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It was four meters long, with mesmerizing white spots on its back — not nearly as large as whale sharks get, but it was my first time up close and personal with one.
After three botched attempts to snorkel alongside them, we were a bit calmer and I could approach slowly, being more aware of its personal space. The shark’s tiny black eye evaluated me as I swam near it. After perhaps being assessed as unthreatening, it returned to its task of eating krill and plankton as I watched.
We continued swimming together for about five minutes. I marveled at the effortless way the leviathan twitched a fin ever so slightly to propel itself forward. I could have easily fit my hands through its mammoth gills. The shark’s skin looked like rich velvet, although it was probably closer to soft rubber. Since whale sharks are sensitive to the oils in our skin, I contented myself with imagination.
When it was time to go, I watched the shark’s long, elegant body glide into the distant dark below.
This was Valentine’s Day, 2012. Eventually, diving became a shared obsession for my girlfriend and I. We dove everywhere we could. Our logbooks — the equivalent of passports to the sea — hold stamps from dive masters in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Egypt, and Indonesia. We both have Open Water and Advanced certifications, and dream of getting the technical certifications needed for equipment that will allow us to do extra-deep dives, explore intricate cave systems, experience fresh and cold-water dives, and navigate complex shipwrecks.
Every diver seems to have a different reaction to the sea. Some, like my fiancée, are happy to float by, barely kicking a fin, taking in the whole scene for atmospheric effect. Some, like me, will maneuver around every crevice in order to not miss any turtles, octopuses, or good photos.
It’s a paradigm-shifting experience to dive. Often a taste of the underwater landscape is all that is needed to shatter illusions about the superiority of the human species, or our singular role as beings that experience this world. Even a cursory introduction to the liquid three-quarters of our planet’s surface reminds us of our smallness.
After you dive, how could you not find all life beautiful with this diversity? How could you not be moved to astate of humility?
I’d like to think the natural response to being up close with an entire world of life so complex and mysterious is reverence. In that space, you watch your oxygen, you shiver in the cold, you pee in your wetsuit, and you always double- check your equipment. You become intimately familiar with your mortality and your mind. If you are stressed out, you burn through oxygen faster and see it decrease in real time. So, you learn to pay attention to your breath, to your head space, and to your thinking.
You learn about other beings as well.
When I adjust my breath to hover closer to a scorpion fish, I know the distance I need to make sure I don’t startle it and get stung with its toxins. When I avoid a traffic jam of more than 20 turtles scrambling for a place to bed down in the middle of a strong tide, it is because I know that they have more mass than me.
When I admire a hammerhead shark, scoping a drop-off for dinner, I know I am probably safe because I taste bad. I am a trespasser in their space. The sea belongs to creatures that can eat you up and spit you out if you mess with them. I am a human among the gods.
Now, if I see a piece of trash, I’ll pocket it and dispose of it properly. I am indebted to these creatures for allowing me to be there. I see the seas as our ancestral roots, the home of breathtaking neighbors, and the original source of all life on Earth.
I am also afraid of what we are doing to them.
Within a lifetime, coral reefs may disappear, and the sea creatures that depend on them soon after. A recent study found that reefs were dying at a rate of 31 percent a year due to temperature increases.
I understand that many people don’t believe global climate change is real, or that we’ve hurt the oceans. But I have seen it. I have seen the loss of favorite dive sites, human trash more abundant than fish, and a literal field of toilet seats.
Though wild and alien to me, I’m drawn to the seas, and I protect them as my home.
Emeri Burks writes about issues related to the environment, culture, and social justice. Learn more at ebwords.wixsite.com/halfwayhome