I learned to dive with my dad back in 1998. I was 12, and my dad had dreamed of getting certified since his college days. His best friend had opened a dive shop and become a divemaster shortly after their graduation, so he’d had the opportunity, but no time. The economy of the early-mid ’80s was rough on young architects; logging long office hours crowded out any ocean time. When my parents began to approach financial stability, they planned to get certified together soon—until they found out that I was on the way. Maybe our firstborn will want to dive, they hoped. Luckily for them, I was a fish from the beginning. We did our pool sessions in Boulder, Colorado, and joint open water dives in Cozumel, Mexico.
A 12-year-old isn’t a reliable dive buddy, at least if they’re anything like me at that age. I was so rapt by the otherworldly magic below the ocean’s surface that I often forgot all but rule number one of diving: never hold your breath. As I flitted off, swooping about the technicolor coral and furtive caves, my dad’s dives were reduced to chasing me around the reef. I would only check in with him when he signaled it was time for our safety stops or when he caught up with me to share my oxygen, having hyperventilated through his tank trying to keep track of me underwater. And this was all before he took me on a night dive!
When he did, my awe for the ocean altered how I thought about everything else in a way that remains to this day. Before, I thought I was getting things figured out; after my first trip below the ocean’s surface, I realized that there is more about this planet—and life—than I will ever understand.
It all started 65 feet underwater. Something fluttered through the beam of my light and I, of course, gave chase, abandoning my poor dad once again in an attempt to catch up to the mysterious creature.
I came upon a fascinating rock structure that blinked as I explored it. Wait—blinked? I doubled back. Poked and prodded. Ran my light all over it. Poked around some more.
If only I’d remembered one of diving’s other key rules: Never bother the marine life.
Something shot up from the structure, whooshing in my face as it swam away. I waved my light around to search for it, totally forgetting this is how you signal for help during a night dive. As it turns out, I was about to need it.
Lights from the other divers were glittering all around me like a slow-motion disco when my face start to burn. Badly. In a panic, I instinctively shot upward, skipping my safety stop and screaming the whole way. I burst an eardrum, but at least the screaming meant I didn’t hold my breath.
I broke the surface in a ruckus and our dive boat captain rushed toward me. He plucked me out of the water by my tank and had to cut the mask off my swollen face. He asked me what happened, but, even if I had spoken Spanish at that point, all I could have said was ‘I have no idea.’ We might never have known if my dad, who had seen my chaotic ascent, hadn’t emerged quickly after me. As he wriggled out of his BCD, a puddle of jelly glopped onto the deck.
“Pulpo!” the captain yelled, pointing at the spotted, quivering blob. He ran to the bow, returning seconds later with a huge jug that he dumped over my head. I never learned what the substance was: it stung my nostrils and tastebuds, smelled like rancid vinegar, tasted like wet dog. It put out the fire on my face but lit new, small ones in my unseeing eyes. Another substance splashed my cheeks, followed by the pressure of a cool, soothing cloth on my eyelids. By the time I could open my eyes, I caught the end of my dad and the crew’s efforts to return the octopus safely back into the water.
When Mission Rescue the Pulpo (and Megan) was complete, my dad plopped down next to me and gave me a hug.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” he said, still out of breath. “Don’t tell your mother.”
It wasn’t the last time he’d say those words. To this day, I have no idea if my mom knows I’m allergic to octopus ink.