“Shark! There’s a shark next to the boat!”
On some boats, this would elicit terrified screams from the people who are convinced they are about to die in some Jaws-like attack. On this boat, though, it elicits shouts of “Where’s my snorkel? I’m going in!”
This particular shark is a nurse shark. Not exactly Jaws, and happy to keep its distance from us. The boat is the Sea Explorer, a 65′ sloop operated out of Nassau in the Bahamas by Blackbeard’s Cruises. And we are a group of scuba divers, cozily ensconced on this boat for a week of diving. And we are indeed jumping in to take a look at the nurse shark that is swimming near the bottom, along with a few rays, about 20 feet away from the boat. The water is calm and crystal clear, and you can see them perfectly from the surface. I spend some time floating peacefully on the surface, watching the shark and the rays until they finally swim out of sight. Then it’s time to head back to the boat, because soon it will be time to gear up and hop back in for our next dive site — an old plane wreck.
The dive is amazing and somewhat eerie. The wreckage is decades old, the remnants of a drug-running operation gone awry. It is fairly shallow water (by scuba standards), perhaps 30 feet down, and the visibility is excellent, so we have a view of the entire site. Much of the top of the plane is gone, but the frame, wings, and wheels remain. One of the wings broke off when the plane crashed and sits a short distance from the rest of the plane, as does one of the wheels. It is fascinating to see, a tragic piece of human history turned biological wonder. The wreck is now home to a wide variety of marine life. Some fish swim past us, while others are happier under the shelter of the wing or inside the frame of the plane. A few rays swim along the bottom. We don’t get too close, as there are sharp edges all over the wreck from twisted and rusted metal. We get closer to the bottom to get a peek at some of the fish that are hiding under the wing and see another nurse shark resting quietly at the bottom. We try not to disturb her and keep a respectful distance.
I thought the site was slightly eerie during the day, but this feeling is multiplied the following day when we return to the site for a night dive. As we descend, our dive lights shine into the darkness until the wreckage slowly begins to appear. For a moment, it reminds me of the scene in the movie Titanic where the submersible first shines a light upon the wreckage of the boat and the bow of the boat slowly appears out of the darkness as though a dark curtain is slowly being pulled back.
The scene is familiar but different. A few new fish have come out for the night, and we also see a crab that seems to be roughly the size of my dog. At one point, we swim a safe distance away from the wreckage and kneel on the sandy bottom. We press our dive lights against our stomachs to hide the light, and suddenly everything is dark. Really dark. Disconcertingly dark. Until we wave our hands a little bit and watch tiny bioluminescent algae on the bottom give off tiny sparkling lights. It is cool to see, although I have to admit to a certain sense of relief when we turn those dive lights back around. When we get back on the boat, I am wiped out. That was our third dive of the day. A quick rinse on deck, a snack, some water, and I am thrilled to change into some warm, dry clothes. I go back up to the deck for a few minutes, now comfortably attired in a dry t-shirt and some fuzzy pajama pants, to visit with the other divers and unwind for a few minutes before surrendering to the call of exhaustion.
After everyone is settled, the crew turns off the main lights on deck. Suddenly, the sky is filled with stars. I lie on one of the benches for a few minutes and stare up quietly at the sky. Living in the city, I see only the brightest of the stars against the urban glare of light pollution. Here, floating on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, it is dark, and I see all of the stars. It gives me a momentary pang of realization of just how tiny and insignificant we are in the greater scheme of the universe, and yet also a sense of awe at how intricate and important and shockingly improbable we are right where we’re at. I am reminded of a quote by Arthur C. Clarke: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
I am reminded, too, of the importance of travel. This is an experience that many people will never have. They will never come to the crystal-clear waters and white sands of the Caribbean. They will never live on a boat. They will never dive beneath the waves, never come face-to-face with a shark or a ray, never see a wreck at the bottom of the sea. But these experiences are so vital in my life, part of what makes me come alive. Even as I travel, it increases my desire to travel more. I share stories with the divers and crew on the boat, who have collectively visited and lived in dozens of countries, done thousands and thousands of dives, and have endless stories of travel. They are all very different people, but they share a common trait: they all have a hunger for travel. They have a deep, abiding need to see new places, meet new people, and learn more about the world around them. Some of them are nomads, traveling through the world with no permanent address. Others have a home base and travel as much as domestic life allows. Personally, I can’t get enough.
I think over and over about how life is short and there is so much world to explore. I ache to see more of it. But for now, I appreciate the moment. I stare at the stars a bit longer before I head back below deck, where I immediately fall into a deep and peaceful sleep in my bunk. Tomorrow is another adventure: a shark dive!