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A Writer’s Nirvana and Scuba Diving

May 19, 2013

I sat at a high-top table on the deck of the Ketch Restaurant at the Singer Island Hilton. The panoramic view of the placid Atlantic Ocean was a nice change after having watched big waves roll in for the past week. The deck was my writer’s nirvana. The fresh ocean air filled me with creative energy. The ambiance felt peaceful, like the silent world of scuba diving.

My first ocean dive, in 2000, was ninety feet deep off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida, where a beautiful coral reef lay three miles offshore from the elegant Breakers Hotel. I had earned my deep water certification in a lake with a depth of over two-hundred feet. The Atlantic Ocean and its inhabitants were new to me. My brother Larry, who had forty years of dive experience—he started when he was ten—accompanied me. We descended in water as clear as air. The sunlight made the air bubbles sparkle like diamonds. Brightly colored fish and corals awaited us.

When we reached eighty feet, Larry pointed under a coral ledge. I swam in for a closer look and was greeted by an eight-foot long, neon-green moray eel. I’m a woman, so I have a God-given fear of snakes that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. Eels look like giant snakes. This one was extra large. I swallowed half my air when it opened its mouth and showed me all the razor-sharp teeth. Common sense told me cornering a huge eel was not a wise move. I swam away.

Moments later, my brother tapped his tank with his dive knife to draw my attention and waved me over. He hovered in front of a large hole in the reef and pointed at something inside. Thinking I could actually trust my brother, I swam to the hole and looked in. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed two large yellow eyes glaring at me. The head was the size of a basketball. Then it opened its enormous mouth full of scary teeth. My heart rate skyrocketed as I sucked in too much air and looked for my brother. He was farther along the reef, poking the tail of the fifteen-foot monster moray eel whose head was facing me so it would come out and give me a better view. Nice. I panicked, gulped air, and backpedaled like crazy.

The dive master waved me over and showed me a deadly stonefish that looked like part of the reef. As I tried to get my breathing under control after the eel incidents, he made hand motions that meant never touch this. The bright light of a flash camera drew my attention to an area where two eight-foot nurse sharks were sleeping under a ledge. I arrived just in time to see their eyes pop open. They looked angry. I gulped air. If I had been given a chance to acclimate to the fantastic underwater environment before encountering all the scary stuff, I might have been able to manage my air consumption better. This was like swimming through a living minefield.

My air supply was almost gone so I had to return to the dive boat long before the other divers. On my way topside, a dark shadow blocked the sun. I looked up and saw a shark as big as a submarine. It was covered with white dots. This time I stopped breathing and tried to become invisible while I waited for it to cruise away. I learned later on the TV news that it was a sixty-five foot whale shark that was rarely seen in local waters and only ate plankton, unless an unlucky diver was inadvertently inhaled though its Volkswagen-sized mouth. I also learned the fifteen-foot moray eel was named Gretchen and was accustomed to being fed by local divers. Turned out moray eels breathed through their mouths, so they probably weren’t trying to scare me by displaying their many pointed teeth. Wish I’d known that before the dive.

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