Breathing Under Water

When I was three years old, I almost drowned. My parents had taken us to Virginia to visit my father’s sisters, Auntie, Baby Sis and Hattie Mae. We had gone to the river for a picnic and as the tide was out, my parents, Uncle John, and Auntie had waded far from the shore. My brother and I played on the sandy beach running in and out of the small waves. Once when the waves receded, I saw a deep depression that remained filled with water and went over to investigate. I could see small fish under the water and not knowing that I couldn’t breathe under water I went to play with them. As far as I knew, I was breathing under water until things started to swirl around me and I saw a vortex of water in the shape of a funnel surrounding my body. I was in the middle as calm as could be until I heard my mother’s panicky voice screaming for my brother to get me. I was still in the swirling vortex when I saw my brother’s hand reach through and I grabbed it. By this time the adults had reached the shore. My mother was calm now and she asked me what I was doing in the water.

“I was playing with the fish,” I told her.

“O’baby,” she said, “you can’t breathe under the water like the fish can.”

Those few words, “You can’t breathe under the water,” dictated my swimming experiences for the greater part of my life. Years later, in junior high school, I took my beginner’s swimming test. I had to swim the length of the pool. Although I had been taking swimming lessons over the summer, out of fear I never learned to breathe properly. I would turn my head and pretend but I never opened my mouth, nor did I ever exhale. I just held my breath.

On my first two attempts to swim the length of the pool I grabbed onto the side about three quarters of the way. “You can only have one more try,” the instructor told me. This time rather than starting me on the side, he started me from the middle. There was no side to grab onto. I jumped in, took a deep breath, and started swimming. The instructor walked along the side of the pool with a long pole. Fortunately for me, because my brother and I would practice in the bathtub, I could hold my breath for a long time and made it on one breath.

Later, after learning the breast and side strokes, I became more comfortable in the pool because I could keep my head above water. But I still had a fear of open water especially when I couldn’t touch the bottom.

So now, sixty years later I’m living in Fiji, on an island surrounded by the South Pacific. Before coming here Lara told me to purchase snorkeling gear in the States because the prices are high in Fiji. I had not thought of swimming in the ocean because of my fear and the fact that I have lost two very dear and close friends to drowning. I brought the necessary equipment just in case. If I didn’t use it, I would sell it or give it away to someone who could.

I go across the street to the ocean two to three times a week and just soak or float when the tide is in. I have also gone down to the Blue Lagoon to swim but I always made sure I was close enough to the rim to stand when I got tired. I was still not comfortable in the element of open water.

When Lara and her son Darian arrived last week and wanted to go snorkeling, I sucked in my fear and joined them. We walked out a ways before Lara said, “Okay, let’s go,” and she and Darian went under. I put in my mouth piece, took a deep breath and followed them. The water was only about four feet deep at this point but Lara had told us to follow the canyons. During low tide I had walked out almost to the breakers of the reef many times but had never seen any canyons but more importantly, I realized I was breathing under water. I didn’t have to depend on holding my breath or fighting for air. I was buoyed by the ocean and breathing.

We soon found the canyons and the dead world I had seen at low tide was now swarming with all kinds of marine life. The coral was alive, the ocean bed was alive, colorful fish were everywhere and I was experiencing all of this beauty and wonder while breathing under water. I was totally relaxed. Even the approach of two blue sharks did not frighten me. Darian said they were not dangerous but I was also told that sharks didn’t come inside the reef. So much for urban or rather sea myths. We floated and moved in and out of the canyons for over two hours. The grace and beauty of this new world was amazing, the colors from another world. It was another world. One that I was experiencing first hand rather than from movies or photographs.

A day later we went snorkeling in Savusavu Bay near the Cousteau Resort. The water was deeper here, the fish larger and more colorful, the canyons deeper and more carved and I more comfortable in this new environment.

I am sold on snorkeling. My world has expanded to include the sea around me, a new and totally different part of the planet waits to be explored during more ocean adventures. I have also conquered a lifelong fear of the open water. Although there have not been many times when I found my mother to be wrong, I can breath underwater. It just took me over sixty years to learn how.