By: Heidi Hertler, PhD

Posted: April 28, 2015
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Staff Post

In the Sea We Find Ourselves

Turks and Caicos Islands

Silence. It’s so quiet. My ears search for noise, stimulation. A breath in is thunderous and booming through the overwhelming nothingness. A breath out, and bubbles surround me, tickling my skin, rising and bursting into a million new pieces. I am weightless. As I breathe in, I rise a few inches, falling the same amount as I let that breath go. Zero gravity. I feel as if I am in a vacuum, floating through space towards a new planet or a meteor. Breathe in, breathe out, rise up, fall down.

I am slow, awkward. I lumber about in my fins and weights. This is not my domain. A blue chromis darts by me in casual pursuit of plankton, schools of hundreds of jacks dwarf my presence. They move so effortlessly through the water. I am so insignificant amongst them all. I look away, towards the point ahead of me where the ocean floor ends. I breathe in, rise, bubbles engulf me.

We are slowly approaching the edge of the wall. We swim out over the edge of this cliff and a mild vertigo overtakes me. I am nervous to look down. The ocean floor drops down hundreds of feet below me… But I am not plummeting. Rather I hover lightly like a hummingbird, rising up one moment and then dropping back down. I close my eyes, stretch my arms out wide, and am flying out into the big blue space. I gaze about, peering into the endless, dimensionless blue, fully aware of the lack of anything for eons below me.

My eyes catch a movement, and I see giant creatures flapping gracefully out in the abyss. It is two spotted eagle rays. Their wingspan is larger than I am, enormous, and yet they glide along in perfect harmony. I sit in the water column, watching them, not wanting their lovely presence to leave. They flap out of sight, and my attention is drawn downwards. Beneath me there are entire cities, entire nations of twirling butterflyfish, creeping shrimp, and enormous sea plumes swaying in the current. It is endless, an overwhelming diversity of colors, shapes, sizes, motions. It’s mesmerizing. A huge scaled lettuce coral. A delicate longsnout butterflyfish. A butter hamlet with a reef shark suspiciously close behind it. A lionfish with its feathers out in hunting mode. A Christmas tree worm and a spotted eel….

Twelve weeks ago, 34 of us arrived on South Caicos as total strangers. We came from all over, our geographic origins ranging from Maine to Miami to Southern California. Yet even more diverse than our geographic origins and our academic backgrounds, was our personal motivations for choosing to come to this program. Some of us viewed this as an opportunity for adventure; others saw it as an escape from the mundane lethargy of the traditional American university system. Rather than sitting in a lecture hall of 250 homogenous faces, we’ve used the intimate proximity of life on our campus to get to know ourselves and our professors on a level we’ve never experienced before. Hours of chores, hundreds of shared meals, and a lifestyle centered around the sea have helped to establish an unyielding bond between students, interns, and staff.

With our time winding down, it becomes easy to fall into the trap of nostalgia. Rather than reminiscing on the experiences of the past, it is perhaps more constructive to identify the lessons we have learned since we arrived in early February. Our interactions with each other and the time we have spent with the people of South Caicos have had a profound impact on what we see, what we feel, and how we interpret our role on planet Earth. Community, friendship, love, and the general spirit of adventure; it’s impossible to spend a semester here and not have your perception on any of these individual entities changed.

We understand that leaders will be needed as the global push for the preservation of our natural world continues. Not only a simple acknowledgement, but a true and pronounced understanding of our individual roles will be necessary in this push for change. Too often, we are informed of the detrimental mistakes of the past which have led to the fragility of Earth’s ecosystems; yet over the past 12 weeks, it’s safe to say that we’ve realized the capacity for progress which can be brought about by collective understanding and action. Plains, mountains, woods, and cities: each of us have a very distinct view of what “home” is. Yet it is the ocean, and all of the life found beneath the waves, which brought us together and helped us to find ourselves. And for that, we will always be grateful.

I breathe in and rise. I breathe out and fall. Check my gauges, time to go. I breathe and rise, breathe out and fall. I begin to flip my fins and slowly rise alongside my bubbles towards that yellow orb up above.

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