When my dive group arrived at Ventura Harbor, ambling down the ramp to the docked boat, we noticed this slumbering, adorable, blubberous sea lion stretched out on the edge of the dock, his eyes glittering in the dark.
We headed out in the morning, the ocean impossibly blue, but so rough I spent most of the ride out in the bunk down below deck, escaping the rollicking Pacific by reading an old copy of the Atlantic Monthly which luckily for me had both an article on Sylvia Plath and one on The Beatles. I tried earnestly not to throw up and succeeded. When I did return to the deck, I learned I’d missed a pod of dolphins frolicking near the boat, but sea birds were flying close, reminding me of a trip to Channel Islands many years before, with my friend Dan and his father Richard. An expert birder, Richard had switched his obsession to butterflies and had come to the Islands to try and spot one. As Tim O’Brien once said, “odd fragments stick to memory” and I recall that Richard told me there was technically no such thing as a seagull.
Dan and I lost our fathers months apart last year. Before I’d come to the dive boat, I’d had a difficult afternoon. As a writer, your material is your own life and every word I wrote, summoned my father and confirm his absence. But I tried to exert some control on the flood of memories as I stepped on the dive boat. I didn’t want to be distracted by some melancholy image of a birch tree or a pasture and end up dead, tangled in a kelp forest.
Jumping in the water, orienting myself in the swells felt a bit scary, but fun. Unfortunately, a couple of students suffered equipment failures. Tempers flared. Lessons delayed, we returned to the boat. Eventually, we managed to catch up on our tasks, one of which was to follow a stern line, hand over hand, down through the absolutely green murky depths. The water felt freezing, as if it was leaking into my wetsuit. The ocean was swirling, sightless and endless punctuated by a few fish and waving kelp. I concentrated on breathing. I didn’t feel scared so much as cold and extremely aware that I really had very little idea what I was doing but following the teacher and trying to decipher his directions in the poor visibility. We made it to the bottom, practiced mask flooding and clearing and things like that. Swam around. Then we made our way back up the stern line, slowly trying to remember to equalize, deflate not inflate. Returning to the ship, with its constant flow of warm food and desserts and a little hot tub full of hot water to pour down one’s clammy, freezing wet suit, felt lovely.
When I told my sister I missed our family farm and the horses, she said maybe diving would be my way to connect to nature again. I remember the high I felt after snorkeling in La Jolla. Certainly, that feeling will come again under different conditions. But looking at all the creatures on the rocks today, I had no desire to pick them up. I felt clumsy, an invader.
The truth is, I don’t really care about being a good diver as I do overcoming my fear of being in the ocean and getting attacked by a shark. It’s a miracle I’ve done this much, since I’m not exactly overflowing with that earnest “live life to the fullest” verve that so animates the young and athletic.
When we returned to Ventura Harbor, I spotted the sea lion hauled out in the same place at the end of the dock.
His laziness and loneliness reminded me of myself.