My body floats on the surface, buoyant and still. Flippers stir the sea behind me, and I glide over the haphazard world below. It’s my first time snorkeling in Samoa. The coral here still shows the after-effects from the cyclone which roared through 2 weeks prior. Closer to shore, everything is dead or dying, the seawater diluted by oily river-water. Here, the patches of reef are more or less unscathed, save for the snared bits of debris shifting languorously to unseen currents.
Sea slugs carpet the sand below me like so many chunks of poo — there must be hundreds, if not thousands. A school of neon blue fusilier flits about the reef, darting into safe nooks and crevices as my passage overhead blocks out the sun. A shy parrotfish mark my presence while ahead, a Moorish idol streaks away like a bolt of scaled lightning.
All loose things seem to drift down to the sea, and so did I.” – Louis L’Amour
Gradually, the seafloor drops away as the island drifts further towards the horizon. I’m half a mile out now, or perhaps less. Distance is a funny thing on the waves, where ripples of sand can seem inches away while the coconut bobbing just ahead seems a mile distant.
A menacing front of clouds roll out of the highlands towards the coast, a black flood. The green of the jungle disappears behind a shimmering veil of rain as the storm draws Savai’i unto itself.
You should turn back.
No, just a little bit more…
Mask adjusted, I put my face beneath the waves and strike out for the surf break, now closer, but still distant. A heinous blob of a fish sees me coming, and wedges itself beneath a blue-thorned growth of coral. I hover for a moment then dive, meeting the thing’s gaze before leaving it and its cave behind.
The water is changing. The warm blue-green shallows have disappeared, and I find myself swimming through cool water as richly hued as the blue seas smashing the southern cliffs near Alofa’aga. The coral is sparse, and the sand of the seafloor extends to the shadows…
I freeze, the proverbial deer in the headlights as my mind gauges the size of the shadow-shape just visible ahead. Too big for a turtle. Bigger than anything I’ve seen here.
My heart has found a rhythm again, a thundering mosso which beats furiously at the walls of my chest. I move closer, drawn to the grace of the shadow-creature’s movements, the surreal ease with which it’s flying…
The puzzle pieces click into place and elation stamps out terror. Not a shark, an eagle ray!So close now… we glide together, as if attached by an invisible string. It must be almost 2 meters from wingtip to tip, and has a long, whip-cord of a tail trailing the water behind it. Its mouth seems to be frozen mid-grin; its head looks for all the world like that of a snub-nosed shark gone toothless with age.
The ray speeds up, turns, hovers, comes closer ever so tentatively.
The reaction is instinctive, fight or flight, and I curl into a ball and bring my flippers into a defensive position. The movement shatters the timorous spell and, with a flick of its wings, the ray shoots out of sight.
Heart soaring, I turn and set my course for the distant shore. My flippers churn the sea, and my paddle-formed hands plunge into the water as fast as I can manage. Lungs fill to bursting, and I feel vitality flaring in me like a supernova. The waves are butter, and I cut through them like a knife — it almost feels like I’m flying.
I look down and see schools of fish fleeing for cover as I pass overhead. A mad laugh works its way around my mouthpiece and I smile.
Maybe I am…
Ever been snorkeling or diving? What’s one of your favorite wildlife encounters under the waves? Share in the comments below!
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