Underwater: Lesley Synge interviews Jens Tröeger

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Underwater: Lesley Synge interviews Jens Tröeger

"Sea Lions can easily crack your skull, but they don’t."

This feature appears in the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators x Bengaluru Review Special Issue: Step Outside the Frame, September 2020.

My relationship with diving began in 1999 when I decided to greet the new millennium in Australia with a couple of fellow-Germans. We wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve near Uluru, the famous red monolith in the centre of the outback, then go diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

I signed up for lessons with a dive school near Frankfurt, only to find the school operated in a disused quarry. And it was November. And the top layer of quarry water had turned to ice. I had to make a hole in the ice to begin with then submerge myself in the dark, gloomy and cold water beneath. Wet suits, in theory, trap a layer of water around your body which keeps you warm during the dive. It didn’t work for me and after the lesson I sat numbly in the bathtub, the hot tap running. Not an auspicious start.

After Sydney, Adelaide and Uluru, we reached Cairns and signed up for a scuba diving voyage. It was a big commercial operation with tourists everywhere, in and out of the water. I found I just loved being underwater. I loved the turquoise ocean and floating around, looking at strange creatures. There was so much life. And the reef was spectacular, much less damaged than it is today.

The highlight was a night dive. The boat shone a powerful beam into the water to make it easily locatable but otherwise, the sea was almost black. Big fish such as Queensland Gropers and Maori Wrasses used us humans as hunting aids, hovering behind us, waiting for our individual torch lights to illuminate small fish, before darting forward to gulp them down. It was like playing God – you point your torch at a small fish to take in its beauty and Bink! it’s eaten.

I liked Australia so much I returned to study a doctorate in information technology in Brisbane in late 2000. My first dives were in the tropical waters of Hawai’i and Fiji on the way back from an internship in the USA. They were incredible. Amazing.

A job offer from Microsoft saw me relocate to Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. The cold came as a shock, especially in winter when the temperature drops right down. A dry suit was essential. Without its protection, a diver would die of hypothermia. Summer dives in places like the San Juan Islands north of Seattle were very pleasant. You caught sight of Humpbacks, Orcas, Steller Sea Lions and Harbour (or Common) Seals. Sea Eagles and other seabirds wheeled across the sunny blue skies.

I started hanging out more and more with the diving community and soon learned that land-dwelling creatures and underwater creatures are equally curious about each other. Both the USA and Canadian governments insist that if a whale pod is sighted, you leave the area and stay away. An Orca pod became interested in us on one dive trip. The captain pulled away but the Orcas followed. Several times. When the US Coast Guard noticed how close we were to the pod they radioed ‘Get away from the Orcas!’ Our captain radioed back ‘I’m trying!’

Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, became another favourite destination when I lived in the Northwest. Hornby Island, off the eastern edge of Vancouver Island, is famous for its interactive Steller Sea Lions. As soon as they see a boat approaching, they seem to register – hey, it’s the humans – let playtime begin. They flap with excitement and plunge into the water. They surround the boat as if beckoning the divers to join them.

My first swim with Hornby Island Sea Lions was scary. Adult females can weigh up to 350 kilograms and adult males up to 1,200 kilograms; as well they have very sharp teeth. From the moment you get in, these large creatures surround you. They squish you and grab you and push and pull while you hold still. They nibble you rather than bite and test their teeth on the rubber straps around your snorkel, on your camera and your fins. It’s not unusual for them to use their mouths to explore you. Sometimes they take your head into their mouths, as if to find out all about you. They could easily crack your skull but they don’t. Again you hold still and trust that they’re playing. Let them nibble, let them look, let them poke and prod you, like puppies or small kids.

It’s dangerous to get annoyed. I saw a guy punch a male Sea Lion in the face when he reacted against the biting and nibbling. The lion went off, circled, came back, grabbed hold of the diver’s leg and dragged him 200 feet down. At that depth, oxygen toxicity kicks in and if you’re there for long, you’ll die. Luckily for the diver, the lion released him. He swam to the surface and survived.

