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  • Writer's pictureSteph Shuff

Deep Blue

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

I was wild once, like the ocean; a small, strong-willed little girl who wanted so desperately to be one of the boys that I wore shorts with no shirt and super hero underwear with a hole cut out for the penis that I would never have. My mother doted on me with pink dresses and frills, but I didn’t crave her endless affection, wrapped in pink bows and delivered without condition. It was my dad’s love I was after. My dad was a SCUBA diver, a shark wrangler, a boat captain, a fish slayer, an ocean tamer, and no, none of this is hyperbole. He had a thick dark beard and a head full of brown hair and strong shoulders and callused hands. He ran one of the first charter dive boats that ever operated in the sleepy little fishing town where I was raised and now when I go diving the old captains with long memories call him a pioneer and tell stories that’d make you think he was a god. To me, he has always been a god. There is something odd and verifying about the fact that I wasn’t the only one who saw him this way.

I grew up on the South Florida coastline near the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, a strong flow of endless ocean water that circulates up from the equator and past the Eastern edge of Florida. Its waters are warm and deep, cruel though calm.

People joke that the town where I grew up is a “drinking town with a fishing problem,” proving that even the humor here is trite, bleached by the sun and over-worn. The sea is the opener, the headliner, and the encore of this little town; it is a city built as a shrine to the magnetic draw of the ocean. Humans love to conquer, but our mortality is what makes us feel most alive. Even the billionaires whose mansions dot the coastline will know their impotence in the ocean’s wrath.

My father’s first and only love has always been the ocean. He is Ishmael and Billy Bones and the old man in the sea, drawn to her waters, moved to her shoreline, pulled beneath her surface by some white whale that will never be captured, by some treasure that will never be discovered. I didn’t crave his attention in the way that little girls often crave the love of their fathers, by being meek and sweet and in need of saving. I was strong and willful and the way I tried to earn his love was different. Maybe this is why I grew up wild, like the ocean.

I wore shorts with no shirt and super hero underwear and learned to fish and boat and hunt like one of the boys. From a very small age, I hated to be told that I couldn’t do what the boys were doing. My older brother, my father’s first child and only son, was and still is sweet and sensitive and shy, and we are opposite in almost every way. Chris cried on his first day of school, my mother unable to pry him away from the safety of her leg; I refused to let my mother drive me in the car for fear that people might think I wasn’t capable on my own at the ripe old age of five. I wandered through the kindergarten hallways on my first day of class, unable to read the teachers’ names on the doors because they had been written in cursive. What five-year-old can read cursive? And so, I learned to read cursive not too long after that.

For years before I was born and up until I was a toddler, my dad had been a dive master, a dive instructor, a dive guide, and the co-owner of his own dive business. Eventually, however, he sold his stake and his boat and had turned to private captaining — a small but lucrative maritime industry relegated to only the most beautiful coastlines in the world: places like Monaco; the British Virgin Islands; and yes, sunny South Florida. 

Though he had left the diving industry for private yachting years before, his love of diving lived on, and it was a passion he couldn’t wait to share with his children. Before I hit puberty, before I felt the painful realization that I was not and would never be one of the boys, I was old enough to learn to SCUBA dive. 

The summer after my twelfth birthday, my dad enrolled my then-fourteen-year-old brother and me in a SCUBA diving certification course at a local dive shop. The first half of the course was theoretical — dive tables and bottom times and water pressure expressed as pounds per square inch. I was a model student, quick to learn and — for once — eager to please. I passed the written exam quickly. The second half of the course was practical. We reviewed our newly acquired skills in an indoor pool in town. The third part of the course was the most important: our first open water dive. For us new divers lucky enough to be living in Jupiter, Florida, that meant a guided two-tank dive out in the warm clear waters of the Gulf Stream.

My dad had been serving as a training assistant in our dive class, a hearkening back to the good old days when he spent his time loading tanks and running boats and swimming under the ocean. In his role as assistant, he was readily available to me yet somehow always slightly out of reach. He wasn’t just needed by me, after all — he was needed by everyone. The woman in our class who couldn’t quite grasp her dive tables. The man at the pool who couldn’t quite clear his ears. 

