May 31, 2011
While I was immediately excited when I was told that I would have the opportunity to dive at Laughing Bird Caye while the other students snorkeled, I was also slightly hesitant. Though I’ve been trained by the best, having participated in last year’s Environmental Studies PWP program in Guam and Palau, I also haven’t ever dove with people I didn’t know. My teachers were USC faculty, and I’ve always jumped off the dock with a group of classmates that I’ve grown to know very well. But those fears soon dissipated when I started watching videos online of what I could expect. The Belize Barrier Reef is one of the largest, healthiest reef systems in the world, with 300 continuous kilometers of coral creating a truly breathtaking sight, visible from space. A huge variety of living things reside in this highly productive ecosystem, and when I suited up and jumped into the 80 degree water, I knew that I had made the right decision. Visibility was nearly perfect, and the light blue world stretched out for me to explore.
Hiking through the forests of Belize is an amazing experience, with so many wonders hiding under the canopy. But nothing can quite replicate the feeling of weightlessly floating through a healthy reef, with soft corals gently swaying in the current and fish going about their busy lives. A reef is a lot like a human city, with both grand vistas and fascinating details waiting to be observed. Great hulking brain corals stand out like monuments, while in the crevices of the underlying coral, tiny shrimp coexist with giant, 3-foot long spiny lobsters. They glared at me indignantly from their hiding places, as if reminding me that I was in a marine protected area, and I responded by playfully tweaking the tips of their antennae. Garden eels waved like blades of grass in the distance, withdrawing into their burrows as I approached. Lionfish fearlessly watched me approach, secure in the midst of their painful spines. Though they are an invasive species, it does not diminish their beauty. A large pufferfish gazed at me curiously with its humongous, expressive eyes. A school of snapper passed by my side and I admired the effortless way they glided through the water, feeling like a very clumsy landlubber in comparison. I had a brief hope that we would see a whale shark, which are known to follow snapper, feeding on their spawn, but that will have to remain an entry on my bucket list for the time being. All of the inhabitants of the ocean aren’t lined up, waiting to present their glory to every passing diver.
But that’s part of what makes diving a hobby which I want to maintain for life. Every time I cross the barrier between our world and the one under the sea, I feel the same rush of adrenaline as I begin my descent down to the bottom. Every dive holds new experiences, and it inspires a sense of humility in a land-evolved creature like myself. We humans are merely island-dwellers on a great blue ocean planet, and a lot of the environmental problems we have would disappear if we kept that fact in mind.