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Neophytes Walk on Bottom of the Deep Blue Sea

July 13, 1986|EDMUND ANTROBUS | Antrobus is a Leonia, N.J., free-lance writer.

HAMILTON, Bermuda — When you vacation in this island group off North Carolina, get in touch with Bronson Hartley. He will take you for a walk under the sea, on the ocean floor.

"It's as simple and safe as a walk through your garden," Hartley says.

And a garden of a sort it is. Down below in the sunlit shallows, beautiful things live and grow. Fish dart and hover while Hartley shows how sponges breathe and how the tiny, coral-building animals feed.

All you need for the nature walk under the water is a swimsuit and Hartley's specially designed glass-fronted helmet. Aboard his launch, he told how to use it and what led to its development.

Born in New York City, he was brought to Bermuda at the age of 10 and found it not at all as expected.

"My preconception of Bermuda was an island on which exotic animals lived. But no crocodile, snakes or monkeys here.

"I was terribly disappointed," he said with a smile, "but was more than compensated a year or two later. I had put on scuba diver's goggles and, lo and behold, discovered that the rare life forms I sought were under the sea."

Designed His Special Helmet

Hartley is in his 60s. In more than 30 years he has shown 70,000 people the wonders he discovered in his youth. He built the diving helmet prototype when he was 14. It works in the same way an inverted drinking glass does when plunged into a bowl of water: Air is trapped inside as soon as the open end is pushed below the surface.

Fed with additional air from a pump above, the helmet is used at depths of about 12 feet.

In the mid-1930s Hartley met William Beebe, the famed American scientist who was using the Bathysphere to make deep dives off Bermuda. Beebe took Hartley under his wing and taught him how to observe and record the living things underwater. Soon the Latin names of fish, plants and coral were rolling off the young Hartley's tongue.

As we neared the site, Hartley explained that a ladder would be put over the side and we would climb into about 12 feet of water.

"I'm scared," said a woman. "Can't I just watch?"

Hartley reassured her by repeating what his brochure said: People from 5 to 85 had enjoyed the experience; it wasn't necessary to know how to swim; no lessons are needed; you could wear your eye glasses under the helmet; and you wouldn't even have to get your hair wet.

An Underwater Language

Then he told us how he would communicate underwater with hand signals. When those didn't suffice, printed messages with legends such as "kneel," "stand," "look this way" would be held up in front of us.

About the fish population, he said we should look out for the cow polly, or the sergeant major fish, so named for its chevron-like black and yellow markings; also for the mottled, perpetually scowling red hind which, despite its expression, will let you hold him "if you don't grab too hard." There were no sharks or people-eaters, we were assured.

We anchored about 200 yards from the shore in a cove about an hour's run from base, in a spot in which, Hartley's brochure stated, the water is clear, coral grows in great variety and we could see multicolored fish at close range.

We climbed down the ladder two at a time. As soon as two couples had made the descent, Hartley, who was already down, made us stand side by side and to grasp a metal rod he put into our hands.

Then we walked, as instructed on board, with knees slightly bent, Groucho Marx fashion. It was smooth underfoot but the pace was slow. A scuba diver would have passed us in a second.

The Show Begins

We were led to a clump of coral and by means of one of the printed messages were told to kneel. Then a second message was put before us: "Coral is alive. Watch it being fed."

Hartley presented a star-shaped member of the coral colony with a tiny sliver of mussel held under his thumbnail. Seconds later, to our amazement, the polyp extended a tentacle-like part and accepted the offering.

Minutes later we were facing another permanently attached aquatic animal, this time a sponge.

"Sponges are alive," one of Hartley's waterproof messages read. "Watch this one breathe."

He poured fine sand into one of its ventricles. Then we saw the sand expelled in a tiny cloud.

Our guide moved us to another spot. Each of us was handed a mussel-on-a-half-shell held by a clamp. We held the shells close to our helmets where we could see them. Hartley left and returned seconds later with a school of tiny fish, some colliding with our "windows" in eagerness for the food.

Finale Was the Best Part

The best show was last. Hartley held up a hoop about eight inches in diameter. As if she had been waiting in the wings, an angel fish appeared and swam through it. Her name is Helen, we learned later.

She was no sooner rewarded than Theodore, a hogfish, swam up. There was no performance--he was too large for the hoop. An oyster, shell and all, was popped into his mouth, and he disappeared.

Our exploration had lasted only 20 minutes, but like most things that become etched into memory, it had seemed much longer.

"Wonderful! Terrific!" we cried on emerging. The most ecstatic among us was a one-time marine biology professor. He had lectured on the breathing of sponges and on the feeding habits of coral, but until a moment ago had never seen it happen.

Hartley's Helmet Diving Cruise operates in spring, summer and fall, then moves to Nassau, in the Bahamas, for its winter season. In both locations his launch glides out of its base twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The trip out and back, plus the ocean-floor walk for groups of about 20, takes 3 1/2 hours. The price per person is $25, $5 more if you want your picture taken underwater "to astound the folks back home."

Reservations are required, through your hotel or cruise ship shore excursion desk. Hartley can be reached in Bermuda at Box 281, Flatts Village. In the Bahamas, the winter location, he is at the Nassau Harbour Club, Box 5244 E.S., Nassau, Bahamas.

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