Under The Sea, or Diving At Epcot

One of the world's great Scuba experiences happens to be on Mickey Mouse's turf.
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Illustration by Arielle Davis.

They are cold comforts, but should not be any comforts at all, really, these little plastic planes encased in canary yellow. They have wide, elephantine ear shapes which always serve to make the eyes behind them—mine, in this case—look, at first glance, a touch panicked. What could they be, these innocuous windows in a vast but finite sea; how could they compare, anyway, to the broad, jello-covered-in-sandpaper wings of the various rays flying about, or glomming on to hard surfaces; to the schools of fish, darting in that graceless, beautiful way they do; to the roughly nine-foot or so sand tiger sharks, whose prodigious teeth and maws look like broken glass stuck in an expanse of bubblegum, their eyes every bit as unsettling as Peter Benchley promised, a small black pupil in tiny dime eyes which gleam with the sickly off-white shimmer of really, really high quality cocaine, innocent of any empathy. These all pass.

The sand tigers swim past, arms length, bent arm’s length, difficult to tell, impossible to tell, because their majesty is paralyzing. They glide by, first snout, then teeth, then that tiny black hole. They are striking, but they are nothing in comparison to their massive, multilayered brethren, all around us,  or to me, the shark, my father, the other divers, everyone, all of us suspended in the same water, miles from any sea.

Caribbean Coral Reef, the centerpiece to Epcot’s The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion, is a 5.7 million gallon saltwater aquarium whose dimensions are such that it must be among the top three aquaria in the world—the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta being the world’s largest—despite it’s near ubiquitous omission from such lists. Its circumference is such that Spaceship Earth, the park’s architectural anchor and most impressive visual element, could bob about inside it. It is also the least unique yet most apt analog to what lays at the heart of both Walt Disney World and its environs, beyond even Spaceship Earth and Fantasy Land and World Showcase, beyond even Orlando itself.

***

Flights to Orlando are gravid with children and their parents, first time flyers and amateurs and novices, the kinds of people who explain a descent as “we’re going down,” which certainly wears on the nerves of Xanax-dependent flyers such as myself, perhaps even more so than the incessant babbling and laughing and crying and screeching and applauding—applauding—when the plane takes off or lands. One hopes that the poor flight attendants stuck shuffling up and down the hollow spine of these fuselages have some world-weary and dismissive and cute name for the route. “The Excedrin Express,” maybe. 

Still, this is a fitting way to arrive in what's perhaps the most amorphous civic entity in America; Orlando does not exist in the public consciousness as a city much as it does as a pair of anthropomorphized Mickey Mouse ears, perhaps being worn by a young Shaquille O’Neal. It is a conglomeration of brands, driven now not by a tourism industry but a tourism of industry. It's a glittering dreamscape in a land once dominated by swamps, a Floridian city-state that does not avail itself of the state’s considerable geographical amenities, but which owes its very existence, in its present form, mainly to being cheap land and far enough from the coast to minimize the dangers of hurricane season. Before Walt Disney arrived, it was a citrus city, then an in-land tourist destination, and then a military city; now, it features more imagineering feats per square mile than any other place on earth, more flavors and facades and gasp-inducing examples of architectural whimsy. It sees more dreams and hopes and tears and laughs made concrete than perhaps any place before or since. For all that, it is still kind of boring.

Disney World’s name is apt because it is a world unto itself. Strap the magic band upon your wrist, and park entry, food service, transactions of most any kind are as simple as kissing one magnetized Mickey to another, waiting for the green light, and entering the PIN. Take Disney transit, directed by chromatic Disney street signs; it is the casino floor experience taken to its illogical, almost unimaginable extreme. It is, if we are being honest, quite enjoyable, in an Eloi-esque way. The bands—complete with choice of colors for each member of the traveling party, and with your name etched on the inside—combined with the park entrance finger print scanning and the pop machine telling you how many free refills you have and the cast members (ugh) referring to you by first name, and the jokes—normally involving the phrase “NSA” and Disney’s big swinging dick superiority vis-a-vis w/r/t information gathering and surveillance technology—more or less tell themselves.

Yes, this is Disney’s World, but it is Disney’s World in Florida, and populated by East Coasters and Chicagoans and Russians and Chinese but also by people from the satellites much closer, in the shadows of those ubiquitous ears—everything was delivered in smiles. And why not? It can be fun to have a world operated for you, family-friendly yet suitably sybaritic—it's also far, far, more so with the availability of alcohol, making the whole thing much cooler than you may have remembered it from your childhood—because of course it is. 

