Even with the protective wet suit I paid extra for, I got stung. Red jellyfish regularly roam the waters where I grew up and my first jellyfish sting was half a world away in Cairns, Australia, on a boat tour of The Great Barrier Reef. Inside my hand it felt like my nerves were slowly burning. The pain was seething, as disorienting as the storm quite suddenly blotting out the midafternoon sun. From the boat I could not identify my attacker inside those turbid waters. A reel of dangerous creatures played in my mind, the box jellyfish of particular fascination since my arrival to Queensland. Just that morning the lady at the front desk of our hostel had used the deadly box jelly as excuse for why she had remained off the reef. The pain remained localized, indicating a less brutal fate, but there were other reasons to be frightened.
The boat that had seemed stately in the harbor rocked atop the roiling liquid surface like a runaway cradle, and I could only hope that the saltwater crocodiles that lurked beneath these continental waters lacked the stamina to venture this far out. Nausea and growing skepticism about the protective capacity of our seafaring vessel gnawed at me just as our tour guide announced on loud speaker that sharks had been seen nearby. He sounded jolly about it, oblivious clearly to the fact that a movie recently had been made about the real life disappearance of a couple touring the reef, who presumably died from shark attack after their tour boat left without them.
Panic fiercely rose within – the ocean was everywhere, our boat was small, we were hours from shore, I was trapped. I wanted off, away, to be back in the harbor, to have this day over. We were spending a shared average of five dollars a night to backpack our way around the world, our bank accounts at best anorexic, but I wanted to scrap all future destinations for an immediate air lift out. Others were doing it, retreating, I repeatedly watched them go. For a few hundred we could leave too, retreat to the safe quarters of our hostel, perhaps get a beet root burger or some frozen yogurt, anything but the imagined finality of this ocean excursion. I wanted to feel solid, stable ground, to regain equilibrium. I convinced my partner we should leave but as we approached the man arranging the transfers I saw him signaling the air lift to depart without any more of us. The storm was too serious. It was not safe.
It was at that moment, between courage and collapse, when I learned of my bravery. My only choice was face the storm, face the ocean, face the sharks, crocodiles, jellyfish, that or face my imagination as I sat paralyzed on the deck.
My partner stayed behind but I lowered myself into the water. Of the dozens left, only a couple of us were that brave. I was handed a flotation device, a foam noodle, advised even the strongest swimmers could be swallowed by the storm. I sensed the water was deep. How deep I could not tell. The dimension was distorted, by the violent curling of the waves, throwing me sideways every time I attempted to stay still, by the muted palette the impish storm painted into the molecules of water and air. Without light to illuminate the oceanic landscape I had to trust my intuition, trust that from behind me a shark would not with bladed grip clamp down on my feet, or surprise me from the side, trust the salty slap of the waves would not shove me under.
I focused on what I could control. There were dangers, everywhere, but danger need not also hedge from within. What was going on inside me, that I had control over. I felt with my hands the sultry curves of the waves. I listened to the ocean vent her frustrations. I looked back to see my partner standing there watching, and then I looked within. Even in the dark it was beautiful. Coral caverns coiled like mighty beasts, and wild fish added breathing color to the calm underworld.
How could two such different worlds exist within feet of each other? Above tumult, below peace. With each stroke I felt my initiation deepen, into an ancient ritual of bravery. Conquer what consumes you, take back your breath, focus on what you can control. Fears splashed away, I forgot about the sharks, the sting of my hand, the rocking boat. I felt drenched instead with the inner peace of the ocean beneath the storm. I watched that harmonious world silently surrender to its natural rhythms and I felt hopeful that I too had that power.
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