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Issue #7 |

Surfacing

The morning of the test, I arrived at the dive shop before the first minibus from Inhambane reached the market bearing the day’s supply of rolls. On the concrete deck, in the half dark, I stood shivering and scanning the profiles of my charges. Late September marked the tail end of winter, dry and cool, of sleepy days and raucous nights with marauding winds rattling the shutters. Beyond the deserted beaches, the Mozambique Channel churned, swollen with thick, turbid blooms of plankton and the marine life it attracted.

Six weeks earlier, I landed in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, on my twenty-sixth birthday with the singular goal of spending every day at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. After four years of scuba diving, I figured that the most reasonable way to continue a rather expensive hobby was to become a working diver, or a divemaster, who was paid to take others on dives. PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, a quasi-monopolistic organization that adjudicated civilian access to the shallow seas, offered the certification through accredited dive centers. Three hundred miles north of Maputo, in a tiny beach town on the Inhambane Peninsula, I found a place willing to take me as a trainee. The distance between the beach and the bungalow where I rented a room was less than two hundred meters; halfway between was the dive shop where I worked.

Divemaster training involved a series of tests, and the time had arrived for me to lead an excursion. I was comfortable as “sweeper”—last diver down and last one up—but I had never led a group. The boat would be full that day, with seven tourists, international, motley, as well as Lee, one of the shop’s resident divemasters, and Sam, my instructor, who would evaluate my performance.

Upstairs in the shop, guests paced across the wooden deck, dropped sugar cubes into mugs of hot tea and flipped through fish identification books as they waited for someone to call the briefing to order. A tall, bald man boomed across the deck in a South African accent: “For my fiftieth, I came up to surf. I’m alone so I can drink if I want to.” The German’s terse response: “I came for the manta.”  An older Czech couple sat on the chintzy patio love seat, cradling futuristic underwater cameras in their laps. A stocky Israeli man squeezed his buxom French girlfriend’s arm. A Spanish father and his teenage son loitered beside a large, shy Hawaiian woman, traveling alone, whom I had overheard some guys at the shop call “fat ass” a day earlier.

I rounded everyone up. We would to go to Oasis, I said, then on a deep dive at Galleria. I picked up the wooden model of the Zodiac boat and explained how we would launch it from the beach, how to board, when to don our equipment, how to prepare to land on shore. I left out the nausea they’d likely feel as they waited for everyone to gear up, how the Yamaha engine would drown out all conversation, how their toes might turn numb by the end of the dive like mine did, their teeth rattling like tins of Altoids. I didn’t say that the visibility might extend as far as my outstretched arm or to beware of swift currents in these wintry waters. “Any questions?”

“Can we see the manta?” asked the French girl, as if we were letting him out only for special guests.

“We’ll do the manta dance,” Sam sneered from the back. A few people chuckled as heads turned. Though barely five feet six inches tall, Sam exuded authority. From his sunbaked skin jaundiced by menthol cigarettes to the albumen white of his limpid eyes, Sam struck tourists as the kind of salty seadog who could be trusted on matters about the sea.

I cleared my throat. “The odds are good, but no guarantees.”

“What about whales?” the Czech man asked.

“That’s harder,” I admitted. I had never seen one on a dive myself. Management recorded the season’s whale count on a whiteboard downstairs. Migration season ran through October, as humpback whales swam south with their calves to feed in colder waters. Mickey had seen six on dives and led the friendly competition. Lee and Sam were tied at two, and Sue, the manager, rarely dove and hadn’t seen any. My name wasn’t even on the board.

“Well, we better see something,” the German said. “We came all this way.”

I knew that blame for a dull trip would fall on me. Divers who ventured to remote Inhambane tended to harbor high expectations.

We marched down to the beach. At the water’s edge, we shielded our eyes from the glare and waited for the shop’s tractor to deposit the boat onto the sand.

“Best thing to do if you’re worried is to stick close together,” Sam told the pretty French girl. “That current can carry you a kilometer out by the time I finish this cigarette.”

“You must send ships for the missing,” she said.

“For you, sweetie, we’d send the whole fleet. But nothing but the fishies’ll find you at the bottom of the ocean.”

Lee and I rolled our eyes. I gazed past the thrashing waves and scanned for whales.