Wish to visit Morocco, Kenya, Cinderella’s castle, and the fucking future? You can do that in one day. Wish to have table service whisked to you, with hardly any interaction with the staff, as if by magic, in the Beast’s Castle, under the aegis of Lumiere, while hexed rose petals and a torrential rain fall? Be our guest.

Wish to experience what could certainly be considered one of the world’s finest scuba dives, with no current, no scopolamine patches, no small craft advisories, and a 100 percent guarantee of a massive preponderance of fauna the likes of which could fill two, three, four dive logs? To be suspended in the living, breathing colloidal exemplar par excellence of what it means to be at, in, Disney’s world? Get wet. That was what I was there to do. 

***

Epcot DiveQuest, presented by the National Association of Underwater Instructors—NAUI is one of the many alphabet soup organizations which supply diver training and certifications, including my own— floats somewhere near the valet-ed apex of concierge diving; all of its $175 per-diver cost goes to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. Divers need not worry about lugging around their equipment, which will include, in these bathtub diving conditions, at minimum a 3mm wetsuit, buoyancy compensation device (BCD), regulator, weight belt, fins, and mask. They will not need to worry because none of this except the mask is even allowed inside the tank. Meticulously maintained, supremely expensive ecological system it is, it is best served by having as little alien contaminants introduced as possible. Even earrings and other pieces of jewelry “not welded on,” as our guide put it, are to be removed, carrying as they do bacteria and potentially ending up, if they fall off, in the gut of some poor (and expensive) fish on an autopsy table.

Adding to the only-carry-a-mask mentality is a spacious—especially when compared to a dive boat’s—changing space, complete with lockers and showers and shampoos and body washes for warming up. Even in 75 degree water, the high heat capacity and lack of head covering can lead, over 40 minutes, to a pretty solid case of the chills, particularly in your more svelte divers. Combine both of these factors with your own videographer, a congenial staff, central casting dive master, and the wetsuit wet dream advantages listed above—no currents, no seasickness, no chance of a bum dive—the incredibly gentle dive profile and what you have is a dive so perfectly designed that its only real drawback is its perfection.

There is something of a code amongst divers, a desire to constantly exhibit and display the marine version of Tom Wolfe’s Right Stuff. This is especially true in the case of the East Coast wreck diver, to whose world I was introduced while working at Northeast Scuba Supply. The New Jersey wreck divers, in the tradition of Gary Gentile and John Chatterton, penetrate slumping, serrated, ghoulishly beautiful ship’s corpses on the eastern seaboard in 50 degree water, with enough visibility for an arm’s length or two and battling currents and nitrogen narcosis and panic. Every once in a while, driven by the infuriatingly un-quantifiable urge to get down there, they'll attach eye-searingly orange lift backs to entire cannons or massive portholes and raise them, like Tennyson’s Kraken, screaming up from the abyss.

It is scary down there. One errant fin kick can raise a cloud of silt so thick the only hope of survival is to trace back a line, like Theseus, and follow it with fingers numbed by 7mm neoprene gloves and frigid waters and fear, backtrack blind, bubbles bumping up against roof, the only thing at the moment more terrifying than open sea, just follow the line back out to the wreck, then from there along the outside to the anchor line. It would be no use, popping up 100 feet or so from the boat, not on a day with decent swells and nothing to raise your tiny, black dotted profile above the sea. You'd be invisible there. Just follow the line out the door, back out to where the bubble rise, 145 feet, uninterrupted, hoping and praying the last ends do not just float there, sawed off. That is a different thing.

None of those dangers exist at Disney, or course. There is only one way for a diver to show The Right Stuff here, and that is by holding your ground while the sand tiger sharks take their strafing runs. I find that small test of courage to work just fine. Put even the most grizzled, rusted out wreck diver in the aquarium, get him actually in there—that would be the hard part—and he will probably come around to this lesser test as well. Pleasure diving is called pleasure diving for a reason, after all, and even if he never brings it up on the boat on the way out to sea, or while decompressing over some beers, that smile will spread beneath the second stage reg, just as sure as the teeth show on that shark.

