A Single Breath in Bali

by John Dewald

A free-diver swims down to a shipwreck in the waters off the coast of Bali, fighting his instincts to experience life underwater

Reaching through the water, I pulled myself down with big slow strokes. Everything was tinted blue. Passing the prow, I continued toward the shadow beneath the shipwreck. The deeper I went, the more the weight of the water pushed down on top of me, compressing the air in my lungs. I’d forced in as big of a breath as I could before diving down, and at first, the air had fought to escape, pressing hard against my chest and the top of my throat. Now the water pressure compressed the air, returning my lungs to their normal size. The deeper I went, the smaller they’d get. Gently squeezing my nose between my thumb and forefinger as I equalized my ears, I kept swimming down.

It was cooler below the warmth of the surface, but the water was far from cold. The ocean washed away my stress, kissing my cheeks and torso as I glided downward. My hair floated out behind me—my face slack behind my mask. Covered in anemones, blue and purple gorgonians, and patches of red and yellow algae, the ship was being reclaimed by the Bali Sea. The life growing off the wreck floated at ease as if it were immune to gravity. It was all so peaceful, so slow. I kept my gaze fixed on the darker water underneath the sunken ship. I was going deep. 

The wreck was about one hundred meters from shore. When I’d been floating at the surface with my face in the water, I’d heard the clatter of the beach’s smooth stones being pushed pulled over each other by the waves—the eternal cycle smoothing and rounding the rocks as well as any river. The ship had sunk on its starboard side, which rested at an angle a little over thirteen meters deep on the sand of the ocean floor. The port side was barely two meters under the surface. The boat had been Japanese. Gede had told me that it had been a fishing boat. Ketut had said it had something to do with World War II. As my two local friends showing me around the island, their guesses were far better than mine.

That morning, we’d woken in the dark to go out with the fishermen on their spider boats. As we strained to push the white wooden vessels through the sand and into the sea, Scorpio had glanced back at me from the horizon. The night before, she’d hung overhead, watching me and Ketut as we lay out on our backs in the white powder of the sand. Splashing knee-deep in the sea, Gede and I had climbed into the same boat. The fisherman, an old agile knot of sinew with scarred hands, had taken us out into the open ocean from where we watched the stars fade and the sun rise up out of the water. The coastline had appeared steep, and green and black, and dramatic—the peaks covered with a thick mist that poured down the cliffs like silent avalanches that disappeared into thin air. It had looked like what I’d expected Indonesia’s coast to look like, unlike the day before when I’d stared up at the steep, sun-scorched hills from the beach in the heat of the day and had been brought back to Andalusia.

Equalizing my ears again, I dove deeper, passing the green anemone that grew on a rock almost directly beneath the wreck’s prow. Part of me wanted to stop and hover in front of the anemone, to watch the clownfish appear from the depths of the swaying bulbous tentacles to stare me down—orange with thin black lines bordering its thick white stripes. I continued deeper, however, barely slowing to see if the clownfish would poke her head out to watch me pass.

At this depth, the water pressure was strong enough to compress my lungs to less than half of their size, making me negatively buoyant—I was beginning to sink. I continued to swim downward, pulling myself through the water with long slow strokes until I reached where the shipwreck lay nestled in the sand. The seafloor dropped away to the left, slowing falling off into deeper and darker water. The rocks and coral heads dotting the sandy bottom were dark blue in the distance. The wreck was to my right, and I was slightly below it, maybe fifteen to sixteen meters deep. Fri was in the Philippines. Katie had taken the morning off. There was no one else in the water who could dive this deep. No one could reach me. I was alone, cut off from life above. For a few precious heartbeats, I had no responsibilities. I was free—utterly, wonderfully free. The seconds slid by.

Parallel to the ocean’s floor, I swam toward the school of batfish hanging motionlessly just inside the edge of the wreck’s shadow. Suspended a few feet above the sand, they were silver, nearly two feet in height and length, and looked like oversized butterflyfish. Two long yellow pelvic fins hung scythe-like just behind their heads.

A sea creatures spotted while free-diving off Bali
Image by Took

I was less than ten feet away when they noticed me. Angling their bodies down, they slid effortlessly into the deeper water without needing to use their tails to propel themselves forward. Once they had coasted into motionlessness, I took a stroke toward them and then another, marveling at how quiet they were in the water. Halfway through the next stroke, my chest heaved as my body tried to take a breath.

Rolling over onto my back, I looked up at the wreck. It was dark from below. The rays of the rising sun spilled over the top and around the sides of the boat in rolling ribbons of light blue that almost showed yellow as they played through the water. Silhouettes against the sun, fish circled above the deck and darted in and out of the cracks and crevices of the hull. My chest heaved again, causing my body to jerk and kick out. The outside of my foot connected with the sand.

Leaning forward, I planted my feet on the sand and pushed off like a child shooting up from the bottom of a swimming pool. After four big strokes, I came even with an opening in the hull. Gliding through the hole in the wood, I swam into the wreck, going under and around the protruding planks as I angled upward through the hull. Schools of little multicolored wrasses and other species of fish I didn’t recognize flitted around me, their blues, greens, reds, oranges, yellows, and purples shining in the sun. Beige and tube-like, a massive trumpetfish caught my eye as it drifted below. Slightly longer than my forearm and nearly as thick, semi-translucent violet stripes ran down its body like grains of wood through a polished board. Its long, rectangular nose reminded me of the prow of an outrigger canoe. Floating in my shadow, the trumpet fish rapidly beat its small, see-through pectoral fins as it dropped down through the water.

My stomach sucked in against itself, and my body spasmed. Two more contractions followed in quick succession. I needed air. Arching my back, I brought my arms down against my sides to shoot me through the water. Curving up out of the hull, I swam up, pulling myself toward the shimmering silver ceiling of the surface.

The top two meters of the water were often filled with thousands of little silver fish that were smaller than minnows and flashed so brightly when they swung their tails that I couldn’t tell if the flash was the sun catching their scales or if it was some sort of bioluminescence. Today there were none. The cartoon-colored blue and red jellyfish that were smaller than the tip of my pinky finger and had been floating near the surface when we’d arrived at the wreck just before the sun had started to turn the water blue were also gone. The only thing above me was the wavering field of light that shifted and danced like quicksilver in the palm of an unsteady hand.

I slowed down, waiting until I’d lost all momentum before I took another stroke. The closer to the surface I swam, the more the air in my lungs expanded, making me increasingly buoyant. Inch by inch, I floated toward the shimmering light where water met air. My quads stiffened and burned as they began to cramp. Instinct assaulted my brain, screaming that I needed to breathe, but I distanced myself from my body, overcoming the urge to go up.

My eyes never left the silver of the surface. The water was brighter now, the closer I got to the sun. Continuing to expand, the air in my lungs pulled me slowly upward. I pretended I was rising slowly through the sky, telling myself that the silver sheet of light above me was where heaven kissed Earth and that if somehow everything fell perfectly into place, I would float up through the beautiful silver light and keep rising, going up and up and into a new life in a world of perfect alignment—a place of perfection. My legs burned and my inner animal wrestled for control, but I refused to swim, continuing to float slowly upward, dreaming of the world above. This was it—this time I was going to transcend. Then, my head broke the surface, and I took a breath.

Cover photo credit: Beni Sanjaya

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