28 Apr What Lies Below
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"What Lies Below"Written by
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Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
I worked in the dredging industry for quite some time now. For those of you unaware of what dredging is, it’s a sector of marine construction that involves excavating the bottom of a body of water, and relocating the material elsewhere. If you’ve ever been to a beach on the East Coast of the U.S., there’s a pretty fair chance that we were the ones who put that sand under your feet. Coastal restoration was our most lucrative and commonplace type of contract, but, over the years, our tasks have ranged to most everything imaginable. We’ve had military contracts where we’ve removed UXO’s from the ocean; we’ve had marsh jobs, cleaning decades of silt (and what was buried within it) from waterways. The variety in the work we’ve done is innumerable… and, might I add, not limited to the U.S.A. So, to keep it brief, dredging is simply digging up the bottom of a body of water… and water is very good at hiding its inhabitants. This will be a collection of the “unexplainable” or “extraordinary” things I’ve seen over the years. Please keep in mind that these instances are quite uncommon, and had given an opportunity to investigate further, would most likely be revealed mundane. But under the shadows of night, fog, grove, and depth, these specters make good stories.
I feel it appropriate to begin with my personal, “first”, unexplainable encounter in the dredging world. I was relatively new to the industry, since most of the men who work in dredging are lifers, or retired Navy. Still a virgin to the ocean’s wonders…and horrors, I was working on a clamshell dredge. Quickly, a clamshell dredge is a barge with a massive crane on it that operates a bucket (shaped like a clam) and dips underwater, clamps the material from the bottom, and swings it over to a holding barge on either side of the dredge; I highly recommend a quick Google search for visualization. Thus, everything that is pulled from the ocean ends up in the holding barge, also known as a scow, and can be seen from any elevated vantage point from on board the dredge. Nearly 100% of the time, the scow is filled with mud, water, logs, and other combinations of detritus tailored specific to the type of job we’re on. But on those rare good days, we’ll fish up an anchor, a table or chairs, even a cannon one time, or other interesting relics damned to the deep until our hallowed vessel raised them from their aquatic perdition; this was one of the “best” days. A deckhand performing a routine scow inspection notified the crew that there was a “treasure chest” partially buried in the mud of the scow. We were digging off the coast of Louisiana at the time, and skepticism that it was actually a treasure chest was high… and rightfully so. Since no one is actually allowed down into the scow for safety reasons, the operator picked the section of mud that the chest was in up with the crane, raised it to deck level with the scow, and two crewmembers retrieved it from there. Given that two men hoisted it out with certain ease, any lingering hopes of it being filled with gold were instantly silenced. Interest noticeably lower amongst the crew, a few guys stuck around to offer their passive gaze; me, just barely graduated from my green hard hat, was all but ogling the chest. After busting the lock off with a sledge, my eyes widened with the chest’s maw; when we could finally see what was inside, they might have just widened all 180 degrees with it. Inside, were ingredients- ritualistic ingredients. Strange religious icons, what looked like fat pitchforks with spiral insignias on them, filled the chest nearly to the brim. Interwoven amongst them were other totems: small animal remains, bones all but picked clean by shrimp or minnows compact enough to infiltrate the chest’s tight breaches. Odd jewelry, seemingly fashioned from rodent skulls and rocks bound together with hair, was snagged between the other inhabitants. Maybe a book had been in there; we found what looked like the remains of a leather bound spine, the rest of the pages long dispersed amidst the Gulf. And, second most creepy of all, was a human skull. It was small, about the size of a 3 or 4 year old maybe, and while the other “goodies” were partially buried under the pitchforks, the skull was perfectly atop them. But, there were no other human sized limbs in the chest. Even after we pulled out a crowbar, no one dared actually touch the box of Satan’s groceries, we did a little sifting; we found no other bones sized even close to that of a child. It was just his or her head. Now you’re probably thinking: what could be in a voodoo style ritual chest that’s creepier than a kid’s head? Well, the scratch marks. Scratch marks, varying in streaks of three, four, or five, covered the entire inside of the chest’s lid. There just, weren’t any bones that could have made them… or any way that they could have gotten out. We re-locked it with a padlock, and tossed it overboard.
