It’s not that Xenia Mountrouidou wasn’t keeping her head above water. In fact, the third-year Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University was cruising steadily toward her lifelong dream of being an ethical hacker. This was her No. 1 passion – all she’d ever wanted to do. At least on the surface.
Deep down, though, she knew she needed more than computer network analysis to make her happy. She knew there was something else. She needed to pursue her No. 2 passion: She needed to be in the water.
“I love the water. Since I grew up in Greece, as a child I was always in the water,” says the assistant professor of computer science at the College of Charleston, who first became interested in computers and cybersecurity as a young girl. “My dad always told me, ‘You have to find your passion and do it as a job.’ So, if you have two passions, you have to do one as a job – and I guess it’s also your job to do the other one, too.”
So, still knee-deep in her computer science studies, Mountrouidou (aka Dr. X) registered for Skin and Scuba Diving I at N.C. State. And then she delved into Skin and Scuba Diving II. Before long, she was going from open-water training to technical training. She did cavern training, then took Intro to Cave Diving. From there, she did an apprenticeship in cave diving and took Advanced Cave Diving.
“I got really into it, really fast,” she smiles, adding that it didn’t hurt that she met her husband through the scuba community along the way. “That was it. I was hooked.”
Since 2007, she has done some 1,000 open-water dives and 400 cave dives, everywhere from Florida’s cave country to the Bahamas’ blue holes and from North Carolina’s shipwreck graveyard to Mexico’s cavernous cenotes.
“Every dive is like visiting a whole different world,” says Mountrouidou, who is especially fond of diving shipwrecks like the wreck of the Normannia off the coast of North Carolina. “It is gorgeous! But it’s spooky, too – like a haunted house. There’s leftover furniture, and you feel like the people were just there. But there’s hidden life down there, too. To see the whole architecture of the ship and then the wildlife that has made its home inside: That is fascinating to me.”
The ability for life to flourish – to adapt to even the darkest, coldest depths – is certainly intriguing.
“It amazes me that nature is so very well thought out,” says Mountrouidou. “It gets darker and darker, and colder and colder, but there is still life there. It just changes as you go deeper and deeper. And the colors! There’s an abundance of color – all these blues and greens that turn and change as you go. It really is a gorgeous thing when you are down there. I feel so special that I get to experience these things; it’s a whole world that most people never get to see.”
And Mountrouidou gets to see these waterscapes several times a year, most often in the complex, highly exclusive caverns around Ginnie Springs in northern Florida, where she travels with her husband, who has a deep water–lighting company and is known in the technical diving community as the “Underwater Light Dude.”
“I really like the social aspect of it. The technical diving community is our community now,” says Mountrouidou, who also volunteers her time maintaining the North Florida Springs Alliance’s website and cleaning up the aqueducts in the area’s state parks. “Everybody thinks we’re adrenaline junkies. But this is a calculated risk: We take multiple precautions.”
Between the rigorous training, the specialized gas, the multiple lights and the line-laying protocol (so that you can find your way out of the underwater labyrinths), there are a lot of safety measures in place – and there’s a lot to think about, too.
“In some ways, it is a way of logging off, of taking a break, but it’s also very cerebral, very focused,” says Mountrouidou, noting the prevalence of “computer people” in the diving community. “Maybe it’s because we enjoy technical gear. But maybe it’s because we’re sitting in here all day at our computers, so we want to get away and explore nature.”
Whatever the explanation, for Mountrouidou at least, one thing is for sure: This passion runs deep.
Top photo by Damien Siviero