Perhaps my father spread himself thin out of ambition. Perhaps he did so out of love. But I have other theories. To be needed by everyone means to be needed by no one at all, and I think my father’s need for independence in a world full of dependencies taught him this lesson early. I know this deeply about him because in adulthood, I am just like him. To know him well is to know myself. We are needed by everyone so that we are needed by no one at all. We have to save ourselves for our one true love. We have to save ourselves for the ocean.

On the day of my first open water dive, we geared up and loaded the boat on what must have been a clear, hot summer morning. I don’t remember the weather, but in Florida there is one long summer season punctuated only by violent storms and so time passes and stands still all at once. On a dive boat, the loud rumble of the twin diesel engines, the slow rolling of the ocean, and the noxious smell of exhaust fumes are enough to sicken most new divers — they cling to the railings of the boat, desperate for the stillness of the dry land they left behind, vomiting their breakfasts into the deep blue waters of the ocean as it rushes past in a foamy white spray. But I had grown up with these things and they hypnotized me like the bobbing of a mobile playing quietly over a newborn’s crib. I didn’t have elephants or airplanes or colorful birds to lull me to sleep at night — I had the endless horizon, the swell of the sea, the coarseness of dried saltwater on my sun-kissed skin. These things still comfort and lull me into the type of relaxation that most people can only find through sex or drugs or alcohol or all three at once. I guess I have the ocean to thank for my sobriety — nothing has ever given me quite the same high and eventually, I gave up the idea that I might find a better buzz than the one I feel on the ocean. I am my father’s daughter. I am Ishmael and Billy Bones and the old man in the sea.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong in diving. Ears must be cleared; masks must be defogged; air flows and gauges and O-rings must be checked and rechecked and then checked again. I won’t go into all the ways in which one can die while diving; suffice it to say that diving requires skill, technical acumen, physical fitness, and absolute control over ones’ anxiety. The faint of heart need not apply.

There is something long and drawn out about the pre-dive ritual — the boat as it chugs along towards the dive site; the slow rolling of the ocean; the meticulous attention of setting up your gear; the sheer misery of putting on a dry wet suit. If I believed that hell existed, I imagine it would involve wearing a dry wet suit under a scorching Florida sun.

I cannot recall with any accuracy my fear of diving prior to my first dive, but breathing underwater seems impractical at best. I know grown men who will never dive. I must have felt afraid. Despite all of this, I could sense the fearlessness of my shy but reckless brother, the familiar comfort of my father, who had been diving for longer than I had been alive. I didn’t mention my anxiety out loud. It took me a long time before I realized that I didn’t hold space for feelings that might make me a burden to someone else. Wasn’t I as tough and as capable as the boys? In all my time learning to be like one of them, I had assumed their emotional burdens as well.

We geared up, our bodies straining under the weight of 60-pound dive tanks, our skin suffocating in hot black wetsuits, and finally, we heard the Captain’s call from the bridge of the boat: “Dive! Dive! Dive!” We walked with giant strides into the deep blue waters, like willing captives of ocean pirates walking the plank into Davy Jones’s locker. We were all Ishmael and Billy Bones and the old man in the sea. The water rendered us weightless and refreshed our overheating bodies, and within minutes, we started our descent beneath its surface.

Atheists must have suburban souls — comfort and convenience and the ease of modern living have lulled them into the falsehood that something greater than them does not exist. Though I have questioned God more than once in my life, I have also found God — have felt her hand press down upon me in the extremes — on the tops of mountains; at the bottom of the sea.

Sinking to the bottom of the ocean felt easy and unnatural all at once; my body became weightless even as I felt the weight of the water surround me. It was like being cradled by death: the water pressed in on me from all sides, its cool embrace a constant reminder that one wrong move might be my last. I felt the quickening of my heartbeat in my throat and the tingle of my own mortality in the tips of my fingers, the kind of feeling you get when you look over the edge of a cliff. Why is that, when we are reminded of our impending deaths, we feel most alive?

It is calm and quiet under the ocean. All you can hear is your own breathing — the hiss of your inhale, the gurgled bubbling of your exhale, the deafening weight of 26 pounds of pressure per square inch over your head. There is something ethereal about looking up and seeing the glassy, crystal surface of the ocean far above you as the sun light dances and moves on the waves you can no longer feel. It is like being summoned to heaven in reverse. Like floating in space.

