2006 by Birgit Starmanns
A tropical island is everyone's dream for a relaxing get-away. Very little thought is given to the dangers on those islands, by the very ocean life that we wish to observe. Until you find yourself being chased by that ocean life.
“The antidote to civilization.” Those words were emblazoned with gold lettering on the deep blue, plastic stirrers that decorated our drinks. Dave and I toasted to the perfect start of our first real vacation, courtesy of Club Med, Columbus Isle.
Our cabin had a front-row view of the beach. I discovered that the deep turquoise water of the Bahamas were real, not a photographer’s enhancement for the brochures. The rooms were spacious, with only a television showing half a dozen channels, and a rotary phone, as our modern conveniences. The idea was to spend as much time outside of the room as possible. It was easy to replace cell phones and high-speed Internet access with a good book, and the daily commute with a short walk to one of many beaches.
The first few days were a compatibility challenge for us. To decompress, I was perfectly happy with a good book, a long walk on the beach, and a volleyball game. Meanwhile, Dave was racing at one hundred miles a minute to try every water sport available. As we started to relax and stop thinking about work, we allowed the island rhythm to take hold and slow down. And we could finally divide and conquer. If we kayaked together in the morning, I spent the afternoons tanning while Dave tried water skiing.
Even though this was a club geared towards couples, there were only few tables for two, and those were usually already reserved before we managed to get up. At the larger, circular tables, we met couples from around the world. There was also a larger group, all from the same company in Europe, who had been sent here as a reward for good performance. Of course, there were a few singles who complained daily, “Where are all the singles? They didn’t tell me that there were no singles here. Oh, wait, call that waiter back, he’s cute!” It was an energetic crowd, happy to participate in all of the guest activities, whether it was the evening show, or the on-going animator-led activities. At the end of the day, literally, we all bonded in the late-night, techno-infused dance tent.
Two days before the end of our vacation, Dave convinced me to try snorkeling as our next “together” activity. It seemed to be a good compromise. I had resisted getting a scuba diving certification during this vacation. Spending half of each day deep under water, my heart beating too quickly, with paranoid visions of sharks swimming just a little too close, was not my idea of relaxation. The thought of seeing colorful ocean life without having to actually dive deep into the water seemed harmless.
At the meeting point for the snorkeling trip, we were pointed to a large box, filled with different sizes of flippers for our feet, and snorkels. I eyed the plastic equipment suspiciously, choosing the sizes at random, hoping that the equipment had been sterilized from the previous trip.
Standard snorkeling trips at Columbus Isle meant getting on a boat, making our way out into the ocean to a beautiful spot, and then snorkeling around the boat. Last night at dinner, several guests had raved about a coral reef that they had visited the day before, with exceptional colors and countless schools of fish. On that morning, there were too many snorkel enthusiasts, making that particular coral reef impossible to access with so many people.
Still, our guides were creative. There would be two groups that day, one riding in the boat, and another group which would drive along the coast and wade out into the water to find the previous day’s coral reef. The idea of being closer to land sounded better to me. As it turns out, the group opting for that specific reef was the corporate group with whom we had spent several evenings. Add to that the fact that Dave could not resist the promise of a guaranteed spectacular sight. We opted to search for the coral reef. As the seven of us piled into the Club Med van, the guide gave us a lecture on safety in the water.
On the way, I was looking out of the van’s side window. I was surprised to see again the building that passed as the island’s airport. The control tower was exactly three stories high, and sported what appeared to be a radio antenna. We stopped a few hundred feet away from the only runway. Our guide checked out the runway to ensure there were no planes taking off. Only a small jet, which seemed too large to be accommodated by the runway, was unloading passengers. Then our guide looked carefully into the air, first to the right and then to the left, to verify that there were no approaching airplanes. None in sight, he put the van back into gear, and simply drove across the runway. Drove very quickly.
Only a few miles later, our guide pulled over and turned off the engine. Instead of using a boat, he repeated, we would wade out from this vantage point, and swim to the coral reef. I sighed with relief, happy once more with our decision to join this group and be close to the shore, instead of being out in the middle of nowhere with only a boat as a point of reference.
