My husband yearns for another frontier, the bottom of the sea. I don't mean he wants to go to the bottom of the sea and stay there—at least I don't think so—but he likes to be underwater from time to time. He also wants me to come with him—he is a psychiatrist, and he likes to be in a situation where nobody can talk, including me—and gaze at happy fish instead of troubled human faces. Snorkeling is a safe, soothing sport, he told me, no brushes with death, no hostile competition, just peace and beauty all around. I was a lucky woman: it could have been sky diving or mixed lacrosse. Besides, to snorkel you have to go to some lovely Caribbean island and drink rum and wear a bikini—rewards for all the frigid football games I have had to sit through over the years.
So I started—in the pool of a hotel on St. Croix. Those fish were out on the reef, waiting. There was only one problem at first, but it was monumental. I couldn't see. I can't above the water either, but we had decided water refraction or something would help, so we hadn't thought about it much, except to throw a pair of my old glasses into the suitcase. I mastered snorkeling in about 10 minutes, but since the whole point of it is to look at things, and I couldn't see a thing, we had a problem.
Our hotel was small, and somehow our difficulty went right to the hearts of the manager and clientele. When no available mask could be made to fit over my glasses, we got the old glasses from the suitcase and knocked out the lenses, while the bartender found some glue behind the rum bottles. Then we glued the lenses onto the mask.
The glue took 24 hours to dry, so the next day I went to sea blind, gazing at the blurry bottom, with waving, strangely colored little blobs passing in front of my nose along with a large tan oblong that could have been either my husband or a shark. The day after that was a bit better. I put on my glued-up mask and found I could see, more or less, through two circles surrounded by a fuzz of glue and myopia and a faint odor of Duco. At least I had tunnel vision, and we set off for the reef. Fifteen strokes from shore the smell of Duco had risen to asphyxiating proportions. Thirty strokes from shore I tore off the mask, gasping, and returned to the beach, waving wanly at my husband whenever he surfaced on the reef. I was, as usual, becoming a real challenge.
January 9, 1967
Everyone was terribly sympathetic in the bar that evening, and we carefully put the mask on a breezy balcony for the night, but the whole business was ceasing to amuse me. I was hearing too much about what I was missing. The following morning, 30 strokes out, I began to see fish: angelfish, blueheads, sergeant majors. Sea anemones waved gently on the bottom, and sunlight came down in bright shafts on a glob of purple coral. Then a curious thing happened. The right half of the ocean suddenly sank, leaving only fuzz. If I peered down very low I could see a tiny gash of ocean, but then the left half was still there. It took a good minute of careful thought to realize my right glue had collapsed. I mutely indicated this to my husband, who gave me a frayed smile, and I returned to the beach.
"How's the glue-sniffing?" asked some wags in the bar that evening, and I wanted to cry. There wasn't much time left. I hadn't been so depressed about being nearsighted since I went to a dance at 16 without my glasses and couldn't find my date. We held a Last Gluing, and on our final day I plunged forth with a pinpoint of vision for each eye (those lenses were getting pretty cruddy). It worked, though, and we made it all the way to the reef. Through my two dots I saw the magic landscape again, or bits of it, and my husband beaming proudly at me (I think—I could only see half his face by direct staring) as I plunged around fearlessly, a fish right along with him rather than a draggy dame on the beach. Into my minute field of vision swam a lovely little blue creature with streamers. I poked my husband. Immediately he stuck his head out of the water.
"Did you see it?" he asked.
"Yes, did you?"
He gave me a psychiatric look and said, "Let's go in. I feel like a cocktail."
I thought 3 o'clock in the afternoon was a little early to crave alcohol, but apparently he had a raging thirst, for we swam in like bullets.
"It followed us all the way to shore," he gasped, as we crawled up on the sand.
"What did?" I asked blankly. "The little blue fish?"
He looked at me in my Emmett Kelly mask and remembered.
"That little blue fish," he said, "was a four-foot barracuda."
