Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy Earth Day

photo by Tanstaff
Thirteen years ago I found myself on a dive boat out on Australia's Great Barrier Reef with my husband. We had learned to dive the year before and had become so enamored with the sport that upon our return to BC, we quickly took more courses and began diving every weekend.

"Ready?" John hoisted his tank up on his back. Diving in Australia is easy compared to BC-you need far less gear and a much lighter weight belt. The freedom you feel from not being weighed down by all that heavy gear is amazing.

As we stepped into the warm, turquoise water, let the air from our buoyancy vests and began to sink, I could see the outline of the reef in front of me as a huge shadow. Huge schools of fish darted here and there, and the outline of a reef shark could be seen gliding in the background. Many people say they can't learn to dive because they are claustrophobic, but I felt the opposite. I felt small. So small, so tiny, in this giant ocean full of life. An insignificant human in a world that was beyond anything I'd ever seen before.

That day we glided through the water near brightly colored coral formations as large as cars, while lion fish (which are much smaller then I thought they would be) dared us to touch them and stood on their heads if we got too close. Feather tube worms resembled brightly colored pom poms stuck to the coral, and we made a game out of seeing if we could touch them before they sucked their delicate plumes back in. Massive schools of yellow and silver sea perch, accustomed to being fed by tourists, quickly swarmed us so that all Hubs could see of me was the tip of my snorkel and my fins.

Hello there, human. Got any snacks? Their message was clear as they bumped against my mask and nibbled my fins, hoping for a tasty treat. Hubs and I chuckled at their bravery. They scurried off, and in their place was a small cuttle fish, who shyly followed us for the rest of our tour. Much like a puppy, it would edge closer and closer to us, only to shy away the second we looked at it. Curiosity isn't limited to the human race, obviously. Later on a small reef shark swam beside us, looked us over, and then took off to hunt.

Dives are always much too short, and eventually we had to return to the surface, but as we began our ascent, the reef had one last treat for us. A large manta ray gently swam over top of us, gliding effortlessly through the water as if to bid us goodbye.

We dove that holiday until our hands were peeling from the salt water and our bodies couldn't take any more. Then we came home to BC and began diving every weekend, experiencing the thrill of playing hide and seek with seals, seeing sea urchins as large as soccer balls, and getting to play with octopus and wolf eels. We caught scallops by the dozen as they fluttered around us like butterflies, and warded off crabs angered by the rush of water from our fins.

If I learned anything from scuba diving, it is profound respect for the inhabitants of our oceans. We would take Jake to the beach and while the other parents didn't care as their children yanked hermit crabs from their shells, we insisted that he look and not touch, and above all, never harm them. Jake learned the names of every common ocean animal before he knew what a cow and horse was.

My hope this Earth Day is that when he's old enough to dive and see their beauty up close, the reefs will still be there. That somehow, some way, we humans will wake up and realize that our planet really is a treasure that needs to be protected and cherished, and we'll take the steps to save it. If not for ourselves, at least for our kids.

Lion fish Photo by Leonard Low, Spotted Eel photo by Dphershman

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