By Medea Isphording Bern
A private soundtrack plays for us who venture down, who kiss the surface goodbye and plunge, feet first, under the waves. The big blue, our languid concert hall, offers measure after measure of muffled hush, accompanied by the ‘schlippp-pssshhh’ of the diver’s rhythmic breathing and the pop and crackle of a thousand jamming reef dwellers. Aside from an occasional percussive rap on a tank, the chime that draws attention to some elusive or reclusive marvel–a turtle, a hammerhead, an octopus–we flutter toward the sea floor in near-perfect, crystalline silence.
Neutral aural compliments psychedelic visual. A benign patch of sand sprouts eyes, orbs that dart staccato in their sockets like a watch’s spastic second hand. A pretty, frilly, sponge-covered rock suddenly sprouts a tongue and uses it to stun a passing goby, swallowing it instantly. Blink, and you miss the spotted eagle ray flying over a knob of lime green brain coral, the snowflake eel warning away intruders, the coral crab playing its castanets. Glide slowly, all senses ‘go’, and Neptune will reveal the secrets hidden inside every crevice and crenellation.
I was born with seawater in my veins, and curly red hair that, when wet and plastered against my skull, could pass for seaweed. Our family passed weekends slicing Florida’s shimmering blue waters in our 19’ dive boat, ‘Mal de Mer’ (‘Sea Sick’ en français.) Several times a year, we traveled with dad’s dive club, the North Osprey Otters, down to the Keys, boat in tow. We slept on deck or in pup tents on the marl of uninhabited out-islands. We washed everything–hair, clothes, dishes–in the sea with lemony liquid Joy (according to old timers, it cuts the salt.) We gave wide berth to the grinning barracuda that always hovered under our hulls. We floated within schools of Spanish mackerel, piscine clouds of citrine scrawled with horizontal turquoise stripes, a communion unlike the usual wine and wafer, but that left us feeling reverential and a little bit holy.
Dad slathered our fair Viking skin with Sea and Ski, a runny, sallow “sun tan lotion” in a chartreuse plastic bottle which, judging from the unremitting deposit of freckles and blisters on every inch of our exposed skin, contained an SPF of zero. Mom stuffed our faithful Igloo cooler to its brim with beer, Coke and tumescent hoagies that bulged with pink-gray lunch meat, limp lettuce and orange cheese.
Oftentimes, the Igloo’s walls could not save our ice from the punishing Florida sun. Those sandwiches surrendered, reduced to unpalatable, soggy wads of protein and paste. Peckish necessity sent us vaulting the gunwales of our boat armed with spear guns. The grand prize: shimmering, writhing hogfish. Rose-colored bodies with feathery Mohawk fins on their heads and spines, pillowy white flesh that tasted of walnut and mango and brine. Freshly grilled over an open flame as the sun disappeared behind the palms, that fish is still the Best Taste in the World.
Over weekends and summers and years, we memorized the names of fish, crustaceans, mollusks and echinoderms. We learned their habits and habitats. We read winds and tides, we rode out hurricanes and water spouts. Over time, we assumed our role as ambassadors for the deep, stewards of the Secrets of the Sea.
I always meant to earn my scuba certification. I took the classroom course as a teenager, passed the written exams with perfect scores. But when it came time to execute the check out dives in the silt-filled, development-scarred waters of the Gulf of Mexico, I swear my regulator malfunctioned. Desperate sucking yielded nothing, an effort as fruitless as trying to explain the value of turtle nesting grounds to a condo builder. Dejected and panting, I clung to the dive buoy while my classmates dropped and replaced their gear at 30 feet, buddy breathed, plotted and followed a compass course, earned their right to breathe compressed air.
Over the following decade, college and law school, relationships great and small and sadistic billable hours mandates distracted me from scuba. I was still in Florida. With the beach in reach, the reefs could wait. Then, I moved to Northern California, turned 30, got married and gave birth in rapid succession. (I was built for the summer, which eliminates California diving. Though thousands love diving here, those people ignore my fundamental rule that life begins at 80 degrees.)
