When you’re eight, you don’t really get it when you’ve been given something that will alter your life forever. You take it for granted. Sometimes you even complain about it. In retrospect, as a busy adult grasping for extra minutes each day, you look back and think… if only I’d know what I’d been given.
When I was eight, I didn’t really get it. I was a little bubble of energy, jumping in pools, and swimming in oceans. My Dad would count the bodies of water his kids had taken a dip in and we’d all count along.
By the time I turned nine, it was some ridiculous number that didn’t really matter to me. I just liked it. I loved putting on my mask and visiting the little clownfish and parrotfish and seeing the same giant clams everywhere I went. I loved diving down, waving my hand at one of them, and having them slam shut, sending swirls of debris upward. I’d come up, clear my snorkel with the biggest blow I could muster and find another clam. I loved floating on the waves, cloud-watching as my little body was rocked gently back and forth. I loved collecting shells and touching turtles and swinging off leaning palms into the warm, salty ocean.
I loved it all, but I didn’t really get it. Not yet, anyway.
I was still just nine when we landed on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. We slept every night in a little thatched-roof bungalow. It was hot and sticky and the beach was right outside our door. The tiny breakwater, that liquid zen, sending us to slumber with ease. We’d wake every morning to the smell of hibiscus and walk barefoot through the white, talcum sand, dodging land crab holes, to the dining room. Piles of tropical fruit awaited us and we filled our bellies before we spent the day in the water.
On one such day, my Dad bartered with the captain of a boat. He asked him to take us on a boat ride to Cook’s Bay, so we could see the Island from the Ocean. I hopped in the boat in nothing but my bathing suit and off we went.
Once out on the water, I had to stop and catch my breath when I looked back at the Island. The hills of Moorea were lush emerald faces, like demigods and Tahitian spirits beckoning you to paradise. My mouth agape, I watched as we sped through turquoise water, along beaches of pure white sand lined with palms, their backdrop these green jewel mountains looming over everything.
At Cook’s Bay, we stopped just near the reef and sent the anchor down.
“Can I swim, Dad?” He told me I could. I didn’t hesitate for a moment.
In my little orange bathing suit, I lept into the royal blue abyss. The warm waters enveloped me, and I shook my head as I came up. I waited for my Dad, treading water, but became impatient. He was putting on his gear. It was me, my bathing suit, and the French Polynesian waters. I dove. I dove as far as I could and nearly reached the bottom. My eyes opened and I saw a world I’d never seen before. I was accosted by colour… more colour than I’d seen in any garden or any parade or any body of water before this. There were yellow fish and green fish and red fish and pink fish, there were neon fish, there were glowing fish, and the coral… Jesus, the coral would put the world’s most spectacular botanical gardens to shame. I needed air. Up I went.
“Dad! You have to get in here!” I was up just long enough to say this, and back down I went. A little further this time, I hovered over giant brain coral that looked almost luminescent. I watched as an electric blue crab scurried across the ocean floor. I saw a school of neon yellow fish go by, more than I could count, maybe 2000 tiny little fish all moving in unison. Little bubbles escaped my mouth as I waved my arms to keep me in place, but I had to get another breath and up I went again.
My Dad was in the water this time. He asked what I’d seen and I didn’t answer him. I just pointed down, and he came with me this time. We dove, my dad about half the distance as I did, and stared, looking back at each other every once in a while with big, enchanted grins.
When we came back up, my Dad couldn’t help himself. “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like that!” And back down again.
Each time I went down, I went deeper. Finally, I was able to reach the bottom. I swept the sand with my hand, and made little sandy clouds. I poked near holes in the reef to see if any fish were in them. I spotted a shell. A beautiful shell. I grabbed it and brought it back up.
“Let me see what you got, Co!” My Dad asked, and I showed him. He put it in his pocket. He still has it to this day, and 6 others just like it that I collected off the ocean floor that day.
It was time to swim back to the boat. I swam like a dolphin and dove as deep as I could go, while still making headway. I frolicked in the water and pointed out colourful creatures to my Dad. We smiled at each other under the water and swam.
Moorea as shot by my dad in 1986.
A few feet before reaching the boat, something caught my eye under the water. A dark blob. I had no fear of the ocean, so I dove once again to take a look. As I got closer, I could see it was a purple so deep, that when the light shone on it, it gave off an aura around it, like a halo. I got closer still and I couldn’t tell what it was that was so impressively purple.
Then I saw a tentacle. I stopped. I hovered. I was in awe.
The sun’s rays were beating down on the ocean floor in columns of glittering light, and this majestic creature moved gracefully above the sand. Each tentacle surrounded by waving purple, sending it in motion. It was like a dance. A ballet, with one dancer. He would swim in and out of sun rays and the purple would become so purple, that I doubted I’d ever actually seen purple before this.
I hovered, still, and watched, struggling to keep holding my breath as it seemed to spot me. For a moment, we looked at each other. It felt like we made eye contact, this beautiful creature and I, me waving my hands to stay in place, and him waving his royal tentacles. We looked at each other, and then I ran out of breath.
When I came up, I was changed. When I came up, the world was different. I was just nine, but I’d just connected with a vibrant purple octopus at the bottom of the ocean while free-diving, gearless in French Polynesia. You don’t really recover from that. Your life is forever altered after that. I was only nine, but this time I got it.