I recently received a certificate for travel writing – a Silver Travel and Sports Solas Award from Travelers Tales. Joining the company of these wonderful writers and the acknowledgement from this prestigious organization is a wonderful way to start my coming year of dive travel. I’ve been counting the years until my dive buddy has more freedom to explore the world and we’re finally launching.

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The story hasn’t found another home so I’m sharing it with you right now. It’s auspicious as I begin my biggest scuba adventure yet. Where in the world is dive travel taking me? You’ll have to find out in the coming months!

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Close Encounters of the Submerged Kind 

Meet Mute

Wind-whipped patterns flickered overhead, but I was too deep to see them. I hung in the warm sea, struggling to be still, a rag doll suspended in that warm blue expanse, but my heart, my lungs betrayed me.
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Breathe in 1,2,3,4,5, hold for five, and exhale, counting out slowly. I knew the pattern well from hours on the yoga mat but had never done it underwater. Breathing through my mask; each inhale was a whoosh, each exhale a burble. It was all I could do to calm myself – a new diver in open water dwarfed by a massive, alien creature surveying me with an impenetrable stare.
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The dive master floated at my right elbow, but I was too stunned to turn and register her reaction. Moments earlier she had lifted her arm and pointed into a vanishing, blue horizon. I peered but saw nothing. She pointed again and then I marveled as a slight shadow shifted; it turned into a gray ripple and kept advancing, thickening. The blur came into focus. Within minutes a Giant Manta swam up to us, then stopped.
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I struggled to not startle it, tearing up in my mask, my own salt an offering to the salty expanse around me. I was stunned, honored, and confused, but not fearful. We weren’t prey, this being had chosen to study us! Curled in tight spirals on either side of the mouth, its cephalic horns quivered; its eyes set wide and unblinking. The creature twisted slightly and peered as if to say, “I’m here, what next?” I couldn’t answer..
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Dive Travel and the Inconceivable

My being there at all was as improbable as the encounter. Warm, tropical water has been an obsession since I first dipped my toes into a Hawaiian tide. I was about ten when my father put frozen peas in my snorkel mask to lure tiny tropical fish close. I giggled with each peck until the snorkel tube flooded. Then I’d jump up, clear, and start the ritual all over again.
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That little girl never imagined she’d ever float through schools of fish in the open sea. But forty-five years later I fell in love with an underwater photographer and fishmonger. We rendezvoused between his dives, and I pictured a future as the girlfriend on the beach or a diver by his side.
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In Cozumel, Dave slyly suggested, “Try a resort dive. See if you like it.” I signed up, fumbled through the pool test, then shuffled to the boat, anxious about clearing my ears and sinking to the ocean floor instead of bobbing above. The dive master reassured me that I’d be fine. “It’s a shallow dive. Walk in, check your buoyancy, and descend slowly along the anchor line.” So, I pushed to stand up in the small boat, swayed forward under the weighty gear, and finally stood looking into the deep. Before second or third doubts took over, I flopped into a new world.
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Fingers fluttered over buckles and hoses before I remembered to slowly deflate my BC vest and descend. My right hand mushed the mask to my face. Slimy algae squished through my left fingers as I grappled with the thick line. Calming my gurgling breath, I began to float down to the white sand and only then did I relax enough to look around.
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One by one the other divers jumped and descended. Bubbles spiraled upwards from each, expanding as they rose through the turquoise blue. A shadow moved by a rock outcropping and incredulously, a giant lobster loped between coral hideouts, oblivious to my stare. Bright, little fish bobbed and darted around trembling anemones. There was so much to take in.
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Once topside at the hotel I spotted Dave and grabbed his waist blurting out that he’d have to put up with me while I worked on my dive certification. His smile said all I needed to know, and we’ve been dive buddies ever since.
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Elaine in Titanic pose on a wreck in Honduras as part of dive travel

Elaine in Titanic pose on a wreck in Honduras as part of dive travel

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Rinse and Repeat

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It hasn’t been easy. My years of hesitation about technical sports proved prescient. Tagging along with Dave on weekend getaways to Catalina Island, I fumbled jump after jump; dropping my weight belt, getting caught in kelp, sucking my tanks empty then surfacing to get sunburned on deck as I waited for the other divers. Our friend Cindy, always the last to surface (we joked that she had gills,) talked me out of quitting and confessed, “It took me thirty dives to begin getting comfortable in the water. Don’t give up.”
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But the challenges continued. In the Sea of Cortez, I panicked in a racing current when I was couldn’t get back to our dive boat. Bobbing on the surface, Dave let me hold onto his BC as we drifted further and further away. Scenes of being marooned on arid, rocky islands or attacked by sharks swirled through my mind. Then we saw our dive buddies pop up in the distance. They were struggling too.
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By the time a Mexican dive boat pulled near to rescue us, I was spent and humiliated, but not a total failure. Once we gathered with the rest of our crew, all confessed how hard a dive it was. Luckily, I had other chances to improve.
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Strange New Worlds

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Visiting Fiji wasn’t on my radar, but the following year Dave and I landed on the tiny Nadi airstrip surrounded by a thick jungle. Jet lag and tummy issues dogged me by the time we got to remote Kadavu Island. I knew Dave would be focused on his camera and before the first dive, told him I’d hang out with the dive master. A short skiff ride later we zipped up, strapped on, and tilted backward into the brilliant, warm water.The other divers kicked off toward the reef, their cameras flashing through the clear blue. That was the moment the dive master pointed as the creature with unmistakable wings materialized in front of us. (Here’s another dive adventure full of encounters in La Paz, Mexico.)

