No. 14 It Came From the Deep
Hawaii / Poor Parenting Decision Number 32,489
When I signed my family of four up to swim with manta rays in Hawaii, I wasn’t especially well versed on their scientific attributes. I thought of a manta ray as another version of the sting ray—diamond shaped and made of bouncy meat—like a flexible water kite, or a water-breathing rubber kitchen mat.
Scientists had probably called mantas by a different name than stingrays because scientists are fussy about the smallest details. The manta probably lived in deeper water, or was a different color than a sting ray or something. The important, unsciency thing to think about was how amazing a time we were going to have.
On the interminably long flight from Connecticut, I imagined that when I pet the manta in the Pacific Ocean (because all wild animals wish to be stalked and stroked by a human), it would be soft and taut. If it decided to give me a ride, I would graciously allow it to glide with me astride its back through the sea like Aquaman. When I scooped it up and hugged it and squeezed it and called it George, its rubbery wings would enfold me and then boing back into shape when I let go. Our unique bond would make us its forever friends and favorite tourists of all time.
It’s important for me to manage my expectations.
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The tour operator provided us with wet suits. The word “suit” conjures a dignified silhouette, the presumption of poise and a measure of self-respect. What I found dripping on the hanger was more akin to a rubber band. Surely someone had unbound this “suit” from their three crowns of broccoli the night before.
I streeeeetched this rubber band, this hollow eel tube, over myself and thought, I am becoming one with the mantas. I, too, was now made of bouncy meat.
The kids, who were 8 and 11 at the time, boarded the catamaran ahead of Tim and me, and found a spot on the net. We sailed into the sunset.
The further from shore, the larger the roll of the waves, until we floated in the open water of the Pacific Ocean. The captain explained what to expect. When we reached our location, in addition to having the natural buoyancy of our wetsuits, we would receive a flotation device as well. We would descend the stairs at the back of the boat into the water, swim with the crew to a ladder that floated horizontally across the surface and was mounted with lights. Each of us would hold onto a portion of the ladder. When the lights were switched on, they would attract plankton, which in turn would attract the mantas.
The catamaran came to a stop a few miles from shore just after the sun drowned below the horizon. The first mate stood at the stairs and handed out the flotation devices—blue pool noodles—and waited as we submerged one by one into the dark water. We bobbed up and over the waves like corks, masks and snorkels in position.
“Follow the headlamps!” the captain called from the now-vacant boat. Two of the crew had jumped in the water and lit the way for about twenty of us. When we reached the ladder, I felt better. Faith, I, Tim, and Aidan lined up side-by-side in that order gripping the ladder. The waves buffeted us, side to side and up and down. The ladder slapped and bounced.
The crew instructed us to place the noodles beneath our legs to keep us horizontal across the surface of the water. I thought that would just provide more of me to wobble around in the waves, uncomfortable and unnecessary, so I left the noodle under my armpits. Because following the instructions of professionals is overrated.
The crew flipped on the ladder lights.
Two dozen powerful floodlamps cast wide white cones into the depths. The underwater visibility went from zero to about fifteen or twenty feet.
My first thought was eeeewwww.
In the same way I had never given much thought to mantas, I had also never given much thought to plankton. In my mind, plankton was more like plant-kton. Think algae and microplants, the non-specific sea flora that I just made up and named this second. Turns out, it is actually called phytoplankton. But there’s another kind called zooplankton that are animal planktons released from zoos. And that’s what we were stewing in.
Imagine plunging your head face first into sand, but each of the densely-packed grains is actually a little creature. And a weird little transparent creature at that. There were ones that looked like shrimp, not bigger than a pin head. There were round ones, ones with spinny things like propellers, ones with millions of little fingers waving, flat ones, spheres, ovals, curlicues.
They were so densely packed that the water should have had the consistency of collagen. Instead of feeling the wonder of the ocean, and awe at the myriad, miraculous life teeming before me, all I could think was they were floating through my hair and into my ears. They were touching my face, leaking into my mask, and, when a wave crested over my snorkel and flooded it, going down my throat and swimming in my lungs. I shuddered at the imaginary sensation of insects crawling all over me.
