There are two experiences in life that never fail to give me pause: riding in a plane, looking at the earth and the patterns of nature and civilization; and strapping a tank of air and diving in the sea.
Flying has become for many of us an everyday wonder, so much so that we focus on the banality of customer experience. But so few have taken the time to learn how to dive despite that it's in many ways more miraculous.
Scuba is pretty simple. There's a tank of air and a regulator. You suck the air out of the tank and float around. But until Cousteau worked out the kinks, the underwater world was locked for almost everyone. And even those who could freedive never quite got to experience the placidity and peacefulness that a luxurious hour's worth of air provides.
Diving is by definition otherworldly. It moves your perception to the helm of a submarine, turning your body into a vehicle by which you can visit an ecosystem that has remained for millions of years out of reach to our air-breathing ancestors.
There's plenty of adventure to be had underwater. I've dabbled with a few technical dives, where a diver doesn't have time to let their mind wander but must focus on the dangers at hand: rushing currents, low visibility, treacherous environments like wrecks or caves. All of that is interesting in its own right, but it's akin to stunt flying or piloting a fighter jet. It's for the dedicated or the extreme, not the dabbler.
But anyone can learn to dive in the relative shallows, spending a long weekend getting a certification that will let them drop into the waters of a tropical reef and simply lounge, watching the fish dart around coral heads or follow bigger animals attend to their rounds.
Scuba isn't difficult—and I say that as someone who occasionally still finds himself having a panic attack at depth, especially away from warmer waters. In fact, in the warm waters of the tropics, the water melts away my claustrophobia; I rarely feel like I'm fighting nature by sliding underwater for a time, but feel almost welcomed. (That fish are so neighborly helps.)
I could relate to you all the animals I've seen, the wrecks and the strange formations, but none of it can really match what you'll experience with your own eyes. We've grown up watching countless nature documentaries that make diving underwater seem almost pedestrian, but until you do it yourself it's hard to understand the transformative, quieting effect of sitting on a sandy sea floor, raptly attentive to a tiny, inconsequential fish colored like a molten Jolly Rancher and thinking to yourself, "No matter what I've done with my life, no matter what happens to our world, I'm witnessing something that billions of people before never imagined was part of our planet."
Illustration: Wendy MacNaughton