PALAU, Micronesia Saki wears pink fins and carries a Hello Kitty slate. Her thick, waist-length pigtails swirl in the sea: sea urchin black at the roots, butterfly-fish blonde at the tips. This Carp Island Resort guide is tough and smart and funny. In fact, she one of the most amazing female divers I've met.
But, well, she is a team player from the land of bullet trains with professional packers. And I have some atavistic pioneer gene: bristly and independent as only a New World mutt can manage. The wagons should be circled only at last resort.
Strangely I understand Saki's "herd" impulse, even as I push back against it. I mountain-guided several summers high above tree line in the Cascades and Olympics. I quit after I had to Scotch-guard someone's armpit, because she was too lazy or fool to take off her own jacket for waterproofing. My onboard system is just not rigged for that much babysitting.
Saki's is, bless her. Once she even holds my hand to keep me right next to the safety sausage, as everyone's tanks rattle like ice cubes in a cocktail shaker.
The first time she gets distracted, I bolt, of course. And then, only then, does diving in Palau click for me.
About 50 feet from the group, I nose among old-growth coral, rocketing close to the reef, then swerving out to barrel roll like a manta ray. I can move and move I do, finally without risk of an amateur photographer kicking out my reg or sitting on my head. Even after Saki rounds us all up, finning towards the Blue Corner, the grace continues. Minutely adjusting my breath, I soar up the wall, anchor my reef hook, then let the current pivot me into position. I hang over the vertiginous ledge, staring out towards the Philippine Sea. And there I hang, head whiplashing to take in all the early morning shark action. Black tips, white tips, grey reefers: they muscle past in great sweeps, sometimes framed by a quiver of barracuda.
The sensation of being watched suddenly flares my nerves. I peek over my left shoulder, expecting a fresh throng of inflator-ignorant divers sprawled on the coral. Instead I spot a seven-foot Napoleon closing in, the wrasse's huge humphead and trippy acid-test patterns evoking the Magic Bus. The fish drifts closer and closer, its golf-ball-sized eye boring into my gumball baby blues. Just before impact, it veers. I sigh and stretch my tensed neck muscles. That's when I realize two black-tip sharks are lounging nearby, overbites almost on my shoulder, like thin-mustached, high-school burnouts outside a 7-11.
It all just
flows. And this, I realize, is the story I travelled here to find. Why Palau has so many strange ebbs of fate and beauty, such a close connection to "the zone".
I surface and, much to my surprise, Saki grins. "That was some good diving," she notes.
On this, at last, we agree.