He holds his thumb pressed to his forefinger in a loop, signaling “okay?” I can’t respond. I hold my hand to my chest, feeling the panic rise and I am acutely aware that every breath I don’t take will only heighten my state. My body is swaying from left to right in a huge arc and, as my knees keep lifting, I cannot keep my contact with the floor. Is this what an earthquake feels like? Again, Hussein tries to make eye contact and I stare back, hard, unable to move my hand from the safety of my heart. He stays with me and takes my hand and I steady. Moments later we all burst through the surface and I suck on the air intensively, regaining my ground in shallow waters. Welcome to my first moments breathing under the sea.
Before I arrived in Egypt, I was encouraged to take advantage of diving. The Red Sea purportedly has some of the most beautiful, intact coral reefs, exceptional visibility and stable waters in the world. Trying to take advantage of this amazing resource, I decided to sign up. This first scuba experience in the Red Sea came on Thanksgiving day with unusually strong currents and very poor visibility.
Scuba diving tried me I’m ways I didn’t realize I would be tested; every major trauma I have experienced, and the resulting need for control, came to the fore. Air pressure, water pressure, numbers, equalization, navigation, buoyancy, weighting, air expansion, nitrogen, visibility, breathing: multi-tasking with real consequences. Keeping calm and maintaining a clear head gave new meaning to being in the present.
After my first five minutes underwater in the sea, we dipped back down and began moving towards deeper waters. An intensive pain overtook my ears as we descended; I later came to realize what I felt was an air pressure squeeze. Working between the intensity, I stupidly kept signaling “okay”. For 29 minutes, with a maximum depth of 14 feet, we fought through both the current and the poor visibility. Without my glasses I could barely make out shapes and silhouettes. Hussein grabbed my hand and kept me moving as we fought againsta direct current. Even though I was swimming, I wasn’t making any progress towards the shore. Hussein grabbed a rope to steady us as we began our ascent. Petrified, I kept squeezing his hand as the water pushed against us.
“Take off your mask. Wash your face. Wash your face! Put your face in the water,” Hussein sternly tells me. Eventually his words click at the surface. I wash my face. “You have blood on your face. You did not equalize,” he scolds me. Oh, I think to myself. That wasn’t saltwater I was tasting in my mouth. It was blood.
Knees bowed under the weight of the tank and the additional 8 kilos of weight and a waterlogged wetsuit, I push out of the water onto the shore, my body shaking and shocked. It’s a wonder I maintained my breathing underwater. Once out of the water, I was ready to crumble and let all the water seep out from the cracks. Someone else leant me a hand, to balance on, as I stumbled soberly back to the dive center.
Underwater, when you can’t see, you can’t stabilize, you can’t speak, you can’t smell, you can’t cough, your periphery is blocked and you can barely swallow, you feel foreign in your body. Everything that makes us competent, communicating, creative creatures on land is stripped away. It’s like starting over in a body that isn’t yours. Yet, you can be neutral, you can move forward quite easily, and you can be part of this other, less-known world without boundaries. You are forced to be still within yourself, to focus, and to merely observe and absorb.
On the fourth and final dive of my certification, it happened. The conditions were just right and, with borrowed prescription goggles, I could see every detail. The marine world opened up. The poisonous lion fish hovering on the sea bed waved at me. Minuscule fish fluttered in and out of the dense coral. The muted mauves, teals and ochres broadcast teeming flashy blue and vermillion fins. Glass fish winked, sparkling against the halo of light lining the surface of the water. A school of sarcastic mackerel gaped at me with open mouths as I ascended to the air. And, like that, it was worth it all the trouble. I could see.