Updated: Jan 3
That time we accidentally on purpose went diving in Fiji
with Jean-Michel Cousteau
Did I mention we built-out the garage over the summer? It’s now an insulated, white-walled room from which Ryan can work from home. This means that the mountain of stuff once packed tightly in the garage, has been piled up and scattered about the patio and driveway since early June.
Just before Thanksgiving, I came home annoyed from a work situation, and in my annoyance I zeroed in on a particular part of the stuff - a pile of Ryan’s old dive bags full of gear we never use.
How come you never take me diving?
My question was full of indignation. He diffused me with a humorous comparison to attorneys who themselves have no living will, contractors who cannot finish their own home, and, well, .professional divers that never take their wives diving.
Funny, I said. But I couldn’t catch the humor. Time had passed. A lot of time had passed. Why didn’t we prioritize better? I could feel the midlife panic rising up about things left undone.
Since yet another Thanksgiving was upon us, I fell into a revery about that one time, when he did take me diving. That singularly perfect diving trip over Thanksgiving weekend in 2001. A charged year that ended in a magical week where Ryan and I became a couple in Fiji.
By all accounts, 2001 was a shitty year. For me, a year of profound and repeated loss. It started with the painful and traumatic miscarriage of an unwanted pregnancy, and the subsequent end of that relationship. Then it cascaded into the loss of my only grandpa, followed soon after by my beloved great aunt, followed by the horrific events of 911, and then, two raw weeks later, we lost my maternal grandma who had lived with our family for most of my formative years.
In the span of those 12 months, death was a constant companion. I fielded so much heartbreak and subsequent isolation in my grief that I was paralyzed and numb and bordering on hopeless. I begged the heavens for the loss to stop - my heart was broken in every direction and I couldn’t take any more.
But in the midst of all the ruin, I had been hanging out with this guy, Ryan, who I vaguely knew from high school and run-ins over the years at mutual friends’ parties. That year our run-ins were different. We were both single, living in the same town, and a late-August weekend in Vegas for a friend’s birthday revealed that we had serious chemistry.
One of the things I liked about him was his subtlety, and in that subtlety he was full of surprises. So when he casually invited me to join him on a dive trip to Fiji at Jean-Michel Cousteau’s resort, I naturally said NO. After the events of that year, I had given up on fun or ever being happy again, so why try now.
Ridiculous and not so bright.
That’s what my coworker, Kara, said when I told her what I had done. That my new boyfriend was on a flight to the South Pacific for a week of diving. And to make matters worse, he was part of a group that included Cousteau himself.
After recounting it all aloud, I knew I had made the mistake of my life. I called the resort travel agent from work that night and got the last seat on the next flight. I sent a message to Ryan through the travel agent that I’m on my way, packed a small carry-on, and the following afternoon - after waiting for hours in a newly minted, post-911 security check - I boarded the plane with only seconds to spare.
My nerves were fried. I barely slept on the flight. What if I get there and Ryan’s not there? What if his invite wasn’t that serious and he just asked me because he thought he should? What if he ended up bringing another girl when I said no?
The fourteen hour transit was excruciating, but my arrival was straight out of fantasy island. A short but bumpy crossing from Nandi on a twin engine prop plane, the shimmering expanse of turquoise waters, the seemingly deserted island of Savu Savu blanketed in coconut palms. The landing was an abrupt touchdown on the tiniest airstrip, and at the lean-to that constituted the airport, stood Cousteau, his long-time girlfriend Nan, and no Ryan.
I knew instantly, he didn’t know I was coming. If he had received my message he would have been there. I got in the mini van with Jean-Michel’s other invited guests, including Nan’s sister, Mary Anne, with whom I had tooled around Nandi in a taxi, while we waited for the connecting flight to the island.
Our arrival to the resort only induced more panic. A stunning, five star paradise designed and built to reflect a native Fijian village. Thatched roofs, open walls and 15 free-standing private cottages called burres with open-air showers and insane views. The only thing missing was Ryan. He was out on a dive, set to return at 4:00. It wasn’t even lunch yet.
Our concierge, Steve, was a tall and slender Fijian with a disarming smile, to whom I gave a feverish recount of the last 48 hours and explained that I had no reservation, just a passing invitation from a guy I’m was barely dating. And on that, I flew halfway around the world. Because I could. Because back in Santa Barbara it all sounded like an excellent idea.
No worries, he said softly, before gently placing me and my grief-soaked and rattled nerves in Ryan’s burre. I changed into my bikini and started pacing, my November skin feeling raw and tender.
I swam a hundred laps in the ocean-front pool, ate a bowl of mango with yogurt, and walked the resort pier talking to the fish. Waiting. Waiting. Unable to take in the beauty and quiet. Or the damp air scented with plumeria. Or the unending view of translucent, gem-filled water.
Until I heard his voice. From inside the burre, I heard him coming across the lawn from the dive boat.
Hello, I called.
Hello, he called back, thinking I was housekeeping refreshing the room. He quickened his pace, not because he thought it was me, but because housekeeping didn’t leave Coca Cola for the rum and he wanted to catch her this time.
I opened the door - for a moment, both of us breathless. Speechless. Shocked. My blood coursed with fear that the sight of me would be a disappointment.
But it wasn’t. It wasn’t.
And then all at once, in our embrace of disbelief and elation, the world around us filled with color. The air was pungent with perfume. The ocean sparkled and the waves clapped and the gulls cheered overhead. Just to be together again evaporated all of the doubt.
