Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Almost Heaven

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Today’s competitive freedivers, those of the post-Big Blue generation, are fond of slipping dialogue from the film into everyday conversation..

"Take me back down !" groans a would-be champion as I wake him before dawn to make an early boat.

" It’s always that stupid actress, or Mama !" complains another, having failed to make her target depth.

We are usually kidding around when we parrot the film script, but most, I think, have a more serious regard for Enzo Molinari’s rebuke of the meek doctor who tried to stop him from diving. When we speak of the sea being ready for us, or not ready for us, we are often voicing a heartfelt truth.

This is a story about a day when the sea was ready – oh, so very ready -for me, but I was not ready for her.

I had left Hawai’i late in April and after a few days of personal overhead in Boston, resumed the journey East. A short stop in London and a pleasant flight on a brand new British Airways Boeing 777 brought me to my destination in the Middle East, almost exactly halfway around the planet from Maui. About as far away from Hawai’i as one can get.

Geographically, and in every other way.

After a grinding, nerve-wracking week of business in Tel Aviv, I was wound tighter than a piano string.

I finally managed to break away, driving through the Negev desert, past Sodom (so what was it they were doing in Gomorrah ?) and rolling down the Arava highway in the dead of night toward the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. Time for some water sports.

The drive itself was not entirely tranquil. The region is not tranquil.

Bombings, shootings and steadily escalating confrontation are the order of the day, and while the Tel Aviv – Eilat corridor is popularly thought to be relatively safe, the conflict is never far.

An hour out of Eilat , we heard on the radio news that the town had been placed under curfew. Security forces were searching for infiltrators spotted crossing the Jordanian border. This did not soothe my nerves , nor did the Turkish coffee at the gas station. The next news broadcast had the infiltrators captured and everything back to merely abnormal.

We arrived late, checked into our 5-star hotel, with the usual 2-star aggravation at Reception, and drifted off into a fitful sleep.

Awoke early the next morning , and not at all refreshed. After a light buffet breakfast, my nephew Ronen and I drove down the coast to Divers’ Village, an ancient and venerable dive operation on the beach a mile or two north of the Egyptian border. Ronen has been diving with them for years. The owner and senior employees are French-speaking immigrants, and I know of the owners’ daughters’ reputations as accomplished freedivers.

We had planned to scuba dive on this day, but as Angel outfitted me with my rental gear she promised to talk freediving with me later on. The clientele milling about under the shop’s thatched roofs were mostly Israeli, mostly young and characteristically …shall we say, not reserved, and not circumspect in their behavior. A scuba version of the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, all shouts and gestures.

The more modest manners of European and American tourists were another casualty of what is politely referred to as the "security situation" in the region, which is keeping away foreigners in droves. Not much aloha here !

The first dive did not go entirely well.

We had agreed to follow the gently sloping bottom out to a site called Japanese Tables, in about 30m of water, nose around the coral formations there for a while, and then swim back to shore along the bottom, using the gentle slope to regulate our ascent and provide a safety stop.

Not to be.

Ronen, although he had dived Tables many times before, had forgotten that the site rests on a level bottom. Visibility was somewhat worse than usual, and, having relied upon the bottom slope for navigation, we soon lost our bearings and decided to surface, orient ourselves and swim back to shore. No big thing, but disconcerting insofar as it was such an elementary screw-up. My nephew ended up very short on air, too.

Irritating and annoying. Another turn of the crank.

We dove again in the afternoon, lazily meandering along a ridge parallel to the shoreline in a nature preserve. Nice coral formations, but, this being Eilat, there were also exotica such as spent artillery shells, tires and assorted other military and civilian hardware.

Ronen decided that this would be enough scuba diving for this visit, so we stopped back at Divers’ Village and I returned my rental gear.

As promised, Angel chatted me up a bit, telling me that Aharon Solomons, the godfather of Israeli freedivers, had left Eilat only a few days before. Angel was good enough to disclose Aharon’s e-mail address to me, so I was not entirely disappointed, but another deposit was nevertheless made to my growing account with the firm of Irritation, Disappointment & Frustration. I’d been missing Aharon and MT Solomons for years during my stops in Eilat, and now, once again, it was not to be.