As we descended, I spotted my dad attending to one of the women in our group — she failed to pressurize her mask, and more than halfway to the bottom, the building pressure of the contracting air had caused a blood vessel in her eyeball to pop. Mask squeeze. Blood filled her eye and streamed down her face. She would not be able to complete her dive. My dad signaled for them to surface together as I continued to sink, and like that, he disappeared from view. In life, we often let the urgency of one thing distract us from the importance of something else. We let a stranger in need distract us from the child floating in a vulnerable silence to the bottom of the ocean.

The rest of our small group arrived on the ocean floor to a disappointing scene. We should have descended onto the tiny peaks and valleys of a tropical reef, but instead, we could see only sand. The Captain had dropped us in the wrong spot. Our dive guide and instructor signaled with her hand that we should start swimming. The Gulf Stream’s current was strong and steady, but we were to challenge its potency with just the fins on our feet. I made a point to spot my brother, my assigned dive buddy, as he started swimming. Did he remember to look for me too? I turned my body parallel to the ocean floor, face down, and began to kick.

Einstein must have been referencing trauma when he referred to the relatively of time, because unlike any other phenomenon, trauma can contract and expand seconds in a way I will never truly understand. I don’t know how long I kicked and swam against the endless Gulf Stream current. All I know is that one moment, I was surrounded by the black bodies and dancing bubbles of the other divers in my group. In the next moment, the divers and the bubbles had disappeared. My own bubbles rose in a single, solitary line up to the surface. I could see only blue.

I spun in circles underwater, flailing my arms and kicking my feet. I looked up, down, and in every direction. Despite the clarity of the water, the calmness of the surface far above my head, the taunting of the sparkling sun that seemed so happy and carefree, the other divers had vanished, swallowed by the sea.

I was alone. It was just me, the sand, and the Gulf Stream as it carried my little body farther from wherever it was that I was supposed to be.

I floated there in the water for an undetermined amount of time. Was it one minute? Five minutes? An hour? I don’t remember. All I knew was that I was alone in the ocean with 300,000 pounds of water pressure above my head and only twelve years of life experience from which to draw on for my own survival. My breath quickened. My eyes welled with hot, salty tears as I struggled to stay calm. 

I wish I could say that my survival instincts kicked in. I wish I could say that at twelve, I was a prodigal survivalist, or even a semi-decent diver. Hadn’t I learned what to do should I ever find myself alone on the bottom of the ocean? But I wasn’t a great survivalist or even a good diver. I was a kid, and I was scared and winded and overwhelmed. I panicked. I froze. I began to cry. In that moment, the hot watering of my eyes, the tightening of my throat, the quickening of my breath were not just threats to my pride or my confidence; at sixty feet underwater, those tears were a genuine threat to my life.

Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days. Years. A lifetime. How long did that twelve-year-old-girl sit there underwater, contemplating her own death? 

I looked up. A dark shadow floated above me, a black mass suspended in sharp contrast to the white light of the sun and the blue infinity of the ocean overhead. Was it a shark? A kraken? Was it the white whale, coming to show me what happens when little girls try to conquer oceans?

But it wasn’t the white whale. It was Ishmael, Billy Bones, the old man in the sea. It was an angel swimming down from the heavens. It was a boat captain, a dive master, a shark wrangler, a fish slayer. A god. My creator. My dad.

My rescue happened as silently as my abandonment, and relief washed over me as I watched my dad float down to my side. I was too overwhelmed in that moment to search for any emotion in my father’s face, but I can remember his blue eyes as he watched me silently underwater, full of concern and aching with apologies.

We ascended to the surface slowly, face-to-face, as my dad motioned for me to steady my breathing — he raised his hand slowly in the water as we inhaled — he dropped his hand and we exhaled. By the time we reached the surface, I was so afraid and angry and relieved and out of breath that I could only sob and gasp and unleash the pent-up anxiety that had threatened to kill me only moments before. Snot ran down my nose and into my mask. I spit my regulator out of my mouth and gasped at the delicious air that I had taken for granted my entire life. My Dad and I bobbed on the surface together as the boat drove around to pick us up — everyone else in our group was already on board. It dawned on me all at once that they had really left me. My terror was not the irrational panic of a kid. I had been in real danger, a child diver left on the ocean floor. 

