Let The Explorations Begin

“The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

-Robert Lewis Stevenson

With a successful IDC and IE behind me, it’s now time for the real explorations to begin!  Don’t get me wrong, my IDC was great and I had a blast and met great people, but it was pretty time consuming, so I didn’t have much time to actually explore.  So after finishing a few specialty dives, I took a day off from diving to actually see what Nusa Lembongan was all about beyond “the main road” and the dive shop.  My homestay owner rented me a motorbikes and taught me to use it and after a few minutes puttering around his driveway and the adjacent alley, I was off for the harrowing experience of trying to navigate the hills and dodge the trucks while exploring the island.

And what a beautiful island it is.  First, I headed over to the mangrove and walked along the sandy beaches.  I didn’t spend much time there–avoiding the people hawking various mangrove tours is almost as challenging as avoiding the other motorbikes along the mainroad.  But I at least took the time to savor the scenery and get a few shots of the gorgeous coastline.  I then stopped at a Bamboo, a small warung, and had a delicious (and gigantic) seafood lunch.

After lunch, I took the backroad through the mangrove forest and over to the far side of the island to take the “yellow bridge” to nearby Nusa Cennigan island.  I managed to carefully hobble across the bridge on my motorbike and the view from the other side was breathtaking.  I attempted unsuccessfully to navigate a bit farther into Cennigan, but with the roads much rockier, I decided to take the safe route and turn back to Lembongan.

That afternoon, while trying to find Devil’s Tear, I stumbled upon the “underground house” I had heard about.  I decided to pay it a visit.  I was greeted by a proud man who ushered me down a treacherous “stairway” into an underground home.  He gave me a tour, “suggesting” I try to fit through various crevices and look down into wells and up into skylights and “yoga rooms.”  (I don’t know how you can do yoga where you can’t stand up, but I’m no expert.)  It felt more like a dungeon or something out of law and order than a home, but I appreciate the effort that went into building it.  He proudly told me his father had built it and prodded me to take photos, unsatisfied until he heard the click of my shutter.  (Challenging when my camera is on focus mode and it’s pitch black so there’s nothing to focus on and no way to take a photo.)  I did manage to get one photo that is something other than black blur.  Overall, I can’t say I would try to maneuver my way through there again, but it was an experience, and there is a certain charm to see something built and shown off with so much pride.

I finally did make my way to Devil’s Tear, where the waves crash into the rocks, and I headed up to “water blow” hotel to enjoy a milkshake overlooking the beach.  I then continued upward to a lookout, where I took the time to enjoy the view from above of Jungutbatu.  When it was time to head back, I remembered the steep road we had climbed to get to our IE, and rather than brave the steep decline on the motorbike, I returned the way I came.  I think my motorbike days may now be behind me.

The next day I headed out for my final dives on Nusa Lembongan–to Manta Point and Crystal Bay.  The mantas did not disappoint and there were probably 4 or 5, although with them returning again and again it felt more like 20.  Crystal Bay was lovely as always and made for a nice end to the trip, although there were no mola molas to be seen this time.  Unfortunately I neglected to take my usual test shots with my camera (facepalm!) and if I had, I’d have noticed my sync cables were missing.  Oh, well–made the most I could of the natural light!  Including by taking some topside photos (droplets on my dome port and all) between dives of the absolutely stunning coastline of Nusa Penida–I’ll happily take that 45 minute boat ride with that view!

The next day I boarded the Scoot fastboat back to Sanur to begin my explorations of Bali… eventually.  I should have learned to check the tides before booking a boat, and we ended up being very late because they couldn’t get the boat in at low tide.  (If only there were some way to predict the tides…. hmmmm…)  But I made it eventually and my driver Eka picked me up to hit the road to Tulamben, where I would spend the next two days diving.  The scenery along the drive was beautiful.  Lush forests and terraced fields throughout the mountains that descend to the coasts.  That’s the best I can give you because I didn’t take any photos.  (Whoops.)  Much to my delight, at one point I watched as a woman shoo some strange looking cats from the road only to realize they were not cats, but monkeys!

The next day I began diving in Tulamben with a 6 AM dive on the USS Liberty–one of Bali’s most famous dive sites.  The Liberty is an American ship that was sunk by a Japanese torpedo and then beached in Tulamben.  This dive, as with most dives in Tulamben, is done from shore, so I was loaded up into the back of a pickup truck with my gear to head to the beach.  The site is a popular dawn dive due to the presence of bumphead parrotfish, some dinosaur-looking creatures that look like they should be living in another time.  I finished the day off with three more dives–one on a wall and the other two in some muck that made for some good macro stuff.  It’s nudis galore in Tulamben!  I saw such a huge variety over the two days that there is no way I could keep them all straight.  (And in fact, the quote that opens this post came from the critter ID book my guide was using to tell me what we’d seen.)

The second day of diving it was really time to get in the muck, and my dive was on the hunt to find me the small stuff.  We began with one of those dives where you spend the first 15 minutes thinking the critters are all in hiding.  I had just turned to shooting random colorful bits of life as abstracts when things turned around–with a gorgeous seahorse–a pink one perched on a purple backdrop.  But not just that!  Not far away were two harlequin shrimp!  I was in heaven.  The rest of the day continued that way–my guide Made found critter after critter, including a frogfish.  And although I wasn’t able to take photos during one dive due to a little camera issue (I knocked the switch onto manual mode when I opened my housing…  again with the facepalm since I only checked the strobes and firing and not the focus on my tests shots… oh well!)  we finished up with a spectacular night dive back at the Liberty.

Despite having a pick up at 11:00 the next morning, I wasn’t quite done yet.  I couldn’t let the trip go by without taking my wide angle lens to the liberty, so we headed back out to the wreck for one last dive.  It was not as busy as it had been at 6 AM, and it was a great dive and good way to end my time in Tulamben.

Eka then picked me up and brought me back to Denpasar, where I picked up Genny and Andy.  Now it’s time for some land-based adventures for awhile!

Note that I’m not including all my photos in these blog posts.  This website (particularly on poor internet connections) does not like large files, so I have only uploaded the poor quality versions of the photos that I think will give the best sense of what I’m seeing.  If you click on these images, it should take you to the full-size image on my zenfolio site, which is much more stable in terms of uploading and gives me more freedom in terms of storage capacity, so I have more photos on there as well.  You can scroll through all my Bali photos here (or check out the full set of travel albums here).

Dive Summary (Nusa Lembongan):

Location: Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia

Date:  July 18, 2017

#Dives: 2

Max. Depth:  61 feet

Total Bottom Time: 88 minutes

Dive Sites:  Manta Point, Crystal Bay

 

Dive Summary (Tulamben):

Location: Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia

Date:  July 20-22, 2017

#Dives: 9

Max. Depth:  86 feet

Total Bottom Time: 476 minutes

Dive Sites:  USS Liberty, The Drop Off, Kubu, Coral Gardens, Sidem, Melasti, Seraya

 

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The Beginning of the Beginning

“We make a living by what we get.

