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Fox Hill - Under the Big Top
Under the Big Top
Fox Hill, Freelance Writer and Photographer

This is my favorite time. I'm sitting on the side of a friend and dive-master's boat, above the reef called Punta Dalila. My tank is hanging over the edge, supported by the straps on the back of my equipment. I know it’s only gravity pulling it toward the water but it feels like much more. A while ago, we had a dive where nothing seemed to go smoothly. Afterwards, while waiting to be picked up, the dive-master apologized and said, "The reef just didn't want us here today." This day is different. The reef does want us here this time, and my tank just knows it. It tugs at my shoulders impatiently, the way an eager boy might tug at his father’s pant leg, as if to say, “Come on, let’s go! We’re gonna miss it!” The author Dave Barry once wrote, "Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent.” Well, the circus is about to start. I watch the captain, waiting for his signal; usually a brisk nod and a hurried "go!" Soon it's my turn; everyone is clear, and I get the nod. I give in to the tank’s eager tugging and feel myself roll backwards. This is the moment. This tiny free-fall that marks the beginning of another hour spent in a world most people will never see. My tank hits the water first, and pulls me under quickly in a swirling explosion of bubbles that is the curtain going up. During training, an instructor said I would see things so beautiful while diving that I would want to cry. His words come to mind once again as the bubbles clear, and I see it's not just any circus today; it's a Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey three-ring extravaganza. I'm in the middle of a hundred or more Creole Wrasse, looking like cobalt blue torpedoes flying in every direction. "Laydeeeez and Gentlemen, high above the center ring, it's the Flying Creole Brothers…" I hustle to rig the lights on my video camera and clear the bubbles from the lens. I don't want to miss any of this.

I live here and this is my Cozumel. Before I moved here I managed a couple of telecommunications stores where we tried to convince people that a cellular phone, or pager, or some other electronic gadget would make their lives better. Every day I did that emptied me out a little bit more, and took me a little farther from the real sources of happiness life has to offer. Now I dive, write, shoot photographs and video, and spend my time trying, as Gordon Downie puts it, "… to do one true, beautiful thing." I don't have a car -- they're not needed here -- a bicycle will do, or a taxi in a pinch. I have no phone line -- though I do have a cell phone -- but it's a servant now, not a master. No Internet connection, and consequently no life-sucking surfing to eat up the hours. An occasional trip to the Internet cafe to check for e-mails from friends and family is more than enough. No television either -- at least no television signal -- though I do have a TV and DVD player to watch rented movies now and again. All of these things are available here, but something about Cozumel made me recognize they don't really matter. I thought I might waste away without them, but exactly the opposite occurred; I woke up.

Descending below the Wrasse, I see the second act is starting their performance. Dozens of Sergeant Majors, the official models for reef photographers everywhere, are decorating the reef with their black and yellow stripes like self-propelled Christmas tree ornaments. Now it’s countless Blue Tangs, swirling together with a surprisingly large group of Ocean Triggerfish (normally seen alone or in pairs). A crop of Garden Eels disappears into the sand like retractable blades of grass as we approach. Like the first time, like every time, I'm awestruck. I think of this as "The Riot of Life," where the interaction of different life forms is played out like a Technicolor ballet right before your eyes. The reef makes it so obvious each creature depends on another for its survival. I shoot as much tape as I can, but the current is really flying today, so we don't have long to enjoy these opening performances. We go deeper into the warm, blue waters of the Caribbean, our world compressed now, focused, and extending only to the limits of visibility.

The hands of the clock don't move any slower here, they just don't matter. If you're married to the idea of firm schedules and on-time performance, you'd better stick to Cozumel as a tourist destination. Living here requires a more relaxed attitude than I was accustomed to back home. At first, I had trouble accepting the offhand manner in which people would fail to keep appointments - and promises. Later however, I saw it for what it was, a part of a simpler and less rigid view of our place in the world. There was an electrical problem in the house we are renting that took almost two weeks to get fixed. Once upon a time, that would have really bothered me. Now it's an accepted part of a more relaxed rhythm of life, swimming with the current, and not against it.

It's a good day for flying. Our group is blowing through the water, propelled by the high current, with the reef slipping by a few feet beneath us. This always looks so cool in person, but I know from experience that it looks terrible on videotape. I decide to just relax and enjoy it, so I let the camera dangle on its lanyard, and stick my arms out like the wings of an airplane. (I know it doesn't really do anything, but somehow it feels more like flying this way). My dive partner notices an enormous Nurse Shark lying under an outcropping of reef. Usually, they have their heads in a hole with only their tails sticking out, and consequently don't photograph very well. This one is lying curved in a "C" shape with its head looking out from the reef. For this shot, I guess I'll just have to swim against the current a little bit. Kicking like crazy to hold position, I move closer and closer to the shark, finally bringing the camera within eighteen inches of its snout. I concentrate on composing the shot and holding the camera steady, but I can't help wondering if today is the day that things will go horribly wrong. However, the shark is accommodating, and remains still as we let the current pull us away to continue our flight.

I always thought a big income meant certain happiness. Everything around me seemed to indicate that money was the key to enjoying life. The time I spent in the telecommunications industry was like winning a small lottery. They were dumping money on me with a front-end loader, yet I was miserable. It didn't make any sense to me. So I spent most of that money diving in expensive places, trying to find the happiness I was supposed to have. It was in Fiji, while staying at a thousand dollar a day resort that I first realized money and happiness have nothing to do with each other. We visited a traditional village of two hundred people on a neighboring island. Their lives had not changed significantly in hundreds of years (except they now had motors on their boats). By the standards set in North America, these people had nothing, yet they were indeed the happiest people I had ever seen. Later, back in our room, I couldn't help but wonder if being happy for three weeks out of every year was really good enough. This was the beginning of a new path for me, or at least a fork in the road. I don't have much money now, but…

I've still got a thousand PSI of air in my tank. This is the second dive though, and the computer says I've had the recommended daily dose of nitrogen. It used to be I ran out of air long before nitrogen was a problem, but not any more. Slowly, I rise to safety-stop depth and begin the five minute wait to ascend. The reef is too far away to videotape now, so I shut down the camera and drift with the current. It’s not as exhilarating, but this "high-altitude flight” over the reef is equally beautiful. This is a quiet time with few challenges, a time to reflect. It's been a good day, and maybe I got some nice tape. I hope the shark footage comes out well. Now, very slowly to the surface, turning, watching for boats, my hand, arm, and finally head, break into the sunlight. I'm back outside the circus tent, smiling at my friend the dive-master a few feet away. I thank him for presiding over yet another beautiful experience. He says, "You're welcome, but it was the reef; it wanted us here today."

...I'm happy. ©2004 Fox Hill  
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