This next one is pretty unbelievable. I actually had trouble going into the ocean after this. The job was off of the coast in the middle of nowhere outback, Australia. There was a refinery out there, and we were to pull mud and sand from the Indian Ocean and create a bank against a cliff face to help stop erosion for another 100 years or whatever. The point is, we were using what was called a cutter dredge. Once again, quickly, this dredge grinds up material and suctions it up via a massive drill at the working bow of the barge; if you didn’t Google the other dredge, please do yourself a favor and look up this one; it’s badass. Then, using hundreds of feet of steel pipeline that we set up, the mud and sand is pumped all the way to the shore. One day, the barge started heeling starboard side. Most dredges are set up on spuds, giant pillars that actually work as feet. Thus, the dredge was standing 40 feet below on the bottom of the ocean instead of floating. Dredges tip like this all the time, because the spuds can be staggered at different heights to change the angle at which the cutter can operate. So, the crew only became unnerved when the operator announced on the radio that he was not shifting the spuds. A 250 foot barge was being pulled over. At this point, the shore crew radioed us from land, and asked if we had stopped digging because the material had ceased. Noticeably panicked, I remember the Captain laughing through his answer in utter disbelief: “Yeah, we stopped. I think something is trying to pull us under”. Now, this isn’t as dramatic as I’m accidentally making it sound. Sure, it would take something the size of a sperm whale to shift us on our spuds, but the dredge was only dispositional by a few degrees. On board, the angle was barely noticeable; my office chair would sluggishly roll, and only when I took my hands off of my desk. What is dramatic is what the dive crew found the next day. The four foot in diameter steel piping had been parted and collapsed on one end. Steel piping had been torn through and bent closed. There are things in the ocean that can bend steel piping. The creepiest part, I quivered when I saw the divers’ pictures, was that the end of the piping was pulled out away from shore, down towards a drop off on the ocean floor. The darkness swirled around the edge of the piping. Shortly past that was the ocean’s invisible frontier. From the camera’s point of view, we looked like we were tethered straight to hell.
This next story takes place back on the cutter dredge; so, I can skip the sleep inducing yet largely necessary introduction. Our job was to grind up large rocks and debris on the ocean floor, off the east coast of Florida, so that a different dredge can raise the material up more efficiently. While cutting dense rock, you can feel the impact from topside of the dredge. After hours of being constantly jostled, your mind will just begin to ignore the repeated stimuli. It’s similar to how when you step into a room for the first time, you can smell its distinct odor. But after you’ve been in there for a few minutes, the room’s odor neutralizes. When the dredge suddenly stopped jostling, without the operator having stopped us to move forward, we all noticed the change in our bodies’ equilibrium. We also all noticed the plume of red water dyeing the ocean’s surface around us. I didn’t see the eruption myself, but the operator of the drill said that the blood just exploded from the deep- the bright red a stark contrast from the light tinted royal blue royal blue. Now, for perspective, we’ve never drilled anything that produced visible blood before. First off, we send out periodic electric shocks in the water to keep all fish, of all sizes, away from the drilling area. Second, the dredge was surrounded by blood. Picture a rubber duck in a bathtub. Our 250 foot craft was the rubber duck, and the deep red water was the surface size of the tub. At first we didn’t even think it was blood because it was so plentiful. But, we had absolutely no other explanation for what it could’ve been. The 4 sharks that showed up a few minutes later stopped us from racking our brains any further. Typically, divers aren’t used to survey the seafloor, only to inspect equipment. But, we had an ecologist on board to watch for sea turtles approaching the drill area. It’s required by law for certain jobs, in spite of our own aforementioned precautions. She insisted that we dive to investigate… and I’m kind of glad she did. The divers came out the following day. It’s typically a day or two of bureaucracy before we can get unscheduled divers out, so the blood was gone by this time. All that was found was a graveyard of one. Bone fragments were strewn about the seafloor, but no parts of flesh had survived a whole day’s onslaught of ravenous sea scavengers. Also, there was no identifiable body. Whatever was struck by our drill could not have survived. The blood was too prolific. But, the bones were “too badly damaged” to point towards any definitive skeleton. The fragments were surfaced and taken by the state for analysis; I never saw a Yahoo article claiming we had killed a sea monster, so I’m not sure what their findings were.
