I used to be afraid of the deep end of the swimming pool.
Anything more than nine feet deep completely freaked me out and I clung firmly to the edge of the shallow end. The second my own feet stopped touching the bottom, I panicked.
Then I learned how to swim and turned a bit more daring. Eventually, my summertimes were spent diving down as deep as I could just so I could touch the bottom, wherever the bottom was—lake, pool, or beach. I still love to swim and I love to explore underwater.
As a scuba diver I ventured deeper and deeper—to a hundred feet and beyond. I think only when you explore underwater can you begin to imagine how infinite the world is, and how little of it we actually know.
The ocean is another dimension. For those of us partial to walking on land and breathing air, the seas make up earth’s negative space—the very wet nowhere between any two somewheres. We talk about “transatlantic flights” or “crossing the pond” as if the ocean is only a hurdle to be jumped and not a place of its own.
I have never heard someone reminisce about traveling to the middle of the ocean. Instead we tend to talk about the places we’ve been—the places that have names that others know and recognize. And yet, the unseen ocean and the seafloor below have place-names too; it’s just that most of us don’t know them or even care. From the surface, all of the ocean kind of looks the same. At least, that’s what I used to think.
From March to April of this year, I sailed the length of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge aboard the MV National Geographic Explorer. Though the ridge is virtually unseen on the surface, this is the world’s largest mountain range, extending from one end of the earth to the other. Just like on land, very high mountains also means very low valleys, and it was here that I finally decided to take a swim.
The Romanche Gap (or trench) is the third deepest spot in the Atlantic Ocean, measuring 25,453 feet (7,758 m). That’s nearly 5 miles deep (4.82 to be precise)—the same as 17 Empire State Buildings stacked on top of one another. Basically, it’s really, really deep. The trench stretches from southwest to northeast, between Brazil and West Africa, just below the equator.
There are no visible landmarks here, obviously—nothing but a 360˚ horizon of saltwater and sky. The Romanche Gap actually lies in the middle of the ocean and is precisely where our expedition ship stopped. It was the morning of a clear day and except for the natural swell of the undisturbed ocean, the water was fairly calm. There is no mooring here, nowhere to drop anchor in the middle of the Atlantic, but the ship idled its engines and opened a side hatch for those of us who wanted to jump in for a dip.
I won’t deny that some of my little kid fears suddenly resurfaced—my innate, human apprehension of this, the mother of all deep ends—the all-encompassing, unknown depths the world’s oceans. And yet, as a traveler, I was too curious not to go swimming. The middle of the ocean is just as much of a destination for me as Paris, Hong Kong or Yellowstone. I wanted to explore and I did.
In all the world and in all my life, I have never experienced the kind of blue that surrounded me. The kind of blue that surrounded tiny human person me in the middle of the endless sea. I stuck my face in the water—took a few timid peeks at my feet danging above the emptiness—then I dove down as deep as I could kick, then opened my eyes. Everywhere I looked was just blue, blue, blue.
And that’s my full report from the middle of the sea: it’s very blue. It’s outrageously blue—uncompromisingly fluorescent, glowing, relentless, limitless blue. The water was so clear and vivid, my own skin looked surreal, as if I had photoshopped myself right into a blue background, then cranked up the contrast to impossible highs. Sunbeams pierced the water and shone like spotlights that disappeared below me. I held my breath and looked—gazed downwards into the infinite blue—but try as I might, I could not see the bottom.
For all my travels to the varied (land-based) wonders of the world, it is this pinpoint in the vastness of the ocean that remains a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience for me—to be dropped into the (third) deepest middle of the deep blue sea and to truly feel the incredible and beautiful mass of water around me. Best of all, I can locate the Romanche Gap on world maps. I can point to it and remember aloud what it was like.
I went swimming there . . . at the deep end of the earth.
Learn more about the sea you can’t see with National Geographic Channel’s program Drain the Ocean, a virtual scientific expedition across the ocean’s floor.