By Lily C. Fen
I didn't know if I could do this anymore. We had signed up for 11 dives and I wasn't feeling confident after our first descent. My mouth tasted like paper from the anti-nausea drugs we had taken once we had gotten on the liveaboard boat. Talk about a honeymoon adventure, right?
Waves as tall as buses swung us to and fro, while I attempted to hold down my lunch. A layer of cold sweat clung to my forehead and upper lip.
As the ocean hurled us about, Angelo approached. He was still in his anti-jellyfish suit, chilly to the touch, like the ocean that raged around us. Are you all right, he asked me, reaching out to touch my arm. He peered into my eyes with his sea-grey ones. They reminded me of the tide slamming onto our ship. I felt like the open water wanted to toss us in and consume us, punish us for wanting to spy on the Great Barrier Reef and getting sun block all over it. We were bothering its residents with oxygen bubbles from steel tanks that glistened like sharks in the sunlight.
This scuba diving trip was supposed to be our thing together, but after what had just happened beneath the surface, I wondered what he would say if I asked him to do the other dives without me. Ten more trips into that angry tide loomed ahead of us. It wasn't as if we could turn back when there were 30 others who'd signed up for the expedition. Was I going to be on that boat for three entire days, everything paid for in advance, and not go in at all?
This was nothing like my native Philippines—plunging into the calm waves of Anilao with visibility till the great beyond, dropping a measly eight metres into the sea. It was as easy as candy, like snorkelling with oxygen tanks.
Even bounteous Bauan, Batangas was serene, though gloomy. That was where I had witnessed my first cluster of squid eggs. Long, white capsules lay nestled underneath the vermillion spikes of staghorn coral. If my mouth hadn't been gripping my regulator for dear life, my jaw would have dropped in awe. That place had been tranquil, the cove nestling us from the madness of windswept waves.
And in the dark beyond, where the seabed fell into shadow, I spied, for the first time, a squid. Her skin flashed like lightning—grey like the deep one moment and then white the next, when the sunlight grazed her body.
I shook myself out of my reverie. Going back in time to my Philippine dives felt like a safe place, when I felt confident in soothing waters, as if I could conquer all and chase after sea turtles. But not here, where I felt the ocean was determined to try and drown me.
All my senses told me something terrible was going to happen, my skin prickling at the thought. I tried to shake it off, determined to see this liveaboard through to the end.
It was the first time we had been left to our own devices—tanks, fins, suits and all. We had access to our own compass and computer but had to fend for ourselves with no dive master. I had no idea that the surf would whisk us away from our starting point, hadn't understood the significance of that rope that stretched out from a concrete block on the ocean floor to our boat. Until we couldn't find our way to the coral village that our liveaboard crew had shown us on a white board just minutes ago on the ship's upper deck.
Angelo and I surfaced after too many bars of oxygen had been squandered below. We had been fighting to work that compass and had been struggling with our air. Salt water surged into our mouths as we took the unplanned ascent 15 minutes in. The Live Dive Crew sent out a motorboat to drag us to the reef point instead. We could plummet straight down from there into the underwater sights. A coral village awaited us there and I was grateful to be 20 metres below, where it was calmer.
Was it as beautiful as they said it was in all the brochures and social media? I couldn't say that. The sight of bleached corals, a detergent white, were shocking to my eyes. They were a stark contrast to the other marine life in bright hues of electric blue and warm yellow. There was no mistaking the deaths of those polyps, like exposed bone that had become iridescent with ultraviolet.
Are you all right, he asked me again. I don't remember what I said but he planted a wet kiss on my mouth, an I'll-take-care-of-you-on-our-honeymoon kind of smooch. My anxiety melted away after that. I didn't know if I could survive the next dive mentally, or how graceful we would be with that damned rope or that monstrous tide. Or that freaking compass that I couldn't work properly from the starting point. But the touch of his lips on mine gave me a rush, a readiness to shed off the previous descent's failures. I was willing to try again, at least. He was going to be by my side.
