Dawn breaks over Tobbaco Caye, a small island on the Barrier Reef of Belize. I open my eyes as the palm trees greet the first rays of light. I will have my first deep dive today! A wave of excitement surges over me. I jump up, don my swimsuit, rush through breakfast and head out to the docks where my instructor, Boo, (yes his name was really Boo) meets me. He straightens up from the tanks, tossing his beaded hair as he grins. “So, you ready for the big one?” “Yes, Sir!” I answer with a laugh. At that moment four adults walk onto the deck. A elderly man, with beads in his white beard, a sweet old lady (his wife), a blonde german woman, and Eric, who is Boo’s boss.
Bead Beard looks at me. “So is this your first dive?” “No sir, my fourth, but this is my first time going out on the reef into deeper waters.” I reply. He nods and pulls on his wet suit. I follow his example, and soon we load up into the long speedboat. As we leave the dock my little brothers wave and scream across the crystalline water some encouragement. “Don’t drown, Hannah!” “Yeah!” Ezra yells, “And watch out for sharks!” You have to love younger siblings!
As we speed across the waves there is much laughter and friendly banter. When we reach the reef I look down into the water and see the reef far below. I’m nervous. I have always been fearful of deep water as well as the open ocean. Although I’ve tried to cure myself I’ve never succeeded. SCUBA diving is just another step towards conquering that fear.
Looking around, I notice it’s very calm. The waves lap gently against our boat, lifting it up and down slightly. The water is as blue as the sky, which is clear and serene. With a smile of satisfaction I realize it’s a perfect day to dive.
My gear fits perfectly. Everyone laughs as the unexpected weight of my SCUBA tank bowls me over. My flippers are clumsy and hard to use, but I know that once in the water they will make me more agile and swift.
With a splash one after another the others tip backwards into the water. I inflate my BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) and tip backwards into the ocean, joining them. A cloud of frothy bubbles surrounds me. For an exhilarating moment I don’t know which direction the surface is. Then up I pop into the salty air. The boat has already moved away. It’s time to go down. With a whoosh I let the air out of my BCD and slowly start to sink beneath the lapping waves of the ocean.
This is my favorite part of the dive. When time seems to stop and wait as you float down, deeper and deeper until you feel the bottom is unreachable. The very blueness of the water is incredible, and through it I can see schools of brightly colored fish far beneath me. This isn’t frightening at all! Rolling over onto my back I watch as the bubbles from our tanks float up, tumbling over each other to erupt at the surface.I look at my depth gauge and realize we are down 30 feet and still sinking. 40… 45… 50… We have reached the bottom. It’s like a totally different world! The fish fly around me, swirling uniformly as they participate in the ballet of the ocean reef. I float as well, weightless and free.
Suddenly I realize we are deeper. 60 feet! I have finally reached the depth limit of my license! I do a little joy dance underwater. Eric sees me and grins as he claps silently. Giggling into a regulator is hard, but somehow I manage it!
We swim on through the water, enjoying the fish and bright coral. Suddenly Eric begins making excited gestures. I don’t understand his meaning, and shake my head to signify my confusion. Eric frowns and waving wildly, points into the distance.
Suddenly I see a huge shape swimming straight towards me through the water. I look around and see that all of the other divers are at least 10-15 ft away behind me. Even Eric is 12 feet away to my right. My heart starts to race. I can see it clearer now. What is it? Out of the foggy blue a murky shape appears. Four fins propel it through the water. A sea turtle swims straight towards me! It’s awfully close now. That’s when I see it’s eyes. The result is electrifying. Suddenly a great peace fills me. It is a calm like I have never experienced before. I slowly reach my hand out. The great turtle comes so close I could touch it. Then it stops. It sits there and looks at me. For what seems like a lifetime we hover there, floating, suspended in space and time. I wish it would never end. Then, with the blink of one great, brown eye, it is over.
The great beast settles down on the bottom. I follow. I come slowly closer. Then I reach out my hand. The skin on his head is leathery and soft. I am amazed he will let me touch him. The other divers soon crowd around in amazement, petting and feeling him. Then, with a push, he is gone.
I feel like I have been honored, as if by a king. A while later we surface. In the boat Bead Beard gravely says “We have seen an old soul. What a great experience.” The others seem excited, but only Bead Beard and I are awed. Boo pipes up. “That turtle was around 150 years old!!! It’s rare to see one that big!” Once we get moving the wind drowns out most conversation. The wind whips my hair back as I look down into the bright blue water. I murmur reverently “Yes. An old soul.”