Ocean is an entirely different realm to earth. Sound travels four times faster underwater and objects appear closer than they really are, making judgement difficult. In the water realm, we humans are out of our comfort zone. We can’t move fast; we’re clumsy and vulnerable. We’re dependant on our instincts and on our gear. If our gear fails, we’re in trouble.

On one occasion I was out north of Seattle on a group shore dive. When we lost contact with one of our group, we prepared for a search and rescue operation by dividing into buddy pairs. The missing man was in his fifties and had signed on as an experienced diver who hadn’t been diving in a while. Each pair searched a quadrant of the dive area and we soon found him, drifting on the surface, dead. He’d suffered two heart attacks shortly after diving in. It turned out he had a history of heart problems.

Stuff happens.

You cross the road in front of a vehicle, you get run over – you go on the wrong dive, you drift down, currents affect you. Divers are lost every year. I know the risks but I like being in the water. I’m happy there. The ocean is so peaceful, so full of wondrous creatures that my mind becomes incredibly peaceful. My heart fills with the joy of it.

I can’t get enough of what I call ‘the morning splash.’ That’s when you leave land before sun-up and get to the dive site. The engine is cut and the boat bobs around as you organise your gear. You check your air tank, your buoyancy compensation device (BCD), your hoses, gauges, mouthpiece and mask. As the sun comes over the rim of the world, you tip backwards. You fall into the blue; let your weights take you down. Dive into the morning light.

After many years in the States, I returned to Australia to live. Brisbane is an ideal launching pad for a diver. Flinders Reef in Moreton Bay has herds of gentle herbivorous Dugongs and Julian Rocks in Byron Bay has Grey Nurse Sharks. I spent a memorable Easter weekend on Heron Island on the most southerly reach of the Great Barrier Reef. I managed to see the last of the hatchlings flop out of their eggs and struggle through the sand to the sea in the last days of the sea turtle hatching season.

The wreck of the HMAS Brisbane off Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast is another favourite site. The decommissioned destroyer was scuttled in 2005 to make an artificial reef. With the sun overhead the water is crystal clear and a circus parade of colours and shapes unfolds in front of you. Schools of silvery fish wheel about, a turtle paddles by, the occasional shark cruises in to check you out, and an octopus pours its baggy boneless body into one of the vessel’s many crannies. On the sandy floor, you might see some rays, some perky clownfish in the anemones, and crabs scuttling about. Fish are everywhere and further out there may be whales.

Talking of whales, I’ve made meaningful eye contact with number of them – you can tell at once they have consciousness.

Diving in wrecks can be dangerous. You need lines so you know where you’re coming from, and lights so you know where you’re going, and back-up equipment in case your breathing apparatus dies. The most stupid dive I ever did was in the wreck of HMCS Chaudiere in Porpoise Bay, Vancouver Island. The Chaudiere is a former destroyer escort sunk by the Canadian government in 1992. A friend and I decided to penetrate simply to say ‘been there, done that.’

We stirred up the very fine silt on her floor in the first chamber we entered just by kicking our fins. There was almost no current inside the wreck so the chamber filled with silt which stayed suspended. Our torchlights couldn’t penetrate it and the chamber was too small to turn around in. Unable to see a thing and unable to use hand signals to discuss what to do, we instinctively continued on, pulling ourselves through the first doorframe to the next chamber. We felt our way, chamber after chamber, seeing nothing and conscious of the steel frame around us. My breathing sounded loud, like the last breaths of a man in a horror movie scene. Thoughts of drowning added to my sense of claustrophobia. If the gear was to fail, I knew that I wouldn’t make it up to the surface.

I like meditating and diving has certain things in common with meditation. When diving, you have to surrender to the conditions you meet, yet stay aware. You can’t fight the ocean; if there’s a current, you have to go with it. I develop a similar mind-set when meditating. Rather than struggle against what’s going on – surrender. Relax.

It can be nice to experience a dive without looking through a lens, but getting a great shot is incredibly satisfying, especially if it captures the connection between a human creature and an underwater one.

