I don’t remember ever being brave. But there was a sliver of time in my life where my fear for the unknown decided to nap for a few years, which allowed me to experience the world in a way I never would have had my trepidation for living not been in hibernation.
This was one of those days.
The phrase, middle of nowhere, was written just for this location. Nothing but blue surrounded us. Forty minutes, by boat, off the coast of Koror, Palau somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, amidst the archipelago of Micronesia. If you spun in a circle, all you could see was a singular line etched neatly along the horizon, with a sprinkle of small rock islands within immediate view.
By drone, you would see a different sight. An oasis of sandy patches of coral reef almost touching the surface of the sea, gradually changing to green then blue then dropping off into the black of nothing. The deep where mysteries abound.
The captain cut the motor to the boat. The sound of the waves lifting us gently up and over the sea below and smacking us back down. Neoprene squeaking on skin as people began pulling tight wetsuits over their legs, snapping into place at the waist, then a zzziippppp to seal in the heat. Fins slapping against the boat’s floor as divers readied themselves for the flip over board into the ocean. There were fourteen of us on board; two divemasters, three boat attendants and nine divers, including me. The odd one out. Diving is a buddy sport, but I had taken this trip alone to visit my friend who worked for the dive shop. As one of the instructors, she took me on as her buddy that day.
If you’re any sort of diver, you don’t go to Palau and not hit Blue Corner. One of the most famous Scuba spots in the world, it’s known for its abundance of sea life and sharks. Lots and lots of sharks.
It’s a drift dive, meaning, as a diver, you literally go with the flow. Catch a current and enjoy the show. At this particular site, there are two opposing currents that meet at a corner. When the currents are active, plankton and other small sea creatures are pushed by both currents to this tip. For the sharks, it’s like a buffet on a cruise ship. They come from all over to dine at this five star restaurant of the sea.
As we dropped down to 20 then 30 then 50 then 90 feet, checking our gauges and adjusting our buoyancy, I wished there was something I could hold on to as I made the mistake of looking down and seeing nothing. It’s not like standing on the edge of a cliff in the Grand Canyon and being able to see the ground below. You stare into the eyes of the Abyss. Littered with the remains of divers who didn’t fare so well and fish that man has never seen who troll the depths of the ocean where no live human has ever set fin.
People say they don’t want to Scuba dive because they are claustrophobic. Diving is anything but claustrophobic. There’s space everywhere. If anything, a fear of heights might stop one from taking that first plunge.
As we made our way to the slope of the wall, we were greeted by an explosion of reef life. Scorpionfish. Lionfish. Anenomenes. Big, small, blue, orange, all weaving in and out of corals that were so bright it looked like someone painted them. It’s hard to explain the beauty of the sea. When you first experience it, it feels like what one might imagine an astronaut feels the first time they step foot on the moon. Thanks to technology, you’re privy to a world you were never meant to see.
If I kept my eye on the wall to my left I was fine. If I looked down into the expanse of blackness, I began to panic. The current seemed to be moving faster. I felt out of control. We were suddenly speeding past the sea life around us. I was passing sharks as if I were on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, driving in the fast lane. None of the other divers seemed phased, nor did anyone notice my fear. Casually swimming past coral and several grey and white-tipped reef sharks, the other divers were lost in their own worlds. I was not part of their adventure. I motioned to my friend that I wanted to ascend. Normally a diver wouldn’t ascend alone. But because this was her dive group, she couldn’t leave the others down below. And if she were to ascend to take me to the boat, she wouldn’t be able to drop back down again without risking serious injury, even death. So I went up alone. I didn’t feel I was seasoned enough to do this and I had so many questions. Everything I learned in my certification class was now coming into play. But remembering it was murky.
Looking up almost 100 feet, I would be alone in my ascension and would have to put all of my diving skills into action. This was big girl stuff. But feeling like I couldn’t breathe, panic propelled me upward. Safety stops. Safety stops. Don’t forget your safety stops! I hovered at 20 feet and waited the requisite 5 minutes. Then for good measure, did it again at 15. As I hovered I could see our group below. Mostly as bubbles and occasional specks. One hundred feet on land doesn’t seem that far. But one hundred feet in the ocean is eternity.
I looked around and noticed something missing. I couldn’t see the bottom of the boat. Where was the boat? I was equidistant from the divers, so the vessel should have been right above us. It’s easy to get disoriented at sea. After my two stops to off-gas, I filled my Bouyancy Control Device - a vest divers wear that holds their tank and allows them to float, descend or ascend - with air and shot to the surface.
