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To Breathe Underwater

By Joyce Ma

A small, rectangular, pink highlight on my calendar, unremarkable at first glance, marked with the initials ‘HI’; not for hello, but for Hawaii. From explorers charting unknown waters to the mythical sirens whose songs beckoned the brave to venture beyond the familiar, I, too, was ready to embrace the call of the deep: I would finally master the ability to snorkel.

8 years ago, amidst a summer ablaze with China’s relentless heat, I found myself at a summer camp, ready for the day's activity: snorkeling. We snorkeled in a pool shaped with gentle curves, a slice of the ocean itself, oddly placed among laughter and sun-kissed faces. Children, unified in a sea of matching swimsuits, gathered to learn the art of breathing underwater. Snorkeling, they said, was simple: through your mouth, not your nose. A task so mundane on land, transformed underwater into a challenge that I simply could not master. We have all heard of the cliché of fish out of water. I was whatever the equivalent to that is in water. Each attempt was a gasp and a sputter, desperately returning to the surface where the air was too abundant to cherish. My memory of camp is one of lungs heaving, drowning in the very element I sought to explore.

3 years ago, during a family vacation to the enchanting Xel-Há Park in Cancun, I faced the azure skies and crystalline light blue waters that met the lush tropical jungle, armed with a sense of adventure and a checklist of essentials. Xel-Há mandatory life jacket? Check. Diving mask settled snugly over my eyes? Check. The one-time use snorkel tube, alongside fins that promised agility in the water, were all accounted for. With natural beauty unfolding before me, this second snorkeling attempt was less about exploring underwater marvels than it was a battle with the equipment itself. The mouthpiece, rather than being an extension of my breath, hung awkwardly in my mouth. It proved as effective as trying to sip the ocean through a paper straw: soon turning soggy and useless. With nothing to do but chew on the tube, I defeatedly swam above the surface, convincing myself there wasn’t much to see at the bottom anyway.

Watching the stunning videos of Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, I was determined to snorkel once and for all.

Plunging to the depths allowed by the reef's boundary, I encountered coral formations tinged dark brown, their somber color possibly a testament to the impacts of human intrusion over the years. The neon-highlighter fish—unfazed—became our guide through this foreboding  world. Each section of coral was uniquely sculpted: statues within an underwater museum, every piece telling ancient stories, silent testaments to the ocean's vast, untold history.

Yet, the ocean’s boundless depths and seeming emptiness serve as its greatest masquerade, a realm not bound by the sediment layers of time as the mountains and volcanoes are, but a fluid historian, endlessly swallowing secrets, erasing and reshaping its narrative with each wave. It leaves no trace.

My sister and I swam as waves passed over us. Beneath the surface, we moved as shadows, our forms cutting through the clear, sunlit water. Just two specks amidst the eternity, our bodies buoyed and swayed with the ocean’s waves. Our snorkels, thin lifelines to the world above, bobbed in the ebb and flow. We were cradled by the current.

“It was a dance of give and take, breathing in unison with the sea.”  

My focus tightened as I followed the fish, which felt like a mesmerizing guide from a fairy tale leading me on a path. The rubber mouthpiece, initially foreign, gradually became an extension of myself, like gills. It was a dance of give and take, breathing in unison with the sea. To breathe in this underwater realm was to walk a fine line between exploration and surrender, where every breath was a delicate balance—a reminder that to breathe underwater was the essence of drowning. This act of breathing, so effortless on land, becomes a conscious part of your existence, connecting you to life underwater.

Now, reflecting, I realize that this act of breathing, so deliberate and mindful underwater, mirrored the ebb and flow of life itself. When I didn’t think about how I couldn’t breathe, or didn’t know how to breathe through my mouth, I unnoticeably could do it. The ocean taught me that to breathe beneath its surface was to engage in a delicate dance with nature, to find my rhythm in the vastness, and to understand that I was a part of something far greater than myself. Yet, it also meant standing at the mercy of forces far beyond my control, where the only thing I have control over is the very act I often overlook: breathing. Those final moments of snorkeling were when I went with the flow of water and discovered fish with their kaleidoscope scales, shifting and flickering with each movement. In the dense silence, punctuated only by the sound of my breathing, I discovered a profound sense of unity with all that surrounded me. The fish, the coral, and my sister beside me—breathing together in a shared rhythm.

Suspended in the sea’s weightless calm, we were reminded that we were guests in the presence of a world far older and different than ours. Alan Watts argues we are not just a part of the cosmos but also its substance, rising out of it like waves from the ocean. Snorkeling doesn’t just embrace this idea, it embodies it, one breath at a time.


About the Writer...

Joyce Ma is a current senior at Collingwood School in Vancouver, Canada. When she isn’t writing, she can be found reading thrillers or baking cookies.

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