These final stories all take place on a crew boat. A crew boat is a smaller vessel, typically 30-40 feet, taken out from shore to the larger vessels in the fleet. That is to say, you are more vulnerable on crew boats than dredges.
This first ride is from off the coast of Brazil. The run took around 45 minutes to reach the dredge; but, since I was on night shift, the run took around an hour due to lower visibility. This was a clear night with very calm waves. When the waves are gentle, the crew boat barely sways. It feels like mother-nature herself is actually rocking you to sleep. These are the best naps I’ve taken in my entire life. Anyway, about 30 minutes into our ride out, a thick fog just appeared around our boat. It was almost like a magician snapping his fingers and smoke engulfing him for his getaway… but less dramatic and more unnerving. This isn’t supernatural, though. Flash fog is pretty common, and it does just phase in and out in seemingly no time at all. Still, no matter how ordinary it is, being suddenly suffocated out of nowhere puts any man on edge. Needless to say, the crew boat had to slow its pace further due to critically low visibility. This is when we noticed something that did seem unnatural. With our speed cut to a slow trawl, the waves began to catch our attention. They were much higher now, maybe a foot to a foot and a half high, and there was no wind. It was still a calm night, just as it had always been, but now the waves were rough. In order to combat seasickness, or even just discomfort when subject to bouncing waves, you’re supposed to look out over the water. Do not close your eyes or follow the horizon; you want your eyes to agree with the fluid in your ears that registers the imbalances around you. So, as I scanned the water, I saw it through the fog. It was only about 20 yards from the boat, at the very edge of our visibility through the unrevealing air. It looked like a whale’s blowhole, but it protruded from the back rather than situated at surface level; it was more like a blow spout. It would expand and contract in slow, rhythmic beats. And from this spout, the thickest of the fog would rise. I could see just passed it on either side, but just above it was an impregnable opaque. I tried to follow the spout to the water’s surface with my eyes, but the fog cut me off. With my view censored, I continued squinting at the odd appendage. This is when I realized that it wasn’t moving. Or rather, it wasn’t moving laterally. As the crew boat continued forward, the spout was becoming less and less visible. But, it was rotating in a manner such that I always saw the same side of it. As if, it was tracing our boat with a hidden sense that required a rigid line of reference. This whole time, I hadn’t said a word to the other men. I was entranced by wonderment and intrigue. These emotions changed when the spout fell behind a thick patch of fog, and my gaze trailed down to the wake outside of our boat. A dark mass could be seen just a few feet from the hull of our ship. A few feet wide, this shadow trailed off under the fog, spanning at least 30 feet in length. If (something that I began to speculate later) it was the same mass connected to the fog spout, it must have been at least 60 feet long. I remember shuddering, and reeling my attention back into what the spout could have been. There are shadows lurking under the surface all of the time, and they are never as mysterious or terrifying as the beast your mind fabricates for them. This time may be an exception to that rule. After our boat pulled out of the fog and arrived at the dredge later on, it occurred to me that the shadow was also listing to face us. Whatever it was, it was eyeing us… and was at least twice as large as our vessel.
In my entire dredging career, I’ve only seen one man die on the job. This is a surprisingly gracious record, given the mortality rate for this profession. How this man died was not entirely “unexplainable”, but it was ghastly none the less.
In the northern states, on days of considerable cold, the waves that splash up onto the deck of the crew boat will actually freeze over. The crew will be riding in the cab, but when we step out onto the deck to transfer, there will be visible ice glossed over the outside. One time, a deckhand opened the hatch of the cab and went out onto the deck. He was going to put down some rock salt to help with our transfer, as we were slowly nearing the dredge. Then, we all heard him yell “What the fuh…!” and a splash soon to follow. He never surfaced. The sub-zero waters and no way to dry off would’ve killed any man out here in a matter of minutes. State divers arrived within the hour, and they found his body almost immediately. He was just floating at about 6 feet, frozen solid. The rescue personnel couldn’t even lower his arms to secure him to the stretcher… nor could they pry his fingers open to remove the knife. No marks were found on his body, and the report read that he had accidentally slipped overboard. The thing is, the deck has a railing on both sides. All transfers from the crew boat happen at the stern, where there’s an opening in this railing. But… the bag and salt lines never made it past mid-ship.