The trouble with psychiatry is that there are names for everything, and the names always sound slightly ill and evil, like something you shouldn't have. Usually they are simply the parlance of the trade, but the uninitiated don't know that. The only way to hang onto reality is to figure out if you're afraid of something for a good reason (like facing a firing squad) or afraid for no apparent reason (like men with red hair in plaid shirts). If it's the latter, it's a phobia. I don't have a phobia about barracuda, I merely hate them, but even this seems a little suspect, because they apparently love me. I meet them everywhere, and I practically have a heart attack every time. Unfortunately they're like mosquitoes, and the odds on not meeting one are about like the odds on getting through the summer without a mosquito bite. Since they are in fact dangerous fish and it's reasonable to be afraid of them, you then start reading fish books and listening to people who tell you 1) they're more curious than aggressive and 2) they only attack in murky water and bad light when they see a glint of light from your ring or your mask-fitting, because that somehow makes them think you're a fish (forget for the moment you're trying to be a fish). Furthermore, the beach boy says there hasn't been a barracuda attack on this island for a year, and, even then, the guy only lost his left foot (call him Ahab).
It's the same maniac reasoning as not flying because you're phobic about it. Most planes don't crash, do they, and you do want to travel, don't you, and a plane like this once made it back to the airport with only one engine and one wing. Don't think—dive. Believe everything you hear about barracuda, because you'll never hear such malarkey about sharks. Sharks have spent 330 million years on the evolutionary scale remaining as nasty and unpredictable as they were in the beginning, and that's solid accomplishment. But you have to keep yourself in hand. The more you hear about sharks and manta rays and moray eels, the less you want to snorkel. The best way to lick it is to tell yourself that being afraid of anything but a shark is a phobia—which naturally is a lousy thing to have—and then defiantly plunge in.
We were in a little motorboat off. Nassau. The fish were supposed to be fantastic there; the light was good, and everything was fine, except that I didn't want to get into the water. I was afraid of barracuda. My husband popped in and surfaced a couple of times to tell me to get in, for God's sake, there were angelfish and parrot fish and French grunt (nice silver-and-yellow-striped fish which for some piscine reason turn their stripes to spots at night—fish are always doing something like that), not to mention blueheads and butterfly fish and a crazy cowfish and...blub, blub, blub. I am only hurting myself, I agonized. Below lies an unforgettable spectacle, and what am I? A draggy dame on a boat. I now had special mask glasses and no excuses left, so I gritted my teeth and oozed in.
The thing that keeps people at this is the captivation of the underwater world. It's like old dreams, majestic castles, deserted theaters. Take one look and you understand. There are crinkly mustard balloons, waving blue strands and cocoa mushrooms big enough to sit on. Without a single fish on it, a living coral reef, with its curious light and eerie distinctness, has fascination enough. When it is inhabited by fish, it is hypnotic. This one was spectacular. It had everything—for the entire three minutes I had to look at it.
I was in the process of adoring and idly chasing a pair of lovely little trumpet fish when I looked up, and there, hovering in a patch of murk, was an enormous, evil-looking phobia. He was the first one I'd ever seen, but I would have known him if I'd met him in Bloomingdale's. The boat was somehow 30 yards away. When we finally got aboard, panting and scratching our legs, my husband referred to him as they. Well, somebody up there doesn't let me see. There were five of them, and they had been circling us.
The final visual breakthrough came one morning on a Bermuda reef in a shaft of strong sunlight, the first time one of the gang had the guts to come out in the open—about two feet away from me, as a matter of fact. He had the usual surly expression, with thrust-out under-jaw and thousands of meaningful teeth. We came upon each other suddenly, and I had to wiggle like an eel to get away without kicking him in the face with a flipper, which I didn't think would help our relationship at all. I swam away from him backward (tricky) and, since he stared, I stared back. When he opened his mouth (probably to yawn) I left at around 60 mph, praying. I haven't seen him since, but he probably took his report back to his headquarters. I can hear him saying, "Phobic type. Keeps staring with a surly expression. Doesn't glint much. Looks stringy and swims backward. C minus."
I soon learned that barracuda and faulty vision were comparatively minor problems. The real dangers of this tranquil sport came in unexpected colors. Guides, for instance, are the true menaces of the sea. They make barracuda seem like cocker spaniels. They insist that you feel everything, for some reason.
