A Queen of the Sea
Sunlight pours down onto the worn wooden planks, a dusky golden warmth that sends hermit crabs scuttling into the shadows. It dances on the waves that lap gently against the rough logs which support the dock upon which I sit. Chin balanced carefully on my knees, I stare down into the shallows. Even here, so close to the island, the reef is thriving. The water beneath me is teeming with darting fish, crustaceans defending their patch of rock and brightly colored coral. A shrimp wanders too close to a dark crevice, and is snatched out of existence in the blink of an eye by a fat moral eel, who then retreats lazily to its cave to wait for its next meal. A patch of sand suddenly gives a violent shake, transforming into a tiny ray, who proceeds to soar away into deeper waters.
So utterly absorbed in the drama unfolding beneath me am I, that when Boo sets down the dive tank just behind me with a heavy clunk, I jump and nearly fall off the dock. He chuckles heartily. His smile shines at me from his midnight face, and the beads in his hair bounce as he laughs. Yes, his name really is Boo, and if it isn’t, no one ever calls him anything different. Here on Tobacco Caye, a tropical island on the reefs of Belize, almost everyone has traded their real name for a descriptive nickname.
“You ready to go?” Boo asks. Of course, I am. I’ve been looking forward to this day for weeks. The day I take my first recreational diving trip. Boo nods his approval. “Good. Eric will be along shortly, I’m heading back to the mainland.” He grins. “Good luck!” He leaves me standing on the dock, surrounded by a myriad assortment of SCUBA gear. Other tourists begin to arrive. An elegant German woman glides down the dock, tossing her blonde hair over her shoulder with a careless gesture. She bends over, checking her equipment with expert precision. A tall man, his salt-and-pepper hair (more salt than pepper at this point) long and rather unkempt, strides down the dock, his wife following gamely. The beads tied into his beard bounce pleasantly as he gives me a jovial nod. The main scuba instructor, Eric, follows soon after, and before long, gear, tourists and all are loaded into a motorboat. As the motor starts up, my younger brothers run out onto the dock. “Good luck, Hannah!” they shout. “Don’t drown! And watch out for sharks!” Deciding to take this as encouragement, I wave back. Brothers are so wonderful at providing support!
The boat quickly gains speed. It skips across the calm cerulean waters and out to where the tips of the waves foam slightly just before crashing out of existence. The sky is clear and blue above us; perfect diving conditions. The island fades to a tiny dot on the horizon, and the boat slows to a stop. The engine growls idly as the other divers and I help put each other’s gear on. When Eric straps my tank to my back, I nearly fall over the side of the boat. As the others laugh, I grin back. The tank weighs nearly as much as I do!
At last, the moment that I’ve been dreading for days. One by one, the other divers flip backwards out of the boat, landing in the ocean with a splash. For those who don’t know, I’ve always had an irrational phobia of deep water and any open body of water. Nevertheless, I swallow my fear and let myself fall heavily into the salty expanse beneath me. A cloud of bubbles surrounds me. For a breathtaking moment, the sky and sea merge, and simple words like “up” and “down” have no bearing on reality. Then, the moment passes as I bob up to the surface once more. Eric gives the thumbs up, and as one we release the air in our buoyancy devices and float down into the unknown.
Rolling onto my back as we descend, I watch the bubbles I exhale tumble over each other in an anxious rush to reach the surface. Down here, another world exists, completely unaware of the separate world of trees and sky above. Fish fly past each other in a gracefully untamed ballet, their costumes scales every color of the rainbow. Occasionally a great eagle ray sweeps past, regally disregarding the wide-eyed aliens who have intruded on his domain.
It is amazing to discover that despite my heavy tank and weights, I am weightless. I can swoop and fly just like the colorful throng surrounding me. I am in the middle of executing a graceful roll when I see it. Out of the murky distance, a great shadow looms, sweeping closer at every moment. Suddenly nervous, I come to a standstill. My discomfort grows when I realize that all of the other divers are at least twenty feet away from me. Glancing at Eric, I see that he too has seen the mysterious shadow, and is gazing at it intently. I turn to look at it once more. It is closer, but I can’t make out what it is yet. With a final sweep of powerful flippers, the sea turtle floats into view. I let out an involuntary gasp as it comes within a foot of my face. She is immense, the size of a large dining room table. Her brown eyes meet mine, and time comes to a standstill. Is it my imagination, or are they filled with a beatific peace?
At last, she blinks, and time resumes its natural course. Gently, she puts her head to my hand, rubbing against it. Her skin is rough and leathery. Then, with immaculate grace, she swoops down to the sand and the other divers converge on her, carefully scratching her head. When she has had enough pampering, she glides majestically away again, leaving a group of excited, and one very awed, divers in her wake.
Before long, we have to leave the magical undersea world and return to the surface. Upon reentering the boat, Eric spouts facts about sea turtles, ending with “and that one was at least 140 years old!” The others chatter excitedly amongst themselves, but only one seems as wonderstruck as I am. His beads clatter against each other as he exclaims in awe “We have been blessed! What an old soul!” “Yes,” I whisper as the boat speeds on its’ way back to the island. “An old soul.”
Hannah Miller is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program.
Photo courtesy of flickr creative commons: flickr.com/photos/walter_rw/7213293264/