My dream to fly came true many years ago. I interviewed with 14 airlines, but my heart was with one, Pan Am, and I know it gets no better than that.
Tonight, while passengers sleep somewhere between Greenland and London, 7 miles high, we stewardesses entertain ourselves swapping stories fireside style, except we’re in the coach galley with the curtains closed. Instead of pulling up logs, we pull out tray containers and sit down. Sometimes we’ve bogarted little blue blankets at the beginning of the flight to use now. The stories begin. Usually a senior stew shares a tale of boldness, breaking out as it were, from her 1950’s straight laced upbringing. While she’s at it, she throws in some travel and shopping tips, like when Harrod’s summer sales starts, an event not to be passed by. There are mundane notices like how to wrap a bottle of champange to pack in your overnight bag for a layover hotel crew party. There are exciting notices like where and when to meet for crew outings. As we galley talk our circle includes a wild fish tale, true, of course. Thus is the nature of midnight, mid-Atlantic entertainment in a atime before inflight movies.
Here’s my fish tale.
It’s mid 1980s, a lazy June day in Miami. These are the good old days when Miami is a quiet fishing village for the wealthy, northern industrialists. This is before Miami develops her world-class, tropical Riviera, South Beach. These are the days before partying jet setters and dubious celebs flaunt their booties and samba all night in the clubs stretching from 1st to 14th along Ocean Blvd.
My husband Austin is invited to go scuba diving with “the boys” out near Fowey Rock’s Lighthouse in Biscayne National Park, informally called Fowey Light. The lighthouse is interesting, akin to the Eiffel Tower, a skeletal, iron structure. The park is a marine expanse of aqua bays extending from Key Biscayne on the north to Key Largo on the south where it flows into John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. It encompasses the third longest coral reef in the world. It is paradise with water temperatures never dropping below sixty-three degrees, and the depths never dropping below 200 feet.
The plan is Sam, a client/friend of Austin’s for the last three years, is coming by after lunch with his boat, his long time, loyal friend and company officer, his teenage son and his son’s friend, to pick up Austin. The boys are aiming for anchoring off a buoy near Fowey Rocks, called Fowey Rocks Lighthouse for some good spear fishing. Here, lazy sea lions nap on the supports of the light while porpoise play games breaking water and crashing through again. Reef snapper are the prime catch here. It’s all about sun, water, sport, and relaxing.
It looks like I’m going to be a weekend widow, again. Half of me is jealous that the boys are going, and I’m not. The other half of me is glad to get hubby off my hands for a few hours. I’m feeling a little queasy. I missed my period. I may be pregnant. It’s too early to know. If I am, it will be our first. I say nothing of this to Austin. I want to be sure. Just to cover all my bases I ask Austin, “Is Ann going?” Ann is Sam’s wife. He answers, “No.” But he knows me well, and I see he takes my question for the hint it is. We only swim a mile every night together, snorkel, scuba, water ski, and sail. Of course I want to come along. He says nothing.
Sam and friends arrive with boat in tow. Austin asks Sam if there is room for one more. Sam looks at me, says, “Yes.” Smooth, Austin. I change into my bathing suit and cover up with shorts. I jump into the car with five guys. I don’t have time to feel odd being the only female.
We drop the boat into the water at the Matheson Hammock docks and ease out of the channel. As soon as we clear the last marker Sam shoves the throttle full speed. These guys are in a hurry to get on their spot near the lighthouse which means they have to pass through the cut at Soldiers Key on a high tide. The salty spray hits me in the face, hard. It’s like being blasted with a fire hose. Sam tells me to sit in the back. The back is not much better. The side spray from the boat inundates me. I have to gulp for air. I don’t complain. I’m one of the guys.
At Sam’s favorite buoy we throw the anchor over. While the guys don their gear, Sam informs me there are five air tanks. I sit out while the boys drop over the side into the watery paradise. Abandoned again, I stare at the gorgeous water trying to spot dolphins known to cavort around here. A few sluggish sea lions nap on the buoy, nothing else.
The boys have enough air for an hour, and I get bored with the sea lions. The water picks up a little chop, just enough to make me uncomfortable. The sun blasts down. I left in such a hurry, I forgot sun screen. Forty minutes pass with me getting direct and reflective sunlight. I’m sunburned, queasy, and need to pee badly. I have a stomach ache. I talk to myself. I sing to myself. A sea-lion lifts his big head and eyes me for a listless minute. I stop and he drops his head down. “I’m angry, too,” I tell Mr. Sea Lion. Five more minutes tick off in slow motion. I close my eyes. When I open them, the bright sun halos a many-tentacled silhouette. Either the boys returned, maybe I dozed off, or this is a sea apparition. I shade my eyes. It’s the boys. They are all happy and grab beers, offering me one. Yuk. I don’t need a beer. I need to pee.
Sam tells me there are still 15 minutes left in his tank; why don’t I take a turn. Austin concurs. Gee, thanks, guys. “No thank you,” I politely refuse. I see Austin’s face and know that look means take the hospitality offered from his friend/big client. I say, “You know, Sam, on second thought that sounds like a great idea.” I don flippers. I ask hubby if he wants to join me. He gives me his Texas, “Uhn-uh.” He can’t swim for another 15 minutes?