Field trips with my son, coincidentally, centered around oceans and reefs. The Academy of Sciences. The Monterey Bay Aquarium. On trips home, the Mote Mote Marine lab. And, of course, the beach. As our next-gen sea steward, his early inculcation in the secrets of the sea was a must. While he squealed and cooed at transparent jellies and the sci-fi half-body of the mola-mola, I pressed my fingers to the glass, one hand on my son’s wisps of mango-colored fluff, to feel the ocean’s soundtrack playing. I joined non-profit boards of organizations devoted to saving coral reefs, to teaching kids to love the ocean. I wrote a children’s ABC book about the sea. Not wet but still immersed, longing to feel that ineluctable remove, to hear that sub-marine symphony.
For our third anniversary, my husband and I traveled to the Bahamas, blazing white powder islands dotted with a few scraggly palms, afloat in clear gin. A cunning veneer, a terrestrial way station for divers. The siren sea was calling out to me to try again. After the obligatory orientation and umbrella drink, we hustled down to the dive shack. He’s been a diver for decades, so signed on for a few boat trips. I registered for the basic scuba course. “By the end of the week, we’ll be able to buddy up!” I said. If not now, when?
The classwork and shallow (10 feet) dives consumed the following four mornings. On day five, it was time. Accompanied by dive master Rick, a slight but solid ginger with steel blue eyes and a pearly smile, we planned to dive deep. With buoyancy compensating device (BCD), tank, regulator, mask and fins all secure, I executed a giant stride off the end of the dock into 20 feet of water. The reef lay below, extending out 100 yards or so, then dropping off, a window into the velvet deep. The ambient quiet mingled with the sound of my breathing, a Darth Vader slurp and gurgle with each reflexive inhale. Down, down, down, one atmosphere, then two, then three. Exhaled bubbles like lacy mushroom clouds swirled and rocketed for the surface, like they knew a secret no one had shared with me.
Scouting the scenery for critters, checking depth and dial, remembering to breathe, it all felt elemental, tranquil. Simple acts, but necessary. I silently identified the legions of flora and fauna in shades of orange, slate, viridian and vermilion, of the fish whose fluttering fins and puckered faces I’d not seen in years. Like running in to a group of old classmates, it felt familiar and homey and right. Back in the silent, salty broth with unforgettable friends. I was finally Diving.
This undersea world, where I’d passed hundreds of shallow hours but, limited by the snorkel, never had the luxury to linger was all here. Diving allowed me the freedom to hunt, to peer inside, around and under coral and rock walls for as long as my air would last.
My right brain marinated in this scene, appreciating the beyond-beauty, the trajectory, the inevitability. Then my left-brain crashed the party.
‘You know, you can’t breathe underwater,” It said.
“You’re ignoring me. Check your depth.” I insist.
Yes, I am ignoring you. I locked gaze with a passing grouper, spotted a flamingo tongue nudibranch on a lavender sea fan, recited Ogden Nash’s poem ‘The Germ’. I would have paid big for a muzzle to silence this voice that threatened derail my homecoming.
“You’re stalling. You’re at 90 feet. That’s nine stories under the surface of the water. Taller than most of the buildings around Union Square. What if your regulator malfunctions? What then?”
I flashed back to that hour I spent hanging on the dive buoy, unable to breathe, blaming my regulator. The image of my baby boy, a thousand miles away, appeared on the shell of a passing turtle. The grouper gave me a pitying glance and waddled into the deep. The needle on my air gauge hovered a tick away from the red ‘you’re almost out’ zone. Divers, to avoid decompression sickness that fills the blood with bubbles then bends the body like an ornate paperclip, must ascend at a rate not to exceed twenty feet per minute, then make a ‘safety stop’ at fifteen feet for three minutes. Many dive boats suspend a bar or weight at this level for the convenience and comfort of their divers.