The skipper unhitched the boat and everyone came around to help guide it into the water.

“Push,” Sam shouted, and we heaved as if we were all giving birth. The tide swept in and the little blue Zodiac lurched into the shore. We hammered thigh-deep into the waves, and the skipper leapt aboard, then cranked until the motor sputtered to life. Sam, Lee, and I scrambled up and yanked the customers in as the boat surged into an oncoming wave. The force sent me tumbling into the clutch of cylinders strapped to the hull. I righted myself and gripped the rope behind me as the Zodiac, airborne again, slammed down with a violent slap. We were off.

 

I learned to scuba dive off of a small volcanic island a two-hour ferry ride north of Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines. I had arrived to the country for my first job out of college, one that required lengthy trips to remote parts of the country to collect detailed information about the rural poor. At twenty-one, the world was a place of rounded corners, nothing sharp enough to inflict a puncture wound. Yet on my first night in Manila, two midgets dressed in wrestling costumes began a fistfight outside a strip club beneath my guest house. Like its urine-soaked underpasses beneath sparkling casinos, the city’s excesses shook me. Manila was an incessant rattling in the head, a heavy load on the shoulders.

Then there was diving. Diving opened up a new dimension, vast and serene, delivering me to what Annie Dillard called “pure sensation unencumbered by meaning” to describe vision for the newly sighted. Gone was the weight belt and cumbersome fins, the twelve pounds of steel and compressed air on my back, the honking Jeepneys in typhoon-induced gridlock, the stenches and aromas, the simmering sun and moist clothes, the tall gates dividing dumpster dwellers from Maseratis. Underwater, I became unburdened, weightless and freed.

In a nation of seven thousand islands where travel was relatively cheap, I stole away every chance I could. In karst-covered coves off Palawan, on reefs surrounding Apo Island and candy land aquariums in Bohol, down to the tip of Leyte Island, I confronted foreign terrains, novel forms of life, finally understanding how it could be possible for thousands of new marine species to be identified every year, many predating humans, many having remained relatively unchanged in three hundred million years. Unknown quantities were vanishing in our lifetimes, some likely before they were ever discovered and given a name on the grand ledger of species known to mankind. It would be as if they never existed at all.

On Malapascua, an island in the Philippines off the northern coast of Cebu, my advanced certification instructor was Bibi, a tall Swedish blonde with a chipped tooth and a Viking-like bearing who dove in a red one-piece and called the resident thresher sharks “her puppies.” She munched apples fifteen meters under the sea, blowing tiny air bubbles from her nose. Her life plan was to hop around dive centers across the globe until her eardrums gave out. I asked her about diving in Africa, where I hoped to go next. In Africa, she said, I would only dive in Mozambique. She rhapsodized about whalesharks the length of school buses, pods of spinner dolphins, manta rays and leatherback turtles wide as trampolines, all above a vast museum of reef-dwelling fauna.

Back in Manila, I read about the former Portuguese colony. A cursory Internet search revealed a sprawling country, nearly twice the size of California that straddled the Tropic of Capricorn. I had never been to southern Africa and spoke no Portuguese, but at twenty-two, I was so porous and wide open I was practically translucent. I was halfway to Mozambique before I ever left the Philippines.

 

After we cleared the waves, there was little to do but wait. The wind buffeted our faces as the morning sun, still thin and weak, spooned silvery light into each dimple of water.

Left alone with my thoughts, I fretted about the upcoming dive. With a regulator and mask obscuring her face, body swathed in a wetsuit and feet in fins, the lead diver has few tactics to maintain order than sustaining the promise that she can show you what you can’t find on your own. I’d watched Sue, the manager, navigate across the seabed in three meter visibility, pointing out sea slugs under corals and rays entombed in sand, while I could barely spot a banded sea snake unless it bit off my finger.

Diving in Mozambique was hard for me. Lugging cylinders on and off boats as a tourist had been fun—a novelty; doing it for employment amounted to repetitive manual labor. My soft hands were better adapted for stroking computer keys than screwing O-rings into valves; my arms too weak to hoist my body over the slick rim of the Zodiac. Hours of sipping stale compressed air irritated my lungs and gave me an ugly smoker’s cough. Though I grew stronger with each passing day, I longed for the chlorinated lap pools of my childhood, missed floating on my back and gazing up at a postcard blue Californian sky. I craved submerging myself into warm Philippine waters, still and clear as glass.

