The bay was calm, with an easy entrance. Rocks everywhere of course, but that was necessary to the ultimate experience. Sand wouldn’t do. There just isn’t much to see in sand, except sand. Which is what I like about sand, it’s a relatively predictable element in an environment I’m not comfortable in.
The water was colder than I expected or wanted. I want bath water temperatures, even in hot climates. Halfheartedly I sat down and let the water shock my armpits. Not enough to make me shiver, but enough to complain about. My guide was unsympathetic. “No whining, this is going to be great.”
The rocks were slippery and the waves kept pushing me unexpectedly toward the shore. When I say unexpectedly, it’s not because I don’t know the waves are coming, or that I don’t know their destination, but more that I don’t know when they are coming. Also, I’m busy not drowning in two feet of water. There's been no intake of actual salt water yet, but enough jostling and gulping to make me wonder if I can get my flippers on without actually going under. A hand grabs my arm and keeps me in place.
I walk backwards into the sea as instructed, tripping over my own feet. Rocks. Flippers. Algae. Was this going to be worth it? The last time I swam in the tropics I nearly drowned myself – all by myself. In a pure panic. The memory came back, inopportune, but the hand on my arm is there. Steadying.
The hand pulls me along in the right direction – toward the deeper sea. A voice guides and encourages me to be brave. To keep moving deeper into the darker blue. Not to be a chicken shit. Okay, maybe that last part was in my own head.
Treading water now.
The water is over my head. We are past the breakers but this is the ocean after all, and there are waves. I kick my feet and float upright, sort of. I listen to instructions on how to put on my mask, how to breathe though the snorkel, given once before earlier in the day, repeated now. “Don’t worry about the snorkel, it will stay afloat – that’s what they do.” Right. All of them except for mine which will fill up with water the minute I let go.
This might be a good time to admit my asthma and the fact that breathing is something I don’t take for granted. I carry two inhalers and I know where they are at all times. Air matters, even more than for the average person. This drowning thing can happen out of the water. It is something to be avoided.
Gear in place and tired of trying to stay above the water (this floating upright stuff is both exhausting and boring) I hear the voice say “just put your face down into the water and float, I’ll take care of everything else.” And she did.
And the world changed. It was like going from black and white to color. From color to smellovision. From smellovision to total immersion. I was underwater and it was amazing.
Directly below I saw a bright yellow fish – the kind I’d only ever seen in fish tanks. The hand squeezed mine and pointed: that way showed elegant coral and brightly-colored triggerfish chasing each other. The other way showed crazy-colored parrotfish eating the coral. In front of us: sleek and silvery trumpetfish, gliding and completely indifferent to us. Hundreds of sea urchins. How can I get those off of the rocks without getting hurt by the spines? They’re delicious, I need to eat them. Thanks to TSA I have no knife. But the urchins will never be fresher than right now. Surely there must be a… wait! What’s this? Water in my nose. Water in my mask! I’m leaking! Leaking!!!! Am I going to drown? I don’t want to drown. Breathe in. Breathe out. Through My Mouth. Focus. Listen to Darth Vader sounds in my ears. That’s me. Breathing through my mouth. Face down. Floating. Body straight, arms out in my Superman pose. Always the hand in mine to keep me connected. I am not drowning. Yet.
Everywhere I looked there was something to see. Sea life. An underwater world I had previously only known from watching Animal Planet and National Geographic. At aquariums. In fish tanks. Flat, black and white versions of a 3D technicolor world.
Slightly disoriented, I realize that I don’t actually know where I am. I could be close to the shore or far from the shore. Floating out to sea or about to crash on the rocks. I have no idea.
The hand holds me. When the hand swims forward, I do too. If the hand turns left, I turn with it. The hand decides. It enables me to focus on what I see, not where I am. I am not drowning, I am not lost. I am not floating out to sea. I am in a bay. I am with a friend. I am discovering new life.
Afterward there will be two worlds: the world of air and the world of water. I am a foreigner to the latter and I can never immigrate. But I will visit again.
Eventually I won’t need the hand. But today it keeps me grounded. It holds me. So I can let go.