We make a life by what we give.”

-Winston Churchill

This past Thursday, on my 200th dive, I successfully became a PADI Open Water SCUBA Instructor.  At first, I was surprised at how emotional I got after successfully completing the Instructor Exam.  After all, the big “leap” I took was quitting my job to start this year-long journey.  Yet somehow passing my IE made it all seem real.  It was the culmination of a huge journey that began the first time I ever breathed underwater and swam through schools of countless jacks in Belize.  A love affair that began that moment and continued through many more–me and the ocean.  The place where I found endless calm and peace amidst a chaotic world.  The place where I connected with the earth and was spellbound by the mystical diversity of the creatures of the deep.  And with that, I thought it fitting to share that journey and thank the many people who helped me get here.  So a big thanks to everyone mentioned in this post.

It all began on a spur-of-the-moment birthday trip to Belize with my long-time friend Jen.  We both had a lull at work and decided to make the most of it with a long weekend–planned about a week in advance.  We lobbied about ideas of where we could get easily, at first thinking of Mexico.  Somehow the idea of Belize popped up and since neither of us had been and we could get a decent fare, we pulled the trigger and booked.  Knowing we would probably do some snorkeling, I decided I should probably get myself a mask and fins.  So the day before the trip I started calling all the sporting goods and outdoor stores in Chicago.  No success whatsoever.  Finally, one of the stores asked, “have you tried that dive shop on Lincoln?”  A SCUBA store in Chicago?  I had no idea.  But I looked it up and the mythical store did, in fact, exist.  I saw that it closed at 7:00, so I planned to leave work at 5:30 to head up and get the needed equipment.

And so began the insane night that first made me a lifelong customer of Underwater Safaris.  First, I had just an awful day at work–the kind of day that makes everything that follows seem that much worse.  And then, a torrential downpour meant it took me an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trek from downtown to North Lincoln.  And that traffic meant I was very nearly out of gas by the time I arrived.  And as I parked on the street and opened my bag to grab my wallet, I found nothing but a checkbook.  (Why I had that I still have no idea.)  I had no gas, and no money that was worth anything without an ID.  And I was to leave for Belize the next day.  A pitiful, sopping mess, I went into the store anyway and asked if I could take shelter from the rain to call my friend to come meet me at a gas station and give me gas money.  I tried to hold it in, but my eyes brimmed with tears that eventually spilled over from the unrelenting bad day.  And despite it being ten minutes before closing and having no money, I asked the unthinkable–would they take a check and sell me some snorkel gear?  Marianne decided I was either having the worst day ever or was the best actress on earth, and she took pity on me.  (This long story may be a bit of a digression, but it’s an important one.  Marianne’s treatment of me that night was part of the reason I came back to Underwater Safaris when I got back–and it turned out to be somewhat of a second home for me in Chicago.  And by the way, my friend Sarah came to my rescue at the gas station, and all ended well.)

With the insanity behind me and a snorkel gear in tow, we left for Belize the next day.  Jen, a licensed open water diver who had not dove since a few post-certification dives in Thailand, talked me into doing a discover SCUBA course.  I was content to snorkel (which was not even one of my favorite activities anyway… still isn’t), but I thought, “why not?”  So the hotel hooked us up with a local dive shop who picked us up on our dock, fitted us with gear, had us watch the PADI Discover SCUBA video and ushered us onto a boat with our dive instructor (whose name I believe was Tony, although I’m not certain… we’ll just call him Tony) and our boat captain, Big Sexy (whose name I will obviously never forget).  We motored off to a shallow, calm sandbar for the confined water session, where I learned to clear my mask, and recover and clear my regulator.  Jen tagged along for this portion as well, getting a refresher since it had been sometime since she dived.  Despite thinking it would be physically impossible to remove water from a mask while STILL UNDERWATER, it was surprisingly easy.  So once I was ready, we swam off for my first dive.

As we got about ten feet down, the fear set in.  I looked up and realized I could not just stand up if I was having a problem.  The regulator began to breathe harder at depth, and while I now know that is fairly normal for a cheap regulator, I thought for certain there was something wrong with it.  So in response to Tony giving me the “OK” I gave him the “something’s wrong” sign and pointed at my regulator.  He looked at it, gave me the “you’re fine, just breathe” signal, held my hand, and we continued to swim along.  “DOESN’T HE REALIZE MY REGULATOR IS BROKEN?” a part of me thought.  But the saner part of me prevailed, realized I was still breathing, and just went along with him, likely turning his knuckles white in a grip of death.

But then something happened.  We entered a new, previously unknown universe, full of corals and fish.  I had snorkeled before, but I never had experienced anything like this.  I was seeing new things, and at the same time, I felt weightless, like I was flying.  Slowly my fingers loosened their grasp on Tony’s hand and eventually they let go.  We continued floating through this magical new world, even gliding through a school full of jacks in a small swim-through I had just moments before thought certainly I could never actually get through.  (Now the instructor in me kind of cringes at that, but nonetheless, it was incredible at the time…)  And not only that, thanks to a cheap disposable camera, we even had poor-quality greenish-tinted photos to remind us of this experience.

 

My First Dive (Sorry Sea Cucumber!  I know better now.)

As soon as I got back to Chicago, I called Underwater Safaris and signed up for a weekend confined water class to begin the certification process.  I had a week planned in Florida the following months, so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to become a “real diver.”  I had a blast learning all of the skills in the pool under the direction of my instructor Mike “Smy” Smykowski, and was surprised at how easily it came.  I had never been an athlete and was not a super strong swimmer, but thanks to Smy’s coaching and encouragement, I felt at ease in the water.  That was not true for everyone.  My buddy had some challenges with the mask skills, and even then I felt like I wanted to help her.  Looking back, I think a part of me caught the instructor bug even then.

I was so excited, I very nearly signed up for the Fiji trip with the shop that fall.  Jen talked some sense into me and suggested perhaps I wait until I actually get certified to decided if I really like it.  I agreed, but deep down I knew I was Fiji bound.

So feeling confident, during a weeklong gap between jobs, I hopped down to Fort Lauderdale Florida to do my four open water dives.  I signed up for private lessons with Lauderdale Divers.  I showed up at the shop, was fitted for my gear, and met my instructor, Chris Webber, who took me over to the harbor to board the American Dream II.  We hopped in the water, descended to the maximum depth for dive one, and hung out on the line.  (The first dive was a wreck that was beyond my limits, but I’d be able to see the wreck the next day, and the second dive would be a reef dive.)

