Facing the Inner Leviathans of Doom (or learning how to scuba)

My close friend V. recently asked, “What was the most interesting place you visited… as in a spot you never expected to find yourself?”

What a great question! I went to so many places of interest, but there is one that I never imagined finding myself: underwater in a remote coral atoll in the Philippines watching a whale shark glide over head. A whale shark! The biggest fish on the planet!

12_Tubbataha_Whale Shark_DH
The whale shark that swam over my head in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines. Photo by Dr. Dave Harasti: http://www.daveharasti.com

It still seems unreal. But there is video evidence, so I know it happened. You can see my dive teammates suspended gracefully mid-water, while I flail about meters below trying not to kick the coral and breathing like a maniac in my excitement. (That’s me from about 25 seconds onward at the bottom of the frame.)

Okay, sure, sounds cool, you say. But what was so unexpected about finding myself there on a world adventure that could take me anywhere? Well, we have to go back in time to answer that question. Imagine…

It’s a sunny Saturday in July 1978 at a neighborhood garden store in the southern suburbs of Chicago. As her parents browse the flowers, a small girl sporting ponytails wanders into a display of swimming pools. She is tantalized by the thought of jumping into cool water on such a hot day, but as she looks up, a shadow falls across that otherwise carefree afternoon. She emits a shrill scream as the most menacing monster she can imagine glides across the surface. Salty little tears slip from her terrified eyes.

The girl’s parents arrive to find their inconsolable daughter staring up at an inflatable dolphin, it’s plastic fin bobbing innocently on the pool’s surface. The girl’s mother frowns at her father with a look that says, ‘See? This is what comes from joking with your children that there might be sharks in the bathtub.’

It did not matter to the girl that she was standing miles and miles from the sea; she was sure it could happen. Sometimes, at the pool or in the lake, she was afraid to close her eyes underwater, just in case she might open them to find herself in the ocean with the sharks and whales.

Later, when her first-grade glass visited the Field Museum in Chicago she encountered a narwhal in the lunchroom and nearly peed her panties. By first grade, she knew the replicas weren’t real, but it was still not easy eating a PB&J next to a horned leviathan.

'Male Narwhal or Unicorn. Greenland Shark.' (Monodon monoceros) By W. Scoresby. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Narwhal or Unicorn. Greenland Shark. (Monodon monoceros) By W. Scoresby. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Oh yes, that was me. Eventually, inflatable pool toys and museum models became less scary, which was helpful because in my first years in New York City, I worked at the American Museum of Natural History where I had to pass under a life-sized whale suspended from the ceiling many a time in my five-year tenure. I experienced an occasional shudder, but thankfully managed to control myself otherwise.

My fear of the actual ocean and the animals within it, however, remained fierce even into adulthood. I could swim for hours in contained water, but three steps into the sea would incite madly imaginative daydreams where I was carried off by a riptide or attacked by a confused shark, or both.

On occasional trips to Long Island beaches, I would venture into the water with friends. But after a few minutes of trying to act normal, I would surreptitiously hurry back to shore where the largest creature likely to feed on me was a sand fly.

Then in my early 30’s I met Nice Eyes, and he said, “Let’s go to Mexico.” And I really wanted to go to Mexico with Nice Eyes. I mean, who wouldn’t? Those eyes! (Sigh.)

Nice Eyes was so excited about snorkeling, and I didn’t want to let him down. I decided the only grown-up thing to do was to finally face the trauma left by that inflatable dolphin and get into the ocean. V. loaned me her gear, and Nice Eyes gave me a lesson in a hotel pool in Valladolid, our first and only stop before heading to coastal Tulum.

Now I enjoyed spending time with Nice Eyes, but he could be really thrifty. He spurned the idea of supervised activities that required paying someone else to watch you snorkel from their boat. So, we swam out from shore one morning on our own.

“See the breaking waves out there?” asked Nice Eyes.

“Where? Way, way out there!?”

“Yes, that’s the reef. That’s where we are going. That’s where all the fish and coral are.”

I thought, ‘Oh my god. He is crazy! I’ll never make it!’ But he looked at me with those eyes… So, I sat down and pulled on my fins. The scene that ensued is mortifying, for so many reasons.

To begin, all of our valuables were strapped onto a small inflatable pool raft that was tied to Nice Eyes (yes, a terrible idea!). Then, as soon as my face was in the water, I tried to suck air through my enclosed nose and came up sputtering.

