Diving made my world bigger. And I remember the moment it happened. I was descending through warm, clear water in Rarotonga, the largest of the South Pacific’s Cook Islands, on my fifth dive.
Inexperienced divers are often busy divers, and so it was with me. I double- and triple-checked gauges, was hyperfocused on the feeling of breathing through a regulator, fretted in gear that felt claustrophobic, and used my arms to orient myself in the strange blue expanse, expending valuable energy. Diving is about being calm and measured. I hadn’t learned that lesson yet.
But then I looked around and was stunned into stillness. I found myself in an enchanted forest straight out of a Grimms’ fairy tale. Porites, a type of stony coral, burgeoned like giant mushrooms. Brightly colored lemonpeel and flame angelfish flickered around them. Sandy channels cut between the porites, white-sand ribbons over which squadrons of ocellated eagle rays soared. Farther on, the forest morphed into a garden of Montipora coral colonies, giant rosettes providing cover for resting whitetip reef sharks.
I had been an avid snorkeler all my life, yet had no idea what I’d been missing. This was new. This was unexpected. Each dive since has been a revelation. From everything that diving has taught me, I offer these five lessons.
1. You meet the best people.
Every hobby gathers a tribe, and divers form an eclectic one. I’ve dived with doctors who treasure the underwater world as an escape from their job demands, nomadic dive guides who forgo wealth and security for a life spent close to the ocean, and engineers with a passion for diving’s technical aspects. They are, in their own ways, welcoming and helpful.
Diving is how I met my husband, Chris Taylor. The seeds for our maritime meet-cute were planted when we were children, me in Minnesota and Chris in Greece. As kids, we were both obsessed with sharks. Some 30 years later, I landed my dream assignment for National Geographic—a story about diving with great whites—and it was on this assignment, in Port Lincoln, Australia, that I met Chris, who was a dive supervisor and shark wrangler.
2. You aren’t afraid of seeing sharks.
Divers are afraid of not seeing them. From zippy reef sharks to enigmatic tigers, sharks have charisma. They are spectacular creatures to be around.
Most sharks give divers a wide berth. Occasionally they are inquisitive, but in the hundreds of dives Chris and I have been lucky enough to share with sharks, we’ve never had a negative interaction. Sharks are also a talisman of sorts: An abundance of them in an area often signals a healthy ecosystem.
It’s no coincidence that the Galápagos Marine Reserve—one of the world’s sharkiest spots—is also one of the most biologically diverse marine protected areas, home to nearly 3,000 species. But even protected places like the Galápagos aren’t safe from the devastation of illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. In 2017 a Chinese fishing vessel was captured there carrying more than 300 tons of endangered marine species, including 6,000 sharks likely slain for their fins.
Over the past 50 years, oceanic shark and ray populations have collapsed, declining by 70 percent. We need these predators. It’s past time to flip the script and focus on sharks as endangered, not dangerous.
3. You gain a unique perspective.
Any image taken from space confirms that we live on an ocean planet, vast stretches of blue cradling scattered green-brown shapes. How strange that we call our planet “Earth,” derived from a Germanic word meaning “the ground,” when more than 70 percent of its surface is covered by ocean.
Though I grew up in a nature-loving family, it wasn’t until I started diving that my conservation awareness kicked into overdrive. Humans are complacent creatures. We tend to take the Earth—our shared life-support system—for granted, unless a profound new perspective rends our point of view. Astronauts report feeling awed and overwhelmed when seeing the beauty and fragility of our planet from the inhospitable reaches of space. As an aquanaut, I experienced something similar.
I was in the Kerama Islands—about 22 miles west of Okinawa, Japan—finning from one coral outcrop to another, all of them bustling with reef life. Fish schooled in the thousands. Garden eels poked their heads out of the snow-white sand. Cleaner shrimp were removing parasites from waiting fish, and a pair of yellow-lipped sea kraits swam gracefully by, disappearing together into a hole in the reef. It reminded me of a lively city, each inhabitant going about its daily routine, just as we humans do.