While we were underwater, mother nature decided to give me a little test.  As I ascended the line for my safety stop, I was bobbed up and down; up and down.  The swell had grown and it was all I could do to hold in my breakfast.  (TMI:  When I got to the surface, I didn’t.  Sorry to the cop who was diving as well and ascended right below me!  Wish I had known back then that was an excellent use of an alternate underwater.)  I made it back on the boat, and after our surface interval, we hopped in for dive 2.  The swell was still pretty heavy, but we were optimistic once we descended things would get better.

They didn’t.  Aside from the swells, still making their presence known at 30 feet, there was a wicked surge.  I tried a skill, and simultaneously trying to keep from puking, I lost all control of my buoyancy.  We got to the surface, and I still remember feeling like this was not possible–I would not be able to do it.  But Chris knew I could.  “Forget the skills for now,” he said.  “Just give me 20 minutes.  All you have to do is stay down for 20 minutes and it counts.  We’ll do the skills tomorrow and just do the skills for both dives on Dive 3.  Do you think you can stay with me down there for 20 minutes?  If not, we can get back on the boat.”  I nodded and gave him the thumbs down (“let’s descend”) signal.  So he put a couple extra pounds on me and we headed down.  We didn’t get through any skills, but I made it.  Back on the boat, I wasn’t sure I could come back for the rest of the dives the next day.  But Chris encouraged me.  He promised me that conditions weren’t usually that bad, and if the water conditions had been like that when we were leaving, we wouldn’t have gone.

Mother nature decided she still didn’t want to cooperate, and she kept me in suspense.  The next day I got a call that the dives were cancelled because the seas were still rough.  They weren’t sure about the following day, so they told me they’d make the call at 7 AM the following morning.  And it turned out we were on.

Mother nature apparently decided she had tested me enough.  The seas were glass, and the visibility incredible, so I could see everything on the wreck–my first wreck dive.  I was again mesmerized.  We did the skills for dive 2 and dive 3, and still managed to have a wonderful float around the wreck.  When I ascended from dive 4, I was a certified diver.  I was so excited, I signed up to go out on the American Dream the next 2 days.  Chris was teaching another course on the boat, so he said he would help me find a buddy.  He hooked me up with two experienced divers who turned out to be the best buddies I could’ve asked for for my first dive without an instructor.  And as soon as I got back, I signed up for that Fiji trip.  (So did Jen.)

By now you’re probably wondering if I will go into this excruciating amount of detail for every dive trip I’ve been on.  Of course not.  Suffice it to say that the following years, diving was where I felt truly happy.  I’ve been fortunate enough that every dive trip I’ve been on has been not only fantastic diving, but on every single trip I’ve met new and interesting people I genuinely enjoyed spending time with–many of whom I keep in touch with to this day.  So from Dive Wananavu to the Kona Aggressor to to Salt Cay Divers to CocoView Resort to Atlantis Dumaguete and everywhere else I’ve dived–thank you to everyone I’ve dived with–whether it be fellow guests or divemasters/instructors.  I’ve learned so much from watching other divers and talking to them that truly all of you have left a mark on me.

But I want to give a special shout-out to those who have dove with me and taught me over the past year.  It has been about a year since I decided to take the instructor plunge, and so I’ve been thinking of diving a bit differently since then.  First, I want to thank every person who works at at Small Hope Bay, but especially the dive staff there.  Despite having never actually taken a class there, I feel like my diving has grown by leaps and bounds in the past year thanks to my three trips to Small Hope.   I was given the option of navigating dive sites on my own (and not an easy dive site like a wreck or a wall), which gave me confidence in my compass and my navigation abilities.  I went to depths I quite literally never thought possible and even did a cave dive.  Watching the instructors there teach my others and guide people on DSDs showed me what I want to be as an instructor.  It is everything diving should be, and I am not sure there is anywhere I’ve ever had more fun.

And of course, there is simply no way I would have passed my IE without my fabulous divemaster instructors, Marc Merel and Ashton Kinsey, or my fellow DMCs Stacy and Jamie.  The divemaster course was fun but it was also a challenge.  I started to think about diving in an entirely new way.  And I started to think of myself in an entirely new way as well.  I really wasn’t certain I would be able to swim fast enough to pass the water skills, but they gave me confidence in myself.  (And I don’t think I’ve ever been so elated as when Marc yelled “4!” and held up four fingers after my tired diver tow.)  Plus, watching them teach open water students makes me hope that someday I can be that kind of instructor.  The joy in new divers’ faces is something I hope to see many times.

And last (chronologically) but certainly not least, a huge thanks to the team at Blue Corner Dive in Nusa Lembongan, especially Cody McDonald and Rosie Dixon, and my fellow instructor candidates Chris Danna and Belinda Huang.  The last few weeks have been physically and emotionally demanding for me.  Getting used to diving in a new environment while learning new skills has been more challenging than I expected it to be, but you all got me through.  The support and encouragement has been outstanding, and if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Thanks to all of you.  Fittingly, Rosie reminded me the other day that the Winston Churchill post that opens this post is at the beginning of our instructor manual.  Well all of you have given me a lot, and I hope one day I can do the same for other divers.

So to wrap up this lengthy (sorry) post, I felt like quitting my job was the beginning, but it really wasn’t.  In the opening paragraph, I said the IE is a culmination, but it really isn’t.  This is the beginning.  It’s the beginning of my new life.  Even though I don’t plan to be a full-time instructor, I hope that teaching diving can always be a part of that life in some way, shape, or form.  And reflecting on this story, I remember attending my first Underwater Safaris party and running into Smy after finishing my certification.  I told him “I’m finished!”  He replied “No, you’re just starting.”

And so I am.

Photo Credit:  Cody McDonald, Blue Corner Dive

Dive Summary:

Location: Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia

Date:  July 5, 7, 8, 10, 13, 15 & 16, 2017

#Dives: 12

Max. Depth:  81 feet

Total Bottom Time: 433 minutes

Dive Sites:  Pontoon, Mangrove, Sekkohlah Dasar, Sental, Buyuk, Pura Ped

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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

“Let’s talk trash…. Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest.” 

-Syliva A. Earle, The World is Blue:  How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One

For the last week and a half or so, I’ve been busy with my IDC course at Blue Corner Dive in Nusa Lembongan, soaking up lots of new information and learning to teach people how to dive.  It’s been a lot of fun and I have fabulous instructors and two great classmates, but after a week in the classroom and pool, all three of us candidates were itching to get back in the ocean!  Lucky us, on Saturday, we all got to participate in a Project AWARE Dive Against Debris (along with the DMTs and several members of the Blue Corner team).  Some of you may know that marine conservation is a cause near and dear to my heart (so much so that I hope to make a career out of it somehow), so I was stoked to get in the water for a good cause.  And even luckier for me, my job was to document our efforts as the designated photographer!

