What do you see?
“After you have been at a place a while, it is in your blood.” L said about Bora Bora. As soon as he saw me, he immediately recognized the black pearl suspended on a black silk rope around my neck. “It’s the style,” he said, “I know it is from Bora Bora.” I can tell that even though he is no longer there, the place is stuck inside of him.
At Kona Village Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii, I went snorkeling for the first time. I hadn’t been in the ocean in ages. I didn’t even much care for tropical islands, beaches, or blue-blue water. With a banana belt around my waist and the mask tightly suctioned to my face like an octopus tentacle the underwater world unveiled itself to me. What do I see? Yellow fish, blue fish, red fish, rainbow fish. As uncomfortable as I had been in the water, I still jumped off the boat when we spotted a super pod of dolphins. Dolphins layered with their brightly smiling faces. I saw a mother and her young. The sounds they made were the first mammals I had ever heard underwater–a kind of cheerful laughter. I tried to go deeper, but the flotation belt glued me to the surface. What is this? What is this whole other thing? Just like that, a flicker grew into a ravenous fire.
That was three years ago. In the Philippines, I got advance open water certified. I am still terrified every time I go in the water, but I do it anyway despite my fear. It gets easier every time. Last year I suffered from post-concussive syndrome as a result of the car that struck me half a block from my apartment. In Thailand, strolling along the gold sand beach of Koh Lanta I mentioned to a dive master certified companion that I am a nervous diver. He suggested that I get further certification. “The more comfortable in the water you are, the better of a diver you will be.” During the deep dive portion of the advance open water course, I started to worry. What if the pressure is too much? My headaches come and go; at times they are so heavy I have no choice but to sleep. And sleep I did after my dives in the Philippines. Each dive wore me out. Exhausted me. I started to think, I cannot do this. Why am I doing this?
What do you see?
During this trip to Moyo Island, I exceeded and expanded my experiences–fast drift dives, greater depths, longer bottom time, less weight. I hadn’t even realized that my dive master determined I was advanced enough to go on a dive that is known for having a swift current. He commended me on my buoyancy. I even dropped a kilogram from my weight belt. But I was so caught up in looking into the nooks and crannies, I hadn’t realized I dropped to 35 meters (114 feet). No headaches, though. No nitrogen narcosis. Fine. Everything was fine. My dive master motioned me back up, so I ascended to 25 meters. I didn’t nap once after my any of the dives during this trip.
Captain Cook’s Monument. Three years ago. We kayaked across Kealakekua Bay while spinner dolphins performed their acrobatic show. Once there, I gazed out at the mirror like surface of the water. In the flat spaces in between the gentle ripples of the water, bright lemon fish the size of my hand could be seen. I remember sitting on the rock, feeling the breeze from the afternoon wind on my face, trying to gather the courage to venture off on my own, with barely any confidence in my swimming skills. I don’t remember how long I spent snorkeling there, but I do remember the difficulties I had with the life vest securely tied to my body.
Bora Bora. One year ago. I love French Polynesia like I love nowhere else in this world. I know why it is a part of L, and I understand how he feels. I long to be back there pretty much every day. The smell of the gardenias that waft through the air, the simplicity of wearing flowers as decorations, the heaviness of the humidity in the air. And those sunsets. Adding reds and yellows to a blue and green landscape. I did two dives on one day. The visibility on the first dive didn’t extend very far—the murky water meant nutrients, the very kind of condition conducive to manta ray sightings. And boy did we see mantas! The second dive, I spent a good portion of it hovered in a ball as a 6-7 foot lemon shark with rows of teeth circled us. Magnificent creature. Beautiful. It had just been a few months after my accident, so my headaches came and I retired to my hotel room, completely wiped out and slept for hours.
Moyo Island. One year later. I went diving as often as I could. No hesitation on the descents. But every time I strapped the BCD on, nervousness still struck. I shook it off. Because I have to prove to myself that I can do this, that I can get better, that I am better. “What will we see?” I ask, not really caring about the answer. “Sharks, turtles, corals, fish.” That’s always the answer, isn’t it? We will see something. I don’t care about the answer because it doesn’t matter what we expect to see, only that I get to see. Diving exhilarates me. I never know what to expect, but I keep looking. I keep searching.
The reefs here are immaculate. Healthy, stacked, old, strong, big, vibrant. The fish. Swarms of them. At depth, they were streamers of electric blue glinting like moonbeams as the shoals changed directions again and again. In the shallows where the coral gardens grew, confetti of rainbow colored fish fluttered about me. At Angel Reef, when I did my safety stop, my eyes were wide open, watching the pastel flutter of numerous small fish fall around me as if I had stepped in the midst of a parade.
What do I see?
My friend said to me that she could never dive because she is too scared. I didn’t respond. I didn’t know how to. I wanted to say, I am scared, too. But look! Have you ever seen soft coral move in current as the sunlight race across the surface above? I can remember the blue glow angling in through the open spaces inside the shipwrecks in Coron as we glided through and I remember the giant lion fish lazily floating near the corals at the top of the wrecks, their fancy fins extending like many strands of silk caught in the wind. I have seen reefs so thick and luscious that only the word forest or jungle could describe them. I am scared, too. But I don’t let the fear cripple me. I refuse to let it. I want to tell her, it’s like anything else, you just have to keep practicing because it gets easier. You also have to want it enough.
Ha’apai, Tonga. Two years ago. The first time I felt a humpback whale song. It vibrates right through the heart. I have heard whale songs on documentaries, but nothing is like experience. Though I am scared that the five feet swells will swallow me and hide me from view, I jump in the water anyway, and I kick my fins with determination. The encounter lasted seconds before she sank into the deep, but I looked into the eye of a whale, a very curious whale who wanted to inspect me just as I wanted to look at her. Contact. What do I see? I see life.
How long does it take for a place to enter your blood? How many years, months, weeks, days–what quantifiable amount of time would it take for a landscape to be a part of your being?
I learned to swim as a child because my father threw me in the ocean. Coming from a fishing village, the ocean runs through his veins. Life depended on the sea. Weekends of my youth were spent waking before the break of day, gathering our gear, and driving to the ocean. I never really learned how to fish. Instead, I passed the time by staring at the water. My life has been built around the water. When my father left, the water left, too.
I don’t know this place. I can hardly name or identify everything I see. At times, I don’t even know what it is I see. Three years ago, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Picasso and a titan triggerfish. Or what fire coral looked like. I wouldn’t be able to describe the beauty of stag horn, cabbage, sea fans and plumes, or brain coral. The more I can name, the more my world grows. The more life enters. I want to be able to look at a reef and identify the different species, to know this place because it has attached itself into my interior. This is life: existing in darkness and light, fluctuating temperatures, precarious balances, born, living, and dying.
I dream of diving. Raja Ampat. The Red Sea. The Galapagos. In between continental plates in Iceland. The kelp forests of California. The sardine run in South Africa. I yearn to see a whale shark. I can hardly wait for the year I will get to go on a live aboard, traipse across the ocean to Papua New Guinea, underneath the antarctic sea ice, or seeing the beautiful caves that can only be seen through diving. It took years before I could get back in the water, and now I can swim comfortably and confidently, even free diving. In between dives, I would snorkel the bay and near the pier at our resort. Prying me away from the water would be like dragging a kid out of toy store while her fists are crammed with hundred dollar bills. My blood is made of water. All I want to see is life.