Sink or swim… or float

By Mir
July 20, 2005

The thing about some of your more nerdy areas of study is that SOMEONE realized, somewhere along the way, that there would perhaps have to be a greater draw for folks than, say, the joys of higher-order calculus or what have you. Sure, some folks would be drawn to these professions no matter what. But for others, there would have to be some bennies.

Which is why the very geekiest scientists have technical conferences in Hawaii. Woo!

So, once upon a time I was married to a science geek, and he was sent to Maui to present a paper at a conference. His trip was paid for, and all we had to do was pony up for a single plane ticket. And then we were off; headed for paradise.

We had agreed beforehand that our entertainment needs would be simple. Neither of us had ever been to Hawaii, but we had heard over and over that the snorkeling was incredible. The luxury hotel was on someone else’s tab, as well as right on the beach. We would rent gear and become merfolk. It would be idyllic.

Yeah, I think my husband had some sessions to go to, or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t too worried about that. My goal was to marinate in the Pacific until I was nothing but a shrivelled prune with a ponytail.

Our flight from California to Maui put us down shortly after lunchtime. We checked into the hotel and headed out to pick up our snorkel gear. The beach was crowded, but the throngs of people barely registered with me. What I saw was the clean, fine sand… the teal-blue water… and the lapping waves. That morning, I’d boarded a plane in the chilly drizzle. Now in the bright sunshine on the endless beach, morning seemed a million miles away.

We donned our flippers and masks and plunged into the warm water. Ahhhhhhhh. We were giddy. It was winter, and we were paddling around with tropical fish. I remember thinking that if we did nothing else that week, I could happily do THIS until we left. I skimmed along the surface of the water, propelled by gentle flipper-kicks and listening only to my breath whistle in and out of my snorkel tube. I lost all sense of time.

A friend of my husband’s who had arrived the previous day was further out and had spotted us. He swam over to explain that we were near the edge of a reef with all sorts of marine life to observe. We followed behind him as he led us far enough from the beach that the people dwindled to confetti dotting the shoreline.

As the guys gestured that they intended to hook around the coral outcropping, even further out, I realized I was tiring. We’d gotten up early; although it was midday in Hawaii, my internal clock thought it was later; and the general excitement of the day had just plain worn me out. “Go on ahead,” I told my husband. “I’m gonna head back in.”

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, fine, just getting tired. I’ll see you back on the beach. Have fun.” They waved and headed off, and I turned back towards shore.

Huh. I was pretty far out. Oh well.

The coral was close enough to the surface where we’d ventured that it couldn’t be swum over; the only choice was to go around it, again, before heading in. I started working my way around, but the current was different around the reef. It seemed to have a pull of its own, with all waves pushing towards the coral. My flippers kept colliding with the edge of the coral, no matter how hard I tried to move away from it.

Alright. I pushed off from the coral (gently, hoping I wasn’t squashing any rare anemones or anything), put my head down, and focused on swimming. I swam, and swam, and swam, until my legs felt heavy and my chest was tight. I lifted my head from the water and checked my position.

Just as I was starting to wonder if the shore was EVER going to get any closer, my flipper brushed against the coral. Again.

So I panicked. For a moment I thought about how idiotic it would be if I’d just flown all this way to consummate my love affair with the Pacific Ocean… and managed to drown within hours of disembarking. If I was dead, would that somehow make it less embarrassing?

I pushed off from the coral again, this time with my heart pounding. Okay. No problem. I could swim until I was too tired, and then I could just float for a while. And then swim some more, after resting. No worries. Slow and steady. Focus on breathing normally.

I couldn’t resist periodically sneaking a glance shoreward. It still seemed very far away. My panic would rise and I would drop my face back into the water and focus on moving air between my lungs and the top of the snorkel tube while tracking various small fish that darted by. I did not come to Maui to drown, I repeated to myself. I’m just enjoying floating here, and in a little while I’m going to swim in. Right now, I’m relaxing. Yep. Very relaxed.

I don’t know how much time had passed. I was floating, reminding myself once more that I would not drown, when I felt a hand on my arm. My husband had come back to check on me. He ended up swimming with me until I’d cleared the coral and was halfway back to the beach.

The rest of the way back was easy, but I still stopped and floated a couple of more times. To rest, yes, but also because now that the end was in sight, I could actually experience the sensation. I watched the fish swim by, and sometimes I joined them, and sometimes I just stayed suspended above them, watching.

It was a relief to sit down on the beach and peel off the wet flippers and my foggy mask. I stretched out in the sun and waited for the men to return. Resting on my towel, the sharp edges of my fear melted away as I dozed. I’d overreacted, because I was tired. I’d never really been in danger. And anyway, it was over now.

I don’t remember many details from that trip… but I have never forgotten floating by the coral, silently willing it not to pull me in again, while I tried to remember how to breathe.


  1. justdawn

    Thank you for sharing that…
    Right now I am just “trying to remember how to breathe”….

  2. Sharkey

    They don’t call it the “survival float” for nothin’. Sounds like you’ve been doing lots of floating this week. I hope things will be looking up for you soon!

  3. Mike

    Can’t beat the wisdom of Finding Nemo here…”just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” *Californiahugs*

  4. Jenny

    Thinking of you, Mir. Damn endangered coral reefs.

  5. Nic

    Wishing you gentle tides and warm breezes Mir, just paddle and don’t panic- you’ll make it. I’m pulling for you.

  6. Peek


  7. ben

    Maybe it’s time to have a little guacamole, to round out your paradise experience…

    {{{{{{{{{{{big bear hugs}}}}}}}}}}}}}

  8. Leanne

    I have heard that coral can really cause a lot of damage, scratches, gashes & blood, oh my!

    Through your whole story I admittedly expected you to talk about injuries sustained. Not one single scratch mentioned. That’s something to hold onto, I’d say!

    I agree with Dory. Just Keep Swimming!

  9. Melanie Lynne Hauser

    Great story, although it plays into my huge fear of the water – or more specifically, the Things that Live in the Water.

  10. Cindy

    Don’t forget to stop and “float” every chance you get. While floating, look around (squint really hard) and you’ll see there’s really no need to panic…you’re in paradise. :-)

  11. Kym

    When you feel adrift, it’s nice to have someone help you find your way back to shore.

  12. Shiz

    Very well written. You could beat those Chicken Soup for the Soul people easily!

    Keep floating. I’m behind ya.

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