For our first stop, we went to Caring Sari, which is the adopted dive site for Blue Corner’s divemaster program.  The dive site is absolutely stunning, and we were fortunate enough to have pristine conditions–clear visibility and no current to speak of.  This gave us a great opportunity to focus on our task of cleaning the place up!  It’s a popular spot for fisherman, so the most waste at this dive site is fishing line and nets.  The Blue Corner team went to work with their knives and scissors to get as much of the line and net we could, along with any other errant trash.  Jo and Steph took home the prize for the heaviest bag for sure, having dragged up a whopper of a fishing net.

After a nice relaxing surface interval and a tasty lunch, next it was off to Buyuk, the adopted dive site for Blue Corner’s IDC program.  Buyuk is near a harbor, so it tends to be the recipient of a lot of trash from the boats.  Although the current had picked up a tiny bit, conditions were still pristine, and the water crystal clear.  With the little bit of current I wasn’t able to move around the group and get as many action shots, but we still were able to do some good work!  And have some fun, of course.

 

But Buyuk was pretty clean!  We ended up carrying away about 1kg of trash.  It really is a stunning dive site, with gorgeous corals teeming with a huge variety of fish and sealife.  But I’ll be interested to hear whether this dive site is affected by cyclical patterns.  After all, busy season is coming, and I fear the harbor will bring more trash to this stunning place.

When we were done diving, it was all smiles back on the boat!

Finally, we made it back to the shop, where it was time to sort, weigh, and dispose of our take.  Everyone who participates in Dives Against Debris across the world submits data to Project AWARE, which helps them keep track of the health of our oceans, how the amount of debris changes with seasons and local events (whether it be weather-related or based on an influx of tourism or other activities at particular times of year).

 

  

Overall, it was a great experience, and I think we all learned a lot and had a lot of fun in the process.  It is great to make your dives count, and be able to make a difference in the marine ecosystem.  And seeing the trash–particularly the plastics and remnants of consumer products–makes you think about how everything we do affects the health of our oceans and our planet.  Even if you live nowhere near the ocean, those streams, rivers, and lakes all ultimately lead to the same place, and what we do in one place affects living creatures all over the world. Although these dives were pretty clean, I’ve seen tons of garbage throughout my years of diving that can never be picked up.  It’s terribly sad, and I hate to think about how many beautiful sea creatures are harmed by our waste.  So think twice next time you use that disposable plastic lid, straw, or water bottle!  It may not always be possible to opt for something you can reuse again in the future, but every little bit helps!  And if you’re a diver, check out whether there are any Project AWARE events happening at your next dive destination!  It’s a great way to have fun and do your part.

After those great dives on Saturday, it was back to the classroom for more IDC studies.  But my fellow instructor candidates and I did manage to sneak in one more dive–a dawn dive right in the midst of our EFRI training.   And as luck would have it, we were great with not one, not two, but THREE molas–my first sighting ever.  And while the photo I got wasn’t great, at least I have proof I saw it!  It’s really hard to describe these fantastic creatures.  Even having seen photos of them next to divers, their scale is still a shock the first time you see them.  Nothing I’ve seen has ever seemed so massive.  (Although I haven’t been graced with the presence of a whale shark yet.)  And, as with any time I am awestruck by some gorgeous creature, the more I am reminded that every little bit we can do to save our seas comes one step closer to protecting them.

(Note:  This file is for some reason not agreeing with this site,

but click through for the full-size version if you want a better look.)

Thanks for some great diving, Blue Corner!

Dive Summary:

Location: Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia

Date:  July 1 & 3, 2017

#Dives: 3

Max. Depth:  130 feet

Total Bottom Time: 122 minutes

Dive Sites:  Caring Sari, Buyuk, Blue Corner

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The First Week

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.”

-Danny Kaye

It’s been roughly a week since I began my six-month overseas journey (give or take a day…  the time zones make it hard to keep track) so that means it’s about time that I start documenting and sharing my travels.  It’s been a wonderful first week, although relatively uneventful, which is generally a good thing when it comes to international travel.

I set off on Sunday from Chicago, ready for 30+ hours of travel time.  Fortunately for me, I had accumulated enough miles for a business class ticket (and I got one for a relative steal) so the journey was entirely comfortable.  I slept most of the 13 hour flight to Tokyo and the 6 hour flight to Bangkok (yes, I am a champion sleeper), so I arrived relatively refreshed and ready to do a little bit of wandering around Sanur after arrival in Denpasar.  Upon arrival, I was not surprised to see that the Denpasar airport was a zoo with hundreds of drivers waiting to collect their fares.  Fortunately I had pre-arranged a driver who told me it would be easiest to meet a bit past the chaos, so getting out of the airport was relatively stress-free.

My driver, Eka, took me to my homestay–a small collection of rooms with an open air common area and a small pool, tucked away in an alley off the main drag.  It was a modest, but comfortable place, and the hosts were delightful.  After freshening up a bit, I went to explore Sanur beach and have a bit of dinner.  To get there, I had to cross the main drag, which it turned out was an adventure in and of itself.  While there are pedestrian signals, they don’t seem to mean much, and it was a bit of a game of frogger, but I made it across safely.  Once there, I enjoyed a simple local meal of fish, rice, and soup at a small warung recommended by the owner of my homestay.  Delicious, but the soup was too spicy for me.  After wiping my hand across my mouth, I thought I had numbed my lips with Deet only to remember I was wearing no bug spray–just the natural effects of the chilis!  I checked out Sanur beach and walked around a bit before tackling the return trip across the road and relaxing for the rest of the evening.

My humble but comfortable homestay in Sanur

 

Dinner and exploring on Sanur beach

(Update 7/2:  I finally got around to processing the Sanur photos on my good camera so I’ve added a few above.)

In the morning before I headed out for Nusa Lembongan, my hosts offered me breakfast, and I opted for some banana pancakes that it seems are very popular here in Bali.  More of a crepe than a pancake, they contain fresh banana and appear to be fried in oil in a cast iron skillet, giving them a char that reminded me of the Chapati we had in Uganda (although made of much thinner batter).  Delicious!  Then in the early afternoon I headed off to Nusa Lembongan, my home for the next month, and the location of my IDC (instructor development course).

Getting to the island requires taking a speedboat from Sanur beach, which has no harbor so it is necessary to wade to the boat.  Fortunately the waves were small and we were able to board easily.  But the tide was low and arriving in Nusa Lembongan was another story!  The boat captain took about 40 minutes to maneuver through the shallow waters to get us close enough to disembark.  We finally made it, though, and I was dropped at the homestay where I had booked my first two nights–or so I thought.  As it turned out, the homestay was roughly 300 meters from the main road through an alley.  No problem if you’re not dragging two large bags.  But eventually a gentleman came to my aid and I made it.  The hostess, a lovely and welcoming woman, invited me to sit on a chair on the beach while they prepared my room.  Only after I got up did I realize I had a friend lounging below me.  Dogs seem to be everywhere on the island, and they seem to keep hanging out by me.  Perhaps they can tell I miss Ernie!