We plunged back into the water an hour and a snack later. Veronica, who was in charge of the kitchen, always had something fresh and new whipped up for us hungry divers. This time, we didn't need to surface to figure out where we were going. And we took that fucking rope seriously, hanging on for dear life from the moment we hit the water and got our hands on it.
The ocean continued whipping us about until we were 10 metres below, where we could check our compass properly and figure out which direction we were going. It was the first time I learned the true meaning of "getting one's bearings" as I attempted to work out my instrument and its stubborn needle. But really, it was Angelo who oriented us correctly—he had asked our dive master above deck how to angle our orienteering gear relative to the eye once underwater. And then we were on our way. Each coral village turned out to be much smaller than it seemed in the diagrams our guide had talked us through.
Our final descent for the day was a first for me: a night dive, complete with glow sticks of varying shades for every group. Ours was neon green. As I landed on the concrete block to wait for the rest of our group (this time, we were allowed a dive master), I could see other wet suits descending slowly by rope, their glow sticks like Christmas lights on a line that stretched into the black beyond.
I felt the gloom closing in on me despite having all my equipment prepared safely. I even had a flashlight fastened securely on my wrist. And yet I felt like suffocating in my murky surroundings. I fought off these thoughts and hung on to Angelo, my dive buddy, my new husband, my partner-in-crime.
Tonight, we were to look for the Mickey Mouse formation we had seen earlier that afternoon. It was a coral wonder that resembled the famous cartoon ears. It loomed ahead of us in the twilight against our flashlights. I was relieved to see it, disbelieving that we would find it in this inky blackness that oppressed me. Beneath my flashlight, red snappers gobbled up smaller versions of themselves. Our lights were helping the bigger fish hunt. Poor fellas. The ones what were being had as dinner, I mean. They were sacrificial lives at the cost of our fun.
Once past the coral ears, our main task was to get to the sandy bottom and find the turtle's home. Tristan the Turtle, the crew called him, an animal so massive he was reportedly as long as my husband was tall. A gap by the bottom of the ocean bed was supposed to be an abode of his.
To see his home by the sea floor, we exhaled till our lungs felt like they had gone on empty. I was averse to it—breathing out my precious air while I was underwater went against survival instincts. We let ourselves drop, low enough that we could peak beneath the rocky formation and catch a glimpse of Tristan. Red bass snapped away at smaller prey around me as I fought with my buoyancy, which I hadn't mastered. My trusty flashlight could only show me patches of the deep. I felt Angelo squeeze my hand in excitement and I knew that he had seen the creature.
Then I saw it too. A turtle as black as night gliding through the water. He looked like an angel of the deep. Other divers drifted away, satisfied with what they had witnessed. The tide took me and my buoyancy got the best of me. I found myself a few metres higher than the viewing point. I glanced at my air and swam down, my fins cutting through the water. Ahead of me, Angelo continued staring at the fissure and the creature that lived there. By then, only Angelo and I were left. I thought I saw the great turtle swim back to meet my Angelo. But were my eyes playing tricks on me? I blinked through my goggles, squinting so I could catch more of what little light was around me.
I swear that it was not the gentle animal I saw, but a figure that resembled a woman. With a fish's tail, like in fairy tales. Her hair flowed behind her like seaweed riding the waves. Her tail swished as she intercepted my husband. Their fingers touched, her hands white as abalone.
Then something—no, someone—nudged me on one shoulder. Our dive master was asking me how much air I had left. So Angelo and I were not alone after all. Or had our group leader come back for us? I took a look at my air gauge and was surprised that I only had 80 bars left. He gestured to his watch, telling me that we better head back. He didn't glance in Angelo's direction. Had our guide not seen what I had? Was I going mad from lack of oxygen in the depths?
