I sat with my new Japanese friends eating the surprisingly delicious lunch provided by the Reef Magic staff on the pontoon. They were happily chatting away, discussing all the fish they’d seen snorkeling so far.
“Did you see any cool fish diving, Hilary?” I stuffed my face with a sushi roll and nodded. I didn’t really know how else to respond. The events of the past few hours raced through my head like a VHS tape fast forwarding. I was still in shock for all that had happened. And in case you missed the ridiculous and unexpectedly romantic first dive experience I had, let me break it down for you:
1. I had FINALLY made it out to the Great Barrier Reef. It had taken weeks of planning, wishing on stars, and sheer motivation (especially after my ankle injury) to finally get out here. And experiencing twenty-foot swells on the way out along with witnessing countless compadres falling to sea sickness, I definitely earned the experience.
2. I had just gone scuba diving for the first time. Not only was it amazing, surreal, unbelievable (insert your most mind-blowing descriptor word here), I was at the Great Barrier Freaking Reef. I was beyond stoked for finally having done it.
3. Then there was the unexpected flirtation with the tan and toned Australian scuba instructor. Our flirtation and underwater courting dance (literally) had culminated with an underwater kiss. My life was ridiculous.
One of the other scuba dive instructors asked me if I was interested in doing a second dive. The short answer was, “No duh,” but not because of Romantic Rick. I mean, it was nice but I had come here to dive and explore the reef (not the sexy guy that was supposed to make sure I didn’t drown). Plus I figured this was something he did all the time (I mean, if I was a hot Australian, what better place to woo a girl than while you’re staring down a Napoleon Wrasse?) I didn’t hold it against him; I knew what it was and I was okay with it. After weeks of being gimpy and feeling unattractive, it was nice to know that someone still found me worth flirting with.
So here I sat with my new girlfriends, stuffing my face so I didn’t spew my secret. The girls discussed whether they were going to do an introductory dive, take a ride on the semi-submersible boat, or go lay out on the sun roof. I looked at the clock, wondering what time my next dive was. On cue Rick walked up, his wetsuit unzipped so his abs were on full display. I put more food in my mouth.
“Hey girls!” He waved at my friends and then nodded to me, “Mademoiselle.” Oh he was good. He sat down next to me and whispered. “So how was your first underwater experience?”
I chewed and swallowed, contemplating how to answer. I smiled out of the corner of my mouth and replied, “Memorable.” He grinned. “Do you dance underwater with all of your students?”
He took my teasing in stride, “Only the special ones.” I rolled my eyes at the line. He was smooth, but not that smooth. He leaned in, the saltwater from his hair dripping on my leg. “So it looks like you’re the only one doing a second dive today, love. Sounds romantic, yeah?”
I raised an eyebrow, not quite sure how to respond. I hadn’t expected to have more time alone with him. I hadn’t even been sure he was going to be the instructor for the second dive. Did I want this? Oh whatever, it was going to be awesome. I finally decided on, “It will be an experience, for sure.” He nodded and patted my leg.
Brandon called for him. He got up and walked back to the diving area, calling over his shoulder. “I’m ready when you are!” He disappeared below deck. I let out a heavy exhale. This was all so ridiculous!
I took my time finishing my meal, only getting up when I started to feel cold. I was suddenly itching to get back in the warm water away from the wind. Brandon refitted me with a weight belt and oxygen tank. “You’re in for a real treat on this dive,” Brandon said, “Rick’s going to take you to the outer reef. It’s a longer dive and you’ll go a bit deeper, but Rick will take good care of you.” Rick sat on the steps leading down to the submerged platform watching the process. When I was ready Rick took my hand and led me down the steps.
“You ready?” He asked in his Aussie accent. I nodded and gave him a thumbs up. Holding my hand we pushed off the platform and back into the Big Blue.
We swam in the opposite direction this time, making our way around a giant anchor chain and along the outer rim of the reef. I crooned into my mouthpiece as Rick pointed out the vibrant colors and curious creatures surrounding us.
Rick swam ahead of me, his eyes carefully combing the surrounding coral. I waited when he held up his hand signaling me to stay where I was. His trained eye spotted fish hiding in the sand and he pointed them out. He picked up a baby feather star fish for me to hold. I squealed as it danced in the current across my palm. I didn’t know starfish could be fuzzy!