By dinner the word had spread through the group that a girl traveled all the way from California to surprise Ryan. There was no time to explain that the surprise was accidental. That I had been invited, but Ryan didn’t get the message. That my hopping on a plane, alone, to cross oceans was not something entirely new.
But none of that mattered. I had told Mary Anne, during our morning in the Nandi taxi, about the last minute booking, almost missing the plane and how the whole thing was kinda risky since Ryan and me...we weren’t exactly official. She told her sister the story and by dinner Nan had spread the word that a heavy romance was unfolding in Burre number 3.
I’m not sure our story registered much with the rest of the guests at the table, about 12 altogether, who had just come off a week in Sydney at an ocean conservation summit where the dire situation of the ocean’s sustainability was the urgent topic at hand.
I sat down at the table across from Sylvia Earle, the American oceanographer, explorer and conservationist that held the world’s record for deepest untethered dive.
Next to her, Phil Nuytten the Canadian inventor who developed the Newtsuit - an agile atmospheric diving suit that does for commercial divers at high pressure depth what a space suit does for astronauts working outside the ship in outer space.
Across from him, Ron and Valerie Taylor, renowned Australian shark experts, recognized as the first to film great whites while diving without a cage, and additionally their invention of a chain-mail, full body suit as protection against shark bites. You might have seen Valerie on one of her dives in her hot pink wet suit on any number of Shark Week or PBS specials, talking about shark preservation.
Further down the table sat Bob and Suzanne Evans founders of Force Fin who held the patent and production on the open-toed, highly-efficient fin used by everyone from recreational swimmers, to Navy SEALs, to Jean-Michel himself.
To my right, Ryan, just 28, up and coming in the dive industry and consulting at Force Fin while he was getting his Marine Tech and Mechanical Engineering degrees.
To my left, Jean-Michel, eldest son of Jacques Cousteau, and founder of Ocean Futures a conservation group expanding awareness in the protection of our marine environment the world over.
And then there was little ‘ol me. Not even a certified diver. My parents had been divers and so I grew up on the bottom of our pool learning to clear a mask and unhook and drop gear. I had been diving before - short resort dives on the Great Barrier Reef and the Molokini Crater in Hawaii. By all accounts I was a certified mermaid, but alas, not a certified diver, now seated at a table with arguably the most important certified divers in the world.
So the next morning when Ryan and I hopped on the dive boat with these legends, and we all went backwards into the bright blue South Pacific Sea, and dispersed into a magical underwater world, I was kind of overwhelmed.
To swim hand in hand with Ryan along the knife edge of an underwater cliff that plunged into a shark-filled abyss; to watch Bob Evans shoot dream-like stills of the murky landscape with his huge underwater camera; to come around a coral head and see Jean-Michel and his cinematographer (without whom he never goes diving) communing with an Octopus. It was all the stuff of dreams - the kind you never imagined you should dream.
And the days rolled out, my battered nerves replaced by sun-soaked and salty skin, my dive log filling with places called Mystery Reef, Golden Nuggets and Alice in Wonderland. My relationship with Ryan, starting to feel like maybe, if we held it loosely enough and didn’t look at it too hard, could get serious.
And by night, the evenings rolled out into long dinners at the long table filled with stories that covered the seven oceans, and the shores of every continent. This is where I was in my element. What I lacked in diving credentials, I made up for in travel stories. And while I was as much as thirty years younger than some at the table, I had been places and I had stories to tell.
On Thanksgiving night, Ryan and I shared the end of the table with Valerie Taylor. We were four days in and I was feeling transcendent and truly happy in a way I hadn’t felt in years. Fueled by wine and the warm scents of a South Pacific island, I sat across from Ryan and suggestively stroked his tanned shin under the table with my bare toes. Above the table, Valerie and I were matching each other story for story about Thailand and Peru and the southern beaches of New Zealand’s north island. It was surreal story telling - heady, boastful, hilarious - and all the while my toes, ever more emboldened, making love to Ryan’s left and right legs interchangeably under the table.
Isn’t this amazing, I thought, listening to Valerie talk about somewhere exotic. Stroke, stroke I went under the table. Like coming home, I thought, a little higher on Ryan’s leg. What if it could always be this way, me and Ryan and insanely cool people on a mission to save the world. Stroke, stroke.
And then Valerie stopped mid-story, leaned forward to catch me straight in the eye, and sobered me instantly when she said flatly, "That's not his leg."
I don’t remember the details of my embarrassment, or if I was adequately able to apologize to her for my misdirected advances. But I recall that what followed was a Cava Cava ceremony with men in grass skirts, a large wooden cauldron full of potion we drank in turns, and at one point a sing-along to the Eagles' Hotel California blasting out of the dining room speakers. The night drifted into hazy memories of dancing arm-in-arm barefoot on the open terrace, and walking back to the burre by torch-light in Ryan’s arms and thinking, what a wonderful world it could be.
What a wonderful world.
What a wonderful world it could be.
Now, as I stand on the patio on a winter’s morning almost 20 years later, and look over the pile of dusty, old dive bags, I can almost smell the plumeria. Taste the salt. Feel the young hope rising for the years we had ahead.
I also feel gratitude for the memory. Maybe this one particular pile of old stuff doesn’t have to get moved out so quickly. Maybe we’ll keep it around if only to remember that moment in time. That singular week, concocted perfectly by the universe to set our life on course, together.
The only dive trip we ever needed.