Reflections from Tonga.
So much of what lies on the ocean floor looks like brains. It’s no wonder the sea takes on the essence of a living, breathing thing. It is. A monstrous one, massive and powerful, deep and secretive. Here in the Pacific, it’s absolutely clear. So clear that even when you’re floating in it, you can forget there’s water there, save for the coolness against your skin. It’s as if you’re flying, looking down at the way the sand folds snake across the earth. You don’t even have to put your head under. When the sun is shining, the Pacific is as clear as air.
I was floating this way today, watching the sunlight’s dancing patterns against the distant sand, wondering how deep the water was. I grew up with such a phobia of the ocean, I never could have swum so far out before. Especially on this island all by myself. But these blues are so warm and peaceful, my body so buoyant in the salt. It didn’t bother me at all. The realization made me smile. Then I saw a fish dart by. One small fish, so white it was nearly translucent, a bit of yellow dusted across his bottom fin. I watched like a child as he came closer to me.
Then there was another, maybe a big brother, and together they circled me. Suddenly there were five. Ten. An uncountable school came flowing in an endless stream from the deeper water. Was something bigger chasing them? Were they chasing me? They didn’t touch me, but they formed a ring around my floating body, swimming in circles at a steady pace. I tried to count them, but I couldn’t keep track of these fish that all looked the same. I swam, and they followed me in a long, thin line until I was able to stand. I grazed my hand across the water, and they responded with a dance below.
I was the conductor, the object of their curiosity. They wanted not to touch me but to watch my strange, ungraceful movements. I wondered if they could hear me laughing above the water. I looked around to see if anybody could, before I remembered that I was here alone. I tried again to count them. Thirty? Fifty? Maybe more. I put my face down to the surface and took a mental photograph of this alien view: dozens of sets of eyes staring back from just below the nearly imperceivable border of the water. It distorted their flat faces, painted them with wavering rays of sun.
Up close, they looked almost blue. But then again everything does under this watercolor sky. I thought about all the people I wanted to share them with. Another experience I’m unable to capture. Maybe if I had my phone, I could carry it into the water, take a picture. Post it to Instagram. But these moments aren’t meant for sharing. It’s not selfish; they’re a gift. A thank you from the great spirit for overcoming so many fears to get here. The thought brought me joy, and I swam again. They followed and then carried on out into the deep ocean.
They were gone, the moment was gone. But I had an idea. The kayak, with the glass bottom. I could follow them. I ran out onto the hot sand and found the boat and an oar. Back in the water, I paddled in circles and darted along the shore until I could see them shimmering through the window between my brown legs. ‘Follow us,’ they whispered, and I did. No matter the depth, I could see every detail of the ocean floor. The fish and I cast our shadows through the crystal water onto the sand. Before long, the ocean was full of brains — gray, purple, pink, yellow, green. Dotted with giant blue starfish, teeming with fish of every kind.
It was so beautiful that it took me a long time to realize I had lost my school of friends. But not before they had done what I’m certain they had come to do. To open my eyes, bless me with this glimpse of the underwater world that I could only witness right here. Right now. In the crystal clear waters of the South Pacific, off the shores of Tonga’s nearly uninhabited island of Uoleva. Where you don’t need a mask to snorkel and the fish themselves invite you to play.
Chicago-born citizen of the globe, rich in the things that really matter. Let's get weird.