They don't just suggest it, either. They grab your hand and forcibly make you stroke something awful like a clump of sea fingers, causing them to freeze to rigidity, or else they pass you an old mayonnaise jar with something white in it and take off the lid. You want to watch those mayonnaise jars. They contain chopped-up clams. Fish can smell them for miles off, and in about two seconds you are in what feels like a crowded elevator. Two-foot parrot fish jump on your shoulder, grunts bat you in the mask, angelfish crawl lovingly into your hair, and sergeant majors nip you in the leg like gnats.
The biggest feeler we ever encountered was a man who took us helmet-diving off Nassau. We got into his boat with the rest of the people and prepared to sit there and gaze dreamily at the sea till we got wherever we were going, but up popped Our Leader with a handful of notes and a book of glossies. He spoke with what might be called studied wit about how we were going to meet one of his very best friends, Harry the Grouper. We must be nice to Harry, because Harry's feelings were easily hurt. He liked to be stroked, cute thing, and lie on his back and play dead. Would we all please write down our mailing addresses for the pictures he was going to take of us cuddling Harry, 10 bucks, please, or three pounds 11 shillings.
Our man told us everything, everything. We were prepared for every piece of coral we were going to stroke, so we'd be more secure when we got down there. By this time I was hanging onto my husband's arm shaking with a surfeit of knowledge, while he fixed Our Leader with a psychiatric look. (Diagnosis: bats.) It was even decided in what order we would descend from the Ark. His wife would have some nice hot cocoa ready for us when we came up—yes, cocoa in this weather. It's cold down there on the bottom.
I had the distinction of lasting less time down there than anyone else on the boat. They had trouble getting me down the ladder, for one thing. As you descend in the Horrible Helmet and go underwater, the chug-chug of the air pump rises to deafening proportions and, besides, the helmets are open at the bottom and water sloshes around your chin. I stalled and told Mrs. Cocoa, "No, no, no," and she said, "Now, now, now," and there was Our Leader waiting in his wet suit. Down I went, ready to drown. But I had to go because my husband really wanted to see Harry, so 12 feet below we went.
Harry greeted us like a battering ram. He was two feet long and not an ounce of fat on him, and he was one sick fish. He was queer for people. He snuggled and cuddled and slithered and tried to get into your helmet or bathing suit and played dead, something no fish ever does unless he's really dead. I kept locking my fingers behind my back, but guides are on to that sort of thing, so we have some nice pictures of ourselves holding slimy Harry belly up. By this time I had managed to work up a legitimate excuse for getting out. My sinuses felt like the green triangles in a nose-drop ad, and I looked so pathetic, through the window of my helmet, that they gave up on me and let me go back.
Mrs. Cocoa was very tactful as she lifted off my brass headdress. "Some people just have this reaction, dear. It's nothing to feel bad about." I almost wept and said, "Oh, Mama, tell me it's all right," as she poured cocoa through my chattering teeth. It was true. I was freezing and surrounded by British girls who thought it was "simply super and didn't ever, ever want to come up," and I wondered why they ever, ever had. My husband surfaced, looking happy, and after swearing to myself I wouldn't whine about what a fink I was I began whining about what a fink I was. "It's all right," he said. "You didn't fink first. You went down. How are your sinuses?"
By this time I was well into the twilight zone of fast-fading innocence. I had encountered strong tides, scratchy rocks, sea urchins and stinging coral, and was terrified of all of them. This fear, based on my semiknowledge, was exposed at Buck Island, near St. Croix. Here is an underwater national monument, full of signs saying things like, "Turn left for the angelfish. Love, Stewart Udall," and, "Don't stick your hands under any rocks—moray eels. Best, Stew," and so forth. Buck Island is watched over by a guide-caretaker, who not only takes tours out daily but also buzzes around and dusts off the coral and checks on the health of the fish. He is strictly a no-nonsense man. He doesn't say a word on the boat, except to tell you where the facilities are, because he has the uncanny ability to talk audibly through his snorkel and can go through his spiel underwater.