***

In this case, Shangri-La is only accessible through a small gate on the right flank of guest services outside the entrance (you can dive without actually paying to get in to the park). The brief walk through that back, un-manicured Disney is most interesting in its juxtaposition; the parking lot has rocks and stains, the dumpsters appear as all dumpsters do. Ever notice how incredibly dirty everything looks after coming home from a Disney vacation? That is merely due to the extremely sanitary conditions within the parks themselves, and that dazzlingly clean appearance is never more obvious than it is after you bounce from it to the real world. No cameras or phones back here, we are told: these are Disney secrets, and will be kept. Our guide tells us to let him know if we see any of said secrets, as he had not, but the image embargo brings the gallows humor back out. There are mentions of snipers on the roofs, and strained laughter at same. 

Joining my father and me in DiveQuest was another father/son duo from Atlanta; they dove the Georgia Aquarium, where they met a whale shark. There was also a fellow from Dallas; a group from Connecticut that included a professional commercial diver, who is the kind of man who possesses, as Wolfe would put, a rather impressive spot on our inverted ziggurat, definitely The Right Stuff. Also a man from D.C., in plum and palatinate and heliotrope checked shirt and lilac shorts with a face like that of a softer, tighter Christopher Hitchens.

We are treated to a brief backstage tour of the aquarium: the kitchen, where the food is prepped, and which looks remarkably like anyone’s kitchen; the backsides of the manatee’s tanks, up and down flights of steps and through linoleum-floored, white-walled halls, everything smelling of the sea and neoprene and fish. We are led into the locker room, where we change into the provided shorty wetsuits—I have never used one of these, and am thankful during the dive for the comfort of my own mask, to counterbalance the short neoprene cuffs sucking hungrily at my thighs, and later, the wet, heavy hug of the vest-style BCD and the strange propulsion of these strange fins. We are then paraded along the back of the aquarium to stand along the glimmering fauxcean.

Above the aquariums are a series of catwalks and platforms and an exposed beam ceiling; it is the perfect staging area, a real upshot of movie-like magic, a space like one would expect from The Abyss or Deep Blue Sea or that 1996 Johnny Quest reboot, just these piers and walkways and lights gleaming down on the water. We strap in—the gear is all arranged for us, on a tiered set of steps, the ultimate diving platform—and push off, in one mass, for the buoy and down line.

Waiting, the dive master asks my father where he is from. When he replies Philadelphia, the master smiles and asks if we enjoy Dutch Springs, which is a massive quarry in Allentown. On weekends, the gravel parking lot of Dutch Springs is home to cars featuring plates from up and down the eastern seaboard, all bearing divers eager to knock the rust off, practice a new skill, break in a new piece of equipment, in a 100 foot deep freshwater proving ground replete with sunken vessels and a crane and subway car and Hellcat and school bus and even a helicopter, the last of which it turns out our dive master had help to install. 

Small world adequately demonstrated, the group catches up and we submerge as a cloud, follow our dive master as a school, soaring above the concrete pipe the rays enjoy resting upon, cruising past people eating in the Coral Reef restaurant, waving as they wave back, passing through a keyhole in the fake coral, all of this predetermined expertly to allow our videographer the chance to acquire enough shots to make our dive-ending DVDs worthy of purchase. Then we are set free, allowed to wander most of the 5.7 million gallons as we see fit.

My father and I stick together, as we did in the jagged, crescent moon bowl of a volcanic crater and inside the cabin of Jerry Garcia’s purpose-sunk shrimp trawler off the coast of Maui, as we did in the brisk currents of Niagara River with the falls drumming psychosomatically in our ears. This is how we stuck together next to the rusted clover of a Civil War blockade-runner’s propeller off the coast of Little River, South Carolina. Most—if not all—of the group heads first to shark alley, to get close to the sand tigers. My father and I join.

After meeting the beasts we glide up to the glass, to pose before various visitors and the iPhone camera of my mother. We locate guitar fish in the shadows along the aquarium’s far wall. We cast our shadows, as the sharks did, across resting rays. We explore, as only divers do, our environment in three dimensions, thoroughly enjoying, in that prime Disney way, a spectacle beyond the reach of most all others to birth; become immersed in one of the most thorough, expensive, and complicated facsimiles known to man. We are in the show and of the show, something for kids to remember seeing alongside Nemo and Bruce and Dorry. Under the “sea” and part of their world, in and out of an ocean.


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