The Aquanauts *

the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
—“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich, 1973


Fifty feet up, beachcombers pad their handbags with sand dollars, sea glass, sun-bleached urchins; honeymooners share a bowl of stewed conch across a gingham tablecloth; a mother washes her infant in the tide while Dad crams five quarts of discount rum in their safety deposit box; a dentist’s wife sleeps under a sea grape tree; Dicky Jr. slingshots butterflies; a perfume of parrots shakes from the banyan; the beach is a shock of white sand; three NASA officials and two behavioural psychologists crowd a bank of video monitors inside a mobile trailer. On the screens, four women in bikinis eat enchiladas around a hide-a-table. Harry Nilsson plays in the background. The women discuss their day. Everything in the kitchen is submarine blue except the aquanauts’ bikinis and the General Electric fridge, which is yellow-brown like envelope paste. A fifth woman floats outside the porthole window.

By Talia Cohen

By Talia Cohen


2:15 pm
No. 5 unpacks her duffel in crew quarters. No. 3 confirms checklist with the Pinafore, the surface support barge. No. 2 organizes the dry lab. No. 1 and No. 4 dismantle the air scrubber system, which filters carbon dioxide from the air supply—

Topside pings. No answer.

Topside pings. No answer.

Topside pings. No answer.

No. 5 unpacks bag of masa flour and a tortilla press.

No. 1 and No. 4 remove cache of sherry from air filtration system, which they reassemble before anyone asphyxiates.



In my observation journal I am supposed to record emotions like what is my daily mood in relation to the colour of the habitat’s interior and perceived level of privacy. So far I’ve recorded two notes. First: No. 3’s eyes are brown on land but underwater they blur into a sort of marshy green. Second: you never really sit into chairs; you fall.



Our project is named after the glassy rocks found at the bottom of the sea the shape of spheres, teardrops, dumbbells, or as we scientists describe them: molten terrestrial glass ejecta of meteorite impacts, aka Tektite.

Speaking of bells you would be incorrect to imagine our habitat as a diving bell. Our habitat is two eighteen foot silos connected by a flexible tube. Each silo houses two rooms. The main entrance aka wet room is on the right. Above that, the engine room. On the left: the bridge aka dry lab and library. Below: bunk beds, refrigerator, stove, sink, storage cupboards, hide-a-table.



Truthfully I have two observation journals. The feeling journal, described above, and the science journal, where I monitor how blind cavefish (Astyanax mexicanus) respond to shadows. The feeling journal is red. The science journal is green.



Truthfully I often misplace one or other of the journals, or else one is in the bunk downstairs when a thought presents itself, and so there is some cross-contamination between feelings and science.



7:15 pm
No. 4 and No. 2 lie on their bunks in crew quarters. No. 5 sits at the table with a book on Caribbean reef fish. Ravi Shankar plays on cassette. No. 1 speaks to the Pinafore. No. 3 showers.

No. 2 wants No. 1 to join them for freeze-dried spaghetti. No. 1 still talks to Topside. No. 3 towels off in the wet room.

No. 2 announces she will eat No. 1’s share. No. 1 says something to Topside about eating for two.

No. 3 joins the others in crew quarters. No. 1 has hung up. She crouches on the floor of the bridge and watches the others through the hatchway.

No. 2 prepares the freeze-dried spaghetti.

No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 discuss the acronym SNAFU.



Pinafore is perhaps the most graceful word for “bib.”

Blind cavefish lost their eyesight over a million years’ evolution, but somehow the larvae detect my shadow and swim toward it.

I keep mispronouncing the scientific name as “asyntax mexicanus.” I’ve never been to Mexico, but that’s probably accurate as far as my Spanish goes.

This morning I found a poem in the library. It’s by a woman called Adrienne Rich. I copied it into my green journal with the following amendment:

“A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies seas are full of them”



Rehydrated tiramisu for dessert. We go around the table saying how many kids we want.

“I’d have one more,” says No. 4.

“Jeff got a vasectomy after Melinda,” says No. 2.

“Two,” says No. 3. “A boy and a girl.”

“I hope I have twins,” says No. 5.
They all look at me.

“I have a PhD and three kids,” says No. 2. “You don’t have to choose anymore.”

Can I choose if I want though, I ask in my head.



“Topside gets happy hour why don’t we,” says No. 4. “I hate sherry,” says No. 3.

No. 3 is the whiner.

The bar at basecamp is called the Hurricane Hole. They fashion cocktails like the Re-breather aka rum + coke and the Baralyme aka Chardonnay + 7Up + whatever else is going. The US Virgin Islands are one of three places in the world where the duty-free alcohol limit is five litres. The other places are Guam and I forget the third place.

In the wet room, we tape a playboy pinup to the shower curtain to give the boys upstairs something to look at.



I haven’t told the others I ran into trouble last year. Only my sister knows. She got a phone number from a toilet stall in the student union building. The number led to the answering machine of a woman called Jane. Even our parents didn’t own an answering machine.

