Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Erika Drezner
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Jason, our divemaster, flashes his jagged “shark knife” whenever he gets the chance. His shaggy hair looks as if it has been bleached with massive amounts of Sun-In. He loves giving instructions, talking over people, and making students nervous. But his most distinct trait is his ability of making everything that should be fun, not. Seems to me that there’s some weird masculinity complex at work in Jason.
After listening to him yell at us for something we have not even done yet, he announces that we’ll all have buddies. Mine is Bronwyn, the tall blonde from “the Boston area” who “doesn’t believe in social media.”
“It is extra important to be aware of your buddy since this is a night dive,” Jason warns as he passes out little flashlights. “Keep it on the entire time until I tell you to turn it off.”
Bronwyn and I take giant strides into the dark water. The weight on our backs is suddenly, completely relieved. The water gets colder and colder the deeper we get. Cassiopeas, a type of jellyfish that floods Eleuthera, swarm us, stinging everyone but me. Lyla, who’s already plagued with impetigo all over her body, gets a cassiopea stuck in her regulator. Reed, who Jason will soon kick out of the program for stealing rum, gets one stuck under his wetsuit.
Every time I begin a dive, I realize that, even with a buddy, I am only with myself. I remember my Dad once told me that your heart rate goes down when your face is submerged in water, some evolutionary trait leftover from our oceanic origins: a physiological response to help you psychologically. But with no concept of space or time or direction in the dark, I feel too alone.
Yesterday, Jason told our class about bull sharks, how they like to come out at night. Later, I’ll discover that he is actually wrong (classic). Bull sharks hunt day and night. They have the most testosterone out of any animal on earth. Of course, Jason didn’t mention what to do if confronted by a bull shark. I picture him whipping out his “shark knife” and realizing he has no clue what to do with it.
We reach the sandy bottom, standing on our knees. Jason tells us to shut off our flashlights and signals us to start shaking our hands. Suddenly, millions of organisms are visible– bioluminescence—like someone cracked open a green glow stick and the liquid splattered. Even Lyla spins around, momentarily forgetting she is breathing in jellyfish.
People are hugging each other (although, in the dark, no one knows who is who). They point at lionfish and mock Jason’s awkward movements. Even silent, underwater, lit only by a flashlight, he’s irritating. For quick moments at a time, I lose Bronwyn, panic, and then find her right next to me.
As we move ourselves through a rock tunnel, we use our lungs to control our buoyancy– a skill called hovering. When teaching us how to do this, Jason said that we should “pretend that our lungs are balloons,” and to “make sure they don’t pop.” This analogy, like most of the things Jason says, isn’t helpful in the least.
Just when I am finally feeling okay with the ocean at night, Bronwyn’s hand accidentally whips out my regulator. She can’t see that she did this– she can’t even see where I am. My body convulses, my arms frantically searching for the long chord providing my oxygen. Should I just go up? I can’t. I’ll get decompression sickness. Isn’t that better than dying, though? How long can I last without air? What did Jason tell us to do in this situation?
I think of the self-defense class I took in 6th grade and how learning those moves couldn’t stop me from freezing when harassed on the street; I think of planning what to say in a fight with my sister and winding up crying every time. Why is there such a difference between what we are supposed to do and what we actually do?
I studied everything Jason instructed. I had everything down. But in the moment, you can’t help being your old self, or your old self in a crisis: frozen, frightened, confused.
All I can recall is to try not to exert energy. That way I’ll be able to hold my breath longer. But it takes energy to freak out. Slowly, unintentionally, I am rising to the surface. Dangling from my wrist, my flashlight illuminaties the divers getting further and further beneath me. I want to yell to them. Pretending my lungs are balloons only makes them feel more shrunken. For what feels like the millionth time, my arm traces my body and it’s there. I catch the cord. When the regulator is back in my mouth, my first breath is filled with salt water. I then remember to clear it and can breathe again. I swim back to Bronwyn to ascend as buddies.
Back on the boat, I am still shaking. Everyone is describing the dive as “so sick,” and dousing their stings in Witch Hazel. It looks like a preschooler drew scribbles all over Reed’s legs in a red pen. Lyla’s mouth and neck are swollen shut. Why was I the only one the jellyfish avoided? Jason cleans his unused knife as he yells for a volunteer to go to the bow and unanchor us. I want to tell him that none of his instructions, even those I remembered, had really prepared me. But he didn’t even know anything happened. No one did. The loneliness of my dive lingers even above water.
I turn to Bronwyn. “Lost you there for a moment!” she says, smiling through shivering blue lips. “You almost killed me,” I want to answer. Instead, I take a deep breath and ask if she saw any bull sharks.