King of the Reef

King of the Reef

image1I didn’t expect much.

I left on the 1 p.m. boat. The captain had warned me the waves were up, that it would be a bit rough for snorkeling. “Everyone else will be underwater,” he said, “but you might have a hard time.”

But I wanted to go anyway. I’d come to dive, and day one had already been too windy. I figured I could handle a little chop, so I climbed onboard alongside 25 other passengers.

But they were different than me—each one had a wetsuits, rebreather, buoyancy vest, mask, fins, dive computer, camera, seemingly everything. Mountains of gear lined the benches, stacked next to silver airtanks. The hiss of venting tanks filled the air. A teenager struggled into his neoprene. A middle aged women fitted her buoyancy vest.

I took a seat and opened my book.

“Life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness—how can I not dwell on this brief, cramped view I have of things?”

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

The boat roared to life.

“You’re not getting dressed?” the woman next to me asked.

I looked down at my chest and scanned myself all the way to my feet. I was wearing nothing but swim trunks and flip flops. I looked at her. “It doesn’t take much,” I said.

“But aren’t you diving?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Or, no. Not scuba diving.” I pointed to my hat, a souvenir from my course in April, Frontline Freediving smeared across my forehead. “I just need a mask, snorkel and fins. I won’t be long.”

She blinked. Paused. “Your snorkeling,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Something like that,” I said. She smiled. I went back to my book.

Something like that.

When the boat slowed everyone started their final fiddling. I didn’t. I grabbed my mask, tucked my fins under my arm and walked to the back of the boat.

“You’re ready,” the captain joked.

“I am,” I said.

“Pool’s open,” he said, smiling.

I jumped.

The water was warm, 82 degrees, felt almost bathwater. Fish hung lazily beneath the boat. Sand sparkled 30-plus feet below. Ridges of coral meandered out like starfish arms. I kicked, letting my fins carry me.

The divers slowly made their way in after me. They descended to the floor, casting of long streams of bubbles. I hovered above, letting the air trickle over me, caress me, the photo negative of a shower. I breathed deep through my snorkel, feeling my pulse slow. Then I flipped, kicked and dove.

The act of freediving is built on the first word: FREE. There is no tether, only what your lungs can handle. It is light and fast and peaceful and silent. The scuba divers cross the ocean floor like SUVs, exhaust spewing skyward with every breath. I float silently. It is beautiful.

Three other divers saw the manta. I had just dove, was aiming for the bottom, when a shadow passed overhead. A big shadow. I turned. A kite the size of a coffee table with a mawing hole for a mouth glided by, beating giant wings as he went. Remoras clung to his underside. I froze. My camera was in my back pocket. I fumbled for it as he arced past me. I beat my legs to get astride him, but the great waves of his body sent him slicing through the water at a pace I couldn’t match. I let go of the idea of capturing him digitally; I wanted only to see him, to behold his magnificence. He looked like a king inspecting his subjects below, attended to by two courtiers. He paid no mind to me, just kept flowing.


I returned to the surface. I have no idea how long I was down. But my heart was pounding.

The dive continued. I was up and down, up and down, for two hours, saw a black-tipped shark, a nurse shark, a young sea turtle and several lobster. I saw thousands of beautiful, graceful, brightly streaked fish, and corals of every shade. It was all amazing. And the manta had inspected it all.

I came you at the end, last to climb the ladder back to the boat. I was covered in goosebumps, nearly shivering from diving to the cold waters of the deep. One of the divers looked up at me as I boarded. “Are you the freediver?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I got a great shot of you.”

I smiled.

Sea Lions and Blown Eardrums

Sea Lions and Blown Eardrums

13221217_1494289507263796_1857274098760016918_oIn freediving they teach you to protect your ears. Don’t go down if you feel any pressure, they tell you. Equalize constantly using the Frenzel Maneuver as opposed to the more air-intensive Valsalva Method. If your wetsuit is hooded poke holes at the ears to ensure no unintended barriers disrupt clearing.

But you can’t plan for everything. Like sea lions—nobody warned me about those.

La Jolla is on the north side of San Diego. It’s a marine sanctuary on the edge of the city, the kind of place tourists and locals alike flock. The water is cool but clear, and it’s lined by beaches, caves and one well-known cove: La Jolla Cove, where the sea lions are.

We’d already seen one sea lion two days before snorkeling from the beach to the caves. It was evening, growing dark soon, but Reza suggested we could get to the caves, which offer exploration opportunities. Along the way we’d pass troves of leopard sharks. So we suited up, waded into the breakers and swam.

