The little boat pitched and tossed like a wild horse on its anchor line under a purple and black sky in front of a remote marshy island in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The idea had been to spend some time alone on the island, but the sea was too rough to even think about wading ashore. My analytical thinking mind urgently pointed out that I was there with a broken rusty anchor, no bail cup, and no fresh water. I hadn’t checked the tide or weather radar before leaving. I hadn’t even told anybody that I was going. I broke every safety rule in the book
Marine biologists and writers, my husband and I run Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, a tiny nonprofit aquarium and write books about the ocean. A precarious life, it is dependent upon the unforgiving sea for survival, both financially and sometimes literally. Years before, I began spending time alone in the forest and along the shore in order to better handle the mental challenges of each day, and it had eventually become a major focus of this intense and always uncertain way of life.
Solo meditation at sea, even close to shore, has an edge to it that is not part of sitting in a building. It means being totally in this moment and alert to what is needed. There is no room for the mental cobwebs of restlessness and dissatisfaction. The weather worsened until I barely had the strength and energy to pull the anchor against a stiff wind and chop, but as I got underway and was running back to port, I felt alive and strong.
The next day I went back to sea with a much better prepared collecting crew from our aquarium to dive for sponges and sea whips further offshore. The storm had passed and the sea was silken flat and pastel baby blue. There was no horizon as the sea blended with the sky in the far distance. A limestone outcrop on the sea floor was covered with yellow soft corals and bright orange sponges. Silversides, spots, grunts, hogfish, and a school of 5 huge tarpon kept a discrete distance while a 5 foot spotted eagle ray swam over the rocks, its tubular mouth vacuuming the rock and its two wing tips pointed straight up. A school of silvery look downs passed by, undulating back and forth in sinuous movements. Lying quietly amidst the rubble two brown nurse sharks tried to hide.
Amidst them a young green turtle cruised along. Maybe fourteen inches long, the sunrise pattern of yellow and brown streaks on the shell was perfect camouflage against the bottom of rock, sponge, coral and sand patches. It half swam, half crawled over the rocks, head down, tearing algae off the bottom. Its effortless soaring flight, banking and tilting with slow relaxed strokes was a total contrast to the heavy crawl of nesting females on the beach. Who would have thought they were such free and graceful creatures, flying underwater, rising vertically to the surface to breathe? I followed it for a while, my awkward flippers thrusting, pounding, swimming as best I could, but the turtle winged its way off the reef, out over the white sand bottom, put on a burst of speed and left me behind.
After working offshore for a few hours, we moved to an inshore sea grass meadow. It was full of tiny emerald green snails that none of us had ever seen before. Comb jellyfish flashed red, yellow and green in the afternoon sun on a falling tide. A spider crab sat motionless with her eyestalks rotated back in her head. Was she asleep? Do crabs sleep? I touched her, she swiveled her eyes up to have a look and scrambled away.
It was awesomely beautiful and the joy of simply being alive and present grew and grew to a thunderous level. Suddenly my consciousness shifted into a physical experience of no independent self apart from the ocean. Human bones and muscles moving through the water were simply and totally as much a part of that ecosystem and that place and moment as were the fish and the sea grass. Any sense of human or personal distinctiveness disappeared. The human was just part of the fauna in that moment. It wasn’t an idea, it was physical reality and the entire universe was there, totally complete and alive. Arising out of joy and gratitude, the awareness began to open into something transcendent. It absolutely needed silence and solitude to continue to unfold but the other divers were waving me back to the boat. As soon as there was the sound of words and voices, the unfolding stopped and I was again a separate human being swimming in the ocean.