Monday, September 12, 2011

Jump In

Key West, Day Three

We had been out on the Gulf for a couple of hours. We'd shown up at the dock that morning, promptly at 10:50am (after some confusion regarding which dock in the busy marina), and were greeted by the drunkest man I'd ever seen before noon o'clock. (This is saying a lot, given the years I've spent working the brunch shift in Fed Hill.)

My boyfriend and I were both, justifiably, a bit skeptical about this individual captaining a boat that would take us out to sea for kayaking and snorkeling. The man was nearly falling off the pier, clutching his stool in one hand and a half-lit cigarette in the other as he explained his dual careers of charter host and stand-up comic since his emigration from Boston eight years prior. He pointed us in the direction of the vessel and encouraged us to climb aboard.

We were both visibly relieved to see two fairly competent-looking, and NOT intoxicated men bustling around the boat, readying for the charter. Drunky would not be steering us out onto the Gulf. He was merely the salesman, money collector, and recruiter. "Bad for business," the captain agreed sheepishly, "but the guy before him couldn't stop falling off the pier, he was so drunk."

We headed out, accompanied by a retired Tampa policeman and his wife, a young married couple, and two loud girls who talked the entire time. Even a couple of miles out, the water was clear to the bottom and impossibly turquoise. It seemed fake, especially with the backdrop of lush palms, expensive sailboats, and pristine blue sky.

Our first stop was a crop of mangroves in bafflingly shallow water several miles out from Key West in the Gulf. Here, we boarded our kayaks with the clear bottoms. We skirted over water ranging from a few inches to a few feet deep, and glided under mangrove branches that scraped the tops of our foreheads in an aquatic limbo. My boyfriend towers nearly a foot over me, and sitting behind me in a double-seater kayak turned out to be a bit more adventurous for him as we skirted through arboreous tunnels. We saw pelicans, herons, barracudas, and tiny little silvery fish. Far off to the south, cumulus clouds climbed high and let off lazy, rolling thunder.

The kayaking was only step one of the charter. After an hour or so of paddling around mangroves (during which time a couple of tiny minnows leaped suicidally into the kayak shared by the chatterboxes who shrieked and frightened off the more legit wildlife we'd all paid to see), we re-boarded the larger boat, kayaks lashed to the back and top, and headed further out to sea.

And anchored. There, in the middle of nothing but water. Rubber tubs of fins and masks came out. Snorkeling time. Here. Not safely tucked away in some tidepools or off of a little, benign island. Here, in the middle of the Gulf. Strap on your fins and mask and jump off into the abyss.

I watch too much Shark Week for this.

My boyfriend, college swimming athlete and adventure enthusiast, leaped off the boat eagerly and motioned me to follow. In open water.

A mainly benign fear of mine is open water. How often do you find yourself in genuinely open water? It's like being afraid of bald eagles. You're not often faced with bald eagles, so it's a dormant fear.

It's not that I'm not a good swimmer. Summers of lessons, ten years of neighborhood swim team, countless beach and lake vacations; I'm more than ok in the water. That's not what freaks me out. What freaks me out is the idea of being surrounded by miles upon miles of water, with no shore in any direction, the bottom far from my feet. The idea that you cannot see behind or around you, leaving you ultimately vulnerable to sea life and powerful currents. That movie where the couple finds themselves stranded in open water, with nothing but the sharks below for company? NNNOOOOOOOOPE. NOOOOO THANK YOU.

Everyone was just....jumping in. Like it was a pool. Off the side of the boat, some more daintily than others (it's hard to be dainty jumping feet-first wearing flippers, FYI). And, without giving it too much thought, because if I stood there and had a deep inner process with myself then I was going absolutely nowhere, I just jumped. Into the Gulf.

The first thing I felt was small. Like, small, small. Tiny. When my head broke the water, I could barely make out the others, bobbing about, and I was right next to the boat, which suddenly seemed gargantuan. I was treading water, buoyed by the salt concentration and my flippers, and was just debating whether or not to completely and totally freak out when I realized I had the mask only halfway on my head. I didn't know what else to do, and it seemed like a good idea to investigate the area immediately around me for giant jelly fish and/or sharks and/or any other manner of potentially life-threatening and/or really scary marine life. So I pulled the mask down, positioned the mouthpiece, and stuck my face in the water. Somehow, with my primary focus of the world now limited to a masked view, I felt safer. I couldn't scan the entire Gulf for danger, but I could survey the narrow viewpoint I now had. This must be what dogs feel when they are calmer while crated.

