Into The Depths Of The Rays

by thefeargirls

 By Sophia Rowland

When I was a little girl, I was fearless. My parents have always been strong advocates for travel and as a result, took me many places. Whether it was exploring the Ushmal pyramids in the Yucatan, or climbing to the highest rock in Joshua Tree, I showed no hesitation. When we were in the Galapagos, I had no problem jumping into an ocean with hammerhead sharks below… (aside from a deep fear of bugs), I was brave.

At twenty-three I sometimes wonder what in the world happened to that little girl, especially when it comes to water, and more specifically, the ocean. I grew up a fish, I am a rather strong and fast swimmer, and I always have been. I’m not Michael Phelps of course, but jumping into the ocean was never a problem when I was eleven, or eight, or five.

I have been to Hawaii before (the Big Island). There is a bay in Kona that harbors Captain Cook’s Monument. You can only reach this snorkel paradise by either kayak or boat or a very difficult hike. The first time I went, we kayaked across the bay. The reef is beautiful, and the coral and the fish are spectacular. I kicked along surrounded by yellow, blue, and rainbow fishies, entranced by this underwater landscape. Then I turned and saw the drop off. When the reef ends, the crystal clear water, maybe fifty feet deep, is a desolate blank and I am alone. Floating soundlessly, being slowly sucked into the emptiness of the ocean, and I am afraid of that nothingness. And I become at once afraid of the unknown of the ocean.

My kind, kind, kind parents took me with them to Hawaii on February 23rd, 2012. I was pumped. I love warm weather, lying on the sand, and the beautiful water that surrounds the Big Island. This marks my third time to Kona. The first few days were restful, and the little beaches with snorkeling coves hardly tested my nerves…they did test them, though. I lovingly walked into the waves and let them crash against me, swimming under and over and forcing my mind to stop thinking that dark shadow swimming by is a great white shark. Its just your shadow. Calm down.

I can’t totally blame myself for going from the Indian Jones-like kid I was to what I am now. Paranoid. I think it is just a natural transition when life starts to hit you. Life really hit me hard when I turned eighteen and I watched my grandfather die before me. Even in the comfort (if you can call it that) of a hospital bed, I watched a man I love struggle to let go of life and have it taken from his strong hands. Life. It became more precious. My biggest fear (and again, paranoia) of losing my parents in some tragic accident got worse. And even more so the real reality hit – that I will one day lose them, to tragedy, illness or old age. Life. It is very short. And somehow watching my grandfather, who was always so powerful, go from alive to dead took a brave little girl with him.

Or did it?

For whatever reason, on this recent trip to Hawaii, my parents decided to schedule us for some activities. A horseback ride through a valley, a boat trip to Captain Cook’s, and a manta ray snorkel.

The manta experience is this. A boat takes you to the middle of the ocean where the mantas come to feed. Divers go down and shine lights to make the plankton rise, the mantas come out to eat. Simple right? Except it’s at night. Except that mantas can be as big as 16 feet long (wingspan). Except what if the ocean is rough? What if a huge shark comes out of nowhere and eats me? What if a wave comes and knocks off my father’s prescription scuba mask and he can’t see and somehow drowns while simultaneously being choked to death by the draw string of his wet suit?!

My father and mother were also a little tentative. We all had our worries. But Fear Girls’ writer and beloved friend Sasha told us it was “awesome” so my mother said, “Let’s do it,” and somehow, we did.

The boat ride over was fine. We were all a little nervous and I was more than a little seasick. I was the first to throw on my wetsuit. Fins in hand, mask defogged. I sat on the edge of the boat, legs in the water to cool off the nausea.

“You can go in and snorkel a bit if you want,” the captain told me. It was sunset, and the water was calm. I needed to get off the boat to avoid vomiting.
“Thanks, okay!” came the strong voice of a thought-to-be-gone adventurer.

I started to descend, and no sooner did I look down into the clear water did I see three gigantic rays circling below me. I quickly climbed back up the ladder and forgot that the brave, fearless me had just spoken a moment ago.

The swaying of the boat was worse. I hate throwing up. So I went down into the water and let the giant rays circle me. Finally our snorkel guide came in and then the other snorkelers and finally my parents. I kicked and waited for them, not daring to look down. The sun was nearly gone. A light on the floating board we all clung to came on.
“Lay flat on your stomach,” our guide told us. We did.

There are moments in life where you realize you are nothing but a tiny spec in the universe. That all the paranoia, all the fear, and all the bullshit… it doesn’t mean anything because you are a tiny, insignificant, beautiful being amongst a sea of other wonderful little creatures.

I was afraid when the mantas came at us and rolled up, letting our stomachs almost touch. Rays are harmless of course, but their bodies are so ghost-like it makes them less huggable than sea lions and dolphins seem to be. But the rays are marvelous.

When I went snorkeling for the first time in Mexico, I was five. I was out with my mother and I was so excited I kept talking through my snorkel and getting it full of sea water. She finally pulled it out of my mouth and told me to hold my breath instead.

When I went snorkeling with the rays, it was the first time since then that I made so much ‘squealing’ from both fear and delight that I caught a mouthful of sea water. I had to raise my head to clear it out. Looking out around me, I saw other groups holding on to similar floating boards. Boats surrounded us, their lights cutting through the darkness of the sky. And below, the lights from the divers lit up the sea and set the stage for the dance of the rays.

On the boat ride back, I sat up top with the wind blowing through my hair and cooling my bones. I sat there alone, the other passengers below deck. And as I watched the coast go by me, I remembered a little fearless girl climbing the pyramids at Ushmal and being afraid. Of being atop a high rock in Joshua Tree and worrying about falling. Of a pang of concern about hammerheads in the Galapagos… Before this moment it was just the experience I had remembered, not the fear. Perhaps my fears are greater now then they were then. I am certainly more aware of my mortality. But as many writers have said before me, to be brave you must also be a little scared.

Sophia at Ushmal age 6