A recent trip to the Bahamas with the family, the island of Eleuthera, the one shaped like an eel with a slight bend or crook in its middle, just east of Nassau. Felt good to get away from Rhode Island. We packed light, no checked bags, so I was limited in what I could bring: no bonefish rods, no fins, no sling, no real gear of any kind. It was meant to be a kids’ trip anyway. Well, that’s what my wife and I agreed on. I brought three masks and three snorkels, which would, at least, cover the bare necessities for me and the boys.
Maybe I did turn some of the vacation into my vacation, because the diving seemed to take the days over, and much, if not all, of this was being driven by an over-caffeinated me: “Time’s ticking people! Let’s go! Gear up! Once we’re back in cold Rhode Island, we’ll all be wishing (read: me) to be back here again diving the living reef. I can guaranteed that!” Sure we had some good dives, memorable, the kind maybe the boys will never forget. Sharks, rays, turtles, cuda’s, three species of angelfish, wrasses, tilefish, bonefish, jacks, various snappers, groupers. We hit several kinds of Bahamian aquatic habitats from sand and grass flats to fairly deep reef. And along with the goods times–smiling boys talking excitedly of the “massive” barracuda they saw on the flats–there were also some of the standard snorkeling issues that most kids encounter: foggy masks, water in the snorkel, water in the mask, cramped feet, cramped calves, cold, scared, bored, and these I handled either great, with lots of compassion and calm instruction, the kind and loving dad, or a complete prick who had no patience nor tolerance for a kid trying to grapple with something as simple as clearing a goddamn snorkel tube.
One day when the wind blew (as it does in the Bahamas in February), we went for a family drive down the length of Eleuthera to Cape Eleuthera at the southern end. Here while walking the docks in Cape Eleuthera Harbor, I randomly bumped into a free-dive instructor, a guy from south Florida. He was in the business of getting people deep on a single breath of air. He knew the spots around the Island. While I was talking, the boys found a nurse shark cruising along the slips. I watched them become animated, jostle with each other, a scene from Jaws playing out in their heads. I asked this guy, Forest, that I wanted a good spot out of the wind, a spot near some depth, some good reef. He didn’t hesitate. He gave me a few secrets. Tip: When another diver or fisherman starts talking, and you get the sense that it isn’t bullshit, that it’s true information, hard-earned information, then you open you ears and listen as carefully as you ever have. His directions were somewhat complex: dirt roads, more dirt roads, a walk along a rock beach to a point. Finding it would’ve been almost impossible before the Internet and GPS technology. But even so, he and I kept going over it on Google Earth until I was certain I could find it even if I lost service. Over lunch with the wife and boys, I could feel my distraction. Deep water, trench water. “It’s the deepest water on the Island,” he had said, “that you can hit from shore. It’s the wall.”
This was going to be a solo dive. I knew that. Too much for Sam and Charlie. I pounded down the rest of my Coke, ate some fries and half a hot dog. Lunch was over. It was time to go. It took us a while to get there. Seemed like hours. The dirt road was terrible and our low-slung rental car wasn’t loving it. We kept moving, inching along. The bushes on either side formed almost a tunnel of Bahamian vegetation. It sounds pretty, but it wasn’t. Jen was freaked out the whole way in. She said she felt claustrophobic, that the bushes were too close to the car, no room to breathe. She ended up getting in the back and Sam got in the front. We drove on, the slow minutes. She wanted to turn around, but we couldn’t. And I was so determined to get there that I wasn’t willing to even try a 75-point turn to get us facing back out toward the main road. I was flying, full of adrenaline, and we hadn’t even see the water yet. That Coke was a bad drink idea: I didn’t need the stimulation, the caffeine. And then we got there. Not a soul for miles. No dive boats, no hotels, no jet skies, parasailors, Instagramers, sun bathers. Totally remote. Almost freaky. My wife was not looking calm, there would be no reading under the palm trees, two boys playing in the sand at her feet, a cool drink. No. Not this time. I could see it was choppy, more than I liked. It also looked like a decent current was running down the shore. A kids’ swim was also not happening. This was going to be quick. I got my mask. I saw the ribbon of deep blue, almost purple water just off the shore. Close but not that close. If I was going to hit it, I was going for a long swim. I spit in my mask. I waded in. I had no fins, no dive flag, no wet suit, nothing. Just a bathing suit and a mask and snorkel. I launched out.
I swam over a gradual bottom of hard substrate, no coral. Nothing too interesting. About 100 yards out I started to see coral heads. These were in maybe 25 feet of water. I got to them. On the other side of the heads was more sand, this sand looked like it was running downhill. At the edge of my horizontal vision, I could see more coral heads and these looked darker, like the coral was richer, somehow denser. I swam to them. Once there I looked back. I was maybe 150 yards off the beach. My family looked tiny, and I’m sure I looked to my wife like a lunatic, too far out, too small, vulnerable. She later said she couldn’t even see me. All she could see was that band of dark water. When I reached the second tier of coral heads, they were truly beautiful, alive. They rose up from maybe 50 feet of water and came fairly close to the surface. All kinds of coral, hard and soft, good fish too, bigger snappers. I tried to gather as much of the beauty as I could in the time that I had. Trying to do this is always tricky. You can’t really store an experience for later. You have to live it. I did a drop, equalizing, and hit the side of the reef fairly easily maybe 30 feet, a dive which in Rhode Island would’ve been completely different, green water, murky, dark, eerie– but here you got the sense that the visibility was almost infinite. On my way back to the surface I paused at mid-depth and looked out toward the deep ocean. I could see sand, darker sand, deeper sand, hard bottom too, rock of some kind. I was close to the wall. I could sense it. But things–as they often get for me–turned a bit freaky. The ocean is not my home. I love it, but I’m a visitor. I pictured the tiger shark, the bull shark, the big hammerhead, big fish going back and forth on the rim of the deep. I pictured myself from below, as if seen from their point of view: just a guy, out for a swim, a long way from shore. There were no dive charters near me. No paddle boarders. Nothing. I tried to slow my breathing at the surface and go for one more drop. My lungs felt weak. My heart beat fast. That Coke, all that adrenaline, the huge discussions in the car about the sketchy drive in, had left me with no ability to relax–and you can’t really hold your breath if you’re not relaxed. This is the secret of free diving and as much as I enjoy it, I have trouble becoming Buddha calm. I went down 25 feet and turned around for the surface. I was done. I wasn’t going to hit the wall. I wasn’t going to feel 600 feet of water underneath my belly, and a few yards past that 1500 and then 3000 feet, out there in the world of the lantern fish and the goblin shark. I swam back. It was the right choice. I was probably another 100 yards short of the drop off. Next time, I told myself. With a buddy and a boat. It was good to get back ashore, and the drive out the long dirt road wasn’t half as bad as the road going in. We had become used to it, we knew what to expect. The terrestrial world is different. It feels more like our home. We sang a few songs and talked about dinner plans, the lobster or the conch.