By Heidi Shott
In 1979 a small island in the Southern Caribbean made a bold move by designating the real estate between the high tide mark and 200 feet below the surface a national marine park. Rules require dive boats to use moorings instead of reef-damaging anchors and make illegal spearfishing and the use of diving gloves, lest divers be tempted to touch vulnerable coralheads.
Nearly 30 years later Bonaire, one of six islands that comprise the Netherlands Antilles, has done more to preserve the complex ecosystem of the coral reef and the variety and abundance of fish life than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Not only have the Bonairians preserved their natural resource, but they have also ensured steady economic growth by drawing divers to their pristine underwater park year after year. My family has returned to dive off the island ten times over the last 15 years. We’re in a rut, but it’s an awfully nice rut and very affordable once you get there.
Diving is something my husband Scott and I have shared throughout our life together. The thrill of seeing a sea turtle or a eagle ray or to swim in the midst of a huge, flock-like school of silversides or to have dolphins frolic along side our boat, binds us in a way that is hard to explain. Scott learned to dive at 14 in the mid-seventies in the murky lakes and frigid quarries of West Virginia. I learned in 1985 in the tropical waters off the Micronesian island of Saipan when we were first married and teachers at the island parochial school.
During our most recent trip in January, our twin 14 year-old sons learned to dive. Finally we could dive together as a family. We spent two weeks diving, reading, playing scrabble and gin rummy, and watching the sun set from our porch with boat drinks and snacks – no phone, no email, no computer games, no TV, no diocesan or hospital emergencies that required our response. When we awoke in the morning, the drill was not the mad morning rush to school and work but to drink some tea with a slice of toast, gather our gear bags, squeeze into the bottom half of our wetsuits, and make our way down the dock to the happy camaraderie of the dive boat. “So where we goin’ this morning?” the day’s dive leader would ask.
“La Dania’s Leap!”
“Anywhere, it’s all good!”
Under the Caribbean sun we would arrive at the dive site and hoist our air tanks onto our backs, the acrid smell of hot neoprene in our noses. How delicious to let the weight of the gear flip us backwards off the side of the boat into the cool ocean.
As a diver, one skill I’ve paid close attention to over the years is controlling my buoyancy. I’ve learned to rise and fall in the water by gauging the amount of air in my lungs and to control my pitch and yawl by the flick of a fin or the twitch of a hand in the water. I’m not an expert – I don’t dive enough for that – but after a dive or two the fluency comes back. By maintaining neutral buoyancy a diver can get close to things…really close. This is important because so much of what goes on in your average coral reef neighborhood is tiny and complicated and if you want to get a sense of the intricacies of life on the reef, you need to be as close and as still as possible.
What an honor to be a visitor to this little corner of creation. It takes hundreds of years for the coral reef to grow: one generation of a hundred of species of coral dies to form a minute layer over the great exoskeleton of the reef, a millimeter at a time. One of my favorite things to do, and I taught my sons to do it as well, is to kick back from the reef into the deep water and pause to take in the whole wide expanse of the scene. We’re looking at part of creation that was in this very place doing its silent, magnificent thing at the same time Henry VIII was beginning to grow a teensy bit dissatisfied with Catherine of Aragon, when our boys were shooting themselves to bits at Second Bull Run, and when my grandfather was in the trenches faraway in France. For millennia tiny blue-lipped blennies have bravely defended their two inches of territory, orange frogfish have extended their deceptive lures, the spectacular and shy spotted drum has swum in and out of the hollows of brain coral…over and over and over again. For the past 60 years, since M. Cousteau and his friends figured out how to breath underwater, we humans have been privileged to observe this world for up to 75 minutes at a time.
Last month, on the day before we were to fly home and resume our life in Maine, I jumped off the dock with my fins, mask and snorkel. We’d made our last dive earlier in the day and were now allowing all the dissolved nitrogen built up in our blood to dissipate before we flew.” (Getting the bends in an airplane is a seriously dumb, seriously dangerous rookiesque thing to do.) Before long, I was swimming 30 feet above the terrain I’d dived inches from a half dozen times in the past two weeks. From the surface I recognized certain distinctive coral heads, a large prickly West Indian Sea Egg, brilliant purple stovepipe sponges and delicate, translucent vase sponges, five different species each of parrotfish, angelfish, damselfish, and butterflyfish, and little groupers called Rock Hinds. I recognized them from 30 feet above only because I already knew them intimately from close at hand. Fish we don’t recognize at depth, we study in our fish books when we surface so we will know them the next time. Divers sport the geeky enthusiasm of birders, we just don’t often talk about it in public.
As I paddled around in the gorgeous turquoise, warmer than our mill pond ever gets at mid-summer, I started to finger this essay in my mind. Out of habit and propensity, I often contrast whatever situation I’m find myself in to the state of the Episcopal Church or the nuttiness of trying to live like a Christian in this complicated world. It’s an annoying habit and I’ve tried unsuccessfully to break it. I’ve compromised by only writing about one in five ideas that wash over me. Still, what I was thinking was something like this: If one part of God’s glorious creation – such as the ecosystem of the tropical coral reef – is so amazingly complex and fragile, doesn’t it follow that other parts of creation – the family, the congregation, the diocese, the Church, the Communion – each would be just as complex. Think of how nuanced and complicated the life of any congregation or diocese is. Yet, if we’re on the outside, how easy it is, with a little bit of distant observation, to feel we have captured the nut of a place in the palm of our hands.
As a diver at depth, so careful with my breathing to remain close but not intrusive amid the life and death action of the reef, I can observe a world that I don’t belong to. I can learn a lot, but I’ll never be a fish. I’ll never know what causes the Pederson’s Cleaning Shrimp to climb onto that particular anemone. As a snorkler 30 feet above, I can see the bigger coral heads and the bigger fish, but I’ll never see the two-inch blenny defending his little home in the crack before darting back to safety or the baby spotted moray eel poking its head and mouth full of teeth from a burrow.
But my inability to really, really know doesn’t stop me from pretending I know the undersea world. In his song, “Laughter,” Bruce Cockburn sang, “A laugh for the dogs barking at our heels, they don’t know where we’ve been. A laugh for the dirty window panes, hiding the love within.” I’ve always loved that line because he calls us on how willing we are to be dismissive of people with whom we don’t agree or with whom we have little in common. We’re especially good at that in the Church.
I don’t know how to change that, but scuba diving provides some good lessons: control your breathing, be still, watch carefully, and, for God’s sweet sake, don’t open your mouth.
Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. She is also communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development. Heidi’s essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.