I’ll show the boys. I’ll turn 15 minutes of air into a half hour of diving. I’ll stay down until I run out of oxygen. I can surface on an empty tank from 30 feet, no problemo. Austin and Sam’s friend help me on with the tank, and I plop backwards overboard into the pure, soothing, aqua water. Funny thing, probably a primordial affect, the water always calms me. I immediately and greatly feel better. One, I relieve myself. Two, I don’t suffer the rocking motion of the boat. Now I change my strategy to just enjoy.
I’m down about 20 feet. In the first 10 minutes I spot funnel sponges, round sponges, parrot fish, snapper, and an eel. It’s so peaceful down here. I look for lobsters in the rock crannies, and scan the bottom for movement indicating manta rays. The rippled sandy bottom is rhythmic and calms me further. Meditative state arrives quicker than a two-syllable mantra. I head toward deeper water. The current is weak, so swimming is easy. I see something move out of the corner of my eye. My adrenalin shoots into overdrive. I scan 360º. Nothing. Perhaps a quick-moving cumulus cast a dark shadow over the water.
I resume swimming and sight-seeing. Sightseeing, I chase a school of parrot fish. In their rainbow skins, they are either a thing of beauty or a gaggle of clowns. Either way, they are bad eating. No one catches them. There’s another cumulus shadow, I think, a vision like when a wisp of hair blows into your peripheral vision. Water can bend light rays and distort size and shape. I look around again. If it’s a vision, it’s 3-D. About 40 yards southeast of my position and moving southwest is a black behemoth. I do not believe this.
I know nothing about whales. I didn’t know they came to Florida. I know about sharks. If a shark is passing, remain still. The shark just wants to get from point A to point B. I try my shark survival strategy on the whale. I tread minimally. I’ve done some crazy animal things in my life and never thought for my safety. When I was seven, my friends dared me to touch the bull grazing in the pasture. I climbed through the fence and crept toward the bull. I thought I could get about a quarter of the way to the bull and still outrun him back to the fence and safety if I had to and still win the dare. Then there was the camel in Israel-yes, I rode a camel on a dare. I almost fell off as he was heaving his weight up off his knees. The whale is slow and graceful. She’s like a train, just keeps coming, and I’m waiting for the end.
My heart pounds like a pow wow drum announcing war. I think she’s drawn to the sound of my heartbeat. I’m scared. I need to get out of here. I swim as fast as I can, away, away from my whale, huh, my whale, like my puppy, dogging me. I have many medals from my swim team days, medals I won for beating women my size, my age. I realize I can’t out swim this gigantic whale in her ocean. I keep swimming in the opposite direction of her course. I go up toward the surface and east toward the boat while glancing around and behind.
She’s back and swimming toward me. I freeze. Although she doesn’t look fierce, what do I know of fierce? I’m thinking she’s coming from out at sea, a sea monster, toward me. What to do, what to do. I’m thinking about the depth below me, maybe 15 feet? I wonder if she can squeeze through the shallows. I keep swimming to shallower water hoping she’ll get stuck. This can’t be happening. I don’t want to hurt animals. I don’t want animals to eat me.
I look around. She’s slow, smooth, face on, ten feet away and steady on her course. I suck in a gulp of tank air, maybe my last. I hope she doesn’t suck in a gulp–of me. I look her in the eye. I’m thinking her eye is as big as me. She’s 5 feet away. She makes a left turn, smooth, like the curve of a scoop of chocolate ice cream. She’s back on her southwesterly course. I swim for the boat. This time, I don’t look and I don’t stop until I’m at the boat.
I break water screaming, “Get me out. There’s a whale!” Sam’s son and his friend yank me out of the water with such force that I clear the edge by a foot. I am freckled, sunburned, wet with wild hair, and shaking. The guys stare at me disbelieving. Beyond the boat, the water is fairly calm, no churning, no sea monsters, just sea lions napping comfortably to the bob and sway of the buoy, like children tucked safely in their cradle.
The guys give my husband sympathy glances. There are whole conversations in those glances. Finally, Sam tellsAustinhesitantly, “Well, I’ve always known your wife to be level headed.” Austin asks me, “What color is the whale?” I look at my husband like, you too, and answer, “Black.” Sam says it’s too shallow for whales. I tell him I know. He offers me another 15 minute tank. I tell him no thanks.
Guys…tell so many fish stories, they think they’ve heard another one-one told by, a woman, a hell hath no furry woman, even worse, a novice storyteller. Where’s the struggle? Where’s the fight? Where’s the danger? I fume. This is real.
I am scared. No way I’m going back in the water. What does fear look like to five big fat lying guys, with beers?
On our return, I endure the boys’ harsh scrutiny, even more pitiful than the misery of hard hitting, stinging, saltwater spray, like on the trip over, only worse. I have chills from the sunburn. The boys explain me away as crazy from dehydration.
TWO DAYS LATER
I’m cooking dinner. Sam calls and asks if we have the news on. He tells Austin a reporter is standing on a beach due north of our anchorage at Fowey Light. Next to him is a sixty-foot, black right whale. She beached herself to die. I have no satisfaction in being right. I looked into the eye of a whale and survived. I wonder if now is a good time to tell Austin he’s going to be a daddy.
By my calculations, the baby will be a Pisces.