We chugged off with a group of Hilton Hotel types—men in Hawaiian shirts and green socks, ladies in clogs and silver nail polish and brand new hairdos they kept fussing at, and, boy, was I cocky. I was the only woman on board who had ever snorkeled before. Some of them didn't even know how to swim, either, and one Alabama lady kept up a continuous coy-frantic Southern-gardenia whinny about my, my, she just didn't think she could even get in the water, all those fish, her hair, she'd swum once before in a river in Alabama and sank, and they had to haul her out. Upon arrival, our game guide had some job getting her into the water, which, as I recall, he finally accomplished by simply throwing her in, and off we went. Well, it got a little murky. Some of the coral looked sinister. I began hanging onto my husband like a remora. I'm not sure how it happened, but suddenly I found myself being dragged along by the guide, who was clutching Alabama firmly in his other hand. How rapidly I'd fallen! Alabama and I were the problem children, and he knew it. My particular phobia that day was that we couldn't possibly fit through the little slots and caverns in the reef that we were fitting through, and we would be scratched, stung, impaled and drowned. In underwater speech, the guide indicated various interesting and beautiful things and forced us to stroke sponges and slugs and jellyfish, all of which was supposed to interest us so we would forget to be nervous. I continued to shudder at this hostile environment, but Alabama took off like a rocket. She went tearing around, stroking and peering under rocks and chasing butterfly fish, till the guide had as much trouble getting her back on the boat as he did getting her off. Oh, what innocence! Already I knew too much and not enough, and Alabama was in that brief blissful state of not knowing a thing that I'd already passed through. If a shark had come along she would have squeaked with delight and never known what hit her. All the way home she chattered happily about how she could hardly wait till the next day to come back again. I was terribly envious.
Depth narcosis is something that happens to people with tanks more than 100 feet down, when they really go wonky and forget their dependence on the surface. They just go on and on and on, deeper and deeper, and if somebody doesn't rescue them, their air runs out. Alabama had suffered a happy form of this, surface narcosis. I've experienced it, too. There have been times when we have come out of the water and found that it was two or three hours later than we thought. What had we been doing? Just flopping around. Following a parrot fish to his hole. Finding treasures to point out to each other—a baby angelfish, black with bright yellow stripes; a butterfly fish with his eyes on his tail, apparently swimming backward; a black damselfish covered with sapphire dots. Diving to the bottom to peer under a rock, plunging into a school of minnows, like thousands of phonograph needles, and feeling a curious elation in this fantastic world. The colors and textures and distances are dreamlike enough to deceive you into thinking you can stay under as long as you want, because you'll always wake up. Well, you won't. Stick your head up occasionally and have a look at your own medium. There it is, a bright, sparkling sea surface, a streak of white beach, hunks of gray reef bordered by little white splashes, hills, mountains, little pastel box houses on the land beyond and sound—voices, thumps on a dock, an outboard engine, a buzzing jet. This is where you belong, so don't be fooled.
Keeping all this well in mind, dive back down to the swinging and swaying of mysterious things that grow, the darting about of tiny creatures without feet, the dappling light, the dreamy silence. Topside, we carry a load of necessary goals every day, all connected, often tiresome and usually unquestioned. You collect the laundry to be sent out because it's dirty and you want to be clean to look nice so people will love you so you'll be happy—goals upon goals. Underwater there are none or, if any exist, they are transient. You chase a fish because it is pretty. If it escapes it doesn't matter, for there is always another one coming along. It darts off—but over here are some fantastic sea fans! And on and on. Down there, it's all right to be aimless.
I have a persistent vision of the perfect snorkeling conditions. Delicious white beach, with dazzling reefs about 30 feet out. Shark nets beyond to keep out all sharks, barracuda and other phobias, but they cooperatively cluster around so you can go and stare at them. (This infuriates them.) In case of emergency, a few armed guides silent and invisible to keep you covered. All moray eels on leashes in their holes. Anything harmful so labeled. We are the first ones there, so we discover numberless fish and coral formations never before seen by man. The fish pose cooperatively for flash pictures. For lunch, rum punches and lobster salad under an almond tree, from where we lazily watch a performing school of dolphins. Ah, me.
This is all right for me, but the fact is my husband adores describing every barracuda we have ever met. And that sand shark he saw lying on the bottom. And crashing against rocks as he fought his way around a point at high tide and eels and manta rays and being 30 feet down with a tank. For him danger is an important part of it.
Maybe the next time we go to the islands I'll try the tank.