I headed over to the dive shop where I met a few people and had dinner before collapsing back at my homestay.  I hadn’t planned to dive the next morning, but I hadn’t adjusted to the time and woke up at 5 AM, so I couldn’t resist!  Fortunately for me, the owners of the homestay made me a banana pancake before I headed out.  Nothing beats a beachfront breakfast!

I headed out to the dive shop for two dives.  The diving on Nusa Lembongan is mostly drift diving and is quite lovely.  The first site we visited was Manta Point.  And unlike most dive sites where naming the site seems to scare away it’s namesake (I’ve yet to see any sharks at a site with “shark” in the name, or turtles at a site with “turtle” in the name, etc.), this one is aptly named.  The mantas like the area because the currents bring in a great deal of plankton.  That means less visibility, but it’s worth it to see these beautiful and graceful creatures.  Although I’d seen them before, it had been some time, and somehow I had forgotten how awe-inspiring they are.  For our second dive, we visited Crystal Bay, where the visibility was higher and the corals more abundant.  I was pleased to see how healthy and teeming with life the reef was.

Because it was just one day of diving, I left my large bulky camera back and opted to just carry my small point and shoot.  Most of the shots I got were not great, especially of the mantas.  (Relatively poor visibility means you have to be really close to get a decent photo, and we didn’t get super close.)  But I still can’t resist sharing one manta photo, since they’re such beautiful creatures.  You can’t get a sense of the size from the photo, but this was a relatively small one.  We did see one big guy–probably 12-15 feet long.  And while these pictures aren’t the best I’ve taken, you can get a sense of the healthy marine life from the rest of them.  And no, the third photo isn’t just coral.  Can you spot the fish?  (I believe it’s a scorpionfish, although I don’t have my ID books with me.)  I just love seeing how some sea creatures have evolved to blend in with their surroundings.

The following day, I started my IDC study period.  The first segment is made up of largely classroom and pool work, so it will be awhile before I’m back in the sea.  The first few days have been theory study days, so there isn’t much exciting to report.  I did take part in the weekly Friday night party, where I got to see the new divemaster trainees’ “snorkel test.”  Not the 800m snorkel test in the water, but a different kind of snorkel test that involves drinking through a snorkel in costume.  It was quite entertaining, and the party was a lot of fun.

I’ve also moved into a new homestay, where I’ll stay for the remainder of my time in Nusa Lembongan.  The owner, Ketut, is very friendly and welcoming, and keeps a lovely, lush garden, which makes for a welcoming home.  He also offered to teach me Indonesian, and after suggesting he teach me 3-5 words every day, he prattled off about 60.  Hopefully eventually I’ll absorb some of them.  He likes to chat, so hopefully at least some learning is inevitable!

Overall, the trip is off to a great start.  The people on the island are extremely friendly, and it’s a safe, relatively comfortable place.  I am looking forward to spending the next month getting to know this place.

Dive Summary:

Location: Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia

Date:  June 22, 2017

#Dives: 2

Max. Depth:  75 feet

Total Bottom Time: 99 minutes

Dive Sites:  Manta Point, Crystal Bay

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A Love Letter to my Home

“May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

-inscribed on the Golden Spike, Promontory Point, 1869

Dear America,

Today is the day.  The day I leave you to set off on an adventure around the world, to see what else is out there.  And although I’ve left you before, it’s never been quite like this.  This trip is the longest, has the most destinations, and is marked with the most uncertainty since I’m not exactly where what or where I’ll be coming back to at the end of it.

True, we’ve had some hard times recently.  I’ve seen a divisiveness at home that makes my heart ache and brings tears to my eyes on a regular basis.  I’ve seen people do some unconscionable things and been hit with the staunch reality of how far we still have to go.  And hopefully when I come back, you’ll have come a little farther, and we can continue to press on together.  Maybe I can even help.

But this letter is not about the challenges that have recently come to pass.  On a recent trip to the Bahamas, someone asked me what I’d miss the most while I was gone.  I wasn’t able to answer immediately–before leaving I was so filled with excitement for my new adventure and so overcome with all the work I had to do in preparation that I hadn’t really stopped to think about it.

Of course, I will miss my family and friends.  That’s the obvious part.  I have so many amazing people in my life who are supporting me on this great adventure.  But my parents (as well as some friends) are coming to visit me at some point, and the reality is I have friends spread across the US (and the world) who I don’t see on a regular basis anyway.  Plus, thanks to the internet, no one is ever too far away.  So I wanted to look beyond that at you, my home, and think about the other things.

So without further ado, here are the things about you that I will miss.  Some are shallow or mundane, others less so, but I think I’ve taken them all for granted.

  • Ernie:  I can’t say much more without crying.  I miss him already.

    Who wouldn’t miss that face?