All too often, though, these coral cities are polluted, choked by an overgrowth of algae, or tangled in fishing line. Rays and sharks swim past with mouthfuls of fishhooks. Plastic wrappers drift through water turbid with runoff. The reef life continues, but there’s less of it, and the living seems harder. Although this Okinawan reef was still in relatively good condition, it was surrounded by 50-caliber bullets, remnants from World War II.
Diving has given me an appreciation for the interconnectedness and delicacy of life on Earth, greater than what I’ve experienced topside. Am I so accustomed to seeing humanity’s far-reaching effects on land that I’ve become complacent? Perhaps. Witnessing them underwater, however, is a gut punch.
4. You too can be an explorer.
If you’re a diver, you’re an explorer. More than 80 percent of the world’s oceans are uncharted, and every dive is a new experience, never to be repeated. There’s a common assumption that diving is hard-core and dangerous. It can be but doesn’t have to be.
At a recent dive conference, I met Richard Harris, an Australian cave diver best known for his pivotal role in the 2018 rescue of a youth soccer team from Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand. He’s completed other extreme feats, such as descending to depths of 803.8 feet while searching for the source of New Zealand’s Pearse River.
Yet, he said with a grin, “I dive within my limits, just like you.” True. It’s just that my limits are much narrower. I’m fine with that, because there’s so much that a recreational diver like me can experience.
Here are three examples: I can peruse the Peristera, a 2,500-year-old shipwreck holding more than 4,000 amphorae near the Greek island of Alonnisos. I can watch surgeonfish and yellow tang clean algae from the shells of green sea turtles off Hawaii. And I can marvel at Alaska’s underwater world, filled with soft, white-plumed anemones, lion’s mane jellyfish, giant Pacific octopuses, and spawning salmon.
Exploration is observation. Sometimes that involves pushing limits, journeying to the edge and beyond. Sometimes it involves slowing down, studying a species in minute detail. Wonder exists in both, and everywhere in between.
5. Scuba diving may not be for everyone—but the ocean is.
I didn’t take to diving immediately. It took me three years and three tries to get certified, but I’m glad I persisted. My first four dives were overwhelming, but if I hadn’t continued, I wouldn’t have had that mind-bending fifth dive. I wouldn’t have seen those Okinawan coral cities. I wouldn’t have met Chris.
Learning to dive is a lot like learning to drive a car: You study the theory, practice with an instructor, and become qualified. From there, proficiency depends on how often you dive, further training, and your own self-reliance. Regardless of your goals, diving is more accessible and wondrous than I ever imagined, and I’d encourage anyone to give it a try.
But not everyone wants to or can dive, and that’s fair enough. Whether you’re a snorkeler, surfer, kayaker, or sailor or you simply enjoy dipping your toes into the sea while on holiday, you can still be aware of the life unfolding under that glittering blue coverlet and help protect it.
We need more people to see the sea. Right now, less than 3 percent of the ocean is considered highly protected. Experts urge that at least 30 percent be protected to safeguard marine ecosystems, which in turn will help protect our health and well-being. The ocean supplies more than half our oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, regulates our climate, and supports much of the world’s economy. We need it a lot more than it needs us.
Take Florida, for example, one of the United States’ recreational hot spots. It’s bordered by the Florida Reef Tract, North America’s only living coral barrier reef and the third largest in the world. Home to more than 500 species of fish, the reef is also essential to the Sunshine State’s economy, generating an estimated $1.1 billion annually in tourism. The reef buffers the coastline, too, since healthy coral reefs absorb 97 percent of a wave’s energy. Three-quarters of Florida’s 22 million people live along the coast, and the Florida Reef Tract provides more than $650 million in combined economic activity and flood protection.
A November 2022 study from the University of Miami and NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory has found that 70 percent of Florida’s coral reefs are experiencing a net loss of reef habitat. Squarely facing these concerns is what I mean by seeing the sea—the good, the bad, the important. Knowledge is power, and we can use it to inform our choices, from traveling more mindfully, to examining how we run our businesses, to voting. “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” Sylvia Earle, oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer at Large, is fond of saying.
The ocean is a remarkable teacher, and it’s never too late to start learning.
This story appears in the May 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.