No one is supposed to be alive in the ocean. It’s like going to Mars.
You know how a fish looks on land after twenty minutes? Flip that and reverse it. The ocean is an alien world, and you are not a fish. The ocean is terrifying.
Last week we were in Grand Cayman scubadiving. I grew up in Central Texas. My family, we are People of the Plains. What is this ocean? Why am I in it? WHAT MONSTERS ARE UNDERNEATH?I had nightmares before I left about floating to the bottom and watching the glassy surface get farther and farther away.
I went to Grand Cayman with my husband, and we went scubadiving because I love him. He has dreamed of scubadiving his entire life. As a kid, he used to wear his mother’s dive suit and pretend he was exploring this sea. For his 30th birthday we both got certified to scuba dive, and he took to it so naturally, so beautifully at home, that I almost forgot I was also at the bottom of the sea attached to life support.
Let me tell you what scubadiving is like:
On the boat I prepare. I do my calming breaths. I empty my mind. I squirt a little baby shampoo on the inside of my goggles so they don’t fog up and render me blind in the sea. I squeeze into a wetsuit and put on flippers. I tie weights around my waist. Yes, this is something every scuba diver does. You literally tie heavy weights to your body so that that you can assure you sink to the ocean floor.
Thank god for Andrew, the Caymanian teenager who hoists the tank onto my back. “Looking good, man,” he says. I waddle to the edge of the boat.
I sit and listen to the waves lapping at the sides. (IT’S LIKE THEY ARE TRYING TO REACH ME.) I scoot back until I feel unstable and put the regulator in my mouth. “This is the thing that keeps me alive,” I think. “This is where the air comes from.” The bit in my mouth is shaped like a sports mouthguard. I will have a headache later from how hard I clench it in my jaws.
“Go ahead,” Andrew yells. “See you at the bottom.”
I fall backward and suddenly the world I belong in becomes a swirl of water and bubbles, and I am breathing in short breaths because it is cold and I am so suddenly an astronaut in space. The universe is now mostly blue.
Below me is the ocean floor with shapes I can now see. The edges of rocks and even a few moving things are clear now. I start to feel ocean water on my nose. I hold my goggles with one had against my forehead and breath hard through my nose to feel bubbles shoot over the top of my lips until the water is gone. I will repeat this over and over, both when I feel water collecting and when I am overcome by the need to feel air in my nose again.
Pain in my ears. I swim up a little to pinch my nose and push air into my eardrums. Before scubadiving I didn’t know my mouth was connected to my ears. “If you can’t clear your ears, you can’t dive,” they told us in class.” One of my ears is particularly difficult. For a week before this trip I put drops in my ears to clear everything out. Now when I push air I hear a squeeeeeeeeeeek then the pain is gone. I can sink again.
I experience the first miracle of scubadiving while I sink – A person can fall eight stories and not die when they hit the bottom. I sink and sink, and the creatures get bigger. The fan corals wave. My friends and loved ones are already waiting for me, hovering above the ground. I keep clearing your ears and listening to the squeaking against your eardrum, the tiny protest. But then suddenly I am there 80 feet below the surfaces, hovering above the ground.
“Breathe,” I tell myself. I’m the only one who can give myself encouraging words now. “Never stop breathing. Never hold your breath. Holding your breath can kill you. And when you breath, you will remind yourself that everything is ok. Your breath becomes the only thing that keeps you truly calm.”
Yoga breathing is the best training for scubadiving. “Return to your breath,” is the mantra I tell myself with every kick and every glance into the unknown blue.
“Return to your breath,” is what I tell myself when the barracuda starts following us. And also, “Swim behind Andrew.”
The second miracle of scubadiving is the realization that if I am going to die, I should at least enjoy it. And suddenly the whole place is a Seussian wonderland. The coral trees and the coral fans and the coral tubes and the coral bushes all dance in the surges of ocean water that make the whole world an alien ballroom. The thousands of fish are swirling and wiggling and dancing in kaleidoscope clusters.
And I can fly! Swimming in the water is just like flying in the air. Suddenly I am trying things. I am twisting around, looking up at the surface so far away, twirling in water, zigzaging side to side. It’s all very slow, but I am flying.
That’s when I experienced the best miracle, the one I sank down here hoping for, the one that is better than I imagined. My husband is there. He is swimming with slow kicks, his hands folded beneath him. I watch him watch the ocean, frame this memory with the backdrop of deep blue and coral behind him, fish surrounding him, and he is weightless. I watch my husband fly through space.
By this time we are at the edge of The Wall, a coral cliffside that drops 3000 feet. Unlike land, I can fly myself out past the cliff’s edge and look down fathoms. When my husband flew past, I watched him. I imagined what he might be thinking, his tiny frame surrounded by nothing but the space of infinite water. His hands still folded, he swims back to me and holds up the sign for, “I love you.”
When we turn around, Andrew has found a lobster, and we all gather around to watch it swing it’s wild antennae at us.
We stay down for thirty minutes on dives like this. That’s the length of an episode of 30 Rock or Fresh Prince of Bel Air. For thirty minutes we fly. For thirty minutes we watch parrot fish chew hard corals and filefish dash into homes they built from seafloor debris. And on one dive a sea turtle swims up to me, and we turn circles around each other until he swims out past The Wall.
At the end of the dive, we have to come up slowly, one foot every two seconds. At fifteen feet we do a Safety Stop for three minutes. This is a measure to help breath out the nitrogen that we have breathed into our blood. If we come up too fast our blood might fizz and cause problems all over your body, problems like an aneurysm. So we hover.
This is my last miracle. I look around. My husband is there. My other diving friends are there, and we are all hovering. We are held there like planets. I look around and there is nothing but blue space to see and an ocean floor that I just ran my fingers through.
Hovering there, I am in between two worlds, and I remember how vast we are and how small. We are butterflies flapping our wings and spreading our pollen. We are planets with our own gravity. We are bubbles that fill up and float and make others giggle.
I can see into the goggle of my man who floats with me, and above all I remember that I scuba dive for love.