We met Jane at her house for coffee. She showed us a diagram of the cervix, which I knew about, but Jane, whose real name was Libby, looked fifteen, so I was relieved she knew about it too. She showed us a plastic model of the speculum, and said, “we’ll use this to open the walls of your vagina. We have a mirror too if you want to see.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said. “But are you the receptionist?”



How do blind cavefish detect my shadow without eyes or photosensitive pigments? The response is strongest among young. May be a protective instinct—to seek shelter from sighted predators. Maybe they like to feel hemmed in. Cupped by amniotic darkness on all sides.

The working title of my thesis is Dark Seekers.



My virgin dive, eight years ago, coincided with my first period. I think because of the homonym, I expected it to arrive as a red dot. Just a grammar correction in my underwear. I was not prepared for the gore of it. The wet suit kept the blood in, but still. Would the sharks know?

The other thing is boob implants. I don’t have them myself, but friends ask. What you have to worry about here is gas bubbles, which lead to a small increase in volume. They don’t pop though.



At the place, they gave me a doughnut and orange juice. My sister came too and ate all the Triscuits.

It happened in Libby’s bedroom under a poster of Janis Joplin. She gave me a shot in the bum, then inserted the speculum. She was not offended when I said: “Oh it’s you. The ‘we’ before was strictly royal, wasn’t it?”

You’re not supposed to name it, but I keep meeting women called Shelley. Shell. Shell-belle.



I have taken it upon myself to open all of the mostly-closed pistachios. No. 4 offered her oyster shucker, but the blade was too thick, so I wedge my fingernails into the slit, and it feels like I’m popping off falsies, which I’m not wearing, that would be impractical, so it feels like I’m popping off real nails, which must be a dream trope, you know how teeth always fall out. My teeth don’t fall out in dreams, they sort of soften into my gums like masticated food.



Mood Adjective Checklist:

Concentration      50 g concentration / 100 g H2O x 100 = 50%
Activation             If you don’t mind
Social affection    Así, así
Pleasantness        Highly
Nonchalance       ✓
Deactivation        ?
Aggression           2/10
Egotism               so-so
Skepticism          Healthy
Depression         4/5
Anxiety               Who’s asking



5:05 pm
No. 2 and No. 5 lie in their bunks in crew quarters listening to Beggars Banquet on cassette. No. 1 works in the wet room. No. 3 and No. 4 are out on a dive.

No. 2 leaves her bunk and flips the tape. No. 1 gets a ring on the phone from the Pinafore. She talks to Topside.

No. 2 sits at the desk in the Bridge and works.

No. 1 goes into the water with sample containers.

No. 1 returns inside after sending the samples to the Pinafore. She removes her wetsuit and has a shower. A picture from a men’s entertainment magazine is taped to the shower curtain. A woman lies naked on a red carpet, a mollusk’s CaCO3 deposits winding between her breasts, which she covers, mostly, with her hands.

7:15 pm
No. 3 and No. 4 return from their dive. They still wear bikinis. Everyone sits at the table in crew quarters while No. 5 mixes masa flour and water. No. 1 takes the camera off its holder and aims it at the others. No. 3 shields her face with her hands. No. 1 takes a close up of No. 3’s naval. No. 2 ignores No. 1 but says, “Topside can’t believe we’re not drunk.” No. 4 says, “Hey there’s an idea. Who wants sherry?” No. 1 rocks the camera from hand to hand and makes wind and wave noises. No. 4 asks Topside if they’ve got big swells. Someone flips the Rolling Stones tape. The overhead lights switch on and off.



On the surface we’re all smeared with suntans but at depth the melatonin drains into a lunar pallor. The moon brightens the night sky, but it’s not a source of light. The moon reflects the sun, fattening and withering every 29.5306 days. Nothing reflects off our faces down here.



Q: Can man, who evolved from the sea to dominate the land, reverse the process by returning to the oceans and asserting control over the depths?
New York Times, 1970

A: Don’t count on it.



Some fish dig holes in the sea floor by blowing water out of their mouths. Others drill into the bottom with their bodies constantly churning. A four foot barracuda lives under the habitat. I call him Mick. No. 3 says: “you know you shouldn’t name them.”



After my shower this afternoon, I saw my foot from the corner of my eye. You know how toes curl in, un-prehensile. This deep, the water holds us up and down. If we stayed here, would our feet learn to clasp the coral? Would we grow seahorse tails? All that time suspended in fluid. The shrimp are a bit like fetuses.



7:30 am
No. 2 and No. 1 lie in their bunks. No. 1 writes in her journal. No. 3 and No. 4 sit at the table, discussing their dive plan. No. 5 makes coffee.

No. 2 says, “I wish we could stay another week.” No. 5 says, “what about your fiancé?”

No. 2: “He has a microwave.”

No. 3 and No. 4 go to the wet room to suit up. They check their plan with topside. No. 5 puts the table back.

No. 2 throws her Mood Adjective Checklist off her bunk. “Why are all the mood adjectives nouns?” No. 5 doesn’t reply. She puts the coffee away and wipes the counters. No. 2 says: “And I dispute whether ‘activation’ is a mood.”