I scanned the horizon again, only seeing that blue line. No land. No life. No boat. I looked below once more. The other divers seemed to be miles away. The only thing I could see were bubbles. Panicking, I tried to remember my drill. The rules. Before ascending my friend gave me an orange tube to blow up should I face an emergency. It’s called a sausage. I was to blow it up with the air from my tank before surfacing. It’s an alert to passing boats that there is a diver in the water. It’s a lot to remember when you’re alone at sea and panicking. Blow up the sausage. Remember the distress hand signal. Stop. Think. Act. SOS! SOS!
Where in the fuck was the boat? Why would they leave? Cardinal rule of diving, NEVER LEAVE YOUR TEAM. Why did I leave my team? Why didn’t I stick out that dive? Bobbing on the surface of the Pacific Ocean, miles from land in God-knows what direction, I was helpless.
I spun in circles trying to raise myself up high enough to see over the waves that were peaking all around me. I saw nothing. Not even another dive boat, which was unusual considering we were diving in such a popular spot. I looked down again. I was drifting. The divers who were once underneath me were now further away. If I drifted too far, the boat wouldn’t find me when it returned. But with the strong current below me, it was impossible to anchor myself to one spot. Nothing to hold on to. Not even a buoy in sight.
I unhooked the sausage from my vest. Realizing I should have inflated it prior to surfacing, I tried filling it with air from my mouthpiece submerged underwater. It wasn’t filling. What was I doing wrong? I tried again, this time holding the sausage tight to the mouthpiece so no air would escape. Still nothing. I then proceeded to just grab it with both hands, and hold it above my head, limp and deflated. As I waved my arms above my head yelling, “Help! Help! SOS! Emergency!” No one responded. Nothing. I kept shouting, hoping someone would hear my voice traveling over the waves.
Then, suddenly, as I raised my arms once again over my head, I felt a pull from under the water. Like something was yanking me under from behind. I pressed my mask to the water to see below and saw nothing. So I lifted my arms again, HELP! Once more, the tug, dragging me downward. My first thought, sharks. I was, after all, on a shark dive. And here I was, meat flailing at the surface, sending panic-laced pheromones rippling through the ocean. EMERGENCY! I screamed, once again, raising my arms with the orange sausage flapping in the wind, and another jerk backward. Certain my life was ending at this exact moment, I began to swim. I looked underwater and saw no sharks. Were they circling me? Preying from a distance? Zoning in to nip at me, to toy with their dinner before feasting? I started swimming toward the bubbles below, hoping that I would be above the divers should the boat arrive soon. I had no concept of time lapsed at this point. Perhaps it was five minutes, perhaps it was an hour. I reached down into the water and pulled up my dive computer which showed 25 minutes since descending. Based on that, the divers should be up shortly.
One final attempt at a cry for help, I once again threw my arms up above my head, streaming orange nylon waving in the wind. As I pulled upward, that familiar tug, once again, reared its head. I looked behind me quickly, determined to see the shark that was about to drag me under. As my dad always said when I was a child and he would tell me stories before bed, “Lo and behold!” I saw that it wasn’t a shark at all. Instead, it was the rope from the sausage that had hooked itself to my tank. So every time I would raise my arms, I’d pull myself backward. I tried again and, yep. It was me all along. I couldn’t help but laugh. Then started laughing hysterically. Then the cackling turned to tears as I thought, Oh shit, I’m gonna die.
To save energy from paddling on the surface, I placed my snorkel in my mouth, flipped on to my stomach and floated. Arms out, the bubbles from the divers making their way up 90 feet, grazing the underside of my belly.
Then suddenly, through muffled water, I heard an engine. I lifted my head to see a boat speeding toward me. I flipped my feet back underwater, grabbed my sausage and began with the cries of SOS! once again. One of the people on the boat pointed toward me. They slowed on their approach then came to a stop. I was exhausted, relieved and water-logged. A man reached his hand down toward me and pulled me up the ladder. I wanted to yell, “Where in the fuck were you?!?” but instead, I pushed the man who had helped me aside and ran straight for the head. I flung open the door, fell to my knees and vomited for a good ten minutes, shaking with the fear of what could have been had they not come back.
About 5 minutes later, one-by-one, the other divers popped to the surface with excitement in their eyes and stories of, Oh my God that was the coolest thing I have ever seen! being shared among them. As they peeled off their wetsuits, water puddling on the floor beneath them, their tales of sharks and sea turtles, giant clams and diving the current continued until we arrived back at the island.
I sat in the back of the boat, covered in a towel, just thankful that I was alive and able to enjoy the miraculous boat ride home.
That was my very last dive.