The freelance divemasters who hung around the dive shop were mostly South African and English men who started drinking by early afternoon and possessed founts of mechanical and naturalistic knowledge. They called women “sweetie” and taught tourists to dive with mnemonics like, This is your weight belt. The right end is male and this—they’d tap the quick release buckle on the left-hand side—is the female. Stick the male into the female and slide on in. Remember, they’d wink, the male is always right.

And then there was Sam. When I arrived in Inhambane and asked around for the most experienced diver in town, people pointed to one man. If you were near death under any matter of circumstance in the peninsula, they said, you wanted Sam to know your name. Sam didn’t just dive, he practically reverse-engineered the scuba apparatus using a tire inner tube and plastic bag. For decades, he darted in and out of crystal coves of his native Australia, trailblazing a string of reefs along the eastern shore, reefs that continue to bear his name. He moved onto cave diving and deep sea oil rigs before finding work as a mechanic and medic, sprouting a mane of straw-toned dreadlocks as old as me, and landed in Inhambane some ten years ago.

In the early days of my training, I idolized Sam. I followed him around like one of the town’s canine strays as he fidgeted with the compressor, refueled the boat motors and filled steel cylinders. He taught me first aid and CPR, how to blend enriched air and the fastest way to warm up (hot water over the kidneys). I dragged his boyish frame countless times across the pool in variations of rescues only to climb out of the water to hear him behind me, suddenly sputtering and thrashing like a drowned swimmer. He could hold a crowd for hours with horror stories about lost surfers and divers, spurting wounds, unbelievable sightings. It was Sam who pounded into my head the one principle of diving that I hold true to this day: Respect the ocean. The ocean is always the boss.

Irritable and foul-mouthed, Sam seemed to hover on the cusp of becoming fully unhinged. He could turn ape shit on a moment’s notice, often screaming at local staff who struggled not to titter at Sam’s broken Bitonga, their local language. He became nasty and impatient when I struggled with a skill. But it was me he sought out for help after slicing his thumb nearly in half sawing planks, and he went out of his way to lend me his technical diving books, promising to take me down fifty meters and past the reach of daylight into the depths to which I so craved access. I hungered for the approval that he held close to his chest. Sam was my teacher.

The engine stopped. We had arrived at Oasis. I drew a long breath. It was time to gear up and work. Sam stuffed his matted bale of dreadlocks into a neoprene cap. We shimmied into our wetsuits. Lee zipped me up in the back and we helped the large Hawaiian woman with her tank as the young couple chanted, “Man-ta man-ta!”

Buddy checks, masks on, then sit, curl, and on the signal, roll backwards in a fetal position off the side of the boat. Unfurl the body and feel the weight melt off. Visibility today was fair—I was relieved. As I waited for the other divers to prepare for descent, I swallowed and rotated my jaw to equalize pressure. My ears popped. I tasted copper in my mouth, a sign my sinus infection hadn’t cleared. I counted heads: Eleven. Good? Good, down we go.

For all its equipment, precautions and training, diving was stupidly simple. One didn’t have to be particularly agile or fit. One just had to breathe. I deflated my buoyancy control device and sank like a stone. Then, turning, I swam downward, headfirst, letting the rope of the orange buoy in my hand unspool as I followed sunbeams to the ocean floor. My heart rushed, a tiny drummer in my ears. Not too fast. I heard Sam’s voice in my head. Bombing down is not the way to go. He would be up above, meters from the surface, among the last ones down, monitoring our progress.

The sandy bottom rushed up but nothing looked familiar. Find the reef as fast as possible. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lee’s silhouette bank to the left. Grateful, I followed his cue, counting divers.

The corals were thriving that day. Lionfish threaded between translucent nodules, their ragged fins billowing as if fresh from a tumble in the laundry machine. I parted schools of electric blue triggerfish with my hands and pointed out giant Moray eels, their prehistoric scowls peeking from rocky crevices. High above, a small school of trevally passed like a flock of geese.

