I was a child the first time I saw the ocean. Standing on the sandy shore, the surf washed gently upon my feet. My mind and heart were immediately captured, dissolved into the blue vastness. I stood silently, absorbed and mindless, overwhelmed by the crashing of waves that echoed my own breathing. I entered the agitated waters. The force of this element bewildered me: pulling me in and pushing me out, offering no resistance to soft movements, yet countering force with hard crashing. For a moment I thought I had her laws figured out and began to play in her waves. The first one took me and threw me to the sandy bottom, pinning me there for what seemed to last forever, as the need to breathe became more urgent and daunting. Finally she released me, and I crawled back onto the shore, panting, exhilarated and confused. No, I had not figured her out, and she had shown me for the first time what fate she reserves to men who believe they do.
When I was nine years old, my father strapped a SCUBA tank to my back and took me diving for the first time. Like most people do, I panicked when I had to take off my mask for the first time. It was not sufficient that I could breathe in this unfamiliar environment; I had to see my surroundings in order to feel safe. Since then I have dived a thousand times, in almost every sea of the planet. Every time, my visceral connection to the ocean is strengthened. Every time, my intuitive understanding of the complex marine ecosystems is sharpened. And every time, about 35 minutes into the dive, I am submerged by a feeling of bliss and belonging that seems to whisper to my soul: “stay here”, as if a long evaporated drop of the sea had returned to visit, only for a while. A similar feeling to meeting a loved one who has passed away, in a dream. As if the truth in this life was not in separation, but in unity.
I am writing these lines from the sunny shores of Raja Ampat, to the far east of the Indonesian archipelago. Here, nature is lush and exuberant, both on land and beneath the mirroring surface of the sea. On my recent dives, I have recognized what I call the layered skins of the reef. Around the colorfully chaotic coral reefs, clouds of tiny fish expand and contract as larger predators zip by, like a heart, beating to a mysterious and unpredictable rhythm. Further out lies a concentric layer of larger fish, an interface between this ecosystem and the deep blue sea. Individuals who form this outer shell regularly migrate down to the reef, and then back to their school. I cannot help but to see this entire system as a living cell, with its living membrane and commuting proteins.
As I hunt for large predators with my underwater camera, I feel I can read these movements and have developed a sense of bio-intuition, which points me to where I am likely to encounter a passing manta ray, a shark, a turtle… And sometimes, nothing at all. Alone in the infinite blue, with no point of reference but the distant surface above me, I am insignificant, and I am home. I soon realize that I am not alone, as the strident song of unseen dolphins penetrates my bones. As I open my eyes to the microscopic particles around me, I discover a galaxy of living beings, oblivious to my bubbly presence, playing a crucial role as the primary producers of oxygen and biomass.
Finishing the dive, I return to the surface, tired and serene. Once again the ocean has dissolved my inner space and emptied my mind, filling my imagination with fleeting images of untamed beauty. Returning to the world of humans, I feel outraged by straight lines and perpendicular constructions of cold cement and steel, who rapidly drain my peace and dull my focus. Even here, far away from cities and roads, the beaches bear the scars of our legacy to future generations, all covered in plastic litter and debris.
In these last refuges of ocean wilderness, I have encountered not only the organisms and systems that keep us alive, but also the beauty and bewilderment that make us human. The ocean is an endless source of amazement and a constant reminder of humility. It has shaped our world for eons, nurtured our everyday lives, and inspired countless generations. Today, as the turbulent children of the sea that we are, we must find the ways to recognize our unbreakable bond, and to protect what must be, for our children and theirs.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia, June 15 2014
[Originally published in Tauschen diving magazine in July 2014]