Every one of my breaths for the last 56-plus years has been above water. Until today.
I'm standing on the edge of a dive boat out of Beaches Turks and Caicos, fully laden in cumbersome diving gear - mask, regulator, a buoyancy vest I can inflate and deflate as needed, weight belt, fins. The lessons from a three-hour introductory pool lesson from our instructor, Serbian native and expert diver Dejan Keoves (he goes by Dan, way easier), swim in my mind as I ready to breathe for the first time ever outside my human realm.
"Take a big step," the dive master says.
I do, plunging fins first into a world I've only seen on TV or been teased by on countless snorkeling trips.
And bang, it's there, one of the world's most beautiful coral reefs (Diving Magazine ranks Turks and Caicos one of the top five dive spots on the planet), incredible aquatic life of all colors and sizes. I see occasional sharp-looking teeth (I remind myself I'm atop the food chain, though I doubt it matters down here), and the most crystal-clear water I've ever seen. The best, most assuring part: big, fat, silvery mushrooms of air cascading slowly out of my regulator, giving me bubbly comfort.
I am breathing. Under water. For the first time. And absolutely loving it.
We gurgle down, slowly, about 35 feet, and my first reaction (other than "Great! I'm breathing!") is the feeling of immediate respect for the world I'm privileged to invade. These creatures down here, it's their world, not mine. I'm a guest in their aquatic house and feel humbled by it.
The lessons from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors-certified teachers at Beaches pay off as we cruise easily about the reef, coming face to fins with some extraordinary wildlife: rainbow fish, zebra fish, the occasional manta ray, fish swimming alone in search of food, fish in giant, shimmering schools moving as one fluid unit. We see sergeant majors, blue chromis, parrotfish, and to me, the most beautiful, the black durgeon, an elegant, silky black fish with a delicate purple piping at the dorsal and anal fins. Others in our party see a huge lobster and even a shark, the non-man-eating kind, thank you very much.
The reef itself where they live and thrive is extraordinary, a giant, living hump at the bottom of the sea, home of beautifully sculpted brain coral, gently undulating fan coral, spiky finger coral. I go deeper, Dan keeping an eye on us newbies, checking our air gauges from time to time.
Too soon, a scant 30 minutes or so, it's time to go back to land breathing and we head to the rope for the long, slow pull up. But at the bottom, I take a moment to laze on my back, watching great gales of silvery bubbles blossom toward the surface in a sensual bouquet, the comforting cadence of my own underwater breathing giving me the most serene feeling I think I have ever felt.
The dive program at Beaches is pretty good, for an all-inclusive resort; most toss in an introductory dive lesson and that's that. If you're certified and you want to dive, you pay. Here, the intro course is $70, but then you get two ocean dives. If you are already certified, Beaches gives you two dives a day as part of your package. For divers, that's a big draw.
In addition, this Beaches has expanded programming for the disabled, and is the first in the Beaches chain to receive Scuba Association certification training. The crew here is especially proud to take out disabled divers, including military veterans of war. A more noble dive I cannot imagine.
But my dives are done, and I head back to my room to have a cold, local Turk's Head beer on my balcony. Back home, I must get certified, because now that I can breathe underwater, I can't wait to do it again.
For more information on the diving program at Beaches Turks and Caicos, visit www.beaches.com.