I signaled “I’m low on air” to Rick by rocketing past him, finning madly for the surface, ignoring both the depth rule and the safety stop. A master at hooking anxious divers before they suffered the Bends, he caught me, grabbed my BC, and pinned me to the safety bar.
During that three-minute hypervalent interlude, we were joined by a vision in pink, a cumulonimbus of a woman, whose cocoa brown eyes looked at me with…embarrassment? sympathy? as she patted my bloodless knuckles.
My husband, fresh from a morning reading by the pool, noticed Rick guiding a quivering me to a chair and removing my BCD. My eyes still agape, he assumed I’d been circled by hammerheads or had run out of air or both. “You look like shit! What happened?”
“She’s fine. She just got a little spooked.” Rick gave me a peck on the head and disappeared with my gear.
“You can’t breathe underwater, you know.” I said. Not the smartest retort to a person who’s been diving for 20 years.
“Maybe diving isn’t your sport. I think I saw a shuffleboard court behind the boutique. We can head over there after you get cleaned up.”
Insulting a person to vault her over a river of fear might work on some people. Me? I just wanted to toss him into the waiting jaws of one of my more vengeful fishy friends.
That night, I saw that lady in pink owning the dance floor, her short, dark hair wild with abandon and humidity, looking as rapturous as if she’d just crawled up the dive ladder after spotting her first whale shark.
“Wasn’t the diving fantastic?! I can’t wait ‘til morning to get back down!” and she wriggled and shimmied past me, a bundle of scubaphoria. She turned back and shouted “Don’t’ worry. Tomorrow will be easier” then rejoined the revelers, singing along with the music, loud and proud.
I slumped back to my chair, snarled at my husband and worried that today’s panic might tack me to the dock tomorrow. That’s my song. I love that song. I’m usually the last one off the dance floor, but this fear thing was pissing me off. Could my future hold a snorkel just a snorkel, only a snorkel? Snorkeling and shuffleboard? Really?
Humiliation clung to me like a sticky film of coral spawn.
I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t get her image out of my head. Poised on the dock, this zaftig woman, easily fifteen years my senior, strutting in a hot-pink dive skin that made her look like an inflated, oversized bottle of Pepto Bismol. She was old. Out of shape. And there she was, diving, singing to my soundtrack, communing with my critters. Did she ever worry about running out of air? Shark attacks? Being trapped underneath a rock ledge? What was her position on the intersection of courage and fear? I never asked her any of these questions; if she’d replied that she had a terminal disease and figured she might as fill up the rest of her life with excitement, it might have tipped her off the pedestal. And with my track record for assisted breathing underwater, I needed her to remain firmly in place; otherwise, my metamorphosis from ‘Medea, Snorkel Chicken’ to ‘ScubaDea, Mistress of the Deep’ would surely stall.
The next morning, we assumed our positions at the end of the dock. One by one, we made our giant strides into the water and began our descent. This would be a fairly shallow dive, only 65 feet. Every time any stray thought threatened to scuttle my dive, I looked for my hot-pink hero. And I always spotted her, gliding, hovering, exploring.
I would not be anxiety’s bitch.
After that triumphant dive, I thought about sharing this world someday with my children, about those succulent, rosy hogfish, about the careful, intentional and the not-so-careful, accidental steps my parents took to ensure my passion for the sea. I thanked Rick for his strong arms and comforting words. I crowed to my husband, “when I play shuffleboard, dammit, it will be on my terms.”
Twenty years and hundreds of dives later, I salute the Disco Lady when I peer beyond a coral wall into an aqueous void. Is she still diving, effervescing, motivating? She’ll never know how her apparent fearlessness saved me. Sometimes, the music that endures, that inspires, is a melody we can only hear by tuning in to the quiet.
Medea Isphording Bern lives in the San Francisco Bay area where she does not dive. Her work has appeared on KQED, in SFGate, and in the anthology “Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God: 51 Women Reveal the Power of Positive Female Connection.” She is currently writing a history of the San Francisco jazz scene during the last century and a collection of essays about her hometown, Venice, Florida.