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St. Andrews State Park, FL

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

The weight is what I remember, how quickly my bare feet sunk into the small patches of sand between the beachside visitors of St. Andrews State Park in Florida. It took everything I had to not fall backward with my scuba gear. Instead I leaned dramatically forward toward the Gulf, a blue vista that would soon decide my fate.

After a failed attempt to learn how to scuba in a freezing cold swimming pool in St. Croix, USVI, I wasn't particularly thrilled to try again. What if I passed the initial test this time around, but then panicked during the actual dive and perforated my eardrums flying up to the surface? I've always loved lakes, rivers and oceans, but diving and breath control have never been strengths of mine.

Before we booked the private tour with Try Scuba Diving, Logan had to pull out our finger puppet mice to calm me down and make me laugh. I was so upset that I didn't get to swim with sea turtles in St. Croix, Logan reminded me; and here was another opportunity to learn. Was I going to keep putting it off? Was "eventually" a synonym for "never"?

Now, here we were, wading into the Gulf with 40-50 pounds of gear. I felt sick.

In a thick Bulgarian accent, our instructor Malin Mutafchiev instructed Logan and me to put on our scuba fins in the shallows of the water. I held on to Logan as I stuffed my feet into the fins. Then Malin began the demonstrations. Logan echoed Malin's words for me, guiding me through the movements that comprised three major skills: (1) breathing calmly (2) clearing the mask of collected water (3) equalizing the ears.

It was all so counterintuitive, breathing where you're not supposed to breathe. Everything was awkward and uncomfortable at first, the currents rocking me from side to side, the saltwater splashing my lips and tongue. I panicked and rocketed to the surface every time I relied on the regulator to feed me oxygen--I felt my breath catch in my throat and expel rapidly like my heartbeat.

Over and over again I dipped my head underwater and inhaled, Malin meeting my eyes and using underwater hand signals to check that I was OK. I was getting there. Eventually I stayed underwater, even when my impulse was to rise to the surface. I gave Malin the OK hand signal, breathing intensely.

The next skill was mask clearing, which was even more awkward than breathing. This required lifting the mask from my face to let in water, replacing the mask and sealing it against my face, tilting my head toward the surface, pressing my index and middle fingers into the top center of the mask and, finally, exhaling through my nose to clear the mask of excess water. This was the skill I struggled with the most in St. Croix, and it wasn't any easier this time around.

Malin reminded me I just needed to listen and do exactly as he said. This skill, and the third skill of pinching my nose and clearing my ears to equalize the pressure, took me several tries, and even when I wasn't totally confident, I found myself swimming deeper and deeper into the reef. I had been slightly mistaken--the skills session and the dive weren't two separate things. This was the dive, a seamless movement from the shore to the sea.

I concentrated on breathing and descending as I trailed Logan and Malin, who routinely flashed his "OK?" signal. Suddenly, shortly after we left the shallows, I found myself nearly hyperventilating after thinking, "If I accidentally loosen the grip on my mouthpiece, I'll suck in a bunch of water and choke." When Malin turned around this time, I wildly shook my hands and pointed to the surface, getting ready to rapidly ascend. It wasn't that far. We were only about 15 feet deep.

Malin darted over quickly, held both my hands and motioned for me to breathe slowly. I juuuuust needed to relax. I was okay. Logan waited, suspended in the hazy sea. After about thirty seconds, my panic resided, and on we went.

Slowly, I started to observe the external, not just my mind and breath. I even gained enough confidence to hover just above the coral and echo Malin's "trick" of barrel-rolling like sea otters.

Rainbow wrasse, damselfish and look down fish swam around me as I listened to my rhythmic breath, entranced by the unfolding of my heavy limbs into something inhuman, a light, weightless being. Humans' evolutionary advantage over other creatures seemed completely irrelevant in this gigantic, uninhabitable expanse.

Malin swam to the bottom of the ocean and pulled crabs and urchins from the silt and rocks for us to hold. I felt a little morally torn here, not wanting to disturb the ecosystem but thrilled to observe wildlife up close. One of the crabs he handed us was an arrow crab, spindly like a spider with a long face and even longer legs. The crab floated between my fingers, then transferred to Logan before Malin returned him to his home. Another was a decorator crab, an exquisite little creature belonging to the Majoidea family, which encompasses a couple hundred species worldwide. The crab outfits itself with naturally occurring camouflages like sponges, seaweeds, and even stinging anemone(!), using Velcro-like bristles on its shell to secure the decorations in place.

And just after, a swarm of Atlantic bumper fish crossed our path. Not just a few, but thousands. They swam inches in front of us, wrapping around our bodies like we were stones in the river, obstacles that bent their path. I remember their mouths, their eyes, the strange way their silver and yellow bodies avoided hitting us in a collective stride, possessed by the same omniscience that bands starlings in the sky and caribou in the grasslands. We were foreign here, but untouched, and for the rest of the dive and back to the shore I reflected on this intersection, the strange and beautiful way we were swallowed by the sea.

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