Ella’s Reef

Snorkeling in the mud is truly disheartening, but this is exactly how we all spent the morning—in waist-deep saltwater mud, hovering over stark sea grass beds, wishing for a photogenic coral reef that wasn’t there.

All week long, the NG Kids had begged me to go snorkeling. They had seen the colorful brochures of masked tourists in crystalline water, surrounded by unfazed pretty tropical fishes—they all craved the television version of this subsurface seaside wonderland called Hawaii.

Alas, we never saw that reef, and not only for the muddy water we were swimming through but also because the reefs were not there. One of the tragic realities of the state of our planet is that coral reefs are in rapid decline everywhere.  As an avid diver, I have seen the best of the best (Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the atolls of the Maldives, and those secret, healthy intact reefs of the Caribbean), but I have also seen the worst of the worst: places that I believed would be paradise but where building tourists’ paradises have mostly killed the more accessible reefs (Bora Bora, the Virgin Islands, and Mexico). Dead reefs are always depressing, but today I was  feeling depressed for the kids, whose first experience in the tropical warm waters of Oahu was met with poor visibility and lifeless coral stone, broken apart and covered with moss.

I had scoped out the spot beforehand—I had spotted what looked like a healthy stretch of reef far out from the lagoon. Some of the children follow, eager to see the real thing after previous failed attempts. We strap on our masks and snorkels and head out into the warm shallows but all too soon we are back in the lifeless muck searching for pretty fish that are not there.

After ten minutes of dirty nothing, most of the kids turn back, content to splash next to the safety of land—but one girl follows.

Ella, age 10, from Indiana, is remarkably persistent.

“I want to see a coral reef,” she insists. Her foot is underwater. but I imagine she is stamping it. Ella loves animals—all animals. She has already become enchanted by the birds of Hawaii, and of all the children she has been the most determined to fully experience the rapture that is snorkeling a tropical reef.

Ella and her father and I head farther and farther away from shore. The lagoon is still shallow and there is still no reef. I am frantic, looking for any sign of life to show eager Ella, but it is Ella who makes the first discovery—a billowy soft orange and white sea cucumber. The animal is strange and beautiful, cartoonish and pre-historic and we all gape at it through our masks.

This is the magic of the underwater world—this is why I love diving—because everything down here is so strange and bizarre and colorful.

I congratulate Ella and then shock myself by behaving like a sour-pussed grown-up and suggesting we start heading back to shore. We are so far from land at this point, standing in unfamiliar water while the sky is darkening just a wee bit. A hundred worries flash through my head—ominous north shore rip tides, someone not having the strength to swim back, a tender foot stepping on a coral reef. Traveling with kids has turned me into a Grade A worrywart.

But Ella is even more determined. She keeps swimming out to where I first pointed. If there is a coral reef out there, she wants to see it.

I understand her ambition too well. She is from Indiana, and I grew up not far away, in Ohio. This is perhaps the flattest and most boring part of America, where the landscape is nothing more than cornfields. The dream of coral reefs is the promise of a much more exciting Earth than the one you know. It is this dream that led me from diving in the milky green Ohio quarries to diving the world’s largest coral reefs, to Africa’s tropical lakes and to the clear underground caves of El Mundo Maya.

In the murkiness now with Ella, I begin to see promising signs—a few baby fish swirl up, their brilliant colors waking me up from my disappointment. You cannot be sad while looking at wild tropical fish. Here in Oahu, they are like little bumblebees, the fiercely yellow and black Moorish idols, the electric blue frenzy of juvenile schools living their life and purpose in the sea.

I begin to see bits of broken coral littering the sand beneath us. We are getting closer, I can feel it. I feel hopeful that we might actually do this, but then I hear the screaming.

I stop and splash to my feet, following the sound, but Ella is happy in the water, exploring and twisting her body to see as much as she can of this new life we have discovered.

The screams come from shore—parents and leaders and chaperones, all yelling from shore, waving both their arms in the air.  I wait a few seconds, showing them that I have seen them, but they continue to scream and wave their arms, signaling some great impending doom.

In scuba diver sign language, waving both arms in the air frantically is a symbol of distress. My experience mixed with their incessant panicked shouting would typically mean that a very large and predatory shark has been spotted circling and it would be a good idea to get out of the water pronto.

I look around and see no shark fins whizzing past. No, the landlubbers ashore are merely calling us back in for lunch—right as we are on the verge of discovery.

I break the news to Ella and her father—we are being called back in. This expedition has come to an end.

But no. Ella is a true explorer and refused to give up.

“I WANT to see that coral reef!” she insists, again.  And I do not argue with her, because she is right. She has traveled all the way from Indiana, we have come all the way to the north shore of Oahu, and now we have swum to the edge of a tropical lagoon and are standing before a fringe of coral.

It is not the best of coral reefs—some of it is dead, but some of it is alive and healthy-looking. The fish seem happy. I realize that I am a very spoiled diver, but I would give this coral reef a solid C (perhaps a C plus if it turned in extra credit). No matter, though, because Ella has found her reef. She is ecstatic—I can hear the breathing speed up through her snorkel. She wants to see everything—she keeps paddling her hands, covering as much territory as she can, snapping pics with her underwater camera and cooing over the coral.

“It’s coral! Real coral. So cool!”

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I have never seen a child become so excited over something that I find rather mediocre. Suddenly I want Ella to see all the places I have seen—the brilliant, untouched reefs of Earth’s wildest corners, and the immensity of fish in every ocean.

That’s when I realize that Ella doesn’t care about those places at all. All she cares about is this reef that’s in front of her—the first true coral reef that she has ever experienced. That alone makes it the most beautiful and most spectacular in the world.

I am a spoiled man, spoiled by too much travel. So spoiled that it takes a ten-year-old girl from Indiana to teach me to enjoy whatever is in front of me right now.

This is why we must travel with children—because they remind us how to travel. They teach us to be forever curious, to keep going even if the going is a little tough, and how to be real explorers, excited by every wonder, big and small.

Real explorers do not quit for lunch. Especially when they are so close to reaching their goal.

So keep exploring Ella, because you’ll go far.

I know that I will keep on diving, because I am addicted to being underwater. It is the same excitement that Ella feels, and the same excitement that I feel watching her get so excited.

Coral reefs are exciting—they are the most thrilling places on the planet, and for me right now, in spite of the poor visibility, and the lackluster scene and the worried parents on shore, Ella’s reef is the best I have seen.

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