I’m floating thirty feet under the surface of Puget Sound in a diffuse, sage-hued light. As I breathe in, my regulator’s second stage feeds me a cybernetic rush of air. Exhaling, roiling bubbles surround me, billowing past my mask, ears, and neck. I’m hovering three feet above a tire reef, and my sphere of visibility fades away to nothingness fifteen feet away. Five minutes earlier, swimming out to the reef, I found myself with fifteen inches. Surrounded by suspended muck and bits of kelp, I kept up steady fin kicks as I held my compass close to my mask. After a few moments, I broke out of the clouding turbidity into an experience I will remember the rest of my life.
At forty-seven degrees, I can feel the water leeching heat away from the core of my chest through fourteen millimeters of neoprene wetsuit. William, a dive master with more than a decade of experience, motions me over to a tire, towering white anemones crowning its upper tread. I give a gentle kick and glide toward him. As I approach, he reaches into the tire and draws out an eighteen-inch-long sea cucumber, green-brown in the filtered light and bristling with fleshy spikes. He sets the little beast in my hand. It has almost no weight here, and I can’t really feel its softball sized girth through my neoprene glove. But still, it’s there in my hand, a living creature from the floor of the ocean.
Given the context of my life, I cannot quite convince myself that what I’m experiencing is real. As a child, I spent years living on the Oregon coast and would often sit on the docks staring at the cold waters of Yaquina bay. I’d look beneath the bending surface, down the length of the submerged piers, slick with sea weed and barnacles, my gaze stopping where the stout supports faded away in the jade-darkness. I felt a siren’s song rising up from that unknown, hypnotic and malicious. Something evil and unknowable lay down there, something that would swallow me whole if it could just get me close enough.
But now I’m down here, surrounded by life, holding it in my own hand. I was right to think this place would consume me, but not as I expected. I understand now that the sirens who called to me when I was young, while dangerous, aren’t evil. Down here the heartbeat of the world pulses in a deep rhythm, perilous and beautiful. It fills my heart, and makes me feel young.
After a few moments, I set the sea cucumber back in the tire where William found it. I look over at him, and he gives me a thumbs-up. Above him, I see a school of some kind of fish, no idea what they are, drifting past. The fish seem tropical in shape and formation but have the hard-core, rock-faced coloring of this northern Pacific Ocean. William turns away and kicks his fins. As he exhales, flattened bubbles rise away from him. I watch them loft toward the soft glow above. The bubbles vanish beyond our line of visibility as they continue on toward the surface. Looking back at the sea floor, I see a crab scuttling by, claws up.
I float over the crab like a wraith in the fog of an old church graveyard, watching it side-step away. As the crab disappears among white and rust-colored anemones, I think of what a strange career I have chosen. I had to write about diving and couldn’t figure out how the scene would feel, so I had to come out here and live it. Writing has drawn me out into areas of life I otherwise would not have experienced, and this bitter-cold place is no exception. In sinking down into this world, I am confronted with a truth, and I can already feel it driving me forward anew. Hovering over this reef, suspended in the wild, I have no doubts that there is absolutely no way to fail when you are whole-heartedly chasing your dreams.
Here’s to dive masters William, Larry, and Jim for an amazing experience. I appreciate you sharing your love of diving with me. I also appreciate the excellent course material put together by PADI. If anyone is interested in diving, I cannot recommend this organization highly enough. www.PADI.com
Now to get that diving scene re-written…