Even though I am descended from more than 450 years of Buddhist priests, I’m not Buddhist. I’m a scuba diver. But with each descent, I feel closer to understanding the mystery of depth, in the ocean and in meditation.
As a child, it wasn’t the voice of my ancestors that called me to diving, it was my favorite TV show: “Sea Hunt.” I looked forward to each episode of skill and daring performed by ex-Navy frogman Mike Nelson (played by Lloyd Bridges), my hero. Though the episodes were broadcast in black and white, I dreamed of diving in vivid living color. Scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef became a life-long goal, something I must do. I felt destined to be a diver.
The watery call of the ocean was always within me, but it took 45 years for me to make my first dive. During those years, when I could vacation in Hawaii or the Caribbean, I always found time to don mask, snorkel and fins so I could swim with the fishes. Each time I snorkeled, I looked wistfully at the marine life, and thought, I want to be down there! I want to dive!
Raising a child as a single parent, going to night school, and climbing the corporate ladder pulled me in many directions. There was no time or money to think about diving.
Just before my 45th birthday, long after my daughter had left home, my parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday. “I’ll take money,” I piped up, “Because I plan to take diving lessons.”
My aging parents looked at me in dismay. “Oh no, not that!” my mother protested. “Why would you want to try something so dangerous at your age? People die from diving!” But I knew that if I didn’t try it then, I’d never learn to dive, and my dream would evaporate.
Not one to follow tradition, I couldn’t become a Nichiren Buddhist like my father’s family—embrace that rather stark and ritualistic form of Buddhism. I had to find my own way.
My first diving adventure took place in November, 1997, six months after I earned my certification in the chilly waters of the Salish Sea off Seattle. I went alone, meeting eleven fellow divers with whom I’d spend an enlightening week in Cozumel, Mexico.
Those first dives were probably more advanced than I was trained for. I was naïve and didn’t have a clue what I was facing. In Zen terms, I had a Beginner’s Mind.
The day before the advanced-level excursion, I went on my first night dive. The ocean water was menacingly black as the boat raced through the waves toward the site. I was a bit scared, not knowing what lurked beneath in the dark water.
“Are you afraid?” Charlie, the dive master who was my assigned buddy, inquired.
“A little,” I mumbled, noticing the knot in my throat. “I feel like I’m about to jump out of a plane.”
“Once you get under the surface, turn on your light. There’ll be so much to see, you’ll love it!” he exclaimed with joyous enthusiasm. This made me more hopeful.
Another diver, Ginger—about my age—talked loudly at dinner and again on the boat ride about her bad experiences diving at night. She made me nervous.
Once we reached the dive site, I noticed the night sky was full of bright stars. I hoped the ink-black ocean would hold the same wonder for me.
One by one, the divers approached the edge of the boat and took a “giant stride”—one foot leading an exaggerated step off the side of the boat—to be swallowed up by the churning dark, yet delightfully warm water.
After I jumped in, I turned on my light, found Charlie, and reached the sandy bottom, about 50 feet down. I was astounded and pleased to witness big-eyed red squirrel fish, a yellow sea horse hanging on a twig by its tail, and swarms of tiny squiggly worms drawn to the light. Large spiny lobsters charged at us when we swam too close. Sponges shaped like saguaro cactus and coral that tangled into tumbleweeds reminded me of the plains of Arizona.
From the side of my mask, I spotted Ginger gesturing wildly with her arms. I assumed she was being her usual dramatic self, so I paid no attention.
Immediately I loved night diving. Everything was cloaked in velvet darkness except where the light shone. As in meditation, my mind led and attention followed. Illumined bending branches of fire coral and brown seaweed led me to an endemic fish found only in Cozumel: a toadfish. Its blue and yellow body looked beautiful and bulbous, its fringed appendages hanging around a wide gaping mouth.
Then I noticed a cluster of lights zigzagging in the darkness. Something was wrong. As I finned toward the flickering lights, I spotted Ginger lying on her back in the sand, her eyes wide and blankly staring into space.
I took a deep breath. Oh my God, I wondered, What could have happened to her? Is she breathing? Is she dead? Others from the group motioned at her as our Mexican dive masters checked her air, then took her topside. Later I learned Ginger had apparently talked herself into a frenzy and become hysterical once she got into the water. This was quite unusual. In 14 years of diving, I’d never see behavior like this again. After crew helped her aboard the boat and gave her oxygen, she revived from her catatonic state.
The dive masters wouldn’t let Ginger make the advance dive at Punta Sur the next day for fear she’d panic again. When she heard this, she spewed out “Well, novice divers [meaning me] shouldn’t be allowed to dive it either!” I was determined to prove her wrong.
