Sometimes we are forced to sit on the edge of darkness. In these moments, we will either be taken, or will emerge from the dark, containing more light.
I am looking into the darkness, a darkness that steals hope and leaves a soul bare and alone. The earth is 2000 feet below me. Rising out of the depths, I see them, the flickers of light, from some unseen source, finding their way to me. The beams of light, like shooting stars, brighten, accelerate, and slice away from me at the last moment, heading to the surface behind me. From the murky depths comes light, but how I wonder, what is the source. Is it simply an illusion?!
I have been floating, face down, for over an hour now. I am miles from shore, drifting in the currents, focused on survival. Death seems possible, but I must focus on not making mistakes to hasten it. I have traveled thousands of miles to get here, but all I want is to go home. I am in the Celebes Sea, off of an Island called Sipadan. This sleepy island rests quietly under the tropical skies of Indonesia.
Lying 20 miles off the south eastern edge of Borneo, Sipadan Island rises 2000 feet from the ocean floor. It is as if a cork has been pushed up from the earth, rising up through 2000 feet of ocean, breaking through the liquid abyss. This offering from the sea, is a paradise, a small island. So small, that you can leisurely wander the circumference of the island, a gentle beach walk, in less than 30 minutes. Sipadan is one of the best dive sites in the world. The beaches are pristine, hiding the rich marine habitat that lies just below the surface of the water. These deep blue waters are teeming with life. Commonly seen are green and hawksbill turtles. They come to mate and nest on the island. Massive schools of barracuda, which form enormous, spinning tornado-like formations, lie just off the shores. Manta rays gracefully flutter by, as schools of hammerhead sharks feed on the abundance of fish below. Dolphins and whales round out the dense oceanic ecosystem.
Since I’ve been on the island, I’ve been scuba diving and snorkeling. Today I decide to snorkel the outer reefs a mile off the island. Safety in this part of the world, is extremely lax. In Sipadan, in the middle of nowhere, there are no rules. I’ve been allowed to surface alone, without a partner, and I’ve been deeper than I’m certified to go. But today, as I’m standing on the back of the boat, I realize that for the first time since I’ve been here, there are not even any life jackets or floatation devices. Still, I swallow my fears, jump into the water and begin to swim face down. But when I hear the boat engine roar to life, I pop my head out of the water. The driver is leaving. I try to yell to him, but my voice is lost in the din of the waves and the engine.
“Relax,” I tell myself, “he’ll come back any minute.”
Instead, I see him disappear into the distance.
I tread water for about a minute and try to analyze my situation.
Accidents don’t just happen. They typically are cumulative mistakes that eventually get you killed. I’ve heard that most times, you can find at least five mistakes that lead up to disaster. I kick hard against the current and start counting my mistakes. When I realize there are far more than five, reality sets in. Number 1: I have sinus infection, so I’m not breathing up to par. Number 2: I’m alone, and everyone knows you should not be deep in the ocean alone. Number 3: I have no flotation device on. Number 4: English was the dive masters second language, so our communication was unclear. Number 5: I’m not familiar with the local current or the location of the reef surrounding the island. Number 6: I’m only wearing shorts, when I should’ve worn a wet suit. Number 7: I don’t know the weather forecast. I could go on, but you get the point. I am a disaster waiting to happen.
Unbeknownst to me, the boat has gone back to the island for some unknown reason, and a second boat has gone to pick up the divers. However, the first driver has not told the 2nd driver about me snorkeling. I have been forgotten at sea.
Putting my mask and mouth piece back on, I note the time on my watch. and begin to swim against the current, in order to not be swept out away from the safety of the reef. I kick hard towards the island, yet I am still being dragged out to sea. I pause, and look up at the sky, and finally realize, a storm is moving in. I immediately tread harder, fighting the current. Panic creeps in. I check my watch, only 15 minutes have gone by. The sky darkens. The swell intensifies. I have no choice but to surrender to the waves. One moment I see the island, the next nothing but ocean. I float face down, saving my energy, hoping to survive, but even that’s a struggle. Each minute feels like an hour, as the ocean overwhelms all of my senses. Water is shooting through my snorkel. With all my strength I try to swim to the island, but my efforts are futile. Without godlike strength, the ocean simply frolics with me. I begin to realize I will die. My strength is fading, yet the storm shows no sign of weakening.
As fatigue sets in, my mind flashes back to a conversation I had with the dive master just a few days ago. His words pierce through the chaos like he is floating right next to me: “The water off the island go from few feet deep to 2000. Just like you step off cliff. You drown, we don’t even look for the body.” As I look down into this abyss, now a watery grave, I conclude that I am totally fucked unless I get help.
I am a prisoner of the ocean. I am helpless and running out of time. If I lose a fin or breath in some water by mistake, I will only have moments. If I manage to stay afloat, perhaps I’ll manage to eke out a few hours. But either way, I will die. As I try and make peace with my impending demise, my mind grasps for a life preserver. Instead of clinging to my various successes and accomplishments, I cling to my relationships. The wonderful individuals that I’ve shared my life with. I go back in time putting each relationship to the test: Was I kind enough? Could I have loved more? Did I offer enough compassion? The ocean has me in its death grip, but my heart clings to all those I have loved.
I am not prone to praying. But when you are floating in the middle of the sea, you start making deals with anyone that you think will listen. I promise to never take stupid risks again. I promise to live a better life, I promise to love more. I pray for a break, hoping a compassionate God that I have barely investigated will intervene. As darkness envelopes me, I pray peacefully, angrily, and all that lies in-between. With the prayers, comes a conclusion, I gave and received enough love, the ocean can pound my body, but it can not take away this love. As I gaze into this brilliant meteor shower rising from up from my watery grave, I receive my absolution, and realize my essence will carry on.
The wisdom to recognize the fragility of life is often received in the most uncomfortable ways.
I don’t hear the engine of the boat until it is nearly upon me. I weakly lift my head and the driver calls out to me. From a dream like state I awaken. Is this real, or is it a desert mirage in the middle of the ocean? The boat is close, but I can barely swim towards it. My strength is gone. Hands reach down to pull me from the sea. I go limp and they have to drag me up, scraping my body against the ladder. As I lie on the floor of the boat, bruised and battered, it hits me that I’ve been rescued.
The boat heads to shore, slicing through the storm. I roll to my side and weakly whisper to the dive master, “What happened? Why did they leave me?”
He has no explanation.
Back at the island, I nearly kiss the beach upon arrival, and then make my way to dinner. I went from dead to dinner in a two-mile boat ride.