To this day, I still don’t know exactly what happened. Any discussions I have had with my father or my brother have long since been tainted by hindsight and the confidence of a happy ending. I can only guess that at some point, I missed a signal, a hand motion, a group decision made in silence to resurface. The group had ascended without me, had re-boarded the boat without me, had left me on the ocean floor without any kind of buoy or marker or flag. I could have easily been swallowed up by the Gulf Stream, carried miles away, drowned on the ocean floor, lost at sea; just another lonely victim of the endless deep.

I have so many questions about that day. When was it discovered that I had not surfaced with the group? Who was it that realized I was missing? Why did no one think to keep an eye on the twelve-year-old girl, easily the youngest and most vulnerable in our group? I wonder what my father felt when a simple roll call or a quick scan of faces bobbing in the ocean revealed that his little girl, his only daughter, his precious thing was missing, lost and alone somewhere on the bottom of the ocean.

My dad had rescued divers before me, and I have met several men who have recounted stories about my father, the hero. From the surface, divers are difficult to spot but not impossible. The rising bubbles of their exhalations churn the surface of the ocean like a bubbling pot of boiling water. Reading the details of these bubbles must have been second nature to my dad. When he noticed I was missing, he must have looked for, spotted, and followed my stream of bubbles to find me on the ocean floor.

Despite the routine way my dad describes my rescue, I can’t help but wonder about the moments in between, the fear and the heartache he must have felt when he realized I was all alone on the bottom of the sea. Did he, like me, experience death and rebirth in the lifetime that passed between when I was lost and found again? Did he thank god that it had been sunny and calm? On a rougher day, a stormier day, a rainier day, I might not have been found, my bubbles lost in the chop of an angrier ocean. Did he also think that he was seeing an angel of the deep as he descended on me from above?

My father is a captain, a pioneer, a shark wrangler, a fish slayer, an ocean tamer — none of this is hyperbole. For all these reasons and more, I will likely never have an answer to any of these questions. If he was afraid in those moments, he did not show it. He seemed flippant about my abandonment then, and I do not know if it was out of confidence or denial or a confusing combination of the two. He will take the fears and anxieties and realizations from that day to the grave with him, because that is what strong men do. That is what boat captains, dive masters, shark wranglers, and ocean tamers do. That is what fathers do.

On that day, I was given fifteen minutes to pull myself together before I was told to get back in the water. As terrified as my dad might have felt to let me return to the same ocean that nearly claimed my life, he knew an even bigger truth: that he must make me overcome the trauma, or risk cementing in me a lifelong fear of the sea. As the saying goes, you have to get back on the horse that threw you. In this case, I had to dive back into the mouth that had nearly swallowed me whole.

I protested getting back in the water, my stubbornness surfacing like a monster out of the panic of my near death experience, but my dad’s insistence was firm in a way that was an unexpected contrast to his otherwise easy-going nature. In my youthful ignorance, I assumed it was about the money we had spent on the gear, the boat, the dive, the class. I was angry and scared and swore I would never forgive my father for making me go back in the ocean so soon after such a trauma. Now, in the wisdom of hindsight, I know that my dad rescued me twice that day — once when he found me, and again when he made me face my fear. And isn’t this what being a parent is all about? Knowing that your child could be swallowed by the world at any moment, but asking her to swim into it anyway?

Twenty minutes later, we were back on the bottom of the ocean. Twenty years later, the memory of my first dive still haunts me every time I return to its depths. But now, because of the wisdom of my father and the tremendous courage of the little girl that I was, I return to its depths hungrily, readily, desperately, as though I am a special breed of human that can only survive so long out of water. I am a willing captive of the ocean’s inescapable allure. My body is filled with tattoos of the creatures that haunt her waters, my head is filled with the memories of her magic, my heart is drawn by an indefatigable longing for her shoreline.

I don’t believe in God. Not in the way that other people do. Instead, I believe in the ocean — in her mystery, her magic, her healing, her power, her rage. We are intertwined, the ocean and I, like sisters, like lovers, like soulmates. I used to think that the ocean nearly took my life that day. But I am wiser now. Unlike the group of divers who left me, the ocean never stopped cradling me in her calm waters. Unlike the father who turned his eyes away from me, the ocean never lost sight of me in her depths. And unlike the panic that rose up in my chest and sent storms crashing in my head, the ocean kept her calm so that I could be found again.

The ocean didn’t nearly kill me that day. The ocean saved my life.

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