Coral Reef Therapy

coral reef hawaii fishI’ve known, abstractly at least, that I’ve wanted to go snorkeling since I stood waist-high in the crystal clear water of Puerto Rico, way back in 1983. Seeing tropical fish up close, in their own environment, was captivating to newly minted teenager me. But we didn’t have much time on the island during that vacation, and didn’t get around to snorkeling.

I told myself that I was too clumsy for something that would require breathing a different way, plus hand-flipper coordination. I’d probably concuss myself on a reef, get into an altercation with an eel, or worse. I satisfied myself with episodes of Blue Planet and short-lived glances at tiny tiger fish in local mall aquariums. But by the time we booked our trip to the big island of Hawaii, I’d promised myself to strap on a mask and fins and check out a nearby coral reef.

And now I’m addicted to snorkeling. That didn’t take long.

Water fills up my ear canals and then all I can hear is the sound of my own breathing through the snorkel tube. Other than the taste of briny water on my tongue, I stop noticing all of my senses but my sight. There’s a bright yellow angel fish, nipping plankton off of the coral ridge. A dark black, blue striped fish darts in front of me, followed by a school of them. A silvery fish that looks like a living dagger hovers near the surface, as if she can’t wait to evolve to a land-walking biology. Sea urchins that range from dark purple to bright pink nestle in the pockets of the reef, and now I can’t imagine eating one cut in half.

A school of tiger fish off in the distance, eating in such a frenzy that they generate the only cloudy portion of water I see around me. If it looked like the water was overcrowded with other snorkelers before I headed into the pool, I now have lost myself in solitude and mind-numbing beauty. And where I’m generally clumsy on the surface, I feel almost masterful under the water’s edge, able to spin and turn and control my trajectory.

I never want to leave the pool again. In the silence of the coral reef I hear a siren’s song. And the next thought that slips into my brain is so overwhelmingly positive I know it will linger after I reenter the winter of Washington State:

I’m so glad I get to see this.

I acknowledge there’s a mighty big class issue here–it takes a significant amount of financial resources to locate oneself on vacation in the first place, much less a popular tropical destination and rent such things as snorkeling gear. I’m not going to pull a Dan Savage “It Gets Better” moment and suggest that all we LGBT people need to keep ourselves from suicide or bullies is a quick jaunt to Paris, but perhaps there are other kinds of moments, more accessible, that can help us have a mind meld of our own with reasons for fighting the good fight. I wasn’t expecting a lifelong quest to visit Hawaii to morph into a massive font of reflection, but that’s part of why those 20 minutes became so quickly special to me. If I’d been gearing up for revelations I wouldn’t have caught them. Or at least, when I’ve tried to plan for insight I’ve spent my time waiting around, and Godot seems never to appear. But let my guard down, be open to life showing me something wildly new, and bingo.

It’s a good lesson, one I’ve encountered several times by making new friends, listening to people’s stories, and asking questions in unorthodox situations. Sure, they’re just fish eating plankton. But somehow my brief time under the ocean’s surface has echoed in my bones. And I will keep listening out for more reverberations until I get another big life lesson from the universe.

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Categories: Travel, visiting


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