I sat on craggy Maine rocks, washed in sea mist and seaweed smells. It was lovely to be at the shore, though it wasn’t my shore, nor familiar sea smells. I am a child of another ocean, of soft sandy beaches, rolling surf lines and Dolphins leaping through waves. Romantic as this rugged Atlantic sea is, I yearned for what I had grown up with, the wet-remembrances of a tiny Pacific island peninsula.
Memories rose of the very wet summer of my 16th year, when I was part of the diving team, the swim team, body-surfed the big ones, and applied for the job of Sea Maid at Sea World.
“Can you dive?”
“Great. We just lost a girl, you’re in. We need you dressed in half an hour. Pick up a full tank, and shortie wet suit at supply. Let your hair hang free, and meet me above the California aquarium-theater. Do you know your fish?”
I’m nodding ‘yes,’ as I slowly realize I’m not diving from a tower, but with a tank, and I really have no idea about fish other than grunion, jelly fish and the non-fish, lobster. But water is water and I know water. How hard can it be? I suit up and find the California tank.
“Here you go. Sit on the ledge, wait for your cue, drop into the tank, swim back and forth, wave to the people, point out each fish as the sound track calls its name. Good luck.”
I’m perched, ready in my short pink wet suit. A giant manta ray floats onto my lap. I stop breathing. No one told me the stinger had been removed, or that the ray loved to nestle on the girl’s laps as they waited. I may have been blond, but that can make you resilient. When the tape began, I dropped down, but all I heard was the extreme fear-filled consummation of oxygen through my hose. I point ~in every general direction, hoping any fish will swim within view of the audience outside the tank. ‘Look, see the happy Sea Maid at home with her fish family: eels, groupers, small sharks, sculpin, and barracuda.
The work day was one watery cycle after the other, jumping from tank to tank; 15 California cold minutes, relieved by 15 balmy tropical minutes where we pointed out Angelfish, Tangs, Basslets, Clownfish and Lionfish. Within a short week, the high point of a day was the dry 45 minutes for lunch. Long enough to eat, change out the tanks, dry ears, and flirt with the penguin trainer.
That Sea World summer is the origin of my lifelong ‘dive dive history.’ The stories stem from being too shy to ask, too dumb to recognize danger, too naïve to stand against elders, therefore leaping, or diving before reconnaissance and thought. This can be disastrous. But sometimes it lands you in heaven.
Because that summer’s leap got me as close to heaven as I’d known, I became a ‘dive-dive diva.’ Sea World certified me as a diver, then graduated me from display aquariums to the enormous, octagonal theatre where all day long four Sea Maids swam underwater ballets with four dancing Dolphins; Homer, Dolly, Minerva and Sandy. If you wish a taste of heaven, find a way to spend your days, wet, wild with wonder, weightlessly dancing to beautiful music, partnered by the most magical of beings. Let them nuzzle up against your skin, like rubbing an inner tube that squeaks in delight. If you’re lucky, they’ll tease and play ‘toss the Sea Maid’.
Despite the sadness of being captive, my lovely friends seemed full of joy, wanting to share and learn, to connect and be loved-up. Sometimes when I’m hesitant to take the next risk, I conjure my dolphin memories, and say, “Dive down on the off chance you land in heaven.”