  • Being able to get pretty much anything, anytime:  Hungry?  Have food delivered.  Something that can’t be delivered?  Hop in the car and you can probably get it.  Not nearby?  Go on Amazon and get it the next day.  We are so spoiled.  And on that note…
  • Hopping in the car and running a quick errand: I know, in Chicago it’s less quick, but still…  It’s not going to be so easy to get around where I have no car and don’t speak the language.  And no Target to go get whatever I need…
  • Blue Steel (my car):  There is simply nothing like riding through the country with the top down on a summer day.
  • Live Theater:  One of my favorite releases, and it’s hard to believe I’m going to miss so many amazing shows.
  • Blow Dryers (and a climate that makes them useful): This is so superficial, but it’s true.  Even the most adventurous among us, and those of us who give the fewest f—s sometimes feel like doing our hair and looking pretty.  My hair is going to be a massive ball of frizz for the next year.  And I’ve learned in the tropics that even if you blow dry your hair, it’s more or less a futile exercise.
  • Good Old Midwestern Food: OK, back to some more mundane things. I know that I will eat and eat well all over the world.  But I’ll be missing that late August midwestern sweet corn, frozen custard, Wisconsin cheese, grass-fed steak, and a plethora of other things that just don’t seem to be the same anywhere else.
  • Variety of food:  It’s not just the specific food you offer that I’ll miss, but also the fact that I can get just about anything my heart desires.  It’s pretty awesome.
  • The Seasons:  Ask me if I still feel this way when I step off the plane in December.
  • Reliable Air Conditioning: This is one I’ll get used to, but I’ll still be on a hunt for a room with a breeze.
  • Ready Access to Internet:  Another double-edged coin, I am going to be in some places where it will be tough to get in touch.   This will make some logistics annoying as well as be tough in the times I’m homesick.  But again, a little liberating too…
  • My Clothes:  Another superficial one, but it’s going to be an adjustment to have basically 4 things to choose from every morning.  (At the same time, maybe this will be a little liberating.)
  • Being Able to Wear Whatever I Damned Well Please:  Related, and it seems superficial, but it’s about more than that.  Women have a long way to go in America, but at least if I want to walk around in a bikini, I have the right to do that.  No one is going to tell me I’d better cover my shoulders or wear pants or a knee-length skirt.  I respect the customs of other countries and locations and will cover my shoulders and legs where required, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be happy about it.  (Plus, it’s  going to be HOT.)  And yes, I realize there remain problems at home relating to body shaming, slut shaming, fat shaming, etc., but the bottom line is no one’s getting arrested for having bare shoulders or knees–we’re better off than some areas of the world.
  • Unlimited access to fresh, clean, hot water:  Some of the places I’ll have fresh and hot water.  Others it may not be hot.  Some places even the water from the taps may be brackish.  But regardless, it is a precious commodity.  Home, you give me the ability to take a wholly unnecessary soak in a giant tub of water, and all of us who live there are so fortunate for that.  We take it for granted.  (As an aside, there is a great book, Tropical Fish in which a young woman from Uganda describes her first bath.  I highly recommend it as it will give you a perspective on how ridiculous and amazing a bath seems in some areas of the world.)
  • Cleanliness, Generally:  Although far from perfect and there’s a lot of work to do, the air, water, and land at home remain cleaner than many other areas of the world.  Please, I implore you, keep it that way, and make it even better.
  • Purple mountains majesty, and the rest of it from sea to shining sea:  Living there, I often fail to recognize how beautiful the American landscape is.  We have so many national treasures.  I leave without having explored anywhere close to all of them, but that leaves me a lot to do on return.  Please treasure them and keep them safe for my return.
  • Diversity:  I’ve met so many people from all walks of life without ever having to leave my country.  I’ve learned from all of them.  Not just diversity of background, but diversity of thoughts and ideas.  It’s what drives us all crazy sometimes, but it’s also one thing that makes you great.  I’m sad to see not everyone appreciates that diversity.  I hope when I’m gone, some of the wounds can be mended, and people realize how your diversity is one of your greatest assets.
  • Your Inspirational History:  As I prepared to leave, I flipped through my freshly-renewed passport and the quotations that adorned the pages.  (I’d encourage everyone to do that.  That was the source for the quote that started this blog.)  I continue to marvel at what the founding fathers did, and I hope you continue to work to live up to the promise of the great American experiment.

This list isn’t comprehensive, and I’m sure there will be other things I miss as I’m away for longer.  But even though there are some things I won’t miss, and you’ve sometimes broken my heart and made me cry, you are my home.  And when it’s time to find home, I know the way.

Aue, aue
We set a course to find
A brand new island everywhere we roam
Aue, aue
We keep our island in our mind
And when it’s time to find home
We know the way

-“We Know the Way” from Moana, lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

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A Remarkable Absence of Fear

See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me
And no one knows, how far it goes
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know
If I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go

-“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana, lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Today marked both an end and a beginning.  It was my last day at my law firm.  My last day as a real lawyer.  And to invoke an old (but in this case very apt) cliché, the first day of the rest of my life.

It was a bittersweet day.  I said goodbye to colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and even adversaries whom I’ve grown to really enjoy talking to and spending time with in recent years.  I certainly hope and expect to keep in touch with many of them, but it’s unrealistic to expect that will be true of everyone, so in a way it’s a sad day.

I certainly felt a mix of emotions as I sent my farewell email, cleared out my belongings, turned over my computer, and left the office for the last time.  It was made a bit less dramatic by the fact that most people had left the office early, leaving fewer faces to say goodbye to, so I didn’t get teary-eyed or weepy.  (At least for now…  that’s likely still to come at the happy hour celebration we’re scheduling a few weeks out.)  I still felt, however, just about every emotion I could imagine: sad, joyous, relieved, excited, grateful, determined….  But as I rode down the elevator it struck me that a single emotion was remarkable in its absence:  fear.  I was not the least bit afraid that I was making a mistake or that I will fail in my new endeavor.

Certainly that may still be to come.  But at least for now, I have this remarkable feeling that whatever I do, I am absolutely certain it is for the best.  I have not a single doubt that it is the right decision for me–not an ounce of fear of what lies in store.  Because the reality is that I can never know how far I can go toward my dreams unless I actually leave.  In that sense, I feel there is really nothing to fear.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a hard time answering questions to the satisfaction of either myself or those asking them.  A lot of people at work have asked (always with excited curiosity and never judgment) questions like “What kind of job will you have?” “Where will you work?”  “Where will you live?”  “What exactly do you mean by marine conservation?”  The true and most accurate answer at this moment in time is I don’t really know.  But the lawyer in me still doesn’t allow me to give that as an answer and most often I stumble through some attempt to portray some of the (many) ideas in my head.  I could work for a non-profit.  I could work for the U.S. government (well, not really at the moment, but that’s a whole other blog…).  I could work with foreign governments.  I could live in DC working directly on federal government policy.  I could live abroad on some idyllic tropical island.  I could focus on coral conservation, overfishing, endangered marine life, effects of climate change…   The possibilities really are endless.  And paradoxically, it is that uncertainty that rids me of fear–it makes me realize that regardless of what I actually end up doing, I know I will do something that will effect change.  What exactly?  I won’t know until I try.

You may or may not have noticed that I’ve opened up every blog post with a quote–something that inspires me, motivates me, or reflects my thoughts.  Since I started this, I knew that for one important post I would use my favorite line from Moana.   Now I’m usually not much for cartoon movies, but I used my god-daughter Parker as an excuse to see it because the lyrics and music were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  But the movie ended up resonating with me.  Moana has to leave the comfort and safety of her island for the unknown in order to do what she is made to do.  (And if I ever take one of those silly “which Disney princess are you” quizzes, she’d BETTER be it.)

When I watched the movie I felt as though the song could’ve been written for me–it expressed perfectly how I was drawn to the ocean.  I thought I’d probably use it when I set sail across the world, but upon reflecting on this post, it seemed truly perfect for my exodus from my legal career.  “If I go there’s just no telling how far I go.”  For me, more importantly,  unless I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go.  As I stare out into the unknown and prepare to take the leap, I won’t know where I’ll land unless my feet leave the ground.  I can’t know how far I can go in this world unless I actually go.  Unless I leave my comfortable career and embark on something new.  Unless I leave my island and set out toward worlds unknown.

