“Ok, you must be Chris.” He was 30 minutes late, but it didn’t seem to bother him. “So today we will be doing fish identification.” Circa 2011 I had ended up working in the Virgin Islands on a government project. I quit my job in the middle of the design phase and had agreed to help finish things if I was needed. In the mean time I had decided to go to Nicaragua. Before leaving I broke into my former place of work and screwed an old fire extinguisher box onto the office wall of one of the owners. On the glass it said:
In case of USVI contract break glass
Inside was a suit, a nice pair of shoes, 1 pair of underwear, some socks, and some rolling papers. They won the contract, broke the glass, and sent me a plane ticket from Managua to St. Croix. The Wolf was not happy about having to pack my underwear.
This trip was going to be about two months long. While there I decided to expand my scuba credentials and John was my dive master.
“Now pay attention, this shit is important.”
“Oh yeah, how’s that.”
“Come on man, fish identification. Tourist chicks love a guy that can tell them that the clowny looking fish is in fact a clown fish.”
John was retired from the Navy. Although he looked too young to be retired. A Navy man is quite different from a foot soldier in my experience. They tend to have a genuine love of the sea and experience discomfort on flatland. John walked like he was drunk on the dock (I’m pretty sure he usually was), but could stand perfectly still with his hands in his pockets on the back of a tiny dive boat in 10 foot swells. A Navy man does not appear to get the same adrenaline rush from war, nor does he ever seem to be trying to forget something terrible like an army man. The Navy man is simply trying to get back where he knows he belongs, the Ocean.
We sat on the boat and planned our dive. This was the first of 3 that I needed to complete for my advanced open water certificate. John was giving me a crash course in marine life; showing me drawings of various fins and body shapes. The idea was that after surfacing he would ask me to identify at least 3 fish we had seen based on his flashcards. I didn’t get one right.
“Great job! You passed!”
I was a bit perplexed, but this was the Virgin Islands and this was scuba diving..... it wasn’t medical school. So I handed him my little booklet and he signed it. That was all in the early morning. I had to get some work done that day, but was scheduled with John again for a night dive afterwards. We met on the docks by the dive office in Christiansted a bit before sunset and hopped in his Tacoma to hit the other end of the island. We were going to dive the Frederiksted Pier.
“First things first, you’re going to want to smoke this.”
“Oh no thanks.”
“It’s not really optional.”
He stood in front of me holding the little joint out. He didn’t blink. He just stared deadpan at me. “It will help you see better and given that you barely passed fish identification this morning I think you’re going to need it.”
“Fair enough,” I thought, and abided. What happened on that dive isn’t very clear, nor is it important. The important thing is that I passed.
A few days later, over the weekend, I met John for our final dive. This was a deep water dive. We would go just beyond one hundred feet. When I arrived at the dive shop, John was sitting cross legged outside. He appeared to be asleep. His palms rested on each of his knees and a hand rolled cigarette that had long since extinguished was hanging from between his lips. He smelled of rum and looked like he had been there since the bar had closed. Without opening his eyes he said, “Deep water today. The edge. You’re not ready, but I will get you there.”
“Should I get the lighter?”
“We need to talk about your buoyancy control.”
“Ok, lay it on me.”
“Do you know what Bruce Lee said about water?”
I didn't, but I scratched my head like maybe it was in there somewhere. After a moment he continued. “He said ‘be like water.’”
“There’s more. ‘You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.’”
“Which one has to do with my buoyancy control?”
“Formlessness. We’re going to drop down there and you and I are going to need to be formless.”
“Perfect. How do we do that?”
He jumped up from the ground, opening his eyes for the first time. He was surprisingly nimble for his age and level of substance abuse. “Through buoyancy control.” He then pulled out a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses with little flecks of glitter on purple frames and put them on as if he were an assassin. “Put our gear in the boat.”
We motored out to the dive spot. As we suited up, John explained to me that the whole world did diving wrong. “All of these dive shops, and mind you it is just as much the customer’s fault as it is the dive shop’s fault…… customers don’t know what the hell they want so they think they want you to take them through some silly little course and show them a spoon from a shipwreck and turn over the occasional shell to disturb whatever lies beneath it. Dive shop owners are all whores so they just comply and take customers on these shitty dives and collect their money because it is easier than explaining the importance of formlessness and everything else you and I have been talking about this week. It’s all too esoteric for the common tourist”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Non-violent observation. When you swim around and disturb everything the whole ocean is trying to get the hell away from you. We’re going to be formless. We’re going to drop down there to one hundred feet and hang for a few. Then we will go up to eighty feet and sit perfectly still. You’ll rise a few inches when you breathe in, you’ll drop a few inches when you breathe out. Relax everything in your body like a stone cold monk.” My mind slipped back to a week ago when I had initially signed up for the classes. The woman behind the counter had said, “Oh, looks like you will have John as your instructor. You’re very lucky.”
“Don’t think about anything, just levitate.”
We dropped to a hundred feet because that is what we needed to do to complete the course. At that depth you can’t spend much time so we went up to eighty feet as he had said and then hovered with our backs to each other. As far as we could each tell, the other didn’t exist. One half of the ocean in front of me, the other half in front of John Juan. After several moments, a fish appeared. Then another. I had not really learned anything in the fish identification class so I had no clue what any of them were. Eventually I figured out what John was talking about. When we first dropped in we scared everything away. After some time of non-violent observation and formlessness, the ocean came back. Fish, sharks, turtles. I don’t know how long we hovered there. I do remember that I had never seen so much life on a dive before or since.
On Tuesday night I sat 40 miles from the Canadian border on the edge of a little lake. A plume of smoke from a forest fire just 16 miles away rose across the horizon causing a hazy orange sunset. I thought about the teachings of John Juan and did my best to be still as I watched little dragonfly hatchlings emerge from a motionless lake to fly for the first time. A beaver carrying some branches across the water was startled by something. Its tail made a loud slap against the surface as it dove. There was no wind. I had forgotten that you can hear a bird flaps it’s wings a hundred feet up and that when a seagull dives toward the water it makes a high pitched sound like a bottle rocket whizzing by. Strange bugs flew up to my face and checked me out from various angles before flying off.