By Andrew Kenneson
On the eleventh and final day aboard the Dewi Nusantara, an Indonesian dive boat, Jack and Diane Nelson got married. Their friends gathered. They got dressed up. She carried a bouquet.
He slipped a ring on her finger. They exchanged vows and kissed. But this was not an ordinary wedding ceremony. The first unusual thing was that this was not the first time they were getting married; it was a ceremony to renew their vows on their fiftieth anniversary. The second unusual thing was that they were under 50 feet of water.
Jack and Diane met when both were studying at UT Knoxville and lived in the same apartment building. She was a senior and he was a graduate student. They got married a week after she graduated. He went on to work at Eastman as a chemical engineer until retiring 19 years ago, and she is now a professor emerita at East Tennessee State University, having taught and done research in marine biology for 43 years.
The Nelsons started diving together 40 years ago. They began learning to dive in a class at ETSU, where both were pursuing their doctorates. They practiced in Boone and South Holston lakes.
Eventually, a friend in their class invited them to dive in the Bahamas, where the warm water and teeming ocean life hooked both of them. From there they got involved with a local dive club; then Diane started organizing her own trips. Since then, they’ve traveled all over the world to dive, from Hawaii, to Fiji, to Papua New Guinea.
But the Nelsons favorite place is Indonesia, which Diane says boasts the richest marine biodiversity on the planet. When they dove there in 2014, they decided that in 2016, when their 50th anniversary came around, they wanted to come back to renew their vows. It seemed only natural they would do it where they’d spent so much of their time together: under the sea.
On June 11, the day after Diane’s birthday, the couple descended to the bottom of an area of the ocean near Wakatobi, one of Indonesia’s many islands. Diane wore a black and white dive suit and a light blue scarf around her head as a veil. Her bouquet was a plastic rod with plastic leaves glued to it that had been fashioned by the ship’s crew.
Jack also wore a black and white dive suit, but the designs on his looked like snakeskin. Fourteen other diver friends came along. Officiating the ceremony was Wendy Brown, the cruise director of the Dewi Nusantara. She wrapped herself in a white bedsheet, and Jack and Diane called her the Wedding Priestess.
Although some dive crews have equipment that allows them to speak to each other, Jack and Diane did not, so the whole ceremony was conducted by gesture. Wendy welcomed everyone with her arms wide. Then she turned to bride and bridegroom and crossed her arms, signaling the vows of taking each other until death do us part. Jack took a ring carved from a piece of shell and put it on Diane’s finger. Finally, the two kissed by bumping their masked heads together.
During a post-trip visit at the Nelsons’ home, what first seems to have allowed Jack and Diane’s marriage to last 50 years is all they have in common. As they watch the video on their couch, they laugh at the same parts. As they describe the event, one of them begins talking and the other picks up the storyline midsentence. They’re wearing matching t-shirts with the Dewi Nusantara logo on them. Both have Ph.Ds. Both are scientists. Both love adventure and exploring the world. Both love diving.
But that’s too simple an explanation. They are just as quick to say a big part of their success has been finding things they can do apart from each other.
Jack plays the organ, occasionally for the church. For the past few years he’s gone down to Florida and taken classes with Hector Olivera, a world renowned organist. His wife, as he wryly notes, even lets him stay at another woman’s house when he goes on the trips.
Diane is a painter. Her work fills the house – everything from her first painting of a tree in a snowy field to abstract collisions of colors inspired by parts of fish. Every year, she and six other of her biologist friends travel somewhere and do biological fieldwork for a week.
Time also has played a role.
The first 30 years are the hardest, Jack says. Diane insists that communication and hard work are the keys to a good marriage, but that both have gotten easier as the years pass. Time has worn Jack and Diane into shapes that still don’t fit together perfectly – they both admit to occasional arguments and disagreements – but come as close as anyone could ever hope to be.
Six years ago, the Nelsons started taking vacations in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. It’s a lovely place, a resort on the beach with a gracious staff that treats them like family.
For most of their lives, Jack and Diane have gone places to explore, to dive, and to deepen and strengthen the bonds between them. But at Cabo San Lucas, they admit to doing nothing. After decades of adventures through marriage, diving, and even combining the two, the Nelsons have found a place where, as Diane says, “We just sit together and watch the ocean.”