Closeup photo of a sailboat's lines and tackle, photo by Meredith Eastwood

Diving in the Dark

We all have memorable family stories. This is one of my favorites. 

My mother is teetering on the end of the Hyatt pier wringing her hands and staring into the shallow water that laps against the wood posts anchoring our dive boat.  Backing away from the edge of the dock, she lifts her head in my direction.  I can only imagine the worried eyes behind the oversized sunglasses. She glances at the dive boat and then settles her gaze on Kent.

“I can’t believe you’re taking my only grandson diving in the dark.  It’s dangerous enough in the daytime— all those fish!” She exclaims.

I sigh and count to ten. “Mother, it’s a night dive.  I know you fell into a fish hatchery when you were a kid and are afraid of fish.  But please don’t worry. I assure you tropical fish do not bite.”

“But sharks do,” she says.

Our guides, Glenn and Rich, charming young dive masters, nudge one another and move toward the aft deck of the South Point Diver’s boat.  Smiles betray their thoughts.  I suspect they are stuffing their laughter.   Frustrated with my mother’s overactive anxiety, I tromp across the ramp connecting the dock to the boat and drop my dive bag onto the deck.  I begin attaching the regulator and octopus hoses to the tank.  Kent knows how to talk to his Grandmother. It’s his turn to reason with her. 

Rich looks up from his tank. I notice his mop of hair blazing red in the rays of the setting sun. He calls to my mother.  “Hey, we’ve got lots of room tonight, and there’s an extra seat with a soft cushion.  Why don’t you come with us?  No cost.”

“I…ah…am not much of a boat person.” My mother says, pushing her sunglasses up to get a better look at the man who is taking her family out into the dangerous sea.

Glenn, an expert at public relations, hops off the boat and engages my mother in conversation. “The sea is very calm, just like the mirror in your guesthouse, and it’s a chance of a life time to view a glorious sunset.”

“Ah…I don’t…” My mother begins.

Glenn doesn’t give her a chance to finish the sentence. “Just look at the clear sky, it’s sure to be filled with stars. The kids are safe with us. We’ve done this hundreds of times. The depth of the water will only be 30 feet or so,” he says with a grin.

I groan at the thought, fearing she will likely get sea sick.

Kent whispers, “I can’t believe he invited her.”

Retreating further from the dive boat, my mother frowns, pushes her sunglasses up her nose, and looks in my direction. “Ah no….I couldn’t possibly ride in a boat,” she says, “I’ve got a migraine.  It was the awful hot dog I ate for lunch at that bar.”

Kent laughs. “That bar was Hogsbreath, a premier tourist destination with world famous hot dogs.”

“Well, I think I’ll walk back to the Eden House… in the dark… by myself… and wait for you there.  I just hope I don’t see that terrible man in front of the library.”

“What man?” I ask, exasperated.

“You know, the one I told you about this morning that was weaving in the street drinking out of a perfume bottle.”

I hear Rich and Glenn stifling their giggles behind me.  “Don’t worry mom.  You are safe in Key West.  No one will attack you.”

“No one will hit on you either, Grandma.”

“Kent!” I exclaim.

I immediately regret my mother isn’t sharing the experience with us.  I think she would be amazed and proud.  But at the same time I am relieved we won’t have to reassure her constantly.

Lacking the seasonal winds and strong currents from the southeast, the overly warm sea swells like Jello in a child’s bowl.  The super fast dive boat easily skims the surface taking us to our designated coral reef site.   Kent and I wiggle into light-weight skins, don our BCD’s, wearing them like giant winter vests.  We strap on weight belts, fins and spray our masks with defogger.  I look at Kent, but turn away quickly pretending I don’t see his anxious face.

“Kent,” I say, “if you get sick underwater, just vomit into the regulator.  The stuff will come out through the mouth piece where the exhaled air is normally expelled.   Do not take the regulator out of your mouth while you are catching your breath or you will inhale water.  Once you are finished, you can press on the center button in the regulator, and the thrust of compressed air will force out the food particles that are stuck. The fish will come and eat the chunks.   That’s the cool part.”

“Oh Mom,” he says.