Nice Eyes encouragingly said, “Grab onto the raft, I’ll steer us out.”

I threw my arms around it, looked down and tried not to breathe like a land-lover. Beneath the surface, I saw only dull rocks and murky fish. I tried my best to just kick and breathe, but I was cold, short of breath, and scared and every toss of the surf sent my gut aflutter. The shore was far back and the reef was far out, and I wasn’t sure Nice Eyes could keep me safe.

But mostly, I was human and I was in the ocean.

I yanked the cord attached to Nice Eyes’ ankle. He looked at me with exasperation and asked what was wrong. I said, “I don’t belong here!” and I started to cry, planting my fins down to realize we were only in waist-deep water, which increased my embarrassment but did not alleviate my fears.

I took the raft and swam back, stopping every few yards to have a small panic attack. Once I was out of the water, I did the only thing a beached city girl can do; I walked along the shore until I found a bar. The sun came out as my beer and guacamole arrived, and the day brightened.

Nice Eyes eventually made it back to the beach, exhausted and a little freaked out by the dark drop-off at the edge of the reef and the tons of fish he saw out in the Big Blue. Thank goodness I wasn’t there, I thought, and ordered another beer.

We tried snorkeling one more time from a kayak at a more populated spot on a sunny day but I panicked again and ruined our nice time.

In the years following, I met someone who was bitten by a shark while snorkeling on vacation and I saw the first five minutes of Open Water. And with the exception of knee-deep forays on Long Island beaches, I stayed out of the sea… until one hot, bright, calm day in 2012 in the Virgin Islands when everything changed.

On a day-sail trip in the Virgin Islands
On a day-sail trip in the Virgin Islands

I was aboard a catamaran on a day sail with a super fun couple from Pittsburg and a handsome captain. My new friends from Pittsburgh jumped in the water with glee, and the Captain winked and said, “Come on, it will be easy. I’ll stay with you the whole time.”

So, I jumped in and listened intently to my first official snorkeling lesson. Then we kicked off, and what I saw below the surface was not a scary depth of frightening creatures, but a gorgeous landscape filled with beautiful things… wavy fan corals, spiny black sea urchins, bright fish, and a barracuda (that did not try to eat us). It was fascinating!

I told my scuba-diving friend T. about the encounter after returning home and he said, “Imagine being down there swimming around with the fish! It’s so much better.”

And I thought, “No way in hell…”

But he was very convincing (and also quite handsome… in case you are seeing a theme). And he didn’t give up after the first try. Eventually I realized that I did indeed want to see what else was undersea. And more than that, I wanted to see what was deep inside myself. Did I have the grit to face the inner goliaths that kept me from exploring the great blue?

I started a scuba certification course in August 2013. It wasn’t easy. I nearly drowned myself during the mask-removal exercise in the pool, which triggered involuntary tears of frustration. Yes! Humiliating!

I called my dear friend Mrs. O and said, “I’m not sure I’m going to make it!”

But I did. I passed the pool classes and I met T. in the Caribbean in November that year to finish the open water “tests.” Oh, I was such a wreck! I was seasick on my first dive and still terrified. But once I was in the water and looking around, I had so much fun.

I took one more dive trip on my own in the Caribbean after that, but even as a certified diver, I wasn’t sure the narwhals of my imagination had been quelled. I was still trying to answer that question when I landed in Hawaii in February 2015 with 18 dives in my logbook. I would continue trying to answer it as I traveled through Indonesia and the Philippines in the months following.

Underwater near North Sulawesi in Indonesia around dive #110. Photo (c) Timon Bogumil
Underwater in Indonesia around dive #110. Photo by Timon Bogumil.

When I left Asia last June, I had 115 dives logged. With the steady pace of a snail, that terror I had held onto for so long turned into a healthier respect for the force of the sea and the life within it. I did indeed find myself in nerve-wracking conditions like strong currents, breathtaking thermoclines and high swells. But I learned how to react. And, I encountered all sorts of sea creatures along the way—from giant manta rays and thresher sharks to flamboyant cuttlefish and tiny nudibranchs!

And now? Well, now I’m land-locked in the city, and I can’t wait to get back in the water.

As for that whale shark, at 5 meters (15 feet) it was one of the smaller biggest fish in the sea, but it was definitely the largest creature I’ve seen to date. If I could only tell myself at four years old that the real giants of the ocean are so beautiful!

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