And so I go.

There’s a moon in the sky and the wind is behind me
Soon I’ll know how far I’ll go

-“How Far I’ll Go (Reprise)” from Moana, lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

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Small Hope, Big Happiness

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”  

-Emily Dickinson

My parents, cousin Holly, and I just returned from a fabulous week in Small Hope Bay in Andros Island, Bahamas.  It was the second visit for both Holly and me, and the first for  my parents.  It was just as wonderful as I remembered, with fantastic diving, relaxation, weather, and above all, people.  This is one of my favorite places to visit, with an incredible atmosphere where everyone truly makes you feel like family.  Holly and I had a wonderful time reconnecting with the friends on staff we made on our last visit, and all of us made new friendships with staff and guests alike.

My parents and I arrived on a Friday, and immediately were welcomed with the same reception I had remembered from my first visit.  And, despite a hurricane in October, the scenery was just as beautiful as always.

We just missed the humpback whale they’d seen on the dives that morning (so unusual in this area!), but of course, I hoped into the water to dive as soon as possible the next morning.  Humpback or not, the diving was just as enjoyable as ever.  That afternoon, my parents tested the waters with a discover scuba course around the dock.  I decided to join them, and nearly as soon as we submerged in the water, we were welcomed by a curious dolphin who swam around and checked us out during the entire dive.

Holly joined us that evening, and the next day the two of us began our week of diving just as much as we possibly could.  And what a week it was.  Some highlights were a huge spotted eagle ray, a hawksbill turtle, more fish than you could possibly count, and healthy, beautiful reefs.  And as a first for both me and Holly, we dove “over the wall”–a dive that involves descending over a vertical wall to a small “beach” about 180 feet below the surface.  While on previous trips, I never would have imagined going below the PADI-recommended 140 feet on a dive, Small Hope has run this dive for many years (since before PADI existed I believe) without incident.  I knew Jeff, Fede, and the rest of the team would never allow us to do it if it wasn’t safe, and sure enough, I was able to complete the dive well within my computer’s limits by staying only about 3 minutes at 180 (which is consistent with the Navy’s tables).  I definitely enjoyed getting “narced” for the first time, but the experience of floating down into the depths is even better and is something that is unparalleled and unusual.  Other highlights of the diving were the Blue Hole, the Marion, Bommies, and Brad’s Mountain, all of which made for great photo ops (along with many others).  Overall, the diving was fantastic.  Here are a few of my favorite underwater shots (or click here for the full gallery).  I don’t have any from the “over the wall” dive as I decided the safest course of action was to dive without the distraction of my camera.

The dive crew was great as ever.  As Holly had a good time “slaying Os” with Dennis and Tony and striking a pose with Terran.  We had so much fun diving all week with these three, Fede, Brie, Jay, Marco, and Catharina, as well as the guests who were there during our visit.  It seemed to be the week of women, with a majority of women making up the dive boat almost every day!  A great time was had by all, and along with great diving, there were lots of laughs had–both underwater and on the dive boat.

Another cool thing to see was how much Small Hope’s coral nursery has grown since our last visit.  On PVC pipes, Small Hope has hung pieces of Staghorn coral.  When Holly and I visited in August, they were only small pieces, but they’ve now grown and will soon be transplanted to the reef as part of Small Hope’s coral conservation efforts.  On two of our dives, guests helped clean the coral trees.  Sadly I couldn’t manage cleaning while handling my camera, but I did manage to document their efforts!  On my next visit I will have to leave the camera behind and help out.

And of course, it wasn’t just the diving that made our trip enjoyable.  At a great Bahamian night, Jay and his band rocked the house while another guest known as “margarita John” treated us all to his special concoctions.  All week there was fun, dancing, and games, including Bahamian domino lessons.  We also took an afternoon off to visit the Androsia batik factory and Fresh Creek.

Overall, this visit to Small Hope (aside from being fun and relaxing) reminded me of why I love the dive community.  Wherever I go, I find the most relaxed, laid-back, friendly people on earth.  Everyone has a story to tell, whether it be of some faraway place, some hilarious person, or just a fabulous dive.  I have found that divers are eager to get to know strangers and make new friends with anyone–whether they be from a similar or very different background than their own.  This tends to be true of the best dive destinations–not only the staff but also those who frequently them–whether it be divers, fishermen, nature lovers, or people who just love to be around the sea.  At a time when so many people seem to be afraid or skeptical of those who are different, it is refreshing to be among people who will welcome everyone with a smile, a handshake, and even a hug.  Nowhere is this more true than Small Hope Bay.

As I watched the final sunset and sunrise of this trip, I knew we’d all be back.

Dive Summary:

Location: Small Hope Bay, Andros Island, Bahamas

Dates:  March 10-20, 2017

#Dives: 22

Max. Depth:  179 feet

Total Bottom Time: 1,051 minutes

Dive Sites: Fisherman’s Wall, Aquarium, Dana’s Delight, The Plaza, Brad’s Mountain, Cara’s Cavern, Peter’s Mystery Shallows/Klein’s, Blue Hole, Jeff’s Ladder, The Marion, Sea Turtle Ridge, The Barge, Top of the Wall, Helen’s Hideout, Over the Wall, Bommies

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The Magical Tunnel of Rainbow Lights

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.”

-Rumi

When I was a little girl, I adored the tunnel at O’Hare leading from the B gates to the C gates in Terminal 1.  When my mom was a flight attendant, we would go through the tunnel to get to flight attendant operations whenever we were at the airport, and my dad and I would wait in the crew lounge while my mom checked the (then physical) bulletin board for trades and other communications, and entered her bids on the crew computers.  When we were visiting, it was usually because we were getting ready to sit and wait for our names to be called for a stand-by seat on the plane.

So many fond memories started or ended in that tunnel.  We nearly always walked through that tunnel at least once on each trip–I was either starting our for or returning from some other city or even country, where I was soaking up the different sights, sounds, people, and experiences.  Those rainbow lights and Gerschwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that accompanied them became a magical portal to and from some other world.  Every time I walked through, my head would be filled with visions of excitement and adventure.

But as I grew up and I started traveling for work, my reaction to that tunnel changed.  I passed through it far more than I ever had as a child, but it was no longer associated with excitement and anticipation of the world I was about to explore–it became a symbol for stress, anxiety, and exhaustion.  Rather than let myself be swept up in the twinkling music or the rainbow lights, I would put my head down and walk hurriedly along, focusing on the clank of my heels along the moving walkways rather than the magical music.  I felt as though I was a cog in the machine, yet another person rushing from one destination to another, unable to enjoy the journey along the way.