The first thing I realized was that we were only in about ten to fifteen feet of water, and that it was incredibly clear. And, as I looked down below my feet, I saw it: the reef. Clear mounds of coral I'd only ever seen on TV or dried out in peoples' beach house decor. Coral like giant mushrooms, like brains, colored from mustard yellow to bright white. And the fish...hundreds of tiny little fish. Some plain and silvery, others splashed with neon yellow, the brightest blue. Swimming in weird, perfect synch with one another.

I stuck annoyingly close to my boyfriend, reasoning that as he is larger he could better fend off a shark attack. The others in the tour bobbed about in the gentle rolls of the Gulf, the braver ones diving down for a closer look.

The shark was the first thing that happened. Everyone was gathering and pointing. I broke the surface long enough to shake the water out of my ears and hear "nurse shark." Terrified, I plunged my face back into the water and saw it, an eight foot shark snuggled down in amongst the coral. It looked as though it had hidden its head in a bunch of coral like an ostrich in the sand, and somehow this seemed like a safe shark. A sheepish one perhaps. Used to tourists gawking and pointing.

I might have been more terrified had the thing been moving around, but it just hung out there. Somewhere in my bank of memories from shark week, I associated the word benign with nurse sharks and, indeed, they are fairly dormant and known to be sluggish. When we surfaced, our guide explained that their mouths are on the bottom, and their primary diet consists of bottom-dwelling fish like flounder and skates. I was just beginning to feel almost safe around this eight-foot shark when the guide impishly dove down, reached out a hand, and stroked the back fin of the shark.

WHY, WHY ARE YOU TOUCHING THE SHARK? THIS IS INSTANT DEATH! I felt panicked, I reached out to make sure my boyfriend was there (so he could fight off impending doom), and I watched as the guide expertly recoiled and the shark, looking annoyed (if that's possible) slunk off to find a spot where tourists couldn't molest him. (Her?)

Having survived my first shark encounter, I was starting to feel pretty damn confident. Here I was, swimming around in the Gulf. I even bravely began to attempt some dives, pushing myself against the buoyancy down to examine the droves of fish closer. I could nearly touch them. I was hovering along down there when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned to see my boyfriend gesticulating wildly towards a crop of coral a few yards down. I turned my head to see what he was looking at. And then nearly threw up.

An eel, long and shimmying with bright green accents on its fins, shivered out from one piece of coral and into another. It had to have been at least six feet long, and I could see its ugly, horrifying pointed face. Had I not known what it was, I might have almost thought the body of it beautiful, the way it moved through the water, sunlight glinting off of it. But it was an eel. An eel. Delicious unagi, ugly, ugly creature. I can't stand eels. That scene in Princess Bride? No, thank you.

The eel was gone before I had the chance to swim away. It, too, was probably used to being examined and wanted to seek out quieter hunting grounds.

At this point, we surfaced and saw that the clouds that had been building were now further along in development and giving off onerous rumbles of thunder. Another great fear of mine: lightening strikes. So here I was, in the Gulf with sharks and eels, and a thunder storm building over head. Had you thrown in land-dwelling jelly fish, a tornado, and a part where all of my teeth fall out, it would have been a fairly good summation of every recurring nightmare I've ever had in my life.

Back on the boat, back to the shore. Celebratory mojitos and conch fritters. A bike ride back to the resort, and then a nap on the deck. It wasn't until the nap that I began to really process this adventure. Clear kayaking in a mangrove, snorkeling with a shark and an eel in a reef miles from shore.

To say that any part of my vacation was better than another would be difficult, because the entire thing was a dream vacation come true. We did everything we wanted to do, and then some, ate everything, drank everything, read books, napped in the sun, rode bikes, took pictures, and, you know, snorkeled with some potentially dangerous wildlife. But the best part of all of it was the company. To spend five solid days with someone and never tire of their company says a lot.

And I'm pretty sure he would have beaten up a shark for me. You know, if it came down to it.

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