A traveler is overcome with emotion when she lays eyes on a graceful sea creature. This story was selected as a finalist in the Romance on the Road travel writing competition.
4:08 PM, and the shimmering Mexico sun shows no sign of giving way to the first hints of early evening. Having done battle with miniature monsoons that have blown through the island, whipping at canopies and lifting waves from otherwise-tranquil surf, it has finally won its rightful place overhead with naught but a single, jealous cloud to accompany it.
Until, of course, the next time a wayward breeze carries in a tropical cocktail of warm rain and seafoam, whites and grays and blues that mingle and layer like the raspberry slush and rum still buzzing through my system.
We’re due back in just under an hour. The far side of the harbor is littered with vessels that rival buildings up close but are dwarfed by the vast horizon stretching on like a painter’s canvas behind them. From this distance, I can’t discern which we stepped off of hours ago, or even guess where we came from amid the gaggle of gargantuan ocean liners that make themselves monsters of the bay.
I suppose it isn’t worth wondering for another fifty-two minutes. Closer to forty-two if we don’t want to risk being left behind. It isn’t enough time—not even close. As my body is working to metabolize the remnants of a buzz, my mind is whirling, tasked with desperately cataloging every seagull, shell, and grain of sand laid out before me. There are far, far too many.
Even if a thousand seconds were instead a thousand years, or even a thousand lifetimes, I am still not entirely certain thatI could ever come to fully appreciate everything there is to love about this tiny corner of foreign paradise. Painted ceramic skulls, flat palm leaves, and colorful birds. Spiral-shelled hermit crabs and schools of butterfly fish. The delighted glint in the eyes of a young shopkeeper when I’d asked, “¿Cuánto?” instead of “How much?” His ever-widening grin—”¿Me entiendes?”—and the satisfaction of a nod, a conversation, and a glimpse into a different world.
These are the thoughts that ebb and flow like the Caribbean tides inside my head as I follow my parents past the bridge leading out to the harbor, absently counting footprints in glistening white sands. What comes out of my mouth is far less eloquent.
“Y’know why seagulls live by the sea?” I ask my father, who doesn’t stop walking but shoots me an if-this-is-a-pun-I’m-leaving-you-here-to-be-eaten-by-sharks sort of look before grunting his acknowledgement.
I inhale, steeling myself for the inevitability of familial abandonment. “’Cause if they lived by the bay, they’d be bagels!” My grand delivery is accompanied by a multitude of finger guns. I think I see the exact moment that my father’s will to live leaves his body in the form of a completely humorless and entirely sarcastic grin.
“You still drunk?” he asks, and indignation rises in my chest. I protest.
“I am not drunk. I was not drunk.” Approximately two hours earlier, I had tripped over my own feet and fallen over on the way to the bathroom after a squat, grandmotherly woman, speaking very loud and enthusiastic Spanish, had twirled me in circles atop a partially-submerged barstool at the poolside cocktail bar and proceeded to pour tequila directly down my throat.
“Okay. I was drunk.” To my credit, this was only the tipping point—I had spent the hour or so prior determinedly consuming enough alcohol to put down a horse and had, in all my 5’2” glory, drunk several relatives twice my size under the metaphorical table. “I don’t see what that has to do with the amazing joke you just heard.”
Another of my father’s good-natured eye rolls and accompanying grins, endearing snaggletooth ever present. He doesn’t respond directly to my statements—no, that would only encourage me. Instead, he stops walking just as sunbaked tarmac gives way to trampled sand cast in the shape of a hundred thousand footprints. Despite their multitude, this little shoreline alcove is empty. Most of the tourists have returned by now—sunburnt, drunk and exhausted.
“Are you ready?” Dad’s smirk hasn’t left. It’s my turn not to answer—verbally, at least. I take off, digging footprints into footprints, toward the water, only to hang a sharp right and veer away from the sea at the behest of a rugged signpost.
My feet kick up sand in wet clumps. My full-face snorkel mask hangs around my neck, matching my enthusiasm in the way it bounces, erratic, against my chest with every hurried step. The heat of excitement in my veins could turn the sand to glass. Overhead, the sky darkens to a balmy, tropical gray—a prophecy of rain to come in either seconds or hours. Turns out the jealous cloud had friends from overseas.
The manta cove appears as a rocky outcrop set toward the far end of the beach, a crescent of moss-dressed stones hiding it away from the world. They rise, mineral soldiers, to encircle a tiny central island like pawns around their king, breaking rank in a narrow channel that ends at the same place it begins: the sea.
Atop the shoulders of a stone rook sits a man of about thirty—long hair, olive skin, doubtlessly shaped by the ocean. His accent is almost as thrilling as the adventure to which he serves as gatekeeper.
“You here to swim?” As though that’s actually a question. My parents catch up to me just as I nod, my mother pressing her digital camera into my hands before I even have a chance to don my mask. The weathered stranger grins and gestures toward the miniature atoll just as the sky breaks open.