This next instance, we were dredging down in the Keys; this was on the Gulf side, so, sadly, I have nothing to testify for the Bermuda Triangle in my repertoire. During another heavenly long cruise in the morning (about an hour and a half in permissible weather), the unknown was in front of us rather than below. Listing into our path was a shrimping vessel. The two outrigger booms were a dead give-away to its identity. As our craft approached, we noticed that it wasn’t trawling. None of its balloon nets were cast, and it wasn’t running. It was just drifting: no anchor, no engine. Unless you see someone rod fishing or breaking into a beer on board, a drifting vessel is almost always a negative sign. The crew boat captain radioed the vessel’s call sign on channel 13, the Coast Guard required monitor frequency, but there was no answer. Now, this was back in the ‘90s where safety red tape was less adhesive and more of a guideline. So, we did what any self-respecting sailor would do, and boarded the trawler. We moored Stern to Stern with the derelict craft, and me and two other guys jumped on board. As expected, we almost caught ourselves in the balloon nets that were scattered on deck. After untangling our boots, the deckhand and I went to see if there was any owner identification or, god forbid, bodies in the cabin; it’s not too often that a boat is intentionally left unattended. We didn’t have too much luck, but we had enough. The walls were stained a reddish yellow from rising algae or such, and the cabin reeked of iron and guano and was in utter disarray; most of the furnishings were eviscerated and their contents scattered afoot. Also, since the cabin door was left open, any of the surviving documents were ruined by infiltrating rain or tide. However, given the call sign on the bow (which will remain unnamed) and a few accompanying certificates of inspection framed on the walls barely safe above the invading waters, we managed to ID the ship. Successful, and with the captain radioing the Coast Guard with the ship’s coordinates, me and the deckhand started back to our crew boat. This is where the third man comes into play. The mate, who took a rather long time joining us inside the cabin, was still on deck carefully palming through the nets. “Looking for shrimp?” I remember the deckhand jesting. It was pretty good, so I let out a ‘nice’. I couldn’t tell if the mate was less amused, or even registered what he had said. Because, the next thing he did, was hold the net up to our faces. Tangled within the woven nylon beyond any means of escape, was a human hand. Its fingers curled around the net as if for dear life, the bones still barely held together by its few most robust tendons… The Coast Guard arrived in about 2 hours, and make of it what you will, informed us that the fishing boat had only just left for a registered, commercial run 18 hours prior. The ship looked like it had been wayward for weeks, enduring everything offered by inclimate weather and carrion feeding cycles. But, the facts just stated otherwise. Its dilapidated state was simply unjustifiable. We left the rest up to the Coast Guard, and resumed our trek out to the dredge. Along the way, we chatted and japed, happy with only a half days left of work ahead of us… except the mate; he wasn’t too jolly. I wouldn’t call his demeanor frightened or shaken. It was more concerned and quizzical. He let us know, eventually, what was on his mind: the net he was inspecting had a large hole thrashed in it. And, apparently, we idiots didn’t notice that the cabin door wasn’t ‘open’, it was gone. “The hinges were splayed, the door was ripped off, and your heads were so far up each other’s asses that you stumbled into that cabin anyway”, were his exactly words I believe. Perhaps the Coast Guard figured out what had happened on that trawler, but we sure as hell couldn’t come up with anything close.
And that’s it. An entire lifetime at sea, and these are what I have to show for it: no monsters, no demons, only stories- stories that the ocean told to me. The darkest shadows, the ones cast below the surface of the water, are what spun these yarns. No one truly knows what we’ve seen, staring from our manmade craft into the primordial abyss. But, what I do know for certain, is that the ocean is a mysterious place. So mysterious, that an entire life spent buys naught but hints and more questions. Perhaps, the sea is hiding creatures more fearsome than the abyssal nightmare that can only be created in our own mind’s eye. Or, it hides nothing; the ocean may just be a talented pretender, tricking anyone too willing to believe. So, the choice is yours: do you see shadows or do you see monsters?
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