Recalling the name given to us through the blur of the previous evening, my friend ventured out into the morning to find us our captain and his boat.
He returned 30 minutes later to pick me up and we sped off on his motorbike, only to stop abruptly when we realized the captain he’d driven through the whole village to find was just across the street from us.
We both had an $0.85 omelette at the attached warung and then followed him along the shore, all the way to the mangrove forest. I’m talking dense masses of trees that grow out of the sea, their roots like the tangle of cables in a server room.
The captain apologized that he had another tour to lead and so he passed us off to his brother. A woman led us down a path, past a sign meant to assure us of our substitute captain’s talent, to another small shore where we met him and his modest boat.
We winded through the mangroves and eventually out onto the open sea. The water was rougher than either of us had expected, and it only grew in intensity over the next 20 minutes.
Brave adventurers that we were (at first), we sat at the very front of the boat and watched in disbelief as the kinda choppy blue waters inflated to massive waves now appearing opaque black and gelatinous.
The waves rolled into and underneath us, lifting the nose of the boat to 45 degrees and higher, often dropping us in a free fall so that we’d slam against the sea surface, surprised each time that neither our spines nor the fiberglass boat had shattered above the impact.
But whatever fear attempted to arise in us would just as quickly escape through our jaws, gaping in amazement.
By the time we arrived at Manta Cove, however, I still wasn’t convinced that it would be an okay thing for us to snorkel in water that moved so much. And how deep we were, anyway? My body had never dipped down into the ocean more than six feet and there were no shorelines in our periphery.
But there were other people. And other boats — all much larger and better equipped than ours, with crews and tours of several with lots of gear — so I suppose we weren’t entirely out of place or our minds by being there. Only a little, maybe.
My friend took the plunge first and I followed eventually, unsteady and unready. I looked through the mask to 40 — maybe 50 — feet of ocean depth beneath me, and I panicked. I swam back to the boat, which I’d moved 20 feet from in 20 seconds by the sheer force of those waves, and I climbed back in. I needed to think this over.
“I found one!” shouted my friend and the captain pointed to him, encouraging me to get back in the water, and so I did.
I squeezed my mask and fins back on, bit down on my snorkel, and swam to him. I looked down into the ocean again and there it was: a manta ray. Just 30 short feet beneath us. I was thrilled and scared and confused all at once.
I felt so out of control. My mask kept filling with water and it both blurred my vision and convinced me I would accidentally breathe water through my nose and choke and die an uncomfortable death in the middle of the ocean.
Plus, the snorkel was so wide that it felt unnatural to breathe through my mouth through a huge tube, let alone breathe through my mouth at all, ujjayi breather that I am.
Between rounds of ripping my mask and snorkel off to re-suction the former to my face and empty water out of the latter — all while gulping and gagging on saltwater — I did manage to see one more manta swimming beneath our boat, along with lots of scuba divers several feet beneath us — obviously looking at something amazing down there that we were missing up here — their rising bubbles like clear jelly fish, tickling us as we swam through them.
It was time to move to the next spot and so we swam back to the boat and climbed in, the waves making this just a tad more difficult than climbing a swimming pool ladder (<— sarcasm).
We moved back out through the viscous sea and into Crystal Bay, not too far from a beach. This seemed much more promising, except that all of that swallowed sea water, last night’s cocktails, and the unyielding waves had done me in. I was on the verge of hanging my body over the side of the boat, as my friend and our captain looked at me with concern.
“Go, please go. I’m fine,” I said, trying to keep things down enough to feign ladylikeness.
He hopped back in the water and I sat very still, not knowing whether to open or close my eyes. I tried to breathe slowly, and after a few minutes I was actually okay. I tried another set of gear — a tighter mask and more narrow snorkel — and it was brilliant.
Literally brilliant. I could keep my face down for long periods this time, breathing easily as the water moved me about in much shallower depths now. The coral was bright green and pink and blue and resembled huge bunches of cabbage blossoming. The fish — there were so many — whites and blacks, purples, greens, oranges, and blues. They were stunning and they swam around us, as if we, too, belonged there.
This is why I had come to the island. This was that thing that called directly to my heart when my friend first made the suggestion to go, and now I had arrived here and I understood.
I’m not sure there is anything more magical than the underbelly of the ocean.
Obviously, the trip wasn’t without flaw. There were definitely some minor injuries and a solid handful of embarrassing moments, including accidentally flashing my nether-regions to our captain while trying to change into my bikini beneath a sarong. And, after a long, hot motorbike ride, standing up to find that the back of my pants were quite visibly wet with sweat. Or trying to move from the front to the back of the boat and slipping to the floor, its side a surprise water slide. And then there was driving on the right side (read: wrong side) of the road while heading toward a young child on a pedal bike, almost making us both crash.
No, things were definitely not perfect. I came back home with plenty of bruises and scratches from falls and crashes, a sunburned face and heat rash, and a touch of Bali Belly. But in each of them I have a memory of being brave and of glimpsing a world I couldn’t even imagine before this trip.
After a little while longer out over this great secret, we gave each other a knowing look and swam back to our boat. We decided to skip our third snorkeling point, as we were completely spent.
And life had delivered well more than our money’s worth.