“Don’t go all Steve Irwin on us,” says dad through his snaggle-toothed smirk and a thin veil of rain. Adrenaline and wonderment surge in my chest like a full moon’s tide as I step down from the edge of a mossy giant and plunge into another world.
The sound of rain against rooftops and windows remains high on my list of favorites to this day. But beneath the shifting surface of an endless ocean, the chittering cry of infinite droplets, triumphant in their return home, can never be matched. It’s a living, breathing static, all-encompassing as the prickle of sky-chilled rain clashes with the comfort of waters made warm by tropical blessings.
It’s an unforgettable sensation that is shoved, with reckless abandon, from my mind the instant I lay eyes on the ray and very nearly forget to breathe.
Huge, majestic, and unbothered by my presence, she ripples slowly along the sandy beds of the stone atoll like the living embodiment of otherworldly beauty. She instantly reminds me of a silver kite. Held aloft by currents of water rather than wind, she soars, flawless, through a vast and endless blue that rivals that of the sky itself.
In this moment, I am absolutely struck by her. The world around me vanishes, leaving only the water and the ray. There are no rocks, no barriers. There is no mask. There are no others watching from the sidelines, no one peering through the glassy surface of the water into this moment—this miracle. My miracle of a fleeting moment in this foreign sea.
A gasp leaves my lips in a flurry of bubbles that race skyward in ignorance of the marvel just below. Camera looped around my wrist, I steel myself and dive, wide-eyed and bewildered, after her. The manta ray is unhurried, content to swim languid circles around the central island for as long as she is to be here. I immediately reach out a hand, desperate, longing only for my fingertips to graze her back. A part of me knows that once I do, I will never be the same.
The twin inconveniences that are human lungs force me to the surface before I can make contact. In my haste to yank the mask from my face, I clock myself in the mouth with the camera and split my own lip—a fact that my wonder-shocked brain won’t register until later that night, away from the water, the ray, and the racing of my own heart.
I suck in a breath, deep to the point of aching, determined not to allow my own dependence on oxygen to separate me from the ray for too long. I only hear half of my mother’s shouted “Do you see it—?” before I once again suction the mask against my face and allow sea static to fill my ears.
For a moment, the world beneath the water is still. I search my field of vision through the acrylic shield of my mask but see only the leisurely ballet of sea flora swaying in and out of my periphery. I take the opportunity to click the camera’s power button, feel the lens extend in my hand with a muffled buzz of blessedly-waterproof technology. The screen glows blue with the water, and I rescan my surroundings.
I don’t have to search long.
She glides into view from just underneath me on wings that could rival any bird’s. A subaquatic giggle brings another thousand bubbles, clouding my view of her for the briefest of seconds before I dive. This time, my hand smooths across the ray’s back, featherlight and rapt with breathless admiration. Smooth as sea glass, she slips from my fingers to continue her lazy circuit around the island. And I, no longer the same person who dove down in search of her, follow in a trance.
The camera doesn’t feel real in my hands anymore. But some distant, electronically-ingrained part of my mind wills my fingers to operate it, fueled by the need for a memento. No photograph will ever be able to do the memory of the ray any justice—I know this even as I fiddle with the camera settings on autopilot, legs stroking at the water so that I might keep pace with her. Even so, I fit her into frame and press the shutter button, over and over and at different angles, endeavoring to restructure her glorious image in pathetic stills like a blind man attempting to paint the cosmos.
And tirelessly, the ray swims on, circling the island like a silent guardian, unwavering in steadfast determination.
When I surface for the final time, the rain has picked up, the sun having disappeared behind blackout clouds that promise rough seas for the evening. Breathless as I climb the moss-clad stones and return to shore, I am greeted by icy droplets to replace the warmth of the atoll’s tropic touch on my skin. My mother drapes a cruise liner-branded towel over my shoulders, royal blue on sunburnt red.
The olive-skinned stranger smiles at me. I am absolutely doubtless in my assumption that he knows exactly the extent to which my life has just been changed. I return the smile with an accompanying nod. He and I have nothing in common. But in what we have seen, in that which we have experienced beneath the shifting of the water’s surface, there is solidarity.
The walk along the bridge, back toward the ship that will eventually return us home, is spent trying in vain to describe the wonders of the sea to my parents. There are no words in any language, modern or ancient, living or dead, that could ever replace the sight of the ray, the feeling of her beneath my palm. There is only futility in trying to find them.
When the night comes and I have found my place on a cabin cot, rocked into a gentle sleep by the rhythmic surge of waves against the ship’s hull, I will dream. I will dream of jealous clouds and swirling seas. Of tall stone soldiers in mossy armor, watching over a tiny atoll in a silent corner of paradise.
And of a drifting silver kite, wings catching currents of air and water, shimmering in the light of the late-summer sun.