I was recently reading a book in which the protagonist goes off into the wilderness in order to escape from a life that is falling apart. When she’s almost finished with her journey, she thinks about all the things she had done wrong, but then acknowledges that by getting herself to where she was, she had done right.
That’s how I felt 80 feet below the ocean’s surface.
Somehow, in spite of all the mistakes I’ve made, relationships I’ve let go, jobs I’ve been let go from, opportunities I’ve wasted, I was here, scuba diving in the Galápagos. Thus, in my mind, in that instant, my whole life felt like a success.
If you’ve never gone diving, it’s not really something I can make you understand. It’s alien, like being in another world, as close to outer space as most of us are ever going to get. The only sounds you hear are the shifting of the sand and the ceaseless motion of the tide and the sound of your own breathing. Breathing in itself is no longer something automatic, but something conscious and intentional. Hold your breath and you risk injuring your lungs. Breathe too rapidly and risk running out of air.
I’m very comfortable in the water. Confident of my own abilities, you might say. But the ocean is not just any body of water. The ocean is a bitch. She will chew you up and spit you out (or swallow you down, depending on her mood) faster than you can execute a single breast stroke. You feel that power differently underwater. Swimming on the surface you feel your body pushed back and forth by the current and the tides, you dive under to avoid the big breakers, you kick your legs to ride the smaller swells. But beneath the surface, it is much calmer, the tugging of the tides less insistent. You feel the pressure of her weight in your head, warning you to equalize (by plugging your nose and blowing) your ears, and on your shoulders, pushing you, along with the help of your diving weights, inexorably downwards. And yet once you find neutral buoyancy, neither sinking nor floating, she seems almost tender.
Despite my level of comfort, I did have a moment of anxiety, down there on the bottom. I never told my scuba instructor this, but I had an uncle, whom I never met, who drowned scuba diving in Corona del Mar, California. For this reason I couldn’t tell my mom or grandmother what I was doing until it was done, so they wouldn’t worry. But with my knees buried in the sand, following my air bubbles with my eyes, up up up, I began to think about him, and I started to breathe too fast. I realized what I was doing quickly. You can’t panic underwater. At 80 feet below, you can’t just peace out and shoot for the surface, or you put yourself in danger of decompression sickness, which sounds all kinds of awful. So I closed my eyes and focused on my breath, just like in yoga. In and out, as deeply and as slowly as I could. The moment passed.
It is fascinating to be privy to a world that most people will never see. I watched schools of hundreds of fish swirl around me like amaranthine bolts of silk. I saw sea cucumbers that looked like they belonged in a Lovecraft story. A small fish endemic to the Galapagos that seems to actually walk the ocean floor on two unwieldy hind legs. I swam through a hundred year old wreck and imagined its more buoyant past compared with its now completely inundated present. When you are underwater, all you have is your breath and your thoughts. Sometimes these take up all your attention and you have to remind yourself to look around.
Also, I am apparently really bad at reading hand signals. My instructor had a whole array of them and I was excruciatingly slow on the uptake.
I remember being under the ocean as if it were a dream. It’s not a linear memory. I didn’t see this and then this and then do that. It’s like flashes of imagined landscapes, except I know they were real.
It’s hard to smile around a respirator, but the soreness in my jaws later told me I never stopped trying.