What an Earthquake Feels Like From Underwater

Chaotic surface water near rocks at sunset.
Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

I had the incredibly unique experience recently of an earthquake happening nearby while I was scuba diving in the ocean. We found out on surfacing that it had a magnitude of 4.8 and the epicenter was 37 miles away from us.

I was “at work”— surveying fish on coral reefs around St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. My dive buddies and I had just begun a new survey. All of a sudden, we heard and felt a deep rumbling vibration all around us. My immediate thought was that it was probably just a boat passing by, but at the same time I knew that was not right. The frequency was much too low for an engine.

The fish we had been trying to count darted down for shelter in the reef. We looked at each other and we all registered what it was. I had a momentary impulse to surface to see what was going on, but knew that wouldn’t do us any good. All we could do was wait for it to stop.

I tried to take in and enjoy the unique experience but have to admit it was a little scary. It felt like the world might open up underneath us and we would get sucked down the hole like a giant drain for the ocean.

The sound tapered off much more slowly than it started, fading into silence again, leaving us with our bubbles. The fish resumed their normal activities, and there was nothing for us to do but get back to work.

After we finished our surveys, upon surfacing, my dive buddy said, “Did the world end while we were down there?” We all laughed, since that was truly what it felt like. It didn’t help that the haze from Saharan dust was particularly bad that day. The island looked apocalyptic, and we were out on a boat away from everyone else.

Add that to the list of crazy life experiences I never expected to have.

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