We drifted leisurely across the ocean floor as Sam took out his pointer stick and combed the crannies. His faculties of observation were second to none. He claimed that colorblindness gave him an edge: he was more attuned to movement. Within minutes, he located three nudibranches, two leaf fish, and on a flat, sandy patch, triumphed with the sea moth, pointing out her three tiny webbed feet to each diver, one by one.

A few minutes later, Sam spotted a red octopus smushed into the crevices of a rocky fixture. When we inched in, she spilled herself onto the seabed, shimmering as if covered in ten thousand sequins. I was so transfixed that it took a moment for me to register the jab on my shoulder. I turned to see Lee’s free-diving fins scissoring past my head. Two divers were shrinking above him.

In such an endless blue expanse, panic was not uncommon. A person reacts in one of two ways after you save his life, Sam once told me. Either he can’t stop thanking you or he pretends that you don’t exist. Three days earlier, I had encountered the latter. A cherubic young German, deeply hung over, had lurched for my regulator. Anxious divers sometimes become convinced that their breathing device was broken, but when I saw the terror in his redrimmed eyes, I caught some of his feral panic. I let him take my regulator and used my secondary unit. Conjoined, we thrashed our way to the five meters safety stop where I channeled every last sinew of my body to fix him with my eyes. Calm yourself—then more sternly—Don’t do anything dumb and kill us both. The two of us hovered in space, sharing the same air. The minutes passed and the intimacy grew so acute that I was the one who struggled to look at him afterward.

Down at twenty-two meters, the Czech couple was still chasing the red octopus with their cameras. Some of the customers paused, concerned about losing some members of the group. I checked my gauge: one-hundred-and-twenty bars left. We went around and everyone reported their remaining bars with their fingers. I glanced at Sam, who stared back as if to say, your call. I signaled toward the surface.

 

Back on the boat, the atmosphere was muted. The Spanish man and his teenage son were hunched over in the hull. The teen’s teeth chattered, his freckled face pale.

“You just have to breathe,” Lee said, handing him a bottle of water.

“Out of curiosity, where’s the nearest hyperbaric chamber?” the father asked.

Lee and I looked at one another. Johannesburg was a twelve-hour drive under the best of conditions.

The skipper passed around a container with chunks of snow-white coconut meat and we decided to proceed to the second site. I stripped my wetsuit to my waist and others applied sunblock as we waited out the remaining surface time.

The South African asked where he could get some good bangers and mash. “Black and White,” Lee said. “Three hundred mets for one kilo. I had a pork chop that was THIS big.” He gestured with his hands. Lee knew the price of beer and meat anywhere east of Maxixe.

Sam sulked at the helm of the boat. I wanted to ask if I had passed but I knew better than to approach him then. The Israeli man, eager to document every detail of the dive in his logbook, wobbled up to him.

“What was the big purple fish with the buck teeth and the tiny fins?” he said.

Sam practically bared his teeth before turning his gaze toward the horizon. The man, chastised, shrank back.

I had spent enough time at the shop by then to know what the staff whispered about Sam. The last thing Sam wanted to do was go out in the boat. He had long lost interest in diving. Like so many people in town, Sam was resigned to live alongside lovable self-proclaimed fuckups with beautiful bodies quietly smoking themselves to death. All the divemasters wanted to leave but had a bigger reason for sticking around. For Taylor, it was a little girl and the thin hope that her South African mother might one day let him back into their daughter’s life. Lee was saving up money to pay for his instructor’s training and hoped to find work at more lucrative resorts in Indonesia to buy a bakery for his cake-making mother in Cape Elizabeth. Tony couldn’t leave until he turned his shop around. He cooked the best steak tips I’d ever eaten and would die in a minibus accident on the road to Maxixe eight months after I left the country.

Sam’s reason for staying, I suspected, was because he had nowhere else to go. Despite, or perhaps because of his expertise, Sam was afraid of the ocean. He acted like a war veteran, one eye on all the doors. Telling his horror stories was a way for him to lessen his burden. I saw a man who poured decades into something he once loved now resent what it took away from him.

Whether it was a liability to force an unstable man with PTSD into boats of tourists, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps people sought out far-flung places to meet people like Sam. They wanted to touch danger, brush up against death itself before stepping away from its impact. The wilder the story, the bigger the trophy to take home. But who was I to judge? Wasn’t I doing it, that is, until the day I too became stuck?