Grrrrrrrr…………

I awoke the next morning at 9:00 AM, rather late by local standards, and was unable to get anyone else to get out of bed. It was our last day in Eilat, as the gainfully employed among us had to be back at their jobs in Tel Aviv the next morning, Sunday, the start of the Israeli work week.

We had planned to do our freediving on this day.

Sipping grapefruit juice alone at the hotel buffet, I pondered my course of action, all too conscious of the dark , toxic funk which had enveloped me back in Tel Aviv and which had grown and festered with each link in the chain of microfiascos, setbacks, screw-ups and no-go’s which had followed me through to Eilat.

I was, to be sure, in a very negative state of mind. I had lost my aloha, and my karma was not good.

Nevertheless, I decided to freedive alone in the nature preserve.

I badgered a niece until she agreed to get up and drive me down the coast. She dropped me off at the gate to the Hof Ha’almogim (Coral Beach) nature preserve and sped back to the hotel.

My spirits improved somewhat when I noted that the area was, strangely, uncrowded. "One positive result of the deteriorating security situation", I thought cynically. Too dangerous to travel, so people stay home.

I suited up in the horrendous desert heat , and made my way to the only shore entry point in the area, which, naturally, turned out to be mobbed and almost impassable. It was like shoving through the crowd around the bargain table at K-Mart. By the time I reached the water’s edge, I was a churning urn of antipathy and near to my own edge ! I slipped into the water and swam directly away from the shore and the crowd, toward the 20 meter depth where I planned to do some conservative, easy solo freediving.

It was, again, not to be.

I found at once that my body and mind were in an unharmonious state that made even the most modest apnea difficult and uncomfortable. My heart raced, my lungs burned and I felt impossibly short of air. My physical discomfort and horrendously poor performance only added to the already overwhelming angst which had been building throughout the business week in Tel Aviv and had continued through what should have been a relaxing weekend in Eilat.

In short, I was very definitely not ready for the ocean.

At some point, about 300 meters offshore, the rational voice spoke and directed me to accept the situation and cut my losses. I resolved to head back to the entry point, making short drops along the way in hope of finding a little happiness in the shallow coral gardens.

It was then that I noticed the woman in the blue kayak.

She was drifting toward me from the north, moving parallel to the shore, about 50 meters away. "Oh, perfect, just perfect." I thought bitterly. "Now, just to cap it all off, this one is going to have to run me down and start a gabfest. "

I did a series of quick drops down to about 10 meters , finning at depth toward the shoreline, coming up for a few breaths of air and then down again. The blue kayak, I sourly noted, seemed to have changed course to intercept and was closing faster. The woman was now paddling rather than just drifting with the current.

"Damn these people, damn them !" I moaned. Millions of acres of empty ocean and this bimbo just has to pile on. Next come the same old stupid questions about the big fins, how deep, how long can I hold my breath, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to get scuba gear, it doesn’t cost much, she has a cousin who can get it for me cheap….

As if to confirm my darkest prejudices, she then began to shout. In Hebrew, which I speak fluently. She was hailing me. I ignored her, and my own physiological distress, took as deep a breath as I could and dropped for the bottom. I lasted about a minute before the discomfort forced me to surface, again gasping and very short of air.

She was even closer, now less than 30 meters away, but had stopped paddling and was again drifting with the current.

"Hallo ! Hallo! " she called. I could see now that she was youngish and had a head of curly blonde hair. Her voice seemed hoarse. " Hallo ! Hallo !"

I dove again. I felt a little better this time, despite having ventilated for less than a minute on the surface, and lay prone on the bottom at about 15 meters. After a while, I glanced toward the surface. What little composure I had regained was gone as I saw the hull of the kayak directly above me, and, as if the world had not dumped on me enough, it had apparently been joined by another, larger craft.

I lost my temper. My heart raced and my urge to breathe was overwhelming. I rocketed to the surface, angling away from the watercraft as best as I could.

I surfaced facing the shore, the kayak behind me. I did not feel good at all. I hook- breathed, bore down and hook -breathed again. I did not feel at all like I was going to black out, but something was just not right.

Then I heard her voice again, from behind me, very close.