Rick signaled for me to wait while he uncovered a Hawaiian Spiky Sea Cucumber. He balanced it on my head and smiled as it used its suckers to grip my hair. I laughed and placed it gently back in the sand, petting it in thanks. Rick tucked my mussed hair behind my face mask and we swam on.
We swam through a trench hand in hand. My face hurt from grinning so much. How had I managed to be so lucky to get here? How was I ever going to explain this magical moment to anyone? Would photos ever be able to capture the true beauty of this memory? Or was this just one of those things that I would have to remember in my heart?
Rick pulled me out of my thoughts, tapping my shoulder. I gave him a quizzical look and he grinned. Grabbing my hand he guided me to the edge of a drop off. I was shocked at the sight that greeted us.
The giant clam was at least three-and-a-half feet long; I estimated it must be at least twice as old as me. Rick gave me the signal it was okay to touch and guided my fingers over it. The clam contracted with the rhythm of our touch. I had no thoughts. My mind was gone. But I felt connected to this creature, like by touching it we were sharing an energy and a purpose bigger than us. I hesitantly swam away as Rick motioned it was time to move on. My eyes lingered on the majestic being, wondering what words of wisdom it had.
Rick led me beneath an overhang. I traced the rocky ledge with my fingers. He pulled ornate shells from crevices to show me. I could barely form thoughts as I stared wide-eyed at the beauty in my palms. He placed the objects carefully back in their homes and we continued. I felt Rick’s aqua eyes watching me closely as we moved through the blue.
Rick checked his watch and shook his head. We started swimming towards the pontoon. But Rick guided me up to the surface before we reached the submerged platform. We were under the boat. “Wanted to give you one proper kiss,” he explained as he ran his hand through my hair, drawing me close to him. Turns out kissing above water is a lot less complicated than trying to snog with the starfish. Go figure.
As I took off my weight belt, Rick asked if I wanted to go on a third dive. I politely declined. I wanted to see what some of the other activities were like. Plus my body was tired from the weight of the equipment. He nodded and watched me as I flipper-walked my way to the snorkel area.
As I got into the water I heard one of the staff announce over the intercom that there was only a half-hour left til departure time. Had time really gone that fast? I swam over the coral, trying to soak up all the beauty that I could in the limited time available.
After playing with the Napoleon Wrasse (who was more like a small dog than a fish), I heard the sound of the ten minute warning bell sound on deck. I swam among the fish and the coral, thanking them for their kindness on my journey. Then I closed my eyes and made one final reef wish: I wanted to see one last marvelous sight. I wasn’t picky on what that would be, but I hoped and put the wish out to the universe. When I opened my eyes I was stunned at what I saw below me. Did the Reef really hear my wish?
A sea turtle munched on the algae beneath me. I shook from excitement, letting myself float unnoticed above him. I desperately wanted to swim down and touch him, but I didn’t want to push my luck. I heard one of my new friends called my name faintly. Time to go in, I sighed. I would have happily been swept away in the current. I wished I could live out here and never have to return to land. I wished I was a mermaid.
The spell of the water clung to me as I climbed up to the deck. I wrung out my hair, grabbed my clothes and filed back on the catamaran. I stared out the window, my thoughts and heart twenty-thousand leagues below us.
Rick sat down next to me and smiled. We spent the following hour talking. I knew that it was unlikely I would ever see him again. But still, while I learned about him and his dreams of diving in Central America, I started imagining us meeting again by chance. He could teach dive and I could write about it. I mentally teased myself for being such a girl. We exchanged information and a hug before leaving.
Later that week I made my way to Brisbane, still feeling the magic and the mystery of the reef lingering around me. I spent most of the following days lost in my thoughts, reliving the moments over and over.
Rick found me on Facebook. My heart skipped a beat as I realized that now we were actually connected. Now there was a potential for us to keep in contact, perhaps to meet again. I scrolled through his profile with curiosity, my imagination working overtime. Then I stopped at his About page. This is wrong, I thought.
But there it was… Rick was “In a relationship”. The link of her name led me to the profile of his blonde beauty.
The thoughts that followed my discovery were many, but only one word left my lips and rang through the lobby of the Brisbane YHA Hostel.