My 14th dive in Indonesia is utterly peaceful, the site mostly patch coral with a small wall, rich with tiny creatures, square and improbable sea slugs, schools of blue and yellow fusilier fish, swarms of jack and mackerel, spotted sweetlips, a lurking blue pufferfish below an anemone. It’s all spread out here, what I’ve learned on every dive over the last week, how to see tiny nudibranchs as alive, something different from coral, the tiny black and white daschylus who swim just beneath the surface in the anemones and their accompanying clown fish. The first time I saw these, the brave small clown fish darted out to attack Finch’s head. “This is my anemone,” the clear message.
On the lower part of the wall, I find larger fish lurking in the crevices of the coral, look for creatures like the painted spiny lobsters we found hiding the day before. I hear Saldi, the guide, grunting and shouting through his regulator to get my attention, signaling for me to come up a couple of metres and look into the murk. He puts his palm upright over his head, miming “shark.” I miss it, and he grins at me. (He thinks I’m hilarious because I jumped in the water wearing my sunglasses once, almost forgot my fins another time, tried to put my mask on over my glasses, couldn’t find my mask when it was on my head. Apparently getting ready to dive makes me scatty). I go back to gazing at the coral, mesmerized by the cosmos.
I’m relaxed on this dive, use the least air yet, descend at the right pace, spend the right amount of time inspecting my computer and my air gauge, stay connected to Finch without being neurotic about it. When it comes together, diving is effortless, the closest thing to flying we can ever hope to come to. The day before, at the end of the dive, we let the current carry us back down the reef, and I stretched out my arms and embraced it, flying under the sea.
On this dive, my buoyancy is in my hands, perfect pivots with my breathing, up so gently with the intake, down as I let it out and get lighter. Every dive, I’ve learned something, the ease so paradoxically hard fought. There is a lot to know, all of it technical, all of it dangerous, the knowledge and techniques imperfect, much of what feels like absolutes subject to fierce debate. (Should you do your safety stop at the reef where it’s interesting, or off the reef where the boat can fetch you more easily? What does it mean to be a buddy, exactly — pair-bonding or loose coupling?)
On one dive, my mask kept flooding, and as I asked Finch to help me for a moment, as my mask filled further and I couldn’t see, unconsciously started finning upward, pulling both of us unsafely, too quickly up. A lifetime of treading water to stay in place is so hard to unlearn in the muscles, so absolutely vital. It wasn’t until I squinted through the stinging seawater and realized Finch was dumping air from his regulator that I realized what I was doing, stopped and headed for the reef to steady myself, apparently descending at the same time. (Another huge mistake). One moment of trying to use a still raw skill, and totally consequential. It could have been Very Bad for both of us. On the next dive, I practice mask removal and regulator retrieval, back to the basics.
The same day, two dives later, I got swept under the boat as I rolled into the water, fiddling with my air release because I hadn’t added weight when I added another layer of wet suit and I couldn’t get down. I finally succeeded in finning down, and Finch handed me a weight, I got down, we dived peacefully, and it wasn’t until we resurfaced an hour later that I realized that the boat’s propeller, turning slowly, had grazed my tank.
“We almost lost her,” shouted the owner of the lodge, blaming Finch entirely, perplexingly not addressing me at all. “You are a terrible buddy. “ Worried, clearly, about endangering someone on his watch, but his ire completely misplaced, the incident my fault entirely for not swimming clear of the boat immediately. Critical in choppy conditions like that dive, and something I just hadn’t been attuned to at all.
His reaction embodied Dutch directness, along with a weird objectification of me, either as a new diver or a small person or a woman, I don’t know. The same impulse that made him grab my arm and tow me around every time he guided us, blurring the buddy lines and making it difficult for me to keep gaining competence. Babysitting, not teaching, unnecessary and irritating.
Fourteen dives, two or three alarming incidents I’ll hold indelible as critical moments of learning, fourteen hours underwater gaining the balance and steps and confidence that make me a diver. Working out the idiosyncratic language of hand signs between me and Finch, signaling “pretty” and “so cool” and “I love you” just as important as “how much air do you have left?” Every dive more relaxed, more sure that I won’t hit the reef, that I don’t have to fin madly to move away from the coral, more able to hang motionless, assured, present to every hiding creature, every strange tiny shrimp, pygmy seahorse, every variation of coral more diverse than any surface garden, every miraculous silvery waterfall of fusiliers or triggerfish. A whole world to know, the privilege to be in it. I am lucky.