I hold my goggles on my face and my regulator into my mouth, and I sit on the edge of the dive boat. The captain counts to three, then I let the weight of the tank pull me backward. My body ruptures the surface of the ocean and I am churned in the waves with whitecaps cresting. I pull the cord to deflate the last bit of air in my BCD, and slowly sink with my eyes half in and half out of the water. I find Andrew’s hand, and keep my eyes on Loic, our dive guide. We sink, and I am surrounded in Big Blue. It is above me, in front of me, below me, behind me, to my right and to my left. I am inside a sphere of nothing but blue.
This is my first “Blue Drop” which means that we are descending from the surface far enough out in the open ocean that we cannot see land at all once we drop under water. We use our dive watches to track our decent, stop at the appropriate depth, then float the current until we reach the edge of the 5000 foot cliff that is Fakarava. It takes about five minutes before we find the edge of the atoll, 100 feet below the surface. In that interval, the blue sphere places a soft pressure on my ears, ribs, lungs. The only motion I feel is the weight of falling in slow motion. The only sound I hear is the sharp “suck” of air intake, and the round hum of bubbles slowly escaping my regulator as I exhale. My goal is to exhale a slow, long thirty seconds, wait three seconds, then inhale sharply again. This technique will extend our tank time if I hold still and float rather than swim.
Loic gave us a full discussion of the profile of this dive, and it sounded challenging to my inexperienced self: blue drop, fast current, coral canyons, a “washing machine”. I was nervous in the dive boat, and almost bailed out. Now that I am sinking, I am relaxed. Andrew’s right hand rests in my left. He gives me the OK sign every few feet, and I respond with an OK sign. All is well.
Soon, the edge of the cliff comes into view. It’s just a shadow of coral at first, then as we drop it comes more and more into focus. We find the bottom, and grab hold of a strong coral head with two fingers to rest, group up, and look around. The current is so strong, as we hold onto the coral head our legs fly backward. Andrew holds my hand and gives me a wild-eyed stare. I wound him up in the dive boat, and he is still a little fretful.
We see a group of barracuda; sharks drift above us. For the most part, they ignore us. A giant Napoleon saunters by; it is as big as a human is long, but more rotund. If I put my fingertips together over my head and make the shape of a circle with my arms, the Napoleon just might fit through the “O”. He is huge. It is a colorful bright green. We see white starfish, little blue fish, yellow and black striped fish, red fish. Soon, with a wave of his arm and a point, Loic indicates that it is time to move forward. We let go of the coral, and the current takes us forward. We are pushed into the slot of a canyon that runs along the bottom. We are whisked through the valley, while colorful red, blue, green, and white coral grows tall on either side of us. Using our breath to float up or sink down, we follow the contours of the canyon until it is time to skip up and over a plateau, then sink down into the famous “Ali Baba”. Looking in the distance, you can see rolling hills of coral long into the distance. Tiny fish hover over the crevices, ready to jump in and hide as we pass through. A moray eel sticks his nose from his coral hole and watches us parade by.
As we reach Ali Baba, we descend into valley dusted with broken bits of coral and discarded sharks’ teeth. We stop and look around. A school of thousands of fish watch us watching them. They swirl around us, while sharks swish their tails back and forth above us. We sit here and watch as long as our tanks hold out. It is amazing. A shark swims past the orb of sunlight 50 feet above me; he is back lit, with a white belly. Loic starts frantically waving at Kevin, whose belly is dragging close to the ocean floor. Kevin looks down and sees a nudibranch (a sea creature that is a lot like a caterpillar). They are usually very colorful and interesting. I have only seen them in photographs on the internet, never one in person and up close. This is another bucket list item for me.
Three weeks ago, we didn’t know anything about the Tuamotus. We hadn’t planned a stop here; we just knew there were atolls between Marquesas and Tahiti that we should try not to smash onto. Sitting in this underwater paradise teaming with wildlife, I am struck with awe over the variety of experiences I am enjoying in this wink of lifetime I am given. I seek out some of these experiences, but so many others are happy accidents. Ferdinand’s energy, Manihi-Mama’s hospitality and warmth, Fakarava’s wild sharks: these are the Universe’s little gifts to me. These are a kindness I do not know how to repay, except with my gratitude and awe.