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Sea Dance

by Clare Coppa

In the flotsam and jetsam of life, scuba diving is prime, says John Mulder (shown above with his wife): “It’s just absolutely one of the most incredible things you can do with your free time.”

Active in eight ASTM committees, one wonders how he has any free time to dive often with his wife, Leah Shermis, off the coast of southern California near their home. “My wife is my dive buddy. Most of the time we’re exploring,” says this degreed anthropologist and former lab scientist. “You see things that people who are up on the land never ever get to see.”

Such as the flowing red mantle of a “Spanish Dancer,” a rare nudibranch Mulder sighted in the Red Sea. Or the Caribbean Reef shark that nonchalantly passed by as he snapped the camera. Was he nervous? “No,” he says, “because half the time they don’t want to be around you. People are not generally on their menu. Sharks are ‘opportunistic’ but traditionally not man-eaters.”

“This is what we do because my wife is a nurse, and when you’re under mental pressure and on your feet all day, or when you travel a lot like I do, this is a really nice alternative, because when you’re in the water together, you’re definitely not thinking about work.”

A technical services manager with James Hardie Building Products, Fontana, Calif., Mulder travels regularly to participate in the development of national standards and building-code issues related to his company’s fiber-cement products. Sometimes, his name draws reference to agent Fox Mulder on the X-Files; at British Customs, an officer quipped that Scully had been through earlier.

Mulder began diving in the ’70s during six years with the Naval Air Reserve. Shermis began in ’95. “We currently are certified NAUI advanced and PADI NITROX,” he explains. “We dive anywhere from 15 to 20 ft. down to 130 ft. routinely.” The couple’s deepest descent was 154 ft. [47 m] in the Blue Hole, a collapsed cavern near Belize, Central America.

“It’s completely different than sitting behind a desk looking at a computer screen all day, typing. You keep track of how deep you are; how long you’ve been down; you check your dive computer to make sure that you’re not absorbing too much nitrogen, all sorts of things that have to do with staying alive down there and not running out of air and not going too deep.

“There are things that you see underwater, if you’re lucky, that other divers will never ever get to see because they don’t happen very often,” he concludes. “That’s a huge bonus. That’s why you’re there.” And that’s no fish story.

Copyright 2000, ASTM

Top hats and tails: an emperor angelfish wears pinstripes in the Red Sea.