Sunday, June 25, 2017
Last updated: 2 years ago
September 7, 2015, 1:20pm PDT

Travel: Thalassophobia in the Bahamas

By Samuel Chapman
Photo Samuel Chapman / The Ubyssey

Photo Samuel Chapman / The Ubyssey

Dolphins attacked our vessel on the third day, off the coast of Eleuthera. I called below deck to warn everyone, but they rushed to coo and take pictures. Dolphins make me uneasy. They aren’t afraid of people in the way well behaved fish and aquatic mammals are, and that fear is what makes the ocean safe. But dolphins lack that fear. I have refused to swim with dolphins many times. On this trip, however, I was disappointed that they did not remain with the boat, because the purpose of my expedition was to feel the terror of the ocean.

The difference between a vacation and an expedition is that you have to manufacture a goal to make it a legitimate expedition. I am never a tourist; I am always an adventurer. Usually, I will try to accomplish something simple: take a junk boat through Ha Long Bay, watch the barong dance in Ubud.

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My goal for this trip through Eleuthera and the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas was more ambitious. I wanted to understand the fear of the ocean that prevents my mother and many of my friends from diving. I am not brave. I’m afraid of spiders and sports mascots, but not the ocean. On this excursion I thought I might find that fear and then indulge in it, like some people do with horror movies or roller coasters.

The captain rang a bell and yelled a bit and the boat hands dropped the anchor. Our Captain’s name was Red—red as dirt, he was made of rust. He was a trawler and a tugboat; everything heavy that floats. He was like the guy from Jaws. Not Richard Dreyfuss, the other one.

“The blue hole of Nassau,” Red called.

Hope at last for my expedition. Fear of the deep would manifest, if anywhere, at the sudden drop of a Blue Hole.

Briefing, wetsuit, tank, jump, “clear!” and we landed in a field of sea-grass. I was eye to eye with a spotted ray, and she and I went off together. Two abreast, the sea grass gave lazy way until, catastrophically, the sand dropped and we shot out over an edge. The lip of the blue hole rolled out on either side, arcing into haze. My companion, the ray, tossed her skirt and barrelled off into the deep blue. Alone (no, my dive buddy was close behind), I traced the radius of the hole to a point of absolute blue where cold water boiled up from below. I gave myself to vertigo. I waited. But panic didn’t reach up and drag me down. The non-space of the Blue Hole was calming. The non-space of the Blue Hole was frustrating. I swam to the full conclusion of its diameter and we saw a nurse shark on the other bank, but I was fidgeting with my watch. I didn’t have the patience.

The sky bled out until we were above the sharks again. “We’ll drop you at the other side of the coral head,” Red told us. “Crustaceans leave the rocks at dusk.”

We were below again but somehow we missed the ritual. Swimming ahead of us, our lights fell on orange pinpoints. At night, the eyes of crustaceans reflect orange; fish reflect blue. These orange pinpoints belonged to glass shrimp sometimes: a blue suggestion on the coral. Other times a primordial tank would crawl into the light; armour made the sound of shifting rock. The ocean appears ancient at night. The dive ended by twos, as pairs surfaced and lights lifted and grew diffuse. My dive buddy shone his light on thumbs up: ascend. I drew a circle, okay. In poor form, however, I stayed, cupping my light in my palm.

Alone (truly, this time), I wanted a real view of the ocean at night, beyond the bright cone of a flashlight. The ghost-lights far above swung cold and made a dim chamber where I could see. I flew through a ballroom under a haunted chandelier. At the dim border of night I saw Finnegan, a one finned shark that had been named by the crew: he loomed prehistorically.

“You okay?” Red spoke and I realised I was wringing my towel. Just about broke its neck.

“Captain?”

“Yeah.”

“You afraid of the ocean?”

“Nah.”

“You should try it.”

He spat and started the engine. We hopscotched horizons all night until the sun rose on New Providence.