The weather was not perfectly still. A big Northwest gale had passed, still the ocean surface scalloped energetically. The tide was going out. Albert found an island, Gumelemi Cay, that looked like it could have great snorkeling. We inched off the channel and anchored in an idyllic, though bumpy cove off a teeny island. Albert brought his underwater camera.
We put on snorkels and fins and fell into the water. There was a pretty good current and it sent us whizzing over muddy clumps of grass, not coral gardens. Not perfect. Still I didn’t want to be a spoilsport. We were hoping this would be the best snorkeling of our lifetime.
The coral bordered a cut between a ledge island and the larger island of Guana Cay. As we headed towards it, waves were breaking on one side. Our idea was we’d stay on the other side. As we approached we could see that the coral bank must drop off on the breaking waves side. Then I saw this really big huge fish, the size of a cat, with very funny twiddling fins. I touched Albert and pointed. We willingly followed it for maybe one stroke, then we were both abruptly swept across the reef, and into a very strong current.
I love to swim, I am a strong experienced swimmer, and we have snorkeled together many times, but as I got swept over, water filled my snorkel and I couldn’t seem to recover from it. I found myself guzzling seawater. Finally I sputtered to the surface and gasping I hollered “I’m heading back!” I couldn’t see Albert immediately, but then, I saw him. With relief, I registered that he was also heading back.
I had another few seconds of getting really pooped by waves before I could come up for air and again look around for Albert. He was pretty near, clearly going through a similar experience. I got off the snorkel and rolled onto my back, kicking as hard as I could, gasping for air, and I saw Albert was doing the same. I said, “I’m not sure if I can make it.” I tried to see the boat. I knew he was in a similar situation, and unlike the millions of times where I’d asked for his help, doing taxes, opening jars, hauling up a sail, this time, he wouldn’t be able to help me. I couldn’t see the boat right away and thought maybe we were really being swept away faster than we were swimming back. “It’s there,” I heard him tell me. “You’re doing good.” Then I saw the boat. I didn’t really have any energy for fixing the gear on my head, and the snorkel was useless in this chop, so I just flipped it up and gasped, still kicking on my back, the snorkel getting wacked against my head by the waves.
“That’s good, keep kicking.” Adrenaline helped. Hearing his voice helped. “We’re halfway there,” Albert said. It took us just a minute to fly over the reef but it was taking an eternity to get back. It was such a relief to see we were slowly getting closer rather than further away.
When I got to the boat, my energy was so depleted my arms and legs were like rubber. Somehow I pulled myself up the ladder and Albert followed.
“My knees are knocking. I don’t know if it’s because I’m scared or because my muscles are totally drained.”
“Yeah, that was pretty intense.” We held each other, quivering.
In the days since, we’ve talked over what could have happened. If we had gone just a little further, what if we’d been swept out to sea. What we would have done.
As it was happening, the only thing apparent to both of us was that he needed to save himself and I needed to save myself. It took us thirty minutes to get back to the dinghy. If I hadn’t been able to kick as hard as I did, by the time Albert got back to the dingy, I would have been swept far out to sea.
The day before it had been my birthday. I am never my best self on my birthday. Albert gave me a birthday card that reads “Jenny- Happy 58th trip! Like the moon and the stars seem to revolve around the Earth, I revolve around you. Thank you for being you, my partner and help-mate. I will always be here for you.” Love Albert.
And on my birthday, I didn’t like the card. “But you won’t always be there for me!” I am not a person who takes our mortality lightly. And yes sure, he revolves around me but what does that mean, anyway? And as though I was still menstruating, I wept. “You didn’t get me a birthday present?” The card was it.
But now, I’ve got these pictures. That’s the fish.