A Submarine State of Mind

Practicing taking out my regulator under water... looks like I'm dancing though.

It may look like I’m dancing, but I’m actually practicing removing and replacing my regulator (the thing that lets you breathe) underwater.



My instructor José (alias Jimbo), who took all the photos on his GoPro

My instructor José (alias Jimbo), who took all the photos on his GoPro, and a curious sea lion



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.



Quotidian Galápagos

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobál

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal

Mornings are quiet and slow, like a full-bodied stretch. More often than not, a fine drizzle covers the island and the early risers walk through it with confidence, knowing it to be temporary. Sea lions blanket the beaches, breaking the silence with all manner of belches and roars and deep-throated coughs. The sky is punctuated with large seabirds keeping an eye on the transparent water, searching for breakfast. Blazing crabs crouch and jump from rock to rock while taciturn iguanas do their best to blend in, usually piled on top of one another.


If there are guests at the hotel, I wake up early to help serve them breakfast. If not, I sometimes wake up early anyway to walk the malecón, or boardwalk. If I face the northwest, gazing past the moored ships, the rocky headlands, and the endless ocean, I am looking towards home. Thousands of miles away, people I love are hitting snooze on their alarm clocks or putting curlers in their hair. Turning my back to the Pacific, looking over the low buildings of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, I am facing the direction I will be heading once I leave this sleepy town, the mainland of Ecuador and the countries to the south of it.

The shoreline near La Lobería

The shoreline near La Lobería

The pace does not pick up much as the day progresses. Stores that opened only a short while before close for a few hours for lunch and a siesta. Humans and sea lions (or lobos marinos) alike find benches to recline on, the former chat quietly, the latter move only in order to situate themselves more comfortably. The sea lions are everywhere, and the mindful stroller knows to watch out for them underfoot as they don’t take kindly to being stepped on.


As ungainly and clownishly as these creatures (the sea lions, not the humans) move on land, their movements underwater are more graceful than anything I’ve seen. I have had the pleasure of being able to observe them from the ocean floor during scuba sessions, where they come close enough to bite my floating hair and watch me curiously and without fear. I can’t even explain how beautiful it is to breathe underwater and, looking up, see the bubbles race towards the air, the sunlight refracting through the water like molten gold, while the sea lions dart and spin through sunbeams like birds on the wing.


The beauty here, on this outpost of land that inspired the theory of evolution, is something to be felt more than seen. It sits at the back of your throat. You sense it behind your knees, in the pit of your stomach, it climbs the vertebrae of your spine, and curls up at the base of your skull. I wish I could leave a piece of my consciousness here, so that I could come back to it in a moment and relive the tranquility and corporeal beauty of it. I want to swallow a part of it and carry it with me. I want to sink into the sea and become as all-encompassing as it is, touching both home and this island at once.


Night steals silently in, turning the sea from aquamarine to indigo, the stars slowly wrapping themselves in brilliance like mantles. Wind swoops in from across the water, washing away the scent of human activity, breathing freshness into the dusk. I watch sea lions lumber onto the beach; the pups nuzzle against their mothers seeking food and comfort. People close up shop and wander the streets, calling out to one another in passing. Tourists and locals alike have a Pilsener at one of the handful of bars. But usually before midnight, silence returns like the prodigal son, and everything begins again.


I found this quote by the poet Robert Pinsky in the book I was reading today while sitting on the boardwalk with my back to the sea. I wrote it on my arm so I could immediately commit it to memory.

When I had no roof, I made audacity my roof.

That about sums up this whole trip.DSC_0004