The wall of rock in front of me seems to be moving. How can this be? I swim closer and realize that I am not hallucinating from nitrogen narcosis. The movement is real, but it is not the rock. It is a million tiny, navy blue fish which live on its surface.
I feel myself begin to float upward. Slowly, I let the air out of my lungs. Then when I am sure that they’re empty, I let out some more. The ascending stops and I sink back down. The amplified sound of my breath provides rhythm to my movements. I revel in the sensation of weightlessness. My plan to take advantage of Thailand’s fabulous diving opportunities is off to a good start.
I was a child when I first fell in love with the ocean. It was 1977, our family’s second trip to Hawaii. We had made our first trip the year before because my father had won a sales contest. We made the next trip because the first one was so great. Between times, my parents, brother and I all took classes to learn snorkeling and skin-diving.
I remember seeing the colorful pictures in the book “Fishes of Hawaii” and thinking, “Yeah, but I’m not really going to see things like that.” Eight years old and I already had a sense of cynicism, already knew that the reality would not live up to the advertisement.
Then I put my face in the water and discovered how wonderful it is to be wrong!
Wanting to see more of that marine wonderland was the motivation for learning to dive. The ocean is truly another world (not to mention 70% of this one!). It is a landscape shaped more by animals than plants. They come in a myriad of colors- gold, turquoise, emerald and pink- so bright that they would make neon jealous.
To my surprise, I’ve found the process of learning to dive to be rewarding in itself. I like the skills it makes me cultivate. Diving is like yoga- it requires bringing awareness to body and breath. You have to resist the urge to flap your hands around. You use the amount of air you are holding in your lungs like the buttons on an elevator to go up or down, but it takes a few moments for the changes to take effect so you have to be patient. Diving is willfully slowing down.
My advanced diving course was held at a place called Black Tip Resort on the island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. I had chosen this place because it was a bit isolated and promised a tranquil environment far from the sex and drugs for which tourism in Thailand is also famous. The resort was named for black tipped sharks which I saw none of in spite of going on six dives. Now I had come to the town of Krabi on the other side of the Malay peninsula to check things out in the Andaman sea. I chose Krabi rather than better-known town of Phuket because I thought it might be cheaper. Diving is, after all, a splurge. Hotels and meals in Krabi were affordable and I especially enjoyed the night market with its cheap eats.
I went diving on December 26th. Thailand being a primarily Buddhist country, the day before had been uneventful, but today’s date was notable- exactly three years after the devastating tsunami had destroyed so many lives here. Today things were quiet.
“I want to see a shark,” I told the dive master, as if I could just order up what I wanted the ocean to deliver. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said agreeably, then went on to explain that the place we were going to sometimes had leopard sharks and that if we were to see one, we should sit down on the bottom because they will leave if they see people swimming above them.
A giant step off the back of the boat and I was descending through the warm, clear water. Immediately, as if wanting nothing more than to grant my wish, a leopard shark appeared in front of me. Leopard sharks are four to five feet long, harmless to humans and beautiful with spotted skin that earns them their name. I tucked my fins behind me so as to not stir up any dust and sank down, kneeling on the sandy bottom. The ever-so-accommodating shark came and sat in the sand right in front of me. I’m surprised my regulator didn’t fall out of my mouth from the grin on my face. It was thrilling.
It wasn’t so different from that first time I went snorkeling as a eight-year-old. Once again I was surprised and delighted. Once again the ocean delivered more than I dared to expect.