I tentatively put the flippers on my feet, and slowly waded into the water, along with our guide, Dave, and five others. I had never worn flippers before, and they made it difficult to walk without taking huge steps. Finally getting my feet wet, I looked town, noticing that the water was crystal clear so that I could see each and every rock and pebble that I carefully stepped over. As I wandered deeper, the waves turned from light to dark turquoise, then to a deep blue. Once the warm water was up to our waists, we started swimming farther out into the ocean. I was beginning to relax, enjoying the buoyancy of the waves as I drifted along.
I wasn’t excited about using the snorkel mouthpiece, but if I wanted to see anything underwater, I had no choice. I put the unwieldy piece of plastic in my mouth, with the help of our guide. I had a few false starts, putting my head down too deep and filling up the snorkel with water. Did I mention that I have never done this before?
Finally getting used to the feel of breathing through the plastic tube, I peeked through the mask. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darker environment. I gasped. The underwater life was amazing. Granted, we had not reached the coral reef, but there were already countless fish that were swimming underneath us. While I knew academically that the ocean is home to many creatures, it is an entirely different experience to actually see the fish swimming below my feet.
I suddenly felt Dave grab my arm, pulling me in his direction. He pointed behind me, where I saw a silver sliver of a very long fish, disappearing out into the endless ocean. I had never seen anything like it. “That’s a barracuda,” Dave explained, pulling me in the opposite direction. “Let’s swim out this way.” I’d never seen him nervous before.
We swam quickly to get closer to the rest of the group, where Dave immediately mentioned the barracuda. Our guide dove underwater, coming back up to assure us that it was gone. Still, he led us farther away in the water, as a precaution. While I was still nervous, after a while I felt that we had covered enough distance. I watched as everyone else continued snorkeling, as if nothing had happened. I unconsciously pulled my bikini top back up. It was a new bathing suit, but it had no straps since I had not expected to be on this trip when we left our cabin. I made a mental note to only use it the pool to tan in the future, but never again when it came to swimming.
Slowly, I regained my fascination with the underwater life. I stayed in one place, treading water, watching a stingray that lingered just above the ocean floor. I forgot my discomfort with the snorkel and the flippers. I watched as the stingray slowly seemed to melt into the ocean floor, I could no longer tell where the sandy ground left off and the stingray began.
I wanted to tell someone, and lifted my head above the water. What I saw was the entire group, swimming at top speed towards me, on a direct course towards the shore. I wasn’t sure what had happened while my head was under water. Obviously there was something wrong, so my best bet seemed to be to join them in heading out. “What’s going on?” I shouted out.
“It’s the barracuda!” someone shouted. I turned, and saw the same sliver of silver again behind us. The guide later told us that it seemed to be swimming in a zig-zag pattern, trying to herd us out of its territory. My ignorance about the strength of a barracuda’s bite probably helped me, otherwise I would have felt more panic.
Regardless, I screamed and kept going. To get more speed, I switched to my strongest stroke, the breast stroke, to get out of range of the barracuda as quickly as possible. That worked fine for my arms. For my legs, it was a different story. The leg motion required for the breast stroke was not a good combination with the silly flippers on my feet. Not wanting to pause to get rid of them, I tried to make it work, but gave up after about ten seconds. Out of necessity, I invented a new swim stroke: the breast crawl, a combination of the breast stroke with the arms, and the crawl with the legs. I could keep my head above water to see where I was going, yet still take advantage of the flippers.
I don’t remember how long I swam. Since we had not been out long enough to be very far from the shore, it must have only been minutes. As I looked around, our group had fanned out, which put distance between us, yet everyone was getting close to shore. It looked like I had taken the straightest path. Still, I kept swimming my new stroke, not wanting to pause to see if I could already feel the floor.
As I reached within about fifty feet from the shore, I thought that I would brave it, and stood up. To my surprise, the water only came to my knees. Since I stood up so quickly, my bikini top again decided to misbehave, falling down to around my waist. Just at the moment that my top fell, a delivery truck drove by, and honked his horn, long and loud. I couldn’t help but laugh. On an island where all women went topless on the beaches, my accidental striptease still got a reaction!
I couldn’t wait to get the flippers off my feet, vowing to never wear them again. As we all gathered on the shore, the guide, also rattled, tried to tell us that he was ready to hit the barracuda with his snorkel to fend him off. I’m glad that we did not need to put that to the test.
Our last day on the island was the only day that Dave was happy on the beach, without trying a single water sport. And while I enjoyed the antidote of being on the island, a little time back in civilization, without vicious killer fish stalking me, is the antidote for the antidote.
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