When I looked back, Angelo was swimming towards me. There was no sign of what I had imagined. It couldn't be real anyway. Maybe the night dive was starting to get to me.
We took our safety stop at a steel bar that hung five metres below the boat. Three reef sharks joined us, much like the ones we had seen during the day. They swam a few metres away from us, their eyes glowing in the stream of our flashlights. There was something haunting, foreboding about them closing in on us. What were they thinking? Were they considering attacking us? Were they fearful of us? Or were we simply disturbing their nocturnal peace? I felt better thinking of the last option. We surfaced then, as our dive computers indicated we could. I was glad that descent into darkness hadn't lasted long.
I survived three more plunges the following day and was starting to feel good about this Great Barrier Reef fuss. Mostly, I was grateful for Angelo, who had a handle on that damned compass and how it worked. I was also relieved that we had anti-jellyfish suits, after reading about Australian sea creatures that were out to kill adventurers in Australia, including the man-of-war and the box jellyfish. Cold from the ocean was starting to seep into my bones as the second day wore on and we accumulated more scuba dives. Our final descent of the day was to be another one into the night.
We jumped back in to the reef. I didn't feel any better about another submersion into blackness, despite the six descents I now had under my belt since we had left the coast of Cairns. Angelo took my hand, but it was my flashlight hand, which was a problem. Shadows narrowed in on me, as if to consume me.
We had moved to a different area of the Great Barrier Reef earlier that morning, so there was no more Mickey Mouse formation to look for tonight. So why was it that there was a coral structure that looked suspiciously like yesterday's, and why was it that Angelo let go of my hand, swam ahead of me, and descended to the ocean bed to look at a sleepy crevice that resembled last night's?
And there she was again, that strange sea goddess who glowed under the halo of our electric lights. She swam out of a fissure so slim, it was a wonder she could fit. I stopped mid-stroke in the water. My buoyancy was finally under control and my flashlight was fixed on Angelo and the obsidian-haired siren as another red bass snapped up a smaller white fish underneath the light of my gadget.
I wanted to shout, "Don't! For God's sake!" but we were in the water, and my voice couldn't travel down there, not with the regulator in my mouth, not in that darkness. All that came out were a few warbled sounds from me while the fear of letting go of my air drummed in my chest. I bit down onto my mouthpiece even harder. My regulator was so noisy, a dead give-away to all sea creatures that humans were blundering away in their habitat.
Angelo's fingers touched hers and she leaned into him. Then she took off his regulator, letting the air bubbles fall by the wayside. She came in closer and brought her mouth to his. He kissed her back. Deeply, like he was drinking all the sea water he could.
If this had happened on land, it would have felt like a mockery of our new wedding vows. But underwater, it gave me goosebumps and chilled my bones, as if the sea wished to claim what was mine.
She held on to him with her bony fingers as she pulled him closer for a deeper embrace. I sprang into action after being frozen still for a split second. Shook off my shock. This couldn't be real. I swam towards them. I could not decide if she was gorgeous or monstrous as I got a better look at her, underneath the jarring beam of my flashlight. Her eyes closed as her lips caressed my husband's mouth, like she was sucking the life out of him.
"Stop!" I garbled into my mouthpiece. I pried him away from her while I struggled to clamp down on my regulator. She let him go, no struggle. But he had passed out and I needed to surface with him.
My God, did this include a safety stop? I tried in vain to get a regulator in his mouth, and I felt another diver behind me. I couldn't tell you everything else that happened. Only that our team leader helped us surface and we got my husband on the boat. The liveaboard staff attempted to resuscitate him and I slammed on his heart, begging him to breathe.
Live, goddammit, I wasn't sure if I shouted the words aloud as I slammed my fist onto his chest. Neither could I tell if the salt on my tongue were my tears or drops from the open water that surrounded us. Open your eyes, Angelo, and breathe, you idiot, I wailed, while the ocean hurled arrows of seawater into me and the tide churned and churned.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 3 Jul 2021