And I thought, I chose, in fact paid, to be submerged in a sea carnivore’s amuse-bouche buffet.
“Dad!” Aidan yelled. Both Tim and I lifted our heads from the water. “I can’t blublublub…” a wave that reached my chin went over Aidan’s head. He spluttered. “I can’t breathe.” When he held onto the ladder, his arms weren’t long enough to keep his snorkel above water. His choice was to hold on and get swamped by every wave passing over his head, or let go and float away.
Tim scooped him up in one arm and lifted Aidan’s head above the waves. “I’m going to take him back to the boat.”
But the boat was gone. Off in the distance, we could see the small lights of the catamaran sailing away.
And it’s at this moment, in the full dark of night, out of view of land, out of reach of boat, that I began to consider what it truly meant to have my children free-floating in the open water of the Pacific Ocean.
I tried to reassure myself that they were both good swimmers.
In a pool.
Where they could stand up.
And see the bottom.
In broad daylight.
We got the attention of one of the crew who summoned the boat back. With difficulty, Tim swam one-handed to the open maw of the stairway. Beside me, Faith looked longingly at the boat. She’d fared better with the snorkel than Aidan had, but looked waterlogged and tired. “I’m going back, too.” She let go. My instinct was to follow her, but I hung on. We came all this way. Shouldn’t one of us get our money’s worth from the excursion and see what we came to see? I couldn’t be Aquaman in the boat.
Feeling guilty for not joining them, I nonetheless put my facemask back in the water. Trillions upon trillions of zoospecks floated through the floodlights and I did my best to think of them not as transparent water spiders, but as dust motes drifting through a slash of sunlight. It wouldn’t be too much longer before a flotilla of small manta-stingray thingies swam through.
I stared into the depths, the deep dark void. Who knew how far down the ocean stretched. Who knew what swam below. And me, with my legs dangling like plump, Jurassic-sized worms. Before I could move my noodle into position at my ankles, I saw something.
An open mouth. Not a mouth like a fish or a shark. A mouth like the docking bay of the Starship Enterprise. It was a fixed, rictus rectangle. I could see the ripples of muscle down its, its what, its mouth-throat-stomach. As it ascended and became clearer, I could make out the black tips of its wings.
Sweet mother of God.
This was no stingray-kitchen mat. Beneath me, from tip to tip, a creature wider than my van was fast ascending. The mouth was wider than me if I stretched out both arms, deeper than I was tall. It was headed straight for me. My feet dangled directly over it. There was no doubt in my mind that if it didn’t change trajectory, I would slip whole into its body and be carried off.
I scissored my legs, hoping to become too big to fit. The manta glided ever upward, graceful and terrifying. It skimmed up the front of my legs. Our pale white bellies were inches apart. Just before it reached my head, it arched and did a wide loop-de-loop back into the darkness.
My skin erupted in goosebumps. I began to shake all over.
How had something that size, the size of a UHaul, simply disappeared? In that instant, the sheer depth and scale of the ocean became real to me for a moment. And the converse, how small and insignificant, and made of delicious, bouncy meat we were by comparison.
As I paddled away from the ladder for the safety of the boat atop my armpit noodle, I decided that next time (never, ever again) I would pay more attention to those sciencey types and their picky naming conventions before I left the house.
I’m overjoyed to report that two of my travel photographs have been picked up for separate exhibitions in October at the Glasgow Gallery of Photography in Glasgow, Scotland. I can’t show them to you until after the exhibitions, but I can tell you that the first photo depicts an ice cave in Iceland. It will be hung for the show “Blue,” and the second photo depicts the ruins of Hore Abbey in Ireland for the show “Abandoned.” My first international shows!
This month, I am also teaching my first seminar in memoir at The Department of Veterans Affairs. I can’t wait to hear their stories. If you’re a veteran, please feel free to join us.
A helpful reader pointed out that the link didn’t work last month, so I’ve included this group promotion again. More than a dozen books available!