This past week I took the my first business trip since telling work of my new adventure.  Now, ever since I gave them this news, I keep waiting for the anxiety of this big impending change to set in.  I keep thinking that at some point, someone is going to look at me like I’m crazy and trigger a seed of doubt in my brain that I just might be.  I keep waiting to be hit with a wall of fear that I am giving up security for uncertainty.  It may come at some point, but it still hasn’t.  And as I returned from this latest (and nearly last) business trip, walking through the tunnel after my delayed flight from Newark landed at the far end of the C-gates, I felt the opposite of anxiety.  I looked up at the rainbow lights and allowed myself to be surrounded by the song that I had once associated with excitement and adventure.  I couldn’t help but smile.  It once again served as a reminder that the world is massive and there is so much yet to explore.  I know I have made the right decision.  I may be going toward the unknown, but I am letting myself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what I really love.

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While the Sun Yet Shines, Do All You Can

‘Oi kau ka lā, e hana i ola honua.

While the sun yet shines, do all you can.  (Hawaiian proverb)

Ever since I was a little girl, I loved exploring.  Living in Northern California, I loved to examine the tidepools and look for bugs, butterflies, and plants in the woods, immersing myself in nature.  My dad, who was a biology teacher at the time, taught me to identify the various critters I saw.

As I grew up, thanks to my mom’s job as a flight attendant, I had the opportunity to explore the world with my family.  From Hawaii to Peru to Europe, I had the good fortune to experience far corners of the earth–cities, countryside, and everything in between.  Eventually, my love of animals led me to study zoology, working in a primate lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and traveling to Costa Rica for a summer program.

Deciding a career in research wasn’t for me, I eventually went to law school.  However, my love of nature continued to drive my travels and my free time.  In 2009, I traveled to Uganda and Rwanda, where I went on a safari and visited the mountain gorillas.  As I looked into the eyes of these gentle giants, I felt connected with nature in a way that I still cannot fully describe.  It was one of the highlights of my life.

A gorilla watches me while lounging in the bush

As I began my career in law, I made it a priority to travel whenever I could.  My family and I continued to go on regular vacations.  Even in Chicago, I regularly strolled through the zoo to watch the animals and get a bit of an escape.  In 2013, shortly before I switched law firms, a friend and I took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Belize, where she convinced me to try a discovery scuba.  As I descended past the comfort of the shallows, I was terrified.  My instructor calmed me down, and when I soon became immersed in the coral reefs and schools of fish, my terror turned to absolute awe.  I could not believe what an amazing new world I was experiencing.

I was hooked on the underwater world.  With the help of the great folks at Underwater Safaris in Chicago, I learned to dive, and before long it was a rare vacation when I did not haul my scuba gear along.  When a trial settled, I took a last minute trip to Hawaii, where I spent a week on the Kona Aggressor.  One morning, I woke to some unusual hustle and bustle on the boat.  When I looked out my porthole and saw fins I knew what all the fuss was about–dolphins were surrounding our boat and everyone was hopping in to join them.

I hurried on with my snorkel gear (so quickly I forgot my booties and they had to be tossed to me from the boat) and began to swam out to where others were already enjoying the dolphins.  Suddenly I was flanked by dolphins on either side.  I tried (rather clumsily) to swim with a dolphin kick, and one particularly curious dolphin started mimicking my movements and became close enough to touch.  Having been taught well by all of my instructors, I did not want to reach out and make contact–I believe it is better to leave anything wild undisturbed.  Much to my amazement, however, the dolphin leaned in and rubbed itself against me.  (I would later read that dolphins bond with each other in this way.)  Much as with the gorillas, I felt a profound connection to this remarkably intelligent being.

Photo credit:  Matthew Malczewski

In February of 2015, I was hit with an extreme shock when my Uncle Bill suddenly passed away.  A lifelong traveler, he had always had a profound influence on me, and I loved hearing his stories from his time in the Peace Corps and various other travels around the globe.  In particular, I loved hearing about his love for Hawaii, knowing he considered himself “Hawaiian at Heart.”

Although I had lost other loved ones, this was the first time I had lost someone so suddenly, and it shook me.  As I helped go through his apartment, I found a magnet:

“While the sun yet shines, do all you can.”  The message stuck with me.  It made me think “what am I doing with my life?”  Although I had a successful career as a litigator and enjoyed much of my job, I wasn’t truly fulfilled.  I knew I was in a rut, and something needed to change.  Time passed, and things stayed the same.  But I didn’t know what to change or how to change it, so I pressed on.  I did, however, realize that I needed to spend time with those I loved, and my cousins and I planned a trip to Hawaii to celebrate Bill’s life.

Shortly before that trip, my grandfather passed away.  Unlike my uncle, his passage was expected, but it still served as a reminder that life is only temporary.  As my family and I had a wonderful trip to Hawaii and spread the ashes of both Bill and my Grandpa, the nagging feeling that something was missing in my life returned, along with the message, “while the sun yet shines, do all you can.”  Yet, I still had no idea how to make that happen.  And as I got busier and busier with work, I pushed it down and continued on.

In the summer of 2016, my family was struck another blow when my cousin’s young 22-year-old wife passed away from leukemia.  Although I had not had the opportunity to spend much time with her, this again had a profound affect on me.  I realized not only that I need to do all I can while the sun yet shines, but the sun could set at any moment.  If I wanted to make a change, I had to take the leap and do it.  I asked myself, “when have I truly been happiest?”  “When have I made the most of my time?”  I immediately thought of my experience swimming with the dolphins and the peace I felt while scuba diving.

While I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, I decided I wanted to change the focus of my career and do something that involved the ocean.  I made a commitment to myself.  While the sun yet shines, I will do all I can.  I even made that commitment permanent, and designed a tattoo that combined that saying with a sunset (as a reminder that life is short), and a dolphin (as a reminder of my  incredible experience in Hawaii).  (I use the word “designed” loosely.  I came up with a hastily drawn sketch and the incredible Su Houston at West Town Tattoo in Chicago turned it into something truly beautiful.)

So now I’m taking the plunge and am following my dream.  I will leave my job in April, and in June I will begin a year exploring the globe, diving, volunteering, and taking as many photos as I can manage to organize.  It’s both thrilling and terrifying, and I think the best way to commit myself to documenting it is by sharing it all with you.  The support I’ve gotten from friends, families, and co-workers has been astonishing.  I know that there will be tough and scary moments, but you all will carry me through.  And I don’t know exactly what my future will look like yet or how I’ll get there, but the time off will serve me well to hit the reset button and think about what I really want from my life.  I hope you all enjoy following along.

And finally, in the spirit of doing all I can, I’ve realized I need to make the most in my remaining time in Chicago.  Fortunately for me, the Shedd Aquarium picked this weekend to open its doors for free to Illinois residents, so I took my camera along for some practice.  I can’t wait to have so many more opportunities to practice with my camera that are actually underwater!

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