“Yes!” I replied exuberantly even before he finished his asking.
I squealed like a dolphin as Todd Essick continued describing his project and incredible offer to me. He was referred to me from a National Geographic photographer that lived on the same island in the Caribbean where I was rescued by dolphins. He said I would be perfect for his photography book and art gallery show in which he wanted to capture me swimming with dolphins. He wondered if I would be interested.
It was my dream job that I never dared to dream!
What? I was going to being paid to swim with dolphins! AND I would travel throughout the Caribbean, swimming with dolphins and stingrays. BUT the best part for me was that I was going to have amazing pictures of me swimming with the angels that saved my life.
The experience of creating these photos surpassed my wildest imagination (and I have a powerful imagination!) It was an intoxicating mix: spending months in the Caribbean, swimming with dolphins and stingrays, being creative and testing the limits of my courage.
You see, Todd had a grand vision, but it took some bold experimentation to fulfill. The plan was: take a boat out and locate a pod of dolphins that have swam with humans for 30 years. Nest, Todd strapped on his entire scuba and photography gear – quite a process - and entered the ocean. Then I leaped in the ocean. I am extremely comfortable swimming in the ocean and I can hold my breath for a long amount of time. However these facts could not alter the fact that salt water is very buoyant. It took all my strength to swim down deep where the dolphins were and then my body popped back to the surface. It was our first obstacle.
The solution was brilliant and also dangerous. For me. Exclusively. The new plan was: I would be ‘buddy-breathing’ at a depth of 50ft, without wearing goggles, weights or anything for that matter. This is unsafe for several reasons. ‘Buddy-breathing’