evidence of life being the suction marks lining my arm as I broke the surface a few seconds later.

Not a very pleasant image and definitely not the sort of thing I would repeat today, but those were truly different times. We always ate the catch, and the method was taught by Anastas and was sanctioned by common usage. It was pure art in its savage simplicity.

During those years I also learned about human death, having witnessed while snorkeling back to the beach the immediate aftermath of two drownings as the victims were towed ashore. These crudely vital experiences proved to be life lessons so basic yet rarely found in today’s civilized America.

But my real dream was to become an actual scuba diver, with compressed air tanks and all the complicated attachments. At times, the impatient urge could physically hurt; hadn’t I proven myself, put in the time? But a dive class was not available, and it wouldn’t be until I turned seventeen that I became a true, Cousteau-ic diver in 1979.

All those years of free diving were hardly wasted, not in my proficiency as a “real” scuba diver, or as a part of my character. As we turn the corner past middle age, our search for increasingly complicated challenge can bypass the most simple and honest bars of actual achievement. Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it…

I regularly try to remind myself that today’s most basic goal attained is quite likely tomorrow’s crown of reflection and satisfaction. It helps to settle me. After all, it’s always been that way.