Yesterday Mary and I went snorkeling off the beach on Elbow Cay, near Hopetown, Abaco. We crossed up through the cholera cemetery to a hillside stairs that led down to one of those idyllic beaches you see in post cards, where the sand, finely ground coral, sparkles white and nearly pink and feels soft and pillowy under your feet. Palm trees and flowering bushes on the hillsides and turquoise and cerulean water.
We didn’t linger to admire, but immediately donned our gear and headed in to the sea, which was calmly lapping the shore, and headed out. Although the water seemed very clear from above, underwater it was hard to see farther than 15 feet in any direction. We swam about 40 feet off shore, crossing deserts of sugar sands before glimpsing what at first looked like dark, greenish masses that turned out to be greenish brown, low hills, or coral ridges. One small group of undersea islands stretched out into another one, and we followed them up and down the beach, first allowing the current to carry us east, and them swimming strenuously west. The farther out we swam, the more complicated and exotic the reefs became.
We swam through valleys and mountains of staghorn coral, elkhorn coral, yellow pencil coral, mustard hill coral, enormous white and pearl heads of brain coral, creeping mossy plates of disk and starlet coral, orange tube coral, rose coral, saucer cora, miniature cathedrals of pillar coral, ochre sea rods, corky sea fingers, purple sea fans, all of them living, breathing, growing beings. We swam with schools of all kinds of parrot fish, mostly the dark indigo fishes, but also stoplight parrotfish, and, most beautiful of all, queen parrotfish.
Mary and I explored for a good hour or two, losing track of time, following chains of coral up and down the beach. We swam side by side and, often, when something particularly beautiful or complicated caught our attention, allowed our bodies to swing back and forth with the current, moving in time with the fishes below.
Neither one of us felt tired, and we didn’t notice how much energy we expended as we kicked upstream, always onto the next reef, the next discovery. Neither did we note how rough the seas were getting, even though we popped our heads up every now and then to blow seawater out of our snorkels or to rave about what we were seeing. When we finally agreed to head back to shore we both found it strangely difficult to make any progress, especially as crossed back over the white ribbed sand near the beach. Both of us stopped to dive for shells that disappeared under clouds of sand that the undertow kicked up. We were having so much fun!
So we were quite exhausted, but still to exhilarated to notice, when we finally tried to get out of the waves. We must have spent twenty minutes at least floundering on the beach, which was quite steep. Neither one of us could figure out how to get our flippers off, and I stupidly lost my mask struggling against the waves that kept crashing over my head. Not stupidly, perhaps, but ignorantly. It was a rookie mistake. I shouldn’t have raised it above our eyes but kept it securely around my neck. I spotted my snorkel and lunged clumsily after it in vane, then took another watery pounding. Finally I resorted to rolling up the beach and clawing at the sand, but that, too, didn’t work. I felt like an idiotic mermaid, unable to leave or survive in the sea. I can’t remember how I finally managed to clamber up on my feet.
Mary’s eyes had swelled and reddened and my throat burned when we finally crawled out of the surf. Mary had also lost her mask, but kept her snorkel, so I didn’t feel quite as foolish. I felt bad for her, though, and we spent a lot of time peering into the shallows, hoping the masks would churn out of them. Nothing came up, of course. The sea took its payment from us.