I looked over the edge of the boat at the slim shadows schooling below. Beneath the crystal blue water I could only make out their forms. Their shape, number, and the way they swam over and past one another reminded me of a bucket of minnows. I was about to jump into a huge bucket of minnows! Except for one thing—all the minnows were sharks.
Incredible. Seriously, awesome! This was why we were here: to scuba dive with the Caribbean reef sharks that call this area of the Bahamas home. This wasn’t my first large-animal dive experience (night diving with 13-foot manta rays in Hawaii is equally stunning), but I’d managed to convince my husband that this wasn’t a crazy idea. I was thrilled.
A few moments later we were in the water. No cages, no protective gear—just a guide, some know-how, and a lot of sharks. They circled and jostled each other, brushing us as they passed. I’m not an adrenalin junkie. I wasn’t here for the rush. I was here to see them up close, to observe them, to be awed by their natural beauty and strength.
Posing with a Caribbean reef shark, Nassau, Bahamas.
At age 10, my trusty mask worked well in the pool, but the wildlife was far less interesting.
Making eye contact with a three-inch bluegill in the beach area of my childhood lake.
I’ve been exploring under water for 30 years or so. I hope to continue to enjoy these waters for at least that many more years. I want the next generation of curious kids to dare to put their face in the water and open their eyes to see the beauty beneath the surface. But no matter how fond my memories or how powerfully beautiful my encounters, these ecosystems—from Wisconsin lakes to Caribbean coral reefs—are not guaranteed to survive the pressures we put on them. My sharks and my tiny bluegills are both in peril along with water habitats across Wisconsin and around the world.
Last month my husband and I were scuba diving off the island of Cozumel, Mexico. Our lower-impact travel choices didn’t prevent us from seeing the giant cruise ships coming and going on a daily basis. One of the most beautiful dive sites on the island, Paradise Reef, is flush with brightly colored corals, exotic fish, and sea creatures. Despite the plight of coral reefs and need to protect them worldwide, a large section of this reef (inside the protected marine park) is being “moved” to make room for yet another cruise ship dock. They are literally paving Paradise to put up a [cruise ship] parking lot! I will pause here for the song to get stuck in your head.
Beautiful corals and sponges in reef, Cozumel, Mexico.
Invasives are a growing threat as well. At one point my mother, who has been a guardian of our special lake for decades, literally stood in front of a zebra mussel encrusted weed cutter to prevent it from introducing invasive species into her paradise. Those same mussels have dramatically changed the natural balance of Lake Michigan and the scuba diving community has seen the effects first-hand.
In my heart and mind, all these waters are related. When I submerge myself in the ocean, I remember Wisconsin. When I swim in my childhood lake, I think of the Milwaukee River and of Lake Michigan; of the Fox, Sugar and Crystal Rivers; of the tide pools of coastal Maine, the kelp forests off of California, and the reefs of St Lucia. For me, a key part of my motivation for both local and global water stewardship flows from my personal experiences. The tiny bluegills, bass and painted turtles of my childhood led me to a life of encounters with sharks, manta rays and huge sea turtles. So too, our little stories are the bridge to the bigger, overarching story of water.
Gliding through the water with a green sea turtle, Kona, Hawaii.
Tell your stories. It might be the most powerful thing you do.