With each inhale, the small pink balloons of my lungs swelled, lifting me a few inches off the sand—not into air, but water. As I exhaled, a string of bubbles tickled up my face, growing into bulbous, cellophane-like jellyfish by the time they reached the surface, 60 feet above. With empty lungs, I settled back down, my weight sending pearls of white sand dancing away across the textured seafloor.
I was on the bottom of the Red Sea, sitting cross-legged in a world of blue, the only place to cool off. It was 2010, I was serving as a crew member aboard a marine-research vessel, and for most of our three-week voyage on the sea, the thermometer stayed in the triple digits, at best dropping to the nineties in the middle of the night. Simply jumping off the boat provided no relief—the surface was like bathwater.
Our 114-foot-long ketch, which I’ll call Persephone, was anchored off the volcanic, uninhabited islands of Yemen’s Zubair archipelago. We had to repair the roller-furling system before entering the most dangerous stretch of the voyage—an area called Pirate Alley, which we’d been dreading for months. That summer, the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Somalia, was making international news due to a spate of boat hijackings. The pirates weren’t looking for cargo; they wanted hostages. There were ten of us aboard this slow boat, hailing from the U.S, France, and Belgium. We had no weapons. We were a perfect target.
The day before, 175 miles north of the Gulf of Aden, we heard a distress signal on our VHF radio. A man’s voice crackled through the thick static, in what sounded like a Greek accent.
“Help us, help us!” he said. “We’re being boarded… pirates… We’re being boarded… surrounded…”
Another voice responded, asking their location. The man shouted out coordinates, then fell silent. We never heard him again and never learned what happened. The range on our radio was only 40 miles.
It had been almost a year since I’d joined this crew, and I’d scarcely had a moment to myself since. As soon as I was alone and could think about anything other than our freshwater supply, or cleaning the head, or pumping the bilge water from the bosun’s locker, my mind seemed to empty. I spent that first dive floating in some liminal place between worlds—away from the hot, crowded ship, the yelling captain, the over-masculine crew, the suppressed grief for my dead father that brought me here in the first place. I felt serene for the hour and twenty minutes I sat down there, empty thoughts opening like glass parachutes above my head. But my mind would not remain empty for long.
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