“There is one thing I forgot to tell you.”, said Clive, our snorkeling guide and boat captain. He is standing on the deck with the poise of a ballet dancer and the nonchalance of a confirmed drunkard, driving the boat with one hand, the other clutching a bottle of beer. Bare feet emerging from a bright pair of shorts orange shorts and a white stripped golf t-shirt, he is built like an athlete. The carefully tied bandanna goes well with the bronze of his skin – the kind of bronze that you earn by being outdoor a lot in tropical conditions.
“We might come across some sharks.”
He waits patiently to evoke from us the expression he wants. He gets it instantaneously.
“Don’t worry,” He winks, “These are just nursing sharks.” Shark = Bad! is what Steven Spielberg has etched in my memory since childhood: So I need a more deeper lesson in zoology. Clive drawls on, “Feeding sharks don’t bite. They are friendly, like dolphins. If they ever come near you, they might suckle. If they do, be patient. They will tire and go away.”
“Suckle for how long?” yours truly, relishes details.
“Couple of minutes,” Clive says, “May be 4-5 minutes.”
As I process that bit of new found information, our boat tears away towards the horizon, slapping against the turquoise, flaccid water of the Caribbean Sea. The San Pedro coast line is at least 5 miles behind us by now, but I can still see the bottom of the sea. The white coral is barely 6 feet away.
Clive notices me peering down at the water. “If you can keep your head, you can easily walk back to San Pedro from here.” he said smiling that big white-toothed Caribbean smile. He shuts off the engine and lets the boat drift to a halt. He drops anchor. The boat bobbles on the water, waves slapping against the hull. A seagull screeches overhead. I can taste the salt on my lips as much as I can smell it on the warm tropical breeze.
“There they are.” Clive points out.
And there they are, our friendly nursing sharks. The black triangular shadow glides directly towards our boat. At a distance of six feet, I can see their shiny black coat and the dorsal fins. They duck under our boat and swim away.
“Like I said, they are friendly.” says Who-else.
Not wanting the reality to be anything else but, we proceed to take last minute snorkeling lessons from Clive. It is quite a leap of faith for me, this snorkeling. You see, I cannot swim. At the most I can manage a frantic 20-30 yards after which I am a lump of iron. Life jacket slung across my waist, scuba mask in place, feet snuggling into the rubber fins I close my eyes, take a deep breath and plunge.
Yours truly, Mae Vest hugging the mid-riff, contemplating the realities of life
The water is surprisingly warm. warmer than I expect. The life jacket slides under the armpit and the rubber fins buoy my legs towards the surface. Horizontal that I am now, I gingerly duck under the surface of the water. The gurgling of the bubbles seem like a banshee for a few moments, replaced soon with the sound of my breathing. Lit by the rays of the sun cutting into the water, in front of me, lies a world I have never seen before, or imagined.
It is as if I have died and gone to heaven, if there is such a thing as heaven.
I am floating in a deep blue haze. Diffused sunlight brilliantly lights the ocean floor barely 15 feet away. The coral sparkles like a smuggler’s scattered treasure trove. Clumps of multicolored anemone and underwater vegetation sway gently to imperceptible sea currents. And ducking in and out of them are schools of fish – fish of every size, color and shape – the kind of fish I have only seen in little tanks in Petco.
I push forward. A stingray skittles from under a stone. What seems like a stone suddenly moves and turns out to be a massive crab. Here I am, a tiny spec of human life, in a world as wild as wonderful, nature’s own little aquarium. It seems all so harmless and toy-like, that fear fizzles away, replaced with a sense of heady enchantment,
I came up for a breath of air. The sun is burning overhead and I realize an hour had passed by. I spot Clive. He seems excited and is gesticulating wildly.
“Come over. They are here,” He is shouting, “The sharks”
I cannot believe that I am cutting water towards the spot Clive is pointing to us. I am swimming towards the sharks! And then I see them. Four of them, each about 10—12 feet long, sleek shiny bodies, familiar dorsal fin; swimming lazily at the bottom of the ocean, every now and then raising puffs of dust from the seafloor. It is a mesmerizing to watch them ignore us, for very clearly they know we are there.
Another time I follow a school of yellow fish. Well, follow is a strong word because they go past me in a swoosh and by the time I start off in that direction, a blue school of fish swishes by in the opposite, and I turn after them. A few of these turns and I realize I am dead tired. I just lie there, hands and legs spayed, bobbling on the warm water, my mask still submerged underwater. I feel like I have seen it all for a day. That I am content to the last bone. At the bottom of the ocean floor, I can faintly discern a dark grey shadow directly underneath me, like a gigantic manhole. I wonder what it could be? A giant stone?
As if to answer my question, the shape swirls, throwing a cloud of dust. Rises slowly through the dust cover I see the shape float upwards towards me. It is a giant turtle! The biggest turtle I have ever seen. It is rising so directly at me, that I can stay put and end up on his back!
I scramble. I decide I have had enough. I have experienced the best two hours of my life and that it is time for me to back to my own world where my limbs are more that devices of locomotion.
I swim back to the boat, shrug off my snorkel gear, open a bottle of cold beer and fall into a deck chair. Beer has never felt this good.
The birds and the sharks seems to interact with each other.
Clive has a large bucket of fish he had brought along to feed the sharks. He hurls the fish one by one and the sharks dive at them, gathering expertly. Then they swim alongside the boat for a friendly rub. Then I realize, considering all his banter about the sharks being harmless, Clive had never left the boat! Golly, I am all goose bumps!
The next time I am in Petco, I will look at the colorful tropical fish, Nemo, Dory and everybody else, and tell them, that I have been to their side of the world, even if for a few hours.