I woke on my thirtieth birthday in a small hotel room in Marathon, Florida, one of islands dangling off the tip of the state called the Keys. I rose from the bed and looked in the mirror. There it was. Three-oh. So that’s what it looked like.
Not that bad. I didn’t seem to be in imminent danger of turning into an old lady, despite the fact that my age no longer started with a two.
The day before, E.J. found a good scuba shop and we spent the afternoon on the reef. I was nervous, because it had been a few years since my last dive. If I’d followed my training strictly, I would’ve taken a refresher course first. E.J. was impatient with that idea, so we rented our gear and spent an hour in the hotel pool refreshing ourselves. E.J.’s scuba skills never seemed to fade anyway, no matter how long he went between dives. I wasn’t nearly as experienced; my skills were tenuous, and diving required constant focus and effort. But the pool session brought them back, and I was eager to be back on the reef again.
The reef is like no other wilderness. It cannot be colonized by humans for anything but the shortest periods of time. We are guests on the reef in a way we’re not in terrestrial wilderness. On land, even miles away from the nearest fellow human, you know you could set up housekeeping with the right equipment, and much of it could be carried on your back. But our time on the reef is unquestionably at the sufferance of its residents, and limited by the amount of breathable air in the tanks on our backs. But the reef can be – and unquestionably is – harmed collaterally by human activity.
When I’m perched on the platform off the stern of a dive boat, it takes me a moment to will myself into the water. The ocean is opaque blue, and sometimes sloshing about wildly. There is no way to know what is just underneath the surface, no way to tell what you will meet when you enter the water. On the first ocean dive I ever did, during my training, I was violently seasick. “Trust me,” my dive instructor promised, “you won’t be seasick underneath.” I nodded and stumbled to the platform, only half believing I was going to leap into the unknown in this condition.
“Welcome to the food chain,” he said with a grin, two seconds before I scissor-stepped into the water.
I remembered that moment as I paused this time on the platform. But I entered the water this time, too, and as before, the world erupted into a bubbling blue. I was encased in azure; there was nothing else. After a few seconds I remembered to breathe through my regulator, and began swimming determinedly downward while I still had a sense of the orientation of the earth. There was no sound except the rushing of the ocean and my exhalations through the regulator, nothing in the world but a strange kind of breathing. I swam through the blue and the bubbles, trying to get to somewhere, but I only met more bubbles. The rational part of me knew where I was, but the primitive part of my brain stayed perched on the edge of anxiety.
And then a hand appeared from below, with a gold circle on one finger. I grabbed his hand and we proceeded downward. I had to focus as we swam ever downward, because this process wasn’t intuitive to me the way it was to him. I equalized my ears whenever I felt pressure, which was often. I had to move with purpose and force, because I’m a woman with body fat. Even weighed down with heavy metal weights around my waist, my body always wants to bob up to the surface like a beach ball. It felt perverse somehow, fighting the buoyancy of my body to explore a place I was not evolved to be, but I directed myself downward with determination.
Abruptly, the world became more than a sky-blue canvas punctuated by bubbles. There was an opening, a deepening of color, and my surroundings melted into a darker, moodier blue-green. I could see something down there, a community of sorts. Plants waved in the current next to coral. A bright yellow fish swam by and examined my mask as if interrogating me about my purpose in his home. He must be the passport control officer of the reef.
I was still clutching E.J.’s hand, and we swam over to a crevice where a moray eel poked its head out suspiciously. E.J. pointed at it, and I nodded. There is no smiling with a regulator in your mouth. The usual modes of expression are stifled while diving. There is no gasping, no words, no smiling. You can open your eyes a little wider under your mask, but that’s too subtle for your partner to notice. Nodding is the outer limits of the expression of amazement, so communication rests mostly on the previous understanding that seeing something like a moray eel is necessarily cause for joy. I felt very strange, seeing such things and being completely unable to express a natural reaction to them.
We swam this way over the reef for awhile, pointing at things – a barracuda, a lobster, a nurse shark – until the adrenaline burst from the sharp change in surroundings started to wear off. I had just begun to relax when we saw a large, dark-greenish-yellow object, about the size of a small kitchen tabletop, swimming toward us. We both paused, wondering what it was. The current moved us a little bit apart as we watched the creature approach, and now our arms were stretched out, connected only by our clinging fingers. The animal kept moving toward us, propelled by the rhythmic, graceful movements of its flippers, but, awestruck, we didn’t move away. We looked at each other as we both realized we were playing a game of chicken with a huge loggerhead turtle.
The turtle won. We had no choice but to let go of each other as the loggerhead, disinclined to swerve to miss us, broke through our fingers. We each ran a hand over the turtle’s shell as it passed. This reptile was enormous, and our fingers trailed on its back for what seemed like whole minutes. We stared after it for a moment, and then at each other. I squealed a little into my regulator, anything to vent some of the awe, but the denseness of the surrounding water rendered my outburst into a flat squeak. By then, the turtle was a fuzzy dark blob in the distance. And then it was gone.
We checked our gauges. Our time in the underwater wilderness had expired. It was time to leave the food chain, and enter a new decade.