Two hours before dawn a steady salt breeze blew in from the oceanic darkness of the Gulf of Mexico and over the deep-water pipe-lay barge Nez Perce. The barge worked far outside U.S. waters, in a region of the Gulf where the continental slope declined from 590 feet of dark sea to over 10,000 feet funereal depth. It was a very deep and dangerous job for the dive team.

Seconds after discovering the problem, Brockman called Jonah and Escargot to fix the stinger. The underwater rollers on the stinger weren’t supporting the pipeline evenly. One of the vent valves at the end of the pontoon had jammed open and flooded its compartment. Now the divers had to fix it.

Jonah had to swim out and close the valve with a crescent wrench.

Cloud cover blotted out all the stars. The sea’s surface rolled opaque black but randomly flickered with bioluminescence as patches of intense color broke out, near and far, in short, magical bursts like winking blue embers. The phenomenon, caused by light-emitting plankton, made the impervious black ocean fleetingly lucent as you looked downward.

Jonah put on his weight belt. The waves crashed loudly onto the pipeline ramp, and the concrete-encased pipeline bounced up from the ramp then came back down with crushing weight. The massive steel fingers locking the stinger to the barge held fast against the rushing power of the sea.

The spindrift lit up with a glowing spray of greenish turquoise. In slow motion the spray dropped from the air, with an after-flash on the men’s retinas, and landed on the foam receding down the pipeline ramp, which also sparkled green. The plankton in the waves flashed back and forth, and their small blasts of brilliant color in one area seemed to trigger responses all over the water like competing marine fireworks shows.

Jonah put on the helmet and checked the Super Q flashlight mounted on top. Then he turned the free-flow valve and blasted air into the helmet to clear a slight fogging. He felt for his knife and the crescent wrench to be sure they were tied to the D-rings on his harness.

Escargot stood ready to feed out the umbilical hose.

“I’m set,” Jonah said into the microphone in his helmet. He had checked the stinger several times in the morning light, but never in the dark and never in a sea alive with the flashing glow and dazzle of millions of light-emitting plankton.

“Remember, stay away from the ramp and keep track of your umbilical hose. You don’t want to get sucked between the pipeline and stinger,” Brockman warned.

“Roger that,” Jonah said. “I’m jumping.” He switched on the headlight on his helmet.

“Okay,” Brockman said.

Jonah jumped and immersed downwards.

He arrived with a rush of coolness and bubbles in a fantastic pelagic cosmos where he could touch the stars. The ocean ignited cold molten blue with his entry.

Each stroke of his arms and kick of his legs caused the plankton to fire. A multitude of flashes broke out near him, then far off as if in answer, patterned like fluid constellations.

He swam immediately away from the strong suck and push of the waves near the lethal pipeline ramp. Blue-green flashes raked through his fingers, pressed up against the lens of his helmet, and rolled over him. He concentrated hard not to lose his bearings in the wonder and dazzle of the bioluminescence around him.

“It’s incredible down here.”

“I know,” Brockman said.

When Jonah at last held the guideline in his hand, he paused. The surreal flashing slowed and stopped, and now the ocean flowed utterly black all around him. Below his dangling fins a black abyss waited. He started down underneath the declining stinger and the bioluminescence started again.

Facing upwards, like an insect crawling on the bottom side of a tree branch, he pulled himself deeper along the guideline. Above him the pontoon and rollers waved with the current. He watched to see that the pipeline was riding steady on each set of rollers, that there was no space between them.

The marine lights, the bioluminescence, kept shooting off around him and the stinger as it moved with the sea. Because he couldn’t see it, Jonah could ignore the drop under him.

“I’m on it,” he said having reached compartment 19.

“How’s the pipe riding?” Brockman asked.

“Looks all right up to here. The pipe isn’t sitting on the rollers here. The compartment is definitely flooded.”

“Close that vent and move back,” the Dive Supervisor said.


Jonah felt across his harness for the lanyard tied to his crescent wrench. Before turning the valve, he positioned himself safely behind and down current of the vent. In deep water all vents are capable of sucking the flesh off a diver’s hand or trapping him to it. He wrenched the valve shut and told Brockman.

On the barge the Dive Supervisor turned a lever on the control console and blew the flooded compartment full of air.

The compartment became buoyant and that section of the stinger floated upwards. All of the stinger’s rollers pressed back up under the heavy pipeline, once again evenly cradling and supporting it on its way to the sea floor.

“It’s set back down on the rollers,” Jonah reported.

“Good,” Brockman said.

“Take in my slack. I’m coming back.”

“Roger that.”

Jonah started back up. Again, the plankton gave off their cold, flameless fire as his passage disturbed them. Every little motion, from his turning the valve with the wrench to the flick of a fin, set them off.

A small medusa-like jellyfish knocked softly against his lens. A blue glow revealed its gelatinous body and threads of cilia-like spun glass. He approached the point on the stinger where he would let go and have Escargot haul him safely past the banging at the ramp.

The baitfish living under the barge suddenly closed around him in a skittish confusion of silver bodies and crazy light.

Jonah instinctively stopped moving. The school of fish hovered still, and the spangles around them slowly went out.

The sweep of a vortex hit him as something large swam by. A hunting shark?

A flurry of silver and blue-green coruscations broke out and the school of fish bolted in a contagious panic that even he felt.

The school of fish raced over him and the stinger and pipeline, wheeling in a big circle, back under his feet, thousands of fish, and round again. Like an unearthly Ferris wheel in the black deep, sparkling bioluminescence.

A flaming blue javelin chased the fish from below.

Racing past his feet.

He gasped.

“What’s wrong?” Brockman asked.

“Something’s feeding.”

“Did you see him?” the Dive Supervisor sounded oddly enthusiastic.

“Yes.” Jonah could feel his heart beating.

“You’re not a fish, don’t sweat it. They only eat fish unless you’re dead or in a chum slick.”

The dazzling maelstrom left him and whirled deeper, perhaps 50 feet below.

The confused cloud of flashing blue-green scattered like chips of sapphirine mica then reunited.

The long, wide javelin of blue flame ripped through the darkness into them, turned sharply and circled.

It moved with powerful lateral sweeps of its tail. The plankton glowed brightly around the roil of baitfish and the prowling javelin.

Then the darkness closed in again.

“You all right?” Brockman asked. “You’re breathing fast.”

“I’m fine.”

The javelin, trailing wisps of bioluminescence, shot by again, diving deep. It disappeared like a meteor, gone in a sudden streak.


Howard Butcher’s underwater thriller brims with authenticity, energy, and thematic depth. Buy Jonah: A Novel of Men and the Sea today on Amazon.

Check out the first excerpt, “The Tiger Shark’s Head,” the second, “The Lidless Eye,” and the third, “The Snake Eater.”