Compared to the tropical waters of Australia, visibility in the Pacific Northwest is poor but little point-and-shoot cameras were popular with the diving community in Seattle. I adapted and started shooting what I could easily see: Nudibranchs. Nudi means naked in Latin and Branchs are gills in Greek – they’re sea slugs with exposed gills and occur all over the world. These shell-less molluscs are very colourful. They vary in size from tiny to around a foot (31cm) long, and manifest in fascinating shapes. No matter where I am now, I shoot Nudibranchs.

I once went on a photographic dive holiday in Prince William Sound, Alaska to capture Salmon Sharks. Richard Salas, an underwater photographer and author of a number of books about the Pacific Rim organised the trip. Ten of us met up in Valdez including Elizabeth Harper, a photographer from Chicago. Valdez is famous for the oil tanker disaster of 1989 when 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Sound. Local fishermen complain that oil from the Exon Valdez is still turning up but as we headed south by boat through the fjords to our wilderness lodge, the ecosystem looked largely recovered. From that past disaster, anyway.

Salmon Sharks arrive in the sound each summer when the salmon spawn. They don’t eat salmon exclusively – they eat other bony fish, such as herrings – but the name, Salmon Shark, has stuck.

Ravencroft Lodge is the brainchild of a father-and-son team, Boone and his dad. They run it from spring through to fall then lock it up for the harsh winter. Summer daytimes are warm and the sun hot. Being so far north, nights are short. With midnight sunsets and sunrises a few hours later, it never becomes really dark. Boone took us out every morning in search of Salmon Sharks. They’re very skittish and shy, not at all dangerous to human beings. They’re extremely sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure and hide unless the weather’s still and calm. If none showed up, we went somewhere else to do exploratory diving – simply jumping in and seeing what was there. Afternoons were for hiking in the wilderness.

We were lucky to encounter them twice. Boone threw out lines baited with herrings to attract them and Richard, Elizabeth and I were in the water, ready with our cameras. When the sharks register food, they go into a feeding frenzy so we had to be ready to shoot pretty fast.

On our second encounter, I was in the water with my camera and Boone right above me, trailing bait from the boat. All of a sudden a shark saw the herring and headed for it. She was moving with such determination she couldn’t stop. Ran into me with a hell of a Bomp! That hard, rough, muscular body really slammed into me but I still managed to get a shot of her with her herring. My dive buddies called me ‘Shark Rider’ after that.

I’m increasingly aware of the impact on biodiversity from climate change, especially when I go diving in the Vancouver area which I know best of all. It’s depressing to see areas of reef you’ve dived in becoming dead and grey; literally like diving into a boneyard. Locals who’ve spent their lifetimes observing the reefs are stunned at the pace of the transformation.

The situation further north in Alaska is especially concerning. The salmon fisheries are already under stress due to overfishing; and global warming adds to the impact. The Northwest has to be cold. There has to be snow and ice in winter because, in the spring melt, the rivers flow and the salmon come and spawn. I saw starving Alaskan Brown Bears south of Valdez. They were skin and bones. No ice; no melt; no rivers; no salmon. No bears next?

I’m flummoxed when I see a climate change denier like Sarah Palin, ex-governor of Alaska, on television. She can stand in front of a glacier that was once a river of ice and is now rubble and swear there’s no climate change.

Certain underwater experiences are impossible to express in words. One year, on my way to Australia from the United States, I stopped off in Tonga to check out a visiting pod of Humpbacks. The boat went out every day for a fortnight so we could hang out with them. The males stay deep, providing an escort for the females with calves. One morning I was swimming near the surface where a mother and calf were relaxing, dozing off and on when one of the males below started to sing. The vibration of it enveloped me, as did the sound. You can’t put into words the sensation of being immersed in whale song.


Jens Troeger is an innovative IT developer who lives between Australia and the Pacific Northwest. His underwater photography can be found here .

Lesley Synge is a Brisbane-based writer whose works include a poetry collection Mountains Belong to the People Who Love Them (2011) about spending a spring teaching English in South Korea.

Cover Photo Source .

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