The pineal gland is the blind cavefish’s third eye. It contains the light-sensitive pigment, rhodopsin. When I remove the blind cavefish’s third & only eye, the larvae stop swimming toward my shadow.

An old grief returns, at first only dampening the edges.



In the wet room, No. 3 says, “I saw some mating today.” I unzip her wetsuit and turn so she can do mine.

“Oh yeah how would you rate it.”

“High levels of activation and pleasantness.”

“Was it the moray eel? I get the sense he’s really riled up.”

“Two Tiger Groupers.”

“You know what I’m waiting for?”

“A Red Hind.”


“Slippery Dick.”


“Go on then.”

“The French Grunt.”

She laughs. “You think Topside are blushing?”

“Wait wait. French Grunt and Sergent Major.”



6:27 pm
No. 4 relaxes in the bridge. She turns the volume down of a cassette by The Kinks. No. 3 notifies No. 1 her delivery from topside is in the trunk. No. 1 retrieves it. No. 3 still works in the wet lab. No. 5 changes the baralyme. No. 1 talks on the phone to the Pinafore.

No. 4 asks what the people topside are reading. She noticed they were reading. They’re reading Tom Wolfe.

No. 1 digs through a box of tapes in the bridge. She finds the Spoken Arts cassette library. “This is wild,” she says to No. 4, who plays The Kinks on her ukulele. No. 1 puts on a tape of Shakespeare Sonnets.

No. 1 turns off the Shakespeare after listening to four sonnets. She puts on a tape about Olympian mythology. A man with an English accent describes the birth of Aphrodite.



Aphros means “foam.” Aphrodite was born from the severed genitals of Ouranos after his son, Time, threw them into the sea.

I never asked Libby where they put them. The remains. Surely they didn’t have access to a crematorium or medical waste bins. But then, where did medical waste wind up?

My sister and I used to own a three-inch angelfish named Gertrude. When she died, I scooped her from the water. Her silver body filled my palm like a compass. Her wings, I mean fins, pointed north-east and south-east, to where the sun rises.

Where’s my angelfish, I wonder. The one I haven’t named out loud. Is it possible we’re floating in the same molecules of salt and other people’s excrement? The thought disturbs and comforts me in equal measures. We flushed Gertrude down the toilet too.



Everyone sits at the table and eats their TV dinners. No. 1 says: “how much of us is out there already, do you think?”

No one answers.

No. 1 continues: “In the sea, I mean. How many dumps have we taken before now? And are we floating in all of that?”

Still no one answers.

“You know what I mean?” says No. 1. “The sea is One, unified. Water mingles everywhere. The boundaries are in name only, for the convenience of land dwellers and maps.” No. 2 nods. She says she knows what she means. No. 5 mentions NASA—how the men on NASA missions go nuts. No. 4 suggests calling the base camp physician at 3 am for No. 1’s abdominal pain. They could stage a mock birth. No. 1 pushes the rehydrated beef stroganoff around her plate.



When an earthquake shook the Virgin Islands last week, five women were sleeping in a steel capsule at the bottom of the ocean. The tremor disturbed their sleep, but the aquanauts checked their habitat and confirmed no damage had been done. “If you want to weather an earthquake,” the team leader told control centre, “the best place to do it is the habitat. I had a feeling of remoteness, like nothing could hurt me.”

At depths of fifty feet, the human body withstands 2.5 times our regular surface pressure. The time to re-acclimatize to surface pressures takes twenty-four hours. Too rapid a return would cause the excess nitrogen in the blood to bubble up like fizz in a shaken bottle of Coca-Cola.

New York Times, July 1970



It is 11:23 pm. We all lie in our bunks. Someone snores. Another rolls over clunkily.

I’m thinking about how I feel more at home underwater. The ocean a reservoir of our collective grieving. There are no walls down here. So many of us in the West have forgotten how to mourn.

My angelfish might be out here too. Maybe we’ll find each other through eyeless, pineal knowing.

I’m thinking about how by 2020, women could return to the sea. I imagine the movie voiceover: “fifty years ago, nuclear war broke out between America and the USSR. Only the female aquanauts remained safe, tucked in their habitat at the bottom of the ocean. It was a giant leap for mankind.”

How would we procreate? How would our new environment alter the psychology of living? How would it change our moods, with no shift in the season and no sunsets?


Our hearts beat differently down here. Light shines from the moon’s other creatures. Feelings of serenity and utter detachment. It’s easy to forget what I came here for.


* In 1970, the U.S. Department of the Interior and NASA co-conducted a psychological study of scientific work teams living in isolated environments. In each mission, four scientists and one engineer would inhabit a station on the ocean floor for ten to twenty days while psychologists observed them from the surface via CCTV. The underwater scientists were known as “aquanauts.”


Eliza Robertson Eliza Robertson’s debut story collection, Wallflowers, was shortlisted for the East Anglia Book Award and selected as a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Her first novel Demi-Gods was a Globe & Mail book of the year and winner of the QWF Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize. She received the Man Booker Scholarship and Curtis Brown Prize at the University of East Anglia, where she completed her MA and PhD. She lives in Montreal. Author photo credit: Jules Worsham