COCONUT ISLAND, HAWAII—Sitting in the shaky white boat, I suddenly felt a huge wave of fear. Exposed in my pink floral two-piece, I was ready to enter the waters of Kaneohe Bay. Or was I? After all, everyone else was wearing a wetsuit. I already felt unprepared.
“Waters will be around 20 to 40 feet deep,” said Kira Hughes, a project manager at the Coral Gates Lab, after I asked how deep we’d be. I was there to report on the lab’s breeding of Super Corals, which are supposed to withstand warmer waters in the face of climate change. I, however, was dealing with a more imminent threat the corals wouldn’t understand: deep water. And deep salty ocean water, to make things worse.
Confession: Ya’ girl can barely swim.
OK, technically, I can swim. What I suck at is treading water, which made things so much worse, because deep water terrifies me. Throw me in a shallow pool, and I’ll flap my arms to complete laps on laps on laps. Once I hit the deep end, though, my chest tightens. I freeze and immediately scurry back to safety. At the beach, I avoid straying too far from the shore because I worry about the moment the sand drops, revealing endless doom and death.
So imagine my dread when I realized I’d have to plunge into the ocean to see the coral for myself. I knew this moment would come: It came with the assignment, after all. “I can handle this,” I thought. I could, you know, get over it—but my body wasn’t having it.
After Hughes mentioned the water’s depth, I just nodded. I tried to push the anxiety away, but it kept coming back. I put my cheap blue-glass shades on and looked out into the bay as the boat skipped with every wave. “You can do this,” I silently meditated. When we finally reached the reefs where Hughes’ team would begin their work, I felt my heart begin to beat faster and faster. I was ready to explode.
“I’m not that great of a swimmer,” I finally blurted out. I needed everyone to know. I needed them to understand they couldn’t trust me in the sea. I needed their assurance I could do it—or, actually, I needed their assurance that I didn’t have to do it. And they gave me it.
Hughes was pretty clear she would prefer not to have a reporter’s blood on her hands. “I am a certified lifeguard, though,” she smiled at me. My two co-workers filming the video were understanding, letting me off the hook. Sure, it’d be cool to capture me swimming among the reefs, but they could manage without that footage. Plus, we only had two snorkeling masks. “Better if one of us go in with the camera anyway,” one of them told me.
Phew. I felt relieved—but I also felt disappointed. Bummed. Whack. Lame. I felt like a goddamn loser. Hughes brought a few life jackets on board, and she offered one to me. “If you change your mind, you could always put this on.”
“No fucking way,” I thought. “Thanks,” I muttered. That’d only multiply my level of lameness. So as everyone jumped into the warm teal water, I sat there.
And sat there.
And sat there.
I felt a tinge of regret—of not having learned how to properly tread water, of being a coward. The feelings weren’t new: In college, I constantly skipped fun plans to visit lakes and ponds because I’d be the one sitting on the sides. I even took swimming classes at a YMCA about two years ago to avoid feeling left out. Unfortunately for me, that class kept us in a shallow pool. Treading water wasn’t on the syllabus, and that’s an essential skill.
I first realized this as a kid in El Salvador. I went to a huge water park with my family when I was around 10 or so. The waters sit atop natural geothermal vents, so it was like being in a giant hot tub. It was awesome. Except that pieces of the pools would drop in depth without any warning, and my younger self didn’t know what she was doing. I remember swimming underwater, feeling mad cool, having the time of my life—until I came up for air and felt a void beneath my feet. I bobbed up and down, gasping to breathe.
I was drowning. And it sucked. My older cousin quickly noticed what was happening and saved me, but that shit left its mark.
Now, here I was with the entire ocean literally at my feet. Off the coast of Hawaii. When would I be here again? Probably never.
And, man, I wanted to see the coral—in all their natural glory outside the lab or any aquarium. One of my co-workers returned to the boat out of breath, talking about the reefs just a few feet away. “You can see everything!” he said.
That’s all it took. “Fuck it,” I said. “I’m going in.”
I threw on the life jacket, forced the snorkeling mask over my face, and leaped in. The waves splashed and grazed my face. I was OK. Even if I looked like a noob, I was OK. That’s all that mattered at that moment.
I swam over to where everyone else was and dunked my face into the water. The sight wasn’t what I expected. The corals here weren’t bright pinks or greens you see in nature documentaries. They were a gradient of browns and oranges. Still, they were majestic AF. And they were everywhere. I couldn’t believe how close to the surface the reef sat. I couldn’t believe they were alive. I couldn’t begin to imagine how vibrant they must look at night when the sea critters come out to play.
I spent maybe 15 minutes in the ocean, which was enough for me. I struggled most with lifting myself back onto the boat, which lacked a ladder. Everyone else appeared to do it with ease, but I scraped my knees after thinking I’d spend the rest of my days in the water.
Thank goodness that didn’t happen. And thank goodness for life jackets. That shit didn’t exactly save my life, but it certainly gave me life.
Next on my bucket list is to jump into the ocean again—this time, without the encouragement of coral and, more importantly, without a stupid orange life vest. Baby steps, though. I might save that for next summer.
This year, I’ll start with a pool. A six-foot pool, perhaps. With a lifeguard on duty. Again, baby steps.