Beneath the Surface

Last weekend, I went scuba diving for the first time.

It’s something that I’d been wanting to do for a while. I was almost certified when I was younger, but unfortunately I caught a cold when I went to get my open water certification, and never found another opportunity.

But then, the opportunity presented itself again. I leapt at the chance to fulfill this lifelong ambition of mine. We woke up early, hopped in a van for a bumpy ride to the southern coast of Phu Quoc island, and zoomed out on a dive boat into the ocean.

As we sped along, bouncing violently over the choppy waves, an instructor briefed us on the basics of scuba: hand signals, how to wear and use the equipment properly, how to make minor adjustments to the pressure in our ears to keep ourselves comfortable, and how to descend and ascend safely. Going down and coming up too quickly could result in injury, even death. Eek!

Finally, we stopped. I wiggled into my wetsuit, forced my feet into my fins, and mounted the mask securely over my eyes. With a deep breath, clutching my mask and regulator in my right hand and my weight belt in my left, I stepped off the boat and crashed into the water.

Slowly, slowly we descended into an entirely different world. Camouflaged, monochrome fish wove around iridescent anemones undulating gently to the flow of the current. The piercing eyes of sea urchins stared up through tall black spikes. A leopard print fish emerged briefly from his coral cave to survey the intruders. Stacks of stone rose from the ocean floor. Flecks of sand and other unidentifiable particles, roused by the earlier storms, sometimes obstructed our view. But we did our best to peer around it.

Most interesting, though, were the schools of fish. They glided together in choreographed synchronization … until they saw us. The second I swam closer to get a better look, their rhythm collapsed, sending them into a frenzy to escape. Some were curious and swam towards me, a peculiar, enormous fish. Some ignored me and continued on their way.

We see these beings, these structures, in books, giving us a two-dimensional perspective. We see them in aquariums, giving us a three-dimensional perspective, but one that is cultivated and inauthentic. To see them as they existed themselves, well that was the whole point, wasn’t it?

We had to relearn how to do the most basic of things – breathe, swim – in order survive under the water. We were trained to take care of our own needs in a way that would be compatible with this new environment.  We were cautioned not to touch anything, because as amateur divers we didn’t know what effect it might have. For now, we were told, just observe.

I was disturbed by the remnants of prior visitors who clearly did not receive (or chose to ignore) this guidance: fishing lines tangled around the rocks, garbage wedged into crevices, plastic buried under the sand, coral fading and crumbling. I collected a few pieces of the garbage and brought them back onto the boat with me. Ignorant yet (sometimes) well-intentioned, these visitors succeeded in contributing to the destruction of that which they should have been attempting to preserve.

Determined not to be like them, I did everything I could to float along, to observe with little disturbance, to act as much like a fish as I could. Unfortunately, my very presence was disruptive. My attempts to dig deeper, to see things for what they really were, to challenge myself to survive, even for only a brief time, in this totally foreign environment … well, did I really succeed? Did I cause more harm than good? Did my attempts at making things better actually do anything? Do I even have the right to try to make things better, or to even declare what ‘better’ means? I wonder.

On the other hand, if you stayed on your boat at the surface, you would never know all of this was here. You would only know it as it existed in books and aquariums, and the occasional National Geographic documentary that we always say we watched.

If you donned a snorkel and some fins, maybe you would see a little bit, a fish or two, the rich blue and green of the water, the rippled ocean floor – a faint shadow of what lies beneath the surface.

But in order to truly see, in order to truly experience, you need to get down there. You need to put aside what is normal and comfortable to you and try to exist at a different level. You need to immerse yourself. You’ll see some amazing things. You’ll feel invigorated. You’ll understand yourself and the world in a whole new way. If you do what you can to try remedy the mistakes of the past and pave the way for a cleaner and healthier future (or even just stay out of the way), you might actually make a positive impact. You’ll feel a craving to explore more, learn more, absorb more.

Because I’m me, though, I want to do more than just observe, than pick up a few pieces of garbage here and there, although I’m satisfied that I could at least do something … for now.

So I will definitely go scuba diving again. After I’ve gained the necessary certification. After I’ve learned more about what’s going on below so I can touch without causing harm, do something else positive and productive.

I’m looking forward to it :)

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2 thoughts on “Beneath the Surface

  1. I’m so excited you went scuba diving!!! I have always loved it and am glad you got to experience it. I’m so glad that you chose to pick up after others’ negligence. It is heartbreaking to see the impact that trash has on the environment and fish down there. Keep me posted on your certification process – maybe one day we can go together. :)

  2. As a professional diver I am always happy to hear about customers picking up trash, wish there were more people like you making that effort! I hope you’ll get some more diving in!

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