The waves were bigger than we expected. They slammed the nearby seawall, throwing spray into the sky. The sand floor churned. There were no leopard sharks. “It must be too rough for them,” Reza said, “but not for stingrays. Watch out for them.”

One slid past, its wings beating in unison, its body gliding over the sand. I swam after it, watching its path arc and bend. But it didn’t take long to lose me. Soon I was aimed for the caves.

The swell that scattered the leopard sharks was disturbing the caves too—each wave flooded the hollows, pounding the insides. I went in briefly, flushed by the surge, but it wasn’t a place to stay. We swam out a safe distance and watched the pounding, opting for a perch among the seagrass as it streamed back and forth in the depths. A few leopard sharks poked around, and fleets of striking orange Garibaldi fish, the state fish of California. But dark approached, and soon we were heading back towards the beach.

That’s when it happened: A seal popped up. Or a sea lion. He was just a few feet away, his nose pushed up out of the breakers. He was playing in the waves, snaking between us. He knew we were there, and he didn’t care.

“That was SO COOL!” Katelyn shouted, shivering. She was right.

Two days later we were back, but instead of the beach we went to the cove, the hangout for sea lions. It’s a public park, but it’s unclear who it’s intended for, humans or wildlife. The left side of the small beach is covered with 400-pound sea lions and their pups, joined by people snapping selfies. It’s chaotic, with the occasional sea lion charge. But on land they waddle more than run, and the crowds were able to get out of the way. Sometimes, though, there was lots of shrieking. (There was a This American Life story about this sea lion/human dynamic. It’s worth a listen.)

The right side of the beach, meanwhile, is the domain of swimmers and snorkelers, humans looking to explore the wetter part of the cove. That’s were we set up, pulling on wetsuits, donning masks and fins. I wadded in, trading the noise of the beach for lapping waves.

In the water the sea lions were everywhere: snaking through the depths, turning and barrel-rolling in the waves. They were dancing, playing in teams of two and four. I dove with them, trying to hold my breath and keep up as they rocketed past rocks and reed beds. The were so fast, underwater torpedo-shaped bears. We dove and dove and dove together; they weren’t scared of me. They swam around and investigated me, peered at my wetsuit, fins and snorkel, but never too close. They were like underwater mirrors mimicking my dives, always partway across the room. I’d come up breathless, but then another would swim by and I’d follow. They never ran away; they swam unconcerned.

“That was AMAZING!” I said when I came out for a break, panting. “I could do that forever.”

And soon I was back in the water, again surrounded by sea lions. Four of them sliced through the swells around me, sleek as sharks. I watched them spin as they rocketed below the surface. I dove and joined them, imitating their twisting and corkscrewing.

That’s when I felt it—as I spun a little pocket of air in my ear canal bubbled out and danced toward the surface. Seawater rushed into the void. I felt it slam cold against my eardrum. There was a brief, sharp pain, and then I felt woozy. I was less than two feet below the surface, but I needed air. I pulled up my head and tore off my mask, tried to catch my breath, but the ocean, the waves around me, even the beach seemed to be swaying. I cleared my ears, but something wasn’t right. I tried again, but no. My four copilots were gone, swum off. I was bobbing alone in the waves, barely able to hold upright.

I cleared my snorkel, pulled my mask back on and slowly turned towards shore. I paddled gently, without thinking or pushing, sure I’d blown my eardrum. Not great. I reached the sand and pulled my fins off, letting the water hold me up. Walking out felt like climbing into a tunnel—the noise of the crowds and the sea lions faded to the periphery. There was blackness at the edges. I sat on a rock and again tried to clear my ears, but nope. I’d definitely done something real.

They don’t teach “Never barrel-roll with sea lions in the Pacific” in freedive class. Maybe that would be too specific a lesson. But now I know. And a little Googling has taught me a perforated eardrum needs six to eight weeks to heal. I’m headed to the Florida Keys in three—I’m hoping for the accelerated program.

And it was only afterward, after more Googling, that I understood the difference between seals and sea lions. Sea lions are much bigger, and they have a habit of being occasionally aggressive around humans. The explanation I read was seals are aquatic weasels and sea lions descended from bears. I’m glad I didn’t know that as I stared face-to-face with them. They were bigger than me, much better swimmers. But they were also amazing. I’d do it again in a second. Eardrum and all.