“The most important thing to remember is to relax” – as Chris Maxey says. “Don’t be flipping your fins like crazy to go down and up –slow mellow movements. Before you take a deep breath, lie on your back and float for a while, calming your body and breath.” We are paired-up offshore, floating near Cathedral and “off the wall” – places I’d heard about so often through SCUBA talk that they had grown into the stuff of myths. I pictured a medieval castle-meets-church covered in coral at the bottom of the sea. I thought of Walcott’s poem, The Sea is History, when the imperialist voice of the poem interrogates the Caribbean voice, “Where are your battlefields, monuments, your martyrs?” The Caribbean voice responds, “Sirs, in that gray vault. The sea. The sea has locked them up. The sea is History.” The Caribbean voice goes on to describe their ocean-bound empire:
It's all subtle and submarine, through colonnades of coral,
past the gothic windows of sea fans to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed, blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;
and these groined caves with barnacles pitted like stone are our cathedrals…
And here I was, floating in my school of amphibian Island School bodies on a Sunday morning freedive with Chris Maxey, just 10 feet above this oceanic cathedral. It looked graceful and nearly choreographed to watch; buddy pairs floating snorkel-faced, safely monitoring from the surface, observing their counterparts diving down with full lungs to explore the Cathedral.
A few of the seasoned staff are mesmerizing to watch – torsos flexed, ribs wide with oxygen, they make their slow descents to the seafloor. I watch Sam settle on the bottom of the ocean, seated like some Fisher King observing his empire. I imagine it similar to walking on the moon: those first steps weightless in a foreign world, the first slow fin kicks into a dark subterranean world. As he drifts slowly back to the surface world again, a dozen goggled eyes followed his slow ascent with admiration and disbelief.
When it is my turn, I turn on my back and float, trying to calm my breath. It is a beautiful moment that I do not take often enough — the pause to focus on breath, the paradoxical challenge to focus all my energy on relaxing. The tension diffuses from my body. I can sense the calm build around me as half of our little pod – students and faculty and CEI interns – dig deep for peace and go lily pad limp, surrendering to the salt and sway of the ocean.
With a last look at the cloudless blue, I expand my lungs, diaphragm sinking to suck in oxygen. I dive down.
It is hard to keep that calm I gathered in the last moments around me as I flip to go deeper, anxious to see what the other mermen have seen.
As I descend, the edge of the wall sharpens, the sandy bottom clarifies with every kick. The mystifying blue of the abyss beckons, but the panic warning button in my brain begins to flash. I try to ignore it, remain calm. As I turn to head upwards, I am frightened by the expanse I must cross again. As I kick upwards, my eyes fix on the many-tiered mermen and women in our school. The diligent buddies observe from the surface, some descend some ascend, like merpeople shuttling on aqua-elevators to and from work.
I am startled to find another school – of silver fish – above me. They generously part for me to pass. The crenellated fans acknowledge my passing with a synchronized nod; a parrotfish stares at me, mouth agape, in disbelief. I can hardly believe it myself.
Half way up I feel myself break past a mental block in breathing. Suddenly, I am awash with a calm I’ve glimpsed in the slow deliberate movements of the deep sea-divers. I feel like I may find scales where before there was skin, I feel like I am at home and with peace down here. I have come to my Cathedral on Sunday to worship. To pay my respects to the other world and all its many-colored beings. I am almost heartbroken to reach the surface…
Breaking the lens of the water, lungs suck in a grateful breath. I give the “alright” sign to my partner, and see others doing the same. I recognize that same feeling in the snorkel-leaking smiles of the other fishes’ heads popping up like joyful buoys. They have felt it too. They too have visited this coral cathedral, lungs static in reverence. I realize this is a cultural understanding as much as any other. We must pay our respects and abide by the aquatic customs here as much as in a foreign settlement. We are humbled by the necessities of our own bodies.
The sermon of today is community and humility and wonder. Here at Cathedral, as at Easter Sunday mass at The Church of God, we are awed by an unfamiliar realm we can inhabit only as visitors; eventually we must return to our own environments.
I wonder if this is the parallel that Walcott was drawing in his poem The Sea is History: the ocean as a deep watery library of Caribbean History, with volumes of sunken narratives and knowledge to rediscover. As we fin-kick back to our boats, I can’t help but smile, awed at our school of wiser, calmer fishes, our respectful oceanic scholars.