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Lost in Translation

Now, of all the odd and unique things, encountered underwater in over 400 dives – sharks circling, Bobbitt worms reaching to sever fingers, killer snakes, crawling frog fish – I mull over the manta encounter most. I’m an interloper in the wet, blue world; an observer, charmed by color and pattern; a voyeur midst sea creatures, so different from life above the surface. ‘It’s eat or be eaten’ for most and I get it. To keep from becoming dinner, I don’t poke or move or mess with the locals. I love when they ignore me, like the sublime moment I slid into thousands of flashing surgeon fish. They barely shifted, veering around me in unison, unthreatened by an odd black blob in their midst.

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That was instinct but the Giant Manta was different; she paused with intent and stared. And, once I passed inspection, she shimmered, lifted into an effortless arc, and swung towards the reef to feed on plankton clouding the water.  Then the other divers spotted her. Raising their cameras, strobe lights blaring, they flailed and failed. She effortlessly eluded them and sailed back into the shuddering blue.
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It took a while to decipher her message: “Stay present, you have what you need,” and that thought became my dive mantra.
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Night Tremors

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Each jump brought a new realization. Diving next to eighty-year-old photographer, Bob Yin, in the Sula Sea changed scuba for me forever. I admired Bob’s smooth style underwater; how he never startled creatures and captured sublime shot after shot. “The fish hear your heartbeat.” he told me, “If it’s slow they won’t fear you, but get excited and they scatter. You’ll sound like a predator on the hunt.” His advice has served me well and eventually, diving became a form of meditation.
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However, in Honduras, my hubris shattered.
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Dave and I bounced into action when we found an offer for a week of unlimited diving on Roatan Island. After Pandemic complication on complication, we finally shuttled into Antony’s Key Resort. Six days and seventeen dives later, I was exhausted and spent – every joint ached but I wasn’t going to miss the last night dive.
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Our boat left the dock as the sunset turned to rust and shadow. Just before jumping into the opaque black sea, we turned on our strobes. The dive master instructed, “At the end of the dive, we’ll gather in a circle on the bottom and shut off our lights. Your eyes will adjust to the dark quickly. Pool’s open!” He jumped in.
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There was no time to mull his curious instructions as the divers moved into position quickly and followed him. This wasn’t like my first fraught night dive where nerves had me stalling and sweaty before I jumped into the water terrified. I quickly started chuckling. Below me, it looked like Mac Trucks were combing the reef. My dive buddies were busy tracking whatever life they could find and lit the coral up like a movie set. There was no way I’d get lost or anything could sneak up. Down I went then and in I went now.
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We scooted around the dark sea in a close group. My little beam scanned chrinoids walking on the edges of sea fans, their limbs straining water in Fibonacci patterns and I spotted parrot fish sleeping under twisted antler corals.
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Then on a signal, we stopped, and sank to the sand forming a circle between dark boulders. The dive master shook his light to get our attention, then shut it off. We cut our strobes in kind. Suddenly, tiny sparks followed every sweep of our fingers. For the next five minutes, each of us played with bioluminescent flashes, flicking them in each other’s faces and wiggling like school kids.
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Playtime was sharply over. Without warning, the dive master lifted and started to kick away. I froze. Did I miss something? He was our only guidance back to the boat and was abandoning us without turning
his light on? Startled, I quickly pressed air into my vest and rose to follow. Pumping to keep up, I slid past mysterious masses and shadowy ridges on either side. I couldn’t quiet my heart which flailed in fear and amazement. Then the Manta’s message floated into focus and I surrendered, slowing to maneuver as fish do. My breathing quieted and a slight moon glow led me back to the boat. I surfaced, not the last or first, to join my compatriots. Dave and I blinked at each other, nodding. Instead of the usual giddy, post-dive chatter, all of us rode back to shore silenced by wonder.
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Limbo

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We forget that we come from water. I’ve seen videos of babies born into tropical shallows and my own son was born in a bathtub, floating peacefully for seconds before I lifted him to take his first snuffling breath. Traversing the divide between the airy and watery worlds is never so simple again.
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In Magdalena Bay, another mother twisted to look up at me from the depths below our bobbing panga. The captain had recognized her and her baby, then slowed the motor to an idle after we drew close. Perhaps she recognized his engine hum and swept near to cross beneath us. I swung to the other side of the boat, grinning in crazed amazement, as the massive Gray Whale, torqued to look up. We were eye to eye, her giant, wide orb staring into my crazed grin.
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Our captain wasn’t surprised as moments later, she lifted her nose to the edge of the boat and he pierced our hesitation, shouting, “Touch her!” We took turns stroking the barnacles decorating that foreign, rubbery dome of a nose. Her baby lifted close to the vibrating engine to savor its tremor before they retreated. I’ll never know what her lesson plan was and silently hoped it would serve their impending migration to the chilly north.
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“To return home from an animal voyage,” writer Sam Anderson contends, “Is to become yourself a new animal living in your old habitat.”
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I never realized what I was getting into years ago when Dave introduced me to scuba. At home,on land in San Diego, I often feel like a foreigner. Marveling at ocean sunsets, wonder is tinged with sadness and an ache reaches across that flat, flickering landscape. It looks solid and formidable, but I know different, and like Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, my longing floats between worlds.