Image by the author, Marie-Elizabeth Mali. All rights reserved.
In 2018 I celebrated my 800th dive, which got me thinking about what I’ve learned from spending that much time underwater. Here are 9 things the ocean has taught me about life:
1. If you do your part, buoyancy is effortless.
Perfect buoyancy is a balance between effort and surrender. When I get the balance right, I have the experience of feeling held and my body relaxes.
My part is to get the weights and air right in my gear. If I do that, there’s no floating away and no sinking. I’m effortlessly held. It feels divine, like the direct experience of being supported by the universe.
Working skillfully with your mind is like getting the weights and air right in your gear. Our practices don’t create the experience of support, but they set you up to let go into it, which reveals the support that’s always there.
2. If you’re bored, up-level your attention.
Not every dive has fireworks of activity. Some dives are downright sleepy, especially after lunch and you’re thinking you should have taken a nap instead of getting wet for this lame-assery.
But there’s always something to notice, even if it’s your breath. Listening to the sound of your breath underwater is so meditative and calming, you can surface renewed even if you didn’t see a single cool critter.
If you’re bored, how could you up-level your attention? The moment we think we know what’s going on, or think we fully know another human being, is the moment we blind ourselves to the miraculous and deaden our sense of wonder. Mind-blowing things happen around us all the time. It’s up to us to notice the wow in the ordinary. It’s not life’s job to kapow through our dullness and complacency to get us to notice how amazing it is.
3. If it’s not a good time to go in, be patient.
Sometimes we get to a dive site and the current’s flowing in an unsafe direction, so we wait. Eventually it turns. As it’s turning there’s a pause, called slack, when there’s no current, which is a great time to dive.
Maybe lunch gets pushed back, or another activity gets rearranged, but in the end, we have a better dive because we were flexible about time.
Be respectful of the changing currents in your life.
4. Be willing to work for it.
There’s a site in Palau called Blue Corner. If you hit it when there’s a strong current, you can hook into the rocks and hang out there to watch sharks hunt. Schools of jacks face into the current, clumped together to look like one big organism, and the sharks come barreling through, scattering them until they re-form again. It’s exhilarating.
If you avoid all current to only do lazy daisy dives, you’ll miss an amazing experience. Sharks hunt when the current’s strong. If you want to see an apex predator of the ocean do its thang, you have to be willing to work for it.
5. Keep going even when it’s not pretty.
I’ve seen female sharks with bloody gashes around their gills where males bite them during sex, mantas with chunks of their fins missing from shark bites, sharks with fishing hooks embedded in their mouths, and a starfish with a short, lumpy arm in the process of growing back.
Nature isn’t romantic and beautiful all the time. It’s tenacious in how it works around obstacles. In the way a manta missing half a fin keeps swimming, we can keep going, even if we’re barely hanging on by our fingernails.
6. Don’t grip.
When I’m too attached to a specific interaction I want to have, it often doesn’t happen. It’s as if the animals stay away because they can feel my tension. Animals are limbic creatures. They feel everything.
On my 800th dive, I went in with celebration and joy, with no attachment to what we might see. A hammerhead made several passes as if to say hello, a pod of dolphins came by, and two mantas showed up and circled our group as we were headed to the surface. Total magic.
Even with our hefty frontal cortex, we’re still limbic creatures. Our bodies respond to everyone and everything around us, even if we don’t always listen. We can feel when someone’s gripped and it tends to make us want to get away. The more we learn to relax our grip, the better our relationships feel and the more daily magic we experience.
7. Gender is waaaaaaay fluid.
In each anemone home, a group of clownfish has a large, dominant female and smaller males and juveniles. If she dies, a male turns female and grows, becoming dominant.
A harem of female parrotfish lives with a dominant male. If the male dies, one of the females turns male and becomes dominant.
Nudibranchs are hermaphroditic. They sidle up to one another and become the sex necessary in order to procreate. I’ve seen them have sex in both directions at once to fertilize each other’s eggs. Then they lay their eggs in a spiral that looks like a gorgeous flower.
Let’s chill around gender and accept that we, too, exist on a continuum, m’kay?
8. We need each other.
In Costa Rica, at Cocos Island, we dove a site famous for schooling hammerheads. We descended to 80 feet holding a rope because of the current, then swam around looking for hammerheads. On that particular dive, we had to pull ourselves from rock to rock to crawl around the site because the current was too strong for swimming.
Hanging onto my heavy camera gear with one arm and pulling myself forward with the other, I got exhausted in 25 minutes. Luckily, a strapping Spaniard near me had enough strength left to haul us both back to the line.
Once I got to the line, still at 80 feet, I ran out of air. Disoriented, I couldn’t process why air wasn’t coming into my lungs when I breathed. The divemaster saw me struggling and shoved his regulator (airpiece) in my mouth, grabbing his spare for himself. We ascended the line together, sharing his remaining air.
I used to resist diving with a buddy and a group. As an introverted only child who self-soothes by being alone, I wanted to be free to shoot the critters at my own pace without having to keep my attention on others. But if it weren’t for my two buddies on that dive, I would have died.
I’m alive today to tell to all the other loners out there: we fucking need each other. Life’s better lived in connection. Maybe we’re loners because we never learned how to ask for what we need or set proper boundaries. Time to get over ourselves and let people in.
9. Everything is interdependent.
Diving reveals over and over again how much symbiosis exists in nature.
The remora that hitches a ride on the shark, eating parasites on the shark’s skin that would otherwise irritate it, while downing leftover food the shark doesn’t eat and getting a free ride through the water.
Cleaner shrimp that venture into the mouth of a sharp-toothed moray eel to clean it without getting eaten because it’s a service the moray needs.
We’re a part of nature, too. When we go in the ocean, it enlivens us and clears our heads, because our bodies were meant to move and be in direct contact with the elements. While I enjoy my creature comforts on land, when I interact with a sea lion, giggling at the joy and playfulness they exude, I feel totally alive and connected to my own joy.
I hope you also find out what brings you alive to your joy and do it as often as you can, because your aliveness and joy benefit everyone.