Loren insisted we go snorkeling. He said we would be seriously missing out on a major highlight of the island if we didn’t.
I think he just wanted an excuse to scuba. Although I like to swim, years of living in Oregon have given me a deep and abiding certainty that ocean water is cold: you can feel every iceberg in the ocean when the waves run over your feet at the Oregon coast. I had heard that the water in Okinawa was much warmer, but it was like trying to tell a dog that you can see colors: I was sure those people weren’t lying, but I also didn’t actually believe them. Amid my protestations that the water can’t be that warm, Loren drove us to the dive shop to get wetsuits.
Putting on a wetsuit is like someone handing you a gimp suit four sizes too small and insisting that you put it on in a closet with a curtain for the door, gaps as big as a toddler’s head on either side. Getting it over my feet was easy, but after that it was like trying to put on a new set of much smaller skin, like I was a snake attempting to un-molt. I managed to get it all the way up to my boobs, every inch below that getting a violent bear hug, and I understood how toothpaste feels when it’s being squeezed out of the tube. Of course, my boobs didn’t want to go in at all, let alone comfortably. My choices were pushing them down flat and having the wetsuit try to peel the skin off my collarbone or pushing them up to create boob-jowls.
I went with the boob-jowls, figuring they’d have to settle eventually. (Fun fact: no, they don’t.)
Crammed into the wetsuit like ten pounds of meat in a five-pound bag, I climbed into the car.
Loren took us to one of his favorite spots, less frequented by other swimmers and divers. There was a massive seawall protecting the neighborhood across the street from typhoons, and the steps on the other side went right down into the sea, the waves lapping over them. Loren distributed the snorkeling gear and put on his tanks. He stepped right in, a neoprene fish to water. Jason also didn’t hesitate; he’d already been snorkeling in Okinawa. Me, I hung back a little, not sure how to climb into an ocean that’s stairs one moment and coral reef the next. Besides, I knew it just had to be cold.
I stuck a toe in.
Here’s where I tell you it was warm as bath water and I was surprised and happy; I felt one with life and the ocean and I swam off into the sunset like a boob-jowled mermaid. But I don’t remember how warm it was, except that it was below the temperature of bathwater and above the temperature of Oregon sea water, somewhere in the realm where I wasn’t super excited about getting in, but pretty sure I wouldn’t freeze to death either.
I climbed in and swam-crawled toward open water where I could just see the top of Jason’s snorkel and tried not to touch any of the coral even though that was impossible this close to the seawall. I looked down into the water and indeed it was clear—much clearer than the bubble-filled water in Oregon where the Pacific Ocean prefers to express its name ironically. The visibility here was at least a hundred feet, the fish and the coral visible and obvious in front of me as though we were all together in a fish tank.
Of course, I couldn’t look long because I had a hard time convincing myself it was safe to breathe with my face in the water, and when I did convince myself, my snorkel leaked like a sieve. Still, it’s not like I can’t hold my breath, shallow as a teacup though it may be from the compression of the wetsuit.
I looked down at all the little fish darting along the top of the coral, which was surprisingly flat and brown and slimy looking. I wondered if it might be the waves rolling above it, but I had the sense that this couldn’t be right; isn’t coral accustomed to having the waves rolling over it constantly? And honestly, under the surface the power of the waves is greatly diminished, so just what the hell?*
It was hard to be deeply concerned, though; every breath yielded half a lungful of air and a tablespoon of seawater, which only heightened the unnatural feeling of breathing underwater. I swam out toward Jason and Loren to ask if the leaking was normal, which they confirmed it was.**
I put my face back in the water and forced myself to breathe, lifting my head to spit out water about once every three or four breaths, then swam farther out toward open water. About 200 feet from the seawall the shelf of coral dropped off like a wall to plunge at least 30 or 40 feet into sand. Unlike the top of the coral, the side was beautiful and branching, fish darting in and out from nooks and crannies all over the place. Loren showed me how to dive, fighting against the buoyancy of the wetsuit and blowing out the water from my snorkel. I couldn’t get very deep—the wetsuit is not a force to be trifled with, and I would hesitate to take one in a fight—but I did manage to get a respectable distance from a lionfish and peek into the crannies of the coral.
It was much more interesting here, and easier for me to forget that I was between one and six breaths from drowning.
I’m not sure how long we were out, but after some length of time swimming and barely-breathing and water-in-the-mouthing I suddenly found that the coral and fish weren’t nearly as fascinating as my growing inability to keep my head above water. I swam in and dragged myself up the steps on my hands and knees, feeling like a manatee both in terms of weight and ability to breathe out of water.
I unzipped the wetsuit a bit to let some precious oxygen in past the boob-jowl, then lay on the steps with my face in the sun and my feet in the water, breathing sweet oxygen and thinking of the coral.
*I later learned that the gross brown color and unappealing texture of the coral are caused by ocean acidification, because carbon dioxide loves to dissolve in water and melt shells and coral. Yay carbon emissions!
**It wasn’t, which they told me later. Dammit, guys.