02 July 1989

Yugoslavia (Part 4)

It was the day before we would go home, and Gerold, Werner, and I were cleaning the experimental aquaria we had used over the last two weeks.


I almost jumped out my skin. I hadn't noticed Herr Ott enter the wet lab. He came over and placed himself in front of me.

"We should go out and have a look at the distribution of hermit crabs in the wild. When can you be ready?"

I got up. Behind Herr Ott I could see Gerold and Werner stare at me, and then look at each other, and Werner made a cut-throat gesture.

"You do have your SCUBA gear ready, don't you?"

"Actually, I don't," I said. "But I do have my snorkelling gear ready."

"Well, ..." Herr Ott hesitated.

"If I may, Professor Ott," Werner said. "Michael can borrow my regulator and also my wetsuit."

"Perfect. Thank you, Werner. Shall we say in half an hour?" And with that Herr Ott left.

"Yes, thank you, Werner," I said.

But he didn't hear me because he was laughing so hard.

When I came out into the parking lot Herr Ott was loading the air tanks into the old VW Bus. I put my gear onto the backseat, and off we went. We drove north past Caffe Neptun, where I often stopped when I wanted to have my breakfast in solitude, around the marina on the left, and then on along the seawall. Herr Ott stopped the bus just before the church on the western end of the promontory.

Being alone with Herr Ott I felt it difficult to maintain what he perceived as an inappropriateness, and consequently I avoided calling on him. Wordlessly I got out of the van, went to the back, opened the hatch, and pulled out both air tanks. Then I attached the regulator to my tank and opened the valve.

That is, I tried to open the valve, but it wouldn't budge. So, I twisted hard, I twisted harder, I twisted really really hard, until I felt the hard-plastic cover slip over the underlying metal. That's when I remembered that compressed air tanks open by turning the valve to the right, righty-loosey, opposite to any other screw. Unfortunately, by now my attempts at opening the valve had shut it really, really tight.

"Everything all right, Michael?"

"I can't get the valve open," I said.

Herr Ott came over and looked at my hands suspiciously. Luckily by now I was twisting the valve in the right direction.

"Some idiot must have screwed the valve tight after filling the bottles," he said, shaking his head. "You are not supposed to do that."

"I know," I said, shaking my head at the would-be idiot that was in fact me.

It took us a while, but Herr Ott found a pair wrench pliers in the toolbox, and we were finally able to loosen the valve. Herr Ott had no proof that it had been my fault, but I believe he held a suspicion. Consequently, so as not to cause any further delay, I slipped into Werner's dark grey O'Neil wetsuit quickly.

Unfortunately, Werner was two inches taller than I was and quite a bit heavier. I could see on Herr Ott's face that he was not pleased with his assistant.

The sky was overcast and the sea turbulent, because of the Bora blowing from the North. In full SCUBA gear, masks on our foreheads, flippers in our hands, Herr Ott and I crawled across the boulders towards the waterline. Once we reached the water we put on our flippers and walked backwards out into the deeper water. Walking with flippers looks ridiculous at the best of times, stumbling backwards into the sea looking like a wrinkly baby elephant was something else.

Our purpose was to get a sense of the natural density of hermit crabs in coastal waters. So, we would snorkel out a hundred metres or so until the water was about five to ten metres deep. Then we would randomly drop the one-square-metre sampling square. We would count all the hermit crabs we could find within the square and record the number on the underwater writing board. Drop the frame again, and so on. (It is a procedure called quadrat sampling.)

We did snorkel out, and we did drop the frame, and we did dive down. Except that the wetsuit I was wearing was such a bad fit and had therefore so much air in it that it forced me back to the surface. (Remember the scene in Jaws when they harpooned the shark and attached two barrels to the lines to prevent him from going down, but he still went down. That's how I came up.)

"What's the matter, Michael?" Herr Ott surfaced next to me holding his regulator in his hand.

"Buoyancy," I said. "I don't have enough lead on me."

"You should really be better prepared," Herr Ott said to me.

"No fucking kidding," is what I should have said, but I said nothing.

"Let's try to go deeper," Herr Ott said, referring to fact that the air in my suit will be more compressed at greater depth and therefore provide less buoyancy.

So, I struggled deeper and deeper, and lo and behold all of a sudden, the diving went quite smoothly, with Herr Ott being a couple of metres below me. We dove towards the open sea when suddenly something felt wrong. (Naturally, I was freaked out because I remembered one dive in an Austrian lake when I suddenly heard a clunking noise on my tank, and when I turned around I saw that I was swimming up against the keel of a large sailboat.)

I turned around and realized that I was still at the surface. What had felt wrong was the motion of waves on my head.

Herr Ott resurfaced next to me.

"What's wrong now?" he asked palpably more irritated than five minutes ago.

"It's no use," I said. "I have too much buoyancy."

"All right," he said. "Give me the writing board, I will do the sampling myself."

I handed him the underwater writing board which really wasn't more than a white plastic clipboard that had a long string attached to it which held a stump of a pencil.

I was glad this was over when suddenly I was yanked down. (Again Jaws. Remember the scene at the beginning when the girl is yanked underneath the water by the shark. That's what it must have looked like from the shore.)

Except that it wasn't a shark. It was Herr Ott. When I looked down, I saw Herr Ott at about three metre depth holding the writing board in his hands. The attached pencil had floated up and the string had wrapped around my flipper. He tried to yank the string free, and I tried to kick it free.

I made it back to shore, and twenty minutes later Herr Ott came back as well. In silence we stowed the gear in the back of the VW bus again. Herr Ott checked the recordings he had made on the writing board. He started the motor, and then looked over at me and smiled.

"All good, Michael," he said. "Should we go for lunch now? I know a place where they serve the best Serbian bean soup."

I never understood, Herr Ott, and I believe I always judged him too harshly.

"Don't fuck this up," is what I should have said to myself. But I didn't.