by MD Maurice
diving on the great barrier reef, an entry for a contest
|The summer before I started college, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Australia and New Zealand as part of a People to People youth science exchange program. The trip consisted of roughly eighty science students spending three weeks overseas participating in a variety of biological and cultural activities from bird tagging and sea lion research on the remote Kangaroo Island to visiting a Maori village for a ceremonial feast. The itinerary would take us many places and expose us to many rich and wonderful experiences. The highlight for me, and really the entire reason for my signing on, was a true once in a lifetime chance to dive on the great barrier reef off the Queensland coast of Australia.
The night before the dive, I remember I could not fall asleep. My body felt charged with an almost electrical excitement. From as early as I could remember, I had been enchanted with the underwater world. My bookshelves teemed with books on marine biology, thick volumes with colorful images of fish and aquatic wildlife. I was particularly intrigued by the great barrier reef, home to thousands of species, a living laboratory where I could see first-hand the creatures from my books. I had gotten my scuba license at fifteen, the youngest member of my dive class. I took my certification dive in the frigid, dark waters of Long Island Sound, a far cry from the clear, tropical waters that were my inspiration.
The morning of the dive, I sat with about a dozen of my traveling companions on the metal bench of a bobbing pontoon boat as the dive master gave us our instructions and advisories. There were a few nervous snickers when he described a shark drill that involved us forming a circle around him. It was hard to pay close attention, distracted by the combination of turquoise water all around us and the dive master's hot pink speedo. Before I knew it, he was inviting us to chose our dive buddies and suit up. My partner was a girl named Nicole. She was a loud and outgoing girl from somewhere in Oklahoma. She had spent the entire time making lewd comments to me about the pink speedo and I doubted she had heard a word of the dive master's speech. We helped each other into our neoprene suits and fins, double checked our hoses and air supplies. The one word of advice I had taken to heart was to stay with our buddies at all times. I was determined not to lose Nicole down there in all that blue.
I stood, waiting for my turn to step off the boat. The tank and vest felt awkward and heavy, it was steaming hot in the bright sun. I shuffled forward until at last my fins were in line with the edge. The surface of the water looked a little rough and I had my first and only twinge of fear. After only a moment's hesitation, I took a wide step off the pontoon. The moment I hit the water, I felt myself drawn back to the surface by my buoyancy. I let some air out of my dive vest and felt myself sink back down, the ocean surface disappearing in my bubbles. My heart was pounding so hard it hurt. Nicole had entered the water before me, I began to look around frantically for her, breathing in what felt like harsh gasps, sucking down my air supply. All of a sudden, Nicole was beside me, her black hair flowing around her head, her eyes wide inside her dive mask. She made the "ok" sign, and waited for me to return it. I did. She turned and began to swim off, I followed trailing just behind her fins. It took me a few more minutes to regulate my breathing and begin to take in my surroundings.
Until that moment, my diving experience had been all based in cold waters off New England. I had often had to battle tough currents and limited visibility. The world I found myself in could not have been more different. The sea here was clear. I could see all the way to the sandy floor, it had to be over thirty feet down. The sand looked soft and white, punctuated here and there by large, free standing corals covered with pink, purple and blue anemones, some as big around as truck tires. As we moved on, the reef became more dense and populated. Schools of reef fish darted past. There were large Parrotfish and deep blue Surgeon fish, bright yellow Butterfly fish with their long, tapered snouts. Bright purple sea fans swayed in the current and there were places were colonies of spiny black sea urchins covered the sea floor like a black carpet. Nicole stopped short and pointed to coral outcropping where a large parrotfish was gnawing away, you could hear the grinding noise as he worked away at it with his file-like teeth, turning the water around him murky with dust and debris.
The more I looked around me, the more I saw. It was as if the pages I poured over suddenly all came to life in an amazing parade of color and movement. Nicole was trying to talk to me, her excited jumbles making no sense as I pointed to a sea turtle coasting by about six yards from us. I swam slowly, watching the life thriving below me, silently naming each species I saw and trying to memorize a few I'd never seen before. There were thousands of nudibranchs and marine worms in every possible color combination imaginable, with large crabs and rays dotting the sea's floor. I got lost among them, hovering just a few meters above them. I swam into pockets of fish. I extended my hand, feeling the vibrations as they shot past my fingers. Suddenly, just below me, closer than I had anticipated, a large ray extracted itself from the sea bed and launched up inches from me. It startled me into a kind of consciousness and I realized I had wandered away from Nicole. With a bold of panic, I began searching the waters around me and saw a speck of black in the blue beyond that I prayed was my partner. I took off after her in powerful strokes, trying not to think about the dangers of being left behind. Nicole was moving quickly, probably thinking that she had lost me. I reached out and grasp the end of one her her flipper, giving it a big tug. She swirled around, and was momentarily masked by a cloud of bubbles. I gave her the okay sign, and she returned it. Her eyes were smiling, she looked as relieved as I felt. We turned together to make our way back to the pontoon and came face to face with a giant grouper.
Nicole squealed into her regulator. This fish was enormous. It was just hanging there, barely moving, twirling its fins in lazy circles, watching us with great round eyes. The mouth gaped, thick-lipped and dark. It's body was greenish brown mottled with large, white spots. Looking back, I'm certain it appeared larger than it really was, given the fact that the ocean seems to magnify most things. It had looked to be at least the size of my bedroom's double dresser, and the sheer size of it was alarming even if I knew groupers were largely docile and shy. I could see the dark shadow of the boat on the surface and was suddenly eager to be back on it. After a few more moments of reflection, the grouper seemed to become uninterested and shot off rather suddenly into the depths. Nicole and I finished our ascent.
After shedding my tank and vest, and dropping back down on the benches, a strange euphoria set in. I was filled with the knowledge that I had just done something few people have the opportunity to do. Filled with a powerful gratitude, I turned my face to the sun, smiling and feeling as if I was glowing. The happy chatter all around me died off and for a brief second, it was just me and the sound of the waves lapping against the pontoon.