I woke up early before the other divers were up, and went to the dock. I gave thanks for another day, took in the salty sea air, felt the ocean breeze on my body, noticed the cloud formations, and quieted my mind. This ritual set me up for excitement, anticipation of what I would see and experience on the dive, and also gave me a sense of protection. It helped to calm my nerves and prepare me for whatever lay ahead.
That morning, a dozen divers converged on the 60-foot wooden boat moored at the dock. We headed to Punta Sur and the infamous Devil’s Throat, the “must dive” destination for skilled divers. It’s a 135-foot dive, considered the far limit for recreational divers, with strong currents, and a narrow, almost vertical tunnel with openings that can be deadly if a diver heads the wrong way.
“Don’t be afraid,” Charlie encouraged. “Keep breathing. I’ll be right behind you.”
He didn’t know that I was in my element—had no fear about the dive. Adventure was in my nature, and fueled by adrenalin, my Beginner’s Mind was ready.
After checking my gear, I took a giant stride and immediately dipped underwater, only to bob back up at the surface, where I signaled to the crew that I was fine. With a huge wheeze, I exhaled the last bit of breath in my lungs, just like the beaked whales do before diving to the ocean depths, and began sinking.
As I slowly descended through the water, my ears popped every few feet to equalize the pressure crushing my head. I cleared my mask whenever water began seeping up toward my eyes.
I looked for my buddy, Charlie, saw him give me the OK sign, then I checked my wrist computer to see how much air I had and how deep I was going.
A layer of warm water caressed my arms beneath my light neoprene suit. It must be 85 degrees, I thought. Taking a deep breath, I began to relax, floating like a weightless, slow-moving helicopter. This weightless sensation allows a diver to hang upside down, do somersaults, slow moving gymnastics, ballet at any angle, or fly like a bird in a fast-moving current.
As I gazed out into the blue, I thought about the four “check-out” dives I’d made in the freezing waters back home in the Salish Sea to obtain my PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Open Water certification. That test was the hardest thing I’d done in my life. It took every ounce of concentration, nerve, and will to complete the test. I had to know everything that could possibly go wrong and demonstrate what to do if it did.
The memory of the icy waters receded as I watched huge groupers eye me as they lumbered past in the warm water. They resembled brown refrigerators with large thick lips. Hundreds—maybe thousands—of purple-blue wrasses, yellow tangs, and Moorish Idols swarmed around me. They’d swim in schools close enough for me to see their eyes, coloring, stripes, and the shape of their lips, then dart away to coral heads or mounds covered with what looked like palm fronds, airy sponges, and swaying blades of grass. The fish and I looked at each other. I felt connected to them as sentient beings. It didn’t matter if we understood each other, just that we were there together, created by energy.
As if sitting in a dentist’s chair, a grey-striped Nassau grouper—mouth and gills wide open—floated motionless. Tiny fish and shrimp picked and vacuumed away algae and parasites as they shot in and out of the grouper’s mouth and gills. When I touched a dead coral, a tiny transparent shrimp with purple bands along its sides landed on my finger and painlessly began making clipping motions with its tiny claws. Like a car wash on land, I discovered there are cleaning stations underwater.
I looked at Charlie, and, using two fingers, pointed to my eyes and then to a Great Barracuda. Charlie gave me the OK sign, but gestured not to go closer. It was the first time I’d seen one of the snaggle-toothed, torpedo-like fish with poor eyesight. It appeared motionless in the water, but I knew that barracuda can charge forward with great speed, and that divers can be severely bitten. While it was looking at me, I felt strangely serene and cosmically connected to the creature. Then I gently drifted away with the current into the darkness of the water.
Yards away from me, a half-dozen white-tip reef sharks patrolled the area. I motioned to Charlie with my right hand. Palm open, I pressed the thumb side of my hand to my forehead. This was the signal for “shark”. I felt a moment of panic thinking about the Jaws movie. I knew that sharks weren’t usually interested in people, and that it’s very rare for them to attack humans. Charlie made a little wave of his hand, indicating Oh, that’s nothing, and I breathed in relief as the sharks slowly slipped by.
Peering beneath me, I descended to about 70 feet and saw what looked like the top of a mountain, complete with white snow—actually white sand. As if in a forest on a mountainside, tree-like coral and lacey sea ferns swayed in a watery breeze.
Beyond the white sand, the mountain sloped further, hundreds or perhaps thousands of feet down, the water darkening from a rich indigo to blue-purple to navy to black the deeper it got. Here I could hover, mesmerized by the magnitude of this beautiful landscape that looked like Mt. Rainier from the eyes of an eagle.
Floating, I had a sense that I wasn’t alone—that my Buddhist ancestors were with me. I was looking for my own Nirvana, but not by chanting, drumming, or burning incense. I sought it through my connection with the natural world, being present in its magnificence, and communing with intelligent marine creatures of all kinds. I’d found my path.
