It is sometime in the 1990s. No, I mean it’s 2016 right now, but the event I am relating takes place back then, and I am using a literary style called first-person chronologica dysplasia or some shit like that. Whatever; it’s creative – run with me here. I am touring Florida on my own, down in the Keys for the first time, and decide to do a coral reef snorkel trip. I had been fond of snorkeling in central NY when I lived there, despite the short season when this could take place without hypothermia, but upon moving to NC I had almost no opportunity to do so (snorkeling I mean,) because visibility in every available water source sucked. So among the many things I packed for this trip was my snorkeling gear – with one exception.
My eyes are terrible, so for years I’ve jammed an old pair of eyeglasses, earpieces removed, into my dive masks so I can actually see what’s going on. Before leaving NC, I had intended to grab one of my old pairs for specifically this purpose (it having been years since I’d done any diving,) but forgot about it, the one item on the entire trip that I missed. I did have the foresight to purchase a disposable underwater camera, though, one of those fixed-focus, fixed-exposure jobbies with which I could continue to pursue my photographic oeuvre.
Coral reefs are largely protected areas, especially so in US coastal waters, and thus there was only one patch where commercial dive trips were permitted; this became obvious as our boat drew near and the ring of other dive boats could be seen. While there were about six divers on our boat, there was at least seven other boats in the area. We received our instruction not to actually touch the coral at all, donned our safety flotation vests, and jumped in.
The water was clear and between two and three meters deep, and the coral reasonably colorful – a far cry from the waters of Cayuga and Skaneateles Lakes. I saw lots of different colored blobs, some moving, some not – that’s about the extent that my vision was going to discern, so I pointed the camera at anything that looked promising and fired away, intending to find out just what I’d been swimming among when the film was developed. I was later pleased to find that, even in this sorry state, I had positively identified a type of parrot fish and a barracuda.
At one point I was surrounded by a school of fish, perhaps palm-sized, which had gathered around looking for handouts – plenty of people brought along hotdogs and such to feed the residents of the reef. It was mid-afternoon, and the sun was beaming down through the water fiercely, and so I had the idea of diving to the bottom in an area that was clear of coral, rolling over, and shooting a photo of the fish from below, framed against the sun. I took a deep breath and dove, reached the bottom in a second or two, rolled and aimed the camera.
No fish. The school I’d been right smack in the middle of had vanished. I was seriously puzzled, thinking that my descent was hardly violent enough to startle them away so completely. And then I looked around.
I was still in the midst of the school; the greedy little shits had followed me down, not at all fooled by my attempts to dodge them. As I said, they weren’t very big, so this photo shows that they lacked any concern over personal space. What I like about this image is that they’re all looking at me, in a manner that might seem ominous if fish did not routinely possess such vapid expressions – I imagine this is what Cypress Hill used to see from stage. The quality of this photo nearly matches that of smutphones, and so you know I’m proud of it…
The dive operators had the presence of mind to equip each boat with a different colored flag, so I was able to make my way back to our own boat with little difficulty. This is not a minor thing; I’ve had lifeguards get quite peeved with me because I was leaving their approved swim area and I couldn’t tell that their frantic whistles and arm motions were intended for me. As it was, I had returned to the boat with a few minutes to spare, and related to the divemaster thereon about forgetting my glasses. He chided me for not mentioning it sooner, since they had loaner masks with a variety of insertable diopters for people with vision as ratty as mine. And here I was thinking I was hot shit for having my own snorkeling gear.
On the trip back, several kilometers from the shore of Key Largo, I could have sworn I saw a school of flying fish break the surface somewhere in the distance, but by the time I got the camera (a more-or-less proper one this time, with a decent telephoto lens) in hand and scanned the water, they were nowhere to be seen. It’s a shame; that’s something I could definitely stand to add to my stock, even on negative film.
I’ve said before that Florida is a curious place for wildlife photography, largely because many species seem to give not the faintest damn for people being around, at least in certain areas. While a close approach to most waterfowl is challenging in large portions of the country, in Florida you’re almost required to push them out of the way; my cousin was once blocked from entering the building where he worked by a sandhill crane, standing over 150 cm tall with a long and wickedly sharp beak, and completely disinclined to move away from the door. So when our boat returned to the harbor, a brown pelican reluctantly, and with exaggerated casualness, yielded its position in our path with an air that made it clear it suffered us only through extreme patience, and we were testing that. Some people have claimed that they can’t read that from the expression, but it’s there all right.
This trip was responsible for producing one of the strangest dermal patterns I’ve ever displayed. It was summer and my car had no air conditioning, which was bad enough, but also suffered from a peculiar design where, even hurtling down the interstate with both windows and the sunroof open, only a modicum of air circulated through the cabin. Over the course of a week, I was in T-shirts, tanktops, and bare-chested, receiving sun through the side window and the sunroof, so my right shoulder and belly, but left side above the armpit, all got sunburned, marked with a broad pale stripe where the shoulder harness crossed and varying patterns from the different shirts. The dive trip added in a large oval on my back where it protruded above the water while snorkeling, bisected by a narrow band from the strap of the flotation vest we were required to wear. Among some remote South American tribes this was probably considered incredibly sexy, but it was not my fortune to meet anyone from those cultures while it lasted. Our culture, of course, was nowhere near that sophisticated, and I was obliged to remain chastely covered until it faded.