"Hallo !" I realized she was not hoarse. It was a shouted whisper !

I turned to face her.

She was only a couple of meters away from me. Her face was glowing, her eyes wide, a kind of halo of enchantment surrounded her.

" Karish leviatan !" she whispered, and gestured with her paddle to the glassy -smooth water between the kayak and me.

Karish leviatan. Shark -whale.

Whale shark, I realized dimly, just as I began to wonder where the second boat was, the larger one I thought had seen from the bottom.

"Karish leviatan" she whispered again, her smile enraptured and eyes full of wonder.

Then I saw the dorsal fin breaking the water only a meter or so from her kayak.

Oh, but I was not of that time and place, and not for the glory that nature placed before me.

"Right ! Sure !" I sneered. It was as if an evil twin had taken control of my brain! "Hasta la vista , bimbo." I dove.

And there it was.

The whale shark, drifting lazily just below the surface, maw agape, was about 7 meters long.

I froze, uncomprehending. Still positively buoyant, I drifted up, finally breaking the surface. As the ripples spread across the water from me, the great creature was animated, and with a few movements of his incredible tail disappeared into the blue.

I lifted my head and found myself next to the kayak. I made eye contact with the woman, and she spoke to me excitedly in Hebrew.

" I was drifting alongside it for the last twenty minutes" she said, " I’ve been trying to get your attention so you could join us. Why did you keep moving away ?"

I was unable to speak. I did not know what to say. Everything I had thought was wrong.

"Ah !" she sighed, shaking her head. " What a shame ! You don’t speak Hebrew. What a terrible shame ! It was so incredible, if only you had understood me. Twenty minutes with a whale shark ! "

I had no answer. I had been so, so wrong. Wrong about everything. Wrong about the whole world. Wrong about life. I had no answer for this gentle soul.

So I dove. I dove and leveled off at 5 meters, and swam slowly, defeated, chastened, toward shore.

I swam long and far under the water, and when I surfaced the blonde woman in the blue kayak was way up-current to the north, gliding away with strong, expert strokes.

I pulled myself out of the water, through the crowd of tourists gathered there, and walked unsteadily toward the parking area where I had arranged for my niece to collect me. I was somewhat aware of an excited titter in the crowd around me, and supposed they were remarking at my unsteady gait.

I lay down on a stone platform, inexplicably shivering in the intense desert heat. I had passing sensations of vertigo.

Then, a uniformed Nature Preserve ranger was bending over me, squinting.

"Everything okay ?" he asked.

"I’m okay !" I muttered.

"Did you see the whale shark, too ?" He grinned. " My colleague said there was a solo freediver out there. "

He tapped his cell phone. "She was so excited she called in from her kayak ! She said it was over 7 meters long, and very friendly."

He smiled, winked and went over to the crowd at water’s edge, a crowd excited and a-buzz with the news of the sighting.

And so it was that I was on that day allowed a glimpse of one of the rarest and most wonderful of the ocean’s great creatures, a mere glimpse, a taste that could have been a feast but for my own worst tempers.

The ocean was so very, very ready for me that day. It was I who was not ready for her.

Back in the hotel, lunching in the restaurant and gassing up the car at the edge of town, everyone was talking about the whale shark. The animal had been first sighted deep inside the Eilat port area, and been seen by dozens of boaters, swimmers, windsurfers and others as it drifted south. The woman in the kayak, a Nature Authority employee herself, had launched her kayak on a phoned report from a friend working at a beach club up -current and had drifted with the creature until our encounter, when the shark changed its mind and left us.

I am left with a tantalizing memory, and a lesson for life.

The mature freediver is, after all, a responsible agent, the author of his or her own journey to heaven or to hell. My runaway negativity had no place in the elegant ballet that nature had arranged that morning in the headwaters of the Gulf of Eilat. I had been offered a treasure of incalculable value by a generous universe. Having allowed myself to become embittered, nervous, antipathic, cynical and finally hateful, I had sent the gift back unopened.

It wasn’t that stupid actress, and it wasn’t Mama. It never is, really.

Almost Heaven 3
Paul Kotik
Paul Kotik has been a Staff Writer and Freediving Editor for DeeperBlue.com. He lives in Florida, USA with his family.

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