The oxygen bubbles leaving my regulator called me back to my surroundings. Now I noticed the snapping and crackling sounds of blue-green parrotfish with buck teeth crunching coral as they whizzed by.
Ninety feet below the surface, pretending I was Sea Hunt’s Mike Nelson, I hovered on the mountainside with the other divers. One by one, we slipped into a dark opening about six feet in diameter as if we were Alice going down the rabbit hole. Like everyone, I carried a water-tight flashlight—called a torch—to illuminate the twists and turns. At that depth and in the darkness, I couldn’t see much color—everything looked blue or green—but shining a light on fish or fauna uncovered rich and brilliant jewel tones, and neon colors.
As the divers gently maneuvered through the tunnel, which had narrowed to about three feet, green and spotted moray eels occasionally appeared, and spiny lobsters poked at us with their long antennae as we passed. A dive master pointed the way we should go so we wouldn’t get lost. Whips of fire coral swayed in the tunnel, and I made sure my arms and legs didn’t touch them. On a future dive, I would experience painful welts and scars on my bare legs from brushing against these plant-like animals.
I didn’t want to kick too hard and stir up the sand with my fins for Charlie or the divers behind me, so small leg movements were in order. I’d heard that people who participate in extreme sports enjoy them because they’re forced to be in the present moment, experiencing the Now, as one does in meditation. Like them, I was acutely aware of everything that was happening to me. Time and space seemed to come together in slow motion.
In the tunnel, after what seemed like an eternity, but may have been less than ten minutes, we dove to 135 feet, then out through an opening into the deep blue that gently drew us upward to the reef with all its fish, corals, vegetation, and marine life.
Everyone slowly ascended to 15 feet, where we began a five-minute safety stop. This would allow nitrogen to “off-gas” from the tissues in our bodies, helping us to avoid the bends, also called decompression sickness. Punta Sur is a deep dive, so more oxygen is used and less time is available for exploring. It was essential to make sure we had enough oxygen for the extended safety stop. Divers can die painfully if they ascend too quickly and dissolving nitrogen passes through their tissues.
Suspended in 15 feet of water, we looked like a dozen black alien creatures in our wet suits, standing upright in the blue water. Everyone checked their gauge or wrist computer to keep track of the time, air consumption, and depth.
This “hang time” allowed me to be thankful to witness and take part in this adventure safely. At one point, everyone turned off their torch, and flashes of light from worms, sparkles of stardust from bioluminescent animals, and pulsating beads within jellyfish shone all around us. I felt I was floating through both outer space and inner space, both becoming one.
After the safety stop, I slowly and reluctantly surfaced, not wanting to leave this mysterious world I’d just come from. I was elated that I’d accomplished an advanced dive without any problems. According to my log book, the entire dive had taken only 36 minutes.
My childhood dream had come true. Later, I’d go on to earn Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, and numerous specialty certifications, such as underwater photography, drysuit diving, and enriched-air Nitrox use. I’d also become a Dive Master, which allowed me to take divers on local underwater tours in the Salish Sea and vacation excursions around the world to the Great Barrier Reef, Micronesia, Bali, Fiji, Galapagos, Hawaii, and throughout the Caribbean.
In the 14 years after Punta Sur, whether diving in the icy waters near Seattle or the tropical waters of Palau, I’d sense a connection to the earth that I don’t experience the same way on land. Marine life is ethereal, mystical, and environmentally delicate.
Watching marine creatures living their daily lives on a coral reef, I’d lose myself and feel joy and love for all beings. I discovered I wanted to protect them from coral bleaching, warming waters, over fishing, and the debris that’s spoiling our oceans. On the dive excursions I led, I often arranged for marine biologists or ocean scientists to speak to our group about these issues.
The ocean’s fragile eco-system has evoked within me a deep humility and appreciation for our planet. By diving deep, I connected with my Buddhist ancestors through the sea.
Wendy Noritake has been a publisher of periodicals such as Amazing Stories, Dragon Magazine, Dungeon Adventures, and The Duelist. She is a scuba diver and naturalist for the Salish Sea (Puget Sound) and continues family traditions of relationship with this beloved body of water. She is working on a memoir about three generations of her family.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A River Runs Through Us Editor’s Note by Judith Roche Lyn Coffin Scott Ezell Sharon Doubiago Elizabeth Austen Kathleen Flenniken Christian Knoeller Lyn Lifshin David Berger Laura Bowers Foreman Sayantani Dasgupta Sibyl James Mary Swander Wendy Noritake Ann Spiers Kathleen Sweeney Brenda Peterson Dick Bakken Linda Rodriguez Michael Schein Carolyne Wright Angel Latterell Kristin Van Tassel Annie Finch Elizabeth Cunningham Cait Johnson Jack Hirschman Paul Nelson