The zodiac, with deafening outboard motors, speeds toward the open sea leaving behind white, churning water. Ten people clad in black wetsuits, shouldering heavy air tanks, sit on the edge, five on each side. They wear weighted belts and air-fillable vests that help them sink or float, and airtight goggles that help them see. Each clench a mouthpiece attached to a tube that carries air from the tank; and each carry a dive computer that shows depth, remaining air and, most importantly, when to get the hell out of the water.
I am sitting on the starboard side, teeth clenched, stomach knotted, struggling to breath deeply to calm my nerves. There are so may things that can go wrong – running out of air, coming up too fast and getting the bends, drifting too far from the boat, being stung or bitten by venomous creatures, panicking. The water pressing down on a body increases by 14.7 pounds per square inch every 33 feet. At ninety feet, forty-four pounds of pressure will press me from every direction. What the heck am I doing here?
Silently I review what I need to do when we get there, somewhere out there where sharks and rays were promised. Put on my fins, confirm I have 11 pounds around my waist; spit into my goggles, swirl it around and rinse; inflate my buoyancy vest so I don’t sink; check that I can breath through my mouthpiece; and when everything checks out, stand on the edge of the zodiac and press my goggles tight against my face with one hand and the mouthpiece with the other. Only then can I leap into the water. Why the heck am I doing this?
Once in the water, my ordeal begins. I let enough air out of my buoyancy vest so I can sink slowly to give my ears time to clear, a difficult process for me. It’s the ever-increasing force pressing on my eardrums. I pinch my nose, press my lips, and blow. Good at five feet. At ten feet a piercing pain in my ears, and I kick up until the pain subsides. I pinch my nose again, press my lips, and blow. Good for another five feet. I repeat this several times while my diving buddies wait patiently at the bottom.
Finally, I float and move with gentle kicks of the fins, my body relaxed and my mind closed to disasters. I feel calm and a world apart. The only sounds are my breathing and the bubbles from exhaled air tickling my cheeks and racing up to the surface. I am weightless like an astronaut in space, floating, floating.
I see below me white sands landscaped like a desert dune. On one side is a small island of corals — some dead, some thriving — covered with pink and pale white anemones, their myriad tentacles reaching out in a graceful dance to catch food drifting by. A cloud of yellow tang fish flitters around a staghorn coral with their dance. Triggerfish, damselfish, clownfish, angelfish, and other fishes whose names I don’t know, are looking for food or protecting their territory; a psychedelic scenery of bright yellow, orange, green, blue, white, black, and all the shades in between. On the other side is a deep, murky void.
Suddenly, I am jolted by a loud noise, someone clanging on the air tank. I look around and see a person pointing two fingers to his mask and then pointing into the murky beyond. I strain hard to see. Two 6- to 7-foot sharks slowly materialize. Reef sharks. No one panics, since they are harmless. Nonetheless, seeing a large shark heading towards me, my breathing becomes fast and shallow. They come close enough for me to look into their black, black eyes, a look into the abyss. Then, out of nowhere a manta ray comes swimming toward us. These are pale grey, maybe ten to fifteen feet wide. A manta ray is like a floating carpet with a long tail and a head that looks like bulging headlights. This one is curious about the strange black creatures with bubbles coming out of their head. He circle around so close I can look in his eyes and almost touch him. I take a deep breath, ecstatic; I have never come so close to a ray in the open sea. And, I know why I am here, why I submit to all the fuss, all the discomforts and all the fears.