(This is Part II of a three-part entry! All pictures taken in the sea are courtesy of my talented friend Annie.)
the drowned face always staring toward the sun the evidence of damage worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty the ribs of the disaster curving their assertion among the tentative haunters. - from "Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich
The club finally played its last LMFAO song and we were submerged in silence – and in sunlight. What seemed like moments later, I awoke again to the vibration of the engine and the lull of the boat slowly exiting the harbor. Somehow, we all slept until the boat arrived at sea and kicked up its pace.
You would think, spending most of my life living ten minutes from the ocean, I would know a thing or two about seasickness. In fact I thought I knew. I survived Jenny’s boat trips on the river and I’d been on a paddleboat. When Reiko handed me some form of Dramamine, I didn’t think I’d need it.
I’m a seasoned sailor, I told myself. I have a boating license somewhere in my sock drawer. I won’t need this.
So when I woke up feeling queasy and the nausea didn’t abate, I shamefully retreated to my sweltering cabin – they’d closed the portholes and sealed them shut – and swallowed the medicine. It helped with the seasickness, but my sea legs were nowhere to be found. I stumbled about the boat like a drunken zombie, falling into things and people, and spilling water all over myself.
We reached the first dive site, which stood out from the rest of the sea in all its monochrome blue. This was a coral reef, and it was a spontaneous patch of gimlet green, aquamarine, and splendid turquoise splotched right smack in the middle of the Red Sea. We watched the divers descend and then disappear into the water, and then it was time to snorkel.
It should be noted that I haven’t been underwater in over ten years. But a coral reef in the Red Sea just begs exploring, so I was excited to snorkel for the very first time in my life. In the Red Sea.
Judson has been snorkeling before. The difference here is that Judson hails from a city in Alabama – at least four hours from the beach. Yet somehow, he’s a natural at sea. His sealegs moved him about the boat with ease and seasickness never bothered him. And once we got in the water, it was evident that he was far more adept with his fins than I. (I can picture the entire population of my state cringing in disgrace.)
As soon as we got into the water, I tried breathing through the mask. Breathing, though, isn’t an adequate word to describe what I was doing.
Hyperventilating, panting, gasping for air – all of these are pretty accurate. While Judson swam ahead effortlessly, I floundered about behind him with all the grace of a drowning parrot.
When we finally reached the reef, I had gotten the hang of breathing. (Kilian later explained that everything is slower under water. It’s a matter of taking it easy, relaxing, and not panicking.) So I figured it out, and what a blessing that was. I followed Judson around the reef with my head submerged, looking everywhere at everything. Even though his swimming skills continued to trump mine – picture a ribbon wafting in a breeze, and then picture a cat caught in a net and you’ve got a good idea of what we looked like – I was too elated to notice anymore.
Everything was too vibrant and full of color and newness to take in at once. Snorkeling only gives you a glance from the surface, but what a spectacular glance it was. I finally started to understand why divers love diving. Kilian once told me why he loved it so much, especially in Egypt.
He said that when you get into the water, all you can see around you is the horizon and the Egyptian coastline: barren, dusty brown, rocky coastline. It’s all the same. And then you go underwater and right there, next to this boring coastline, is this incredible world filled with life and color and things you’ll never see anywhere else.
Anyone who isn’t smitten by this underwater world is out of his mind. (Which is the point I think Hans Christian Andersen was trying to make when he penned “The Little Mermaid,” and had her abandon this submarine paradise for land and a prince who did not fall in love with her, thus rendering her dead by the end of the story.)
It was hard to get back on the boat after that. Think of when Dorothy returns to sepia Kansas in The Wizard of Oz after spending time in the blazingly colorful world of Oz, surrounded by strange creatures like tinmen and munchkins. It’s a similar sense of disappointment.
But the divers were excited: we were en route to the Salem Express.
I fell asleep on the bow again beneath a scorching afternoon sun, but it was one of those glorious naps that smells of sunscreen and salt. I awoke to the ship’s engine grinding to a halt beside two other ships that were already anchored. A small buoy marked the site.
While Kilian briefed the divers, there was a sense of excitement about the ship. They peeled on their wetsuits and fins and plunged into the sea, the waves choppy in the wind, a strong current splashing the water against the boat. Once more, regulators up, the divers slowly disappeared beneath the surface of the water. I envied them; it must be calmer beneath the waves.
We’d been told that it was possible to view the wreckage from the surface of the water, so Judson bravely paddled off into the current, occasionally submerging his head beneath the water and searching. After a few minutes, he returned to the boat and waved me in.
This time, the water wasn’t calm and flat; the waves crashed against my head, spraying briny water into my mask. I coughed and sputtered along behind Judson, dizzy with the vision of the bobbing boats, the rigid waves, the disorienting horizon. And then I plunged my head beneath the waves and saw the ship.
It lie completely still and cerulean and eerie there on the seabed, a column of bubbles ascending from its deck. There was no wind beating against my ears now, only the infinite silence of underwater, the strange, static clicking of the boat’s engine.
It was an alien thing to see, the skeleton of this massive ship, and although the sea had already claimed it – Clownfish and sea anemone have appeared among the railings and coral has begun to grow along the metal (think Stellan Skarsgard in the third Pirates installment) – it possessed this ethereal sense of not belonging. I remember reading a book written by one of the rugby players who survived the terrible plane crash in the Andes that inspired the movie Alive! Throughout the novel, he constantly reasserts the fact that this plane did not belong; there was always a pervasive sense of nature and scenery and the ever -changing snowy backdrop of the formidable Andes, and always an equally pervasive sense that this heap of crushed metal was trespassing.
That’s what I felt at the Salem Express. And I was only viewing it from the surface.
I swam around, unable to take my eyes off of it, wondering about it. Then I swam back to the boat, pushing against the current. I spotted some sort of ray – sting? manta? – gliding beneath me on my way back to the ship.
We were all fairly exhausted once night fell, but the divers descended again for a night dive. (Don’t worry, we migrated from the Salem Express to our earlier location. This was good, since I was convinced that the site was probably haunted and I’d be awoken by some moaning Captain Flint while everyone else slept silently through it.) It was nearly impossible to discern the inky black water from the hazy black horizon, but every once in a while we spotted a splotchy circle of luminous blue shifting slowly beneath the waves, the divers’ torches beneath the water.
Judson and I jumped in for some night swimming while the ship’s crew attempted to hook calamari. Below us, the divers were slowly drifting up to the surface. It’s a peculiar feeling, floating in the water, then looking down to find six people rising up toward you.
But the entire day seemed to fall into the peculiar category, so it was a fitting end. We slept on the bow again, and I slept without waking until the sun rose the next morning.