The explorer group is small; only five of us this time. But there's no fear -- only excitement, the thrill of discovering something new. We communicate with hand signals, unable to speak due to the equipment we must carry in order to breathe in this foreign environment, and our eyes glint and shimmer in delight behind the masks we wear.
"Ok?" The hand signal asks.
"Ok," we all lift our hands, thumbs meeting forefingers in the universal sign. I wonder if the creatures we're about to encounter also understand it.
With a hiss of air, we descend, some faster than others, some slower to equalize the pressure in our ears. Our artificially webbed feet touch down on powder-soft sand.
"Ok?" The hand demands again.
"Ok," we answer.
We move forward, following the leader. The blue before us is impossibly intense. Am I really going to be a part of it? The cliff drop-off looms, looms, and then is gone as we drift down its face.
Oh, the wonders we see! The beauty, the strangeness... For a while it's too much, it overwhelms. Your eyes cannot be everywhere at once; you want to move forward faster, see more, but at the same time you want to stay -- stay by that particular rock and discern the microlife within it. Everything, everything, teems with life.
The only sound is the breathing. Bubbles issue below your range of vision, filling your ears. It's disconcerting at first, not being able to hear anything besides that. You try to breathe slower, quieter. But there's nothing else to hear. It's perfectly, absolutely quiet. Except for your bubbles.
Someone is gesturing ahead. We approach slowly, trying not to crowd each other, waiting for our turn to look.
"What is it?" Upraised hands and a shrug ask.
"Here." The hand points.
It's so easy to get disoriented here. A turn of the head, and when you turn back, the view is different. Where is left, where is right? Up is easy; up is where this medium, the floating medium, ends. Down is where the light fades.
"Here," the hand is pointing.
I move closer. It's a rock. It's a pretty rock, but it's... Just a rock.
Then the rock blinks.
I turn, my eyes wide behind the glass. Wide eyes meet mine, softly crinkling against the mask's restriction.
"Ok," I signal. I see it. Yes. Wow. Wow.
A rock fish. Dangerous creatures if you touch them, if you accidentally step on one, for example. But at this depth no one's going to step on him. And we know better than to get too close. But... He's amazing. The camouflage of his body perfectly imitates the rocks he lays on. Even a foot away he's hard to see. Until his frog-like eyes move, blink.
Range of vision is limited here. Because of the mask. And mine is especially uncomfortable today. Maybe that's why, when the swirl of blue comes, it takes me by surprise. Hundreds, no, thousands, of blue fish with a bright yellow stripe eddy around us. They're not big, perhaps a one-and-a-half handspan. They must be feeding. We swam into a current of plankton, or whatever they eat. They're so close that I see their gills pulsing, I can count the scales on their bodies. I could touch them, but my hand is slow underwater, and they're very very fast. I'm content to watch, revel in their brief company.
Someone signals "half-tank". A "T" shape made by holding hands perpendicular to each other. It's time to turn around, swim back the way we came. But we rise a little, so the reef we observe on the way back is not quite the same we saw on the way in. There's no rush. Our legs barely kick -- we're swimming with the current now, effortless.
Too soon, we're back on the beach. The weightless creatures we were, pirouetting and carousing as though gravity barely existed, are lost. As our legs take the burden of our bodies and the equipment we carry on our backs, the feeling is one of leadedness. Ponderous, we make our way up the surfline, helping each other along. Equipment removal, rinse, recap, tighten, loosen, empty and fill. Count everything, make sure nothing is left behind.
There's a price for the freedom of underwater carefree. Before, and after, equipment must be assembled, tried on, tested, checked and double-checked. But the reward is obvious. Tired and exhilarated, we sit or lean by the pickup, talking over what we couldn't voice underwater.
"Did you see it? It was huge!"
"I tried to signal, but you guys were too far ahead."
"What was that spider-thing you had in your hand?"
"But they're poisonous, right?"
"I got a cramp halfway out."
"I think you had your mask on too tight."
With a sigh, we put out the last cigarette, cap the water bottles, pick up whatever's left lying around.
"Ready for the next one?"