Shortlisted in the 2021 PureTravel Travel Writing competition, Raven Patzke describes the terror and thrill of scuba diving in the azure waters of Fiji.
I wanted a taste.
I shut my swollen, sunburnt eyes and basked in the aroma of the sweet, frangipani flowers as the strong rays of the afternoon sun beat down on my knotted blonde mane. It was my third day in paradise, or Fiji as some people called it. I’d spent my last two nights island hopping and, since spotting a spider the size of my palm in the showers the first night, my hair had been getting the ocean treatment, as I’d come to call it.
“When’s the last time you went?” the instructor startled me out of my haze.
“Uhhhh, last week,” I hesitantly replied, as I made internal eye contact with my panic-induced self confronting my last instructor by grasping his arm beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean miming “I. CAN’T. BREATHE.”
“Should be fine,” he nodded to the island boy who somehow earned the title of Captain.
I began wrestling with my wet suit to dissolve its wishes of staying free of my body as Captain plopped a hefty air tank behind me. After hours of lounging on the beach, I figured it was time to get my adrenaline pumping.
“Arms in. Arms up. Now, stand. Okay, you’re good,” he notified me.
“Up here,” my instructor tapped the edge of the dinghy we’d ventured into the open waters with.
Mustering up the strength I’d incurred from all those years of missing the bus, I heaved my body along with the steel tank of death attached to my back toward the edge of the boat.
“On three, we do backflip.”
“I’m sorry, wh-“
With a swirl of blues, I was suddenly drenched in saltwater.
“All right, ready?” the instructor said as he grasped my hand and plunged beneath the choppy waters.
Left, right, left, right. My flippers were the only stability I had left at this point as my instr- as my bodyguard and I descended to the distant ocean floor and crouched behind an old coral reef wall. Now, eyes wider than the gap between my kindergarten teeth, I spotted something. No, I spotted a lot of somethings. Despite having that tank of fresh air I’d so graciously lugged around for myself, I held my breath as 30 bull sharks circled my so-called hiding spot. Ranking in the top three of unprovoked attacks on humans, these guys were not to be messed with.
I was completely, utterly, vulnerable. This reef wall, this bodyguard, this boat—nothing mattered. No one could have stopped these sharks, much less 30 of them should they decide I would make a better lunch than their fellow marine friends. This was a whole new world. A world where money, status and connections couldn’t get you out of trouble. Above water, we all had our own stories, but down here, we were all one of the same: Speechless.
As another diver from our group opened the chest of bloody fish heads he’d boldly brought with him, I began to hope the sharks wouldn’t be considering these offerings as the hors d’oeuvres. I watched intently as the diver stabbed a mangled piece of meat and offered it to the crowd. A few members went in for a bite, however, the bull sharks weren’t about to be crowned king so easily. A stealthy red snapper snagged the snack and sped off, being chased by some upset brunch guests.
Despite the commotion, I began to settle into my skin. After all, if this ended up being my last few moments of life, the little me watching me take my last breath from above would be extremely disappointed that I didn’t end it on a good note.
However, it was odd. I was 9,687 miles away from home, underwater, with a man I’d met five minutes beforehand, surrounded by millions of unknown creatures that all had the potential to end me, and yet I found peace. I found peace in the idea that I could be vulnerable and trust that those around me would do the same. As our tanks began to deplete their last supplies of fresh air, I took one last inhale and filled my lungs with the taste of freedom.