 

Galleria, our second dive, was one of my favorite sites. If you dropped in at the right place, the current can carry you beautifully along a wall of corals, as if touring an art gallery. Fortunately, the surge was low, visibility decent, and the current strong. At twenty-seven meters, we began our drift along the craggy face of the reef.

Nearly twenty minutes later, I rose and led the group onto the sea floor, moving slowly against the current so that it wouldn’t push us too far off course. We had seen a lot, but nothing they hadn’t seen before. There wasn’t much time left. The deeper the dive, the greater the pressure exerted on tanks, compressing the air inside them. This meant that we consumed more air with every breath and emptied our tanks faster. With such a large group, our bottom time would be constrained by the first person whose tank ran low. I scanned the firmament but saw nothing but a dark expanse.

Suddenly Sam tapped his metal pointer against his tank and pointed up. I turned as a pale form in the shape of a kite entered my field of vision. The silence astounded me every time. A magnificent creature deserved fanfare—to be robbed of it felt like an injustice. We couldn’t cheer or yell or hoot, but we could gawk. I could almost feel our collective thrill roil the waters. Each diver’s wonderment intensified mine. Man-ta! Man-ta! Not, two, but three! Here they came, cartoon grins and protruding eyes fixed on strange, massive bodies. Four meters across, flat and smooth as rolled pie dough, they circled above us with grace and gentle curiosity.

I let out a long breath. Witnessing someone else’s joy was the ultimate rush. The customers would leave satisfied. Moments like this made training worthwhile and I thought again of Bibi.

I signaled to initiate our ascent when a high-pitched whine hit my chest. Humpbacks were passing. The others felt it too, and everyone turned to Sam, all pretense of who was leading the dive long gone. He hovered, checking above and below for the source of the whale song before suddenly flattening himself and booking it into the ether, his legs noodling as if boneless. The others chased after him. As I turned, I glimpsed the shape of a pale oblong paddle, like a seagull’s wing, followed by a long shadow.

In that moment, despite all the training and logged hours, I swear, I almost forgot to breathe. All I could think was humpback, humpback! I hurtled toward it and away from the school of divers trailing Sam. I swam in elation but also with an undertow of fear—I had spent enough time underwater to know that the ocean lay rife with illusions. The diver can lose her capacity to perceive depth, and as Lee liked to say, a humpback’s tail creates its own current. As soon as you see nothing but empty blue, as soon as you lose your orientation, you begin to lose yourself, long before you are lost to the rest of the world. I swam far enough to remember Sam’s admonition—the current can steal you away.

I stopped. I turned back just in time to catch the fading fin of the last diver, the large Hawaiian woman. She will never know how the glimpse of her saved me from making an irreversible decision.

By the time I caught up with the others, Sam was upright again. Whale songs boomed around us. From their alert stances, I knew that I alone had seen the whale. I imagined her just beyond the limits of our vision, sailing past our tiny pod of black limbs and bubbles. At the five-meter safety stop, my whole body was buzzing. I attempted levitation, a divemaster skill I’d yet to master, where one uses only her breath—her lungs, her literal airbags—to control her position in space. I inhaled and considered how I would announce my sighting. Finally, my name on the whiteboard! I would start to fit in. But without a witness to my witnessing, would it matter? By sharing, I might provoke envy, perhaps doubt. My private joy would become a public event that I would have to repeat and defend to convince others of its value. My memory would be challenged, and the whole precious moment cheapened.

Warmth spread on top of my head. Sunlight, air. The dive was over, the boat nearby. As the customers lightened their loads, tales and taunts abounded of manta ray encounters and harlequin shrimp, but I kept quiet.

I remember feeling guilty on the ride back to shore. Though I had left the water, I was only just beginning to surface from diving, an ascent that would be as bittersweet as a sleeper tugged out of a dissolving dream. Years have passed but the whale still returns to me from time to time. I don’t regret keeping her to myself. Sometimes only silence can preserve the magic.

This essay originally appeared in Story #7, our spring 2020 issue Photo courtesy of Richard Ricciardi; view more of his work on Flickr

Min Han’s stories have recently appeared in ZYZZYVA, American Short Fiction Online, Waccamaw, The Holborn and the print anthology, While We’re Here (Earnshaw), among others. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

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