Beyond the Reef

Brittany Rohm

Copyright 2018 by Brittany Rohm


Honorable Mention--2018 Animal Nonfiction

When I set out to snorkel around a reef in the South Pacific, I expected only to see some colorful fish--not what I ended up viewing.  

Warm water licked my bare feet as I waded into the South Pacific. Sand the color of lightly toasted sugar tickled my toes. Behind me, towering palms swayed in the sea-salt breeze, guarding the tiny island of Lifou. Through the narrow strip of jungle, in the protected bay on the opposite side, swimmers bunched together, thrashing rubber fins and scaring away the marine life. But over here, where the sea extended to the horizon, I was alone.

I took a final breath through my nose. The briny aroma reminded me of my childhood on the Alaskan coast, and I savored it. Then I secured my mask, bit down on the snorkel, and cinched the camera strap around my wrist.

Stomach-down, I stretched my arms overhead. The gentle current pulled me away from the shore and over the reef below. Countless branches of staghorn coral crisscrossed like a pile of pick-up sticks. Mustard-yellow brain coral ballooned out, and minuscule fish swam through the polyp labyrinths. Peach-colored tendrils of anemones swayed back and forth, as if dancing to a slow song.

Sometimes, inclement weather whipped the Coral Sea into a frothing frenzy, but at that moment, the liquid mass personified a Buddhist monk. I yielded to the ebb and flow, trusting the soothing motion to take me where I wanted to go. Over spindly black urchins, sea stars with more legs than a spider, algae of maroon and indigo, I drifted without a care. Time slipped away unnoticed.

Suddenly, as if it had been severed by the bite of Leviathan, the reef ended. The vast ocean spilled out before me. The undulation stopped, suspending my body in the directionless space.

Rays of sunlight pierced the now-sapphire water, touching on one organism after another, casting everything in movie-star light. Along the reef wall, striped sergeant fish commanded their troops forward. Parrot fish darted by, flashing their rainbow-colored bodies. Damsels sailed past, showing no signs of distress. Painted sweetlips, graphic tuskfish, golden sweepers. Small schools, big schools, bustling university campuses.

Hypnotized by the brilliant menagerie, I almost forgot about the camera. A titan triggerfish zoomed my way, and I snapped a shot. Two butterfly fish flitted past, and I pressed the shutter release button without even taking aim. Remora, fusilier, flutemouth. Dashing, propelling, rushing. My finger became possessed. I clicked in rapid succession, as if this incredible realm wouldn’t exist unless I had photographic evidence.

But when a black-spotted puffer fish caught my eye about fifteen feet away, I let it be. If frightened, the animal could inflate to twice its size and expose poisonous spikes. Besides, I intended only to capture fascinating critters on film, not terrorize them.

And then a shadow moved near the base of the reef.

No, not a shadow, a shark.

My heartrate accelerated. My shoulders tensed, and I grasped the camera tighter. Whether I would use it as my sole line of defense or as an artistic tool, I did not yet know.

Years ago, I had seen great whites while in the water off the coast of South Africa. But enclosed in a metal cage, I had nothing to fear. Out here, only the watery expanse separated me from this predator.

I knew I could not outswim the shark, so my lone option was to wait—and hope to be ignored. I kept as still as possible, trying to slow my heartbeat and steady my breathing. Mentally, I checked my body for cuts, open wounds, anything that might emit an odor of blood. Nothing came to mind.

The shark swished its tail—once, twice, three times. I gulped in equal measure.

Hugging the ocean floor, about twenty feet down, it slithered in my direction. When it was below me, my shoulders relaxed. From broad head to gray caudal fins dipped in black, the shark spanned the length of my body. Mollusks, crustaceans, and small fish had reason to fear the impressive creature, but not me. Blacktip reef sharks, after all, did not eat humans.

Slowly, I raised the camera. The shark stopped swimming. Part of me thought it would shoot up towards me, happy to have tricked me into feeling safe. But part of me thought it understood my goal. I framed the imposing animal, held my breath, and tapped the shutter button.

With a tail flick, the shark glided forward a few feet. It neither raced to attack me nor sped off to hide. Perhaps it hadn’t noticed me. I took a second photo.

This time, the shark’s head angled up. For a transitory moment, we peered at each other. And just like the reef had abruptly fallen away, so too did my worries, my doubts, my anxiety about the future. Even happy moments from my past vanished. I surrendered to the shark, and to the ocean’s liquid embrace. Nothing existed except this exact second.

When I blinked, the shark curled around and coasted back toward the reef. I followed, keeping a respectful distance. The shark settled atop the seafloor, and I drew the camera to my eye and took a shot. Then another. And another. Unfazed by my presence, the shark was James Dean cool. I dove down for a closer look, but for once, I didn’t use the camera. The image I saw through my own lens, I wanted only in my memory.

At last, it was time to go. I could have stayed until the sun no longer lit my surroundings, until my fingertips wrinkled up like raisins and my lips turned purple from the impending cold. But unlike for the shark, this was not my home. It was only a wonderous world I could visit when the opportunity arose. A world where currents stole time, sound disappeared, and life—uninterrupted—demanded attention. A world where two creatures as opposite as a shark and a human could inhabit one space, at least for a little while, and do nothing but float.

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