Glenn sets up a white board and sketches out the dive plan.  Each of us is given a glow stick to hang from the back of our tanks.  Rich tells us that a strobe light will be hung from the anchor line.  He laughs, looks directly at me, and says “…a flashing beacon just in case you get lost.  We can see all the little lights on your tanks from our boat and you can see our big one.”

He reminds us to stay with our partners, to remain close to the boat and to return in 45 minutes.

I bite down on my regulator, take a deep breath and leap.   Sinking into the inky water, I clear my ears and switch on one of my three underwater flashlights.  I glance to my right and see a flashlight waving in circles.  Kent has followed my lead.  I briefly consider the idea that my son is growing up too fast, now only heartbeats away from being a man.  He was once a small baby.  At that time of my life, I never imagined we’d be here one day, hoping for chance encounters with mysterious creatures of the night sea.  I wish his father were here to share this moment.

As my eyes become accustomed to the lack of sunlight I realize the water is clear and that even without the flashlights we are able to see under the light of the moon shining down through the water.  A slight surge near the bottom pulls me sideways.  I check on Kent and kick my fins toward the nearest coral head.  The coral polyps are open, a splashing show of color in the nighttime garden.  Many animals are nocturnal, but others like the parrot fish, puffer fish and hog fish float motionless under ledges.  I caution with hand signals for Kent not to touch. I don’t want to alarm them.   A Caribbean reef squid swims past my mask, and I hear Kent moaning.  He points to a lobster walking across the sand. Tiny worms spin in the rays of my powerful light.  A large sea turtle sleeps on the sandy bottom and a spotted eel swims freely.

I motion to Kent to turn off his light.  With both lights off, we swish our arms through the water.  Flashes of lights, like the fireflies I saw everywhere as a kid, dance before our eyes.  I think to myself…bioluminescence, microscopic sea creatures. A chemical reaction occurs within certain types of plankton that causes them to emit light when they are moved. A splash of light in the darkness… like life, I muse.

Throughout the dive, I carefully adjust my compass and navigate around the coral canyons, while counting my kick cycles.   When I finally remember to check my dive watch I realize it is time to get back to the boat.  I motion to Kent to ascend.

Breaking the surface, I tear off my mask and gaze into the deep blue sky.  I add air to my BCD, lean back and allow the salty sea to support me.  Gazing at the moon on the far end of the horizon and the reflected light rays shining across the water, I ponder my place in life.  Millions of stars flicker overhead, like skies of my childhood.  An astronaut caught between worlds below and above, I murmur, “Nothing but the Universe and me.”

Kent’s head bobs up next to mine.  He rips off his mask.  “Mom, Mom where’s the boat?” he asks, a bit of panic in his voice.

I realize that I hadn’t noticed the boat was missing. It takes me a minute to process the possibilities.  Did I mess up my kick cycles? I had to adjust them a couple of times to get around the coral outcroppings. Have we swum too far and left the boat out there somewhere?  Did it leave us? Maybe it had to leave to pick up someone.  It has to come back.  Glenn and Rich would never leave us. 

“Oh dear,” I say. “We’re lost at sea.”

He grabs my arm.  “Yeah, we’re lost and you’re the one with the compass, the so-called Master Diver with navigation certification.”

I hear the amusement in Kent’s voice.  I continue to squint across the surface of the water, hoping the dive boat will magically appear.

Kent pokes me “Ah Mom?”

Puzzled by his silly grin I grumble. “Yeah?”

“Turn around….look behind us!”

I twist my upper body and gasp in relief.  “Oh yeah…I guess I got a little confused with this new compass.”

Kent laughs.  “And a little off course!  It’s a longer swim than it looks.  Can you do it?”

“It’s easier to swim underwater than on the surface with all this heavy gear,” I say.

I point the compass directly at the boat, allowing the needle to swerve to the northerly direction. Then I set the bezel for the proper degree setting.  I am determined not to be embarrassed again.  We descend a few feet and swim fast enough for my legs to cramp.  When I look back I see Kent swimming behind me, no longer grinning.

Later that night after we stumble back to the Eden House, my mother asks about our dive trip.

Kent is eager in his response.  “Yeah, Grandma, you missed a great sunset and my mom getting us lost underwater….” He pauses…..“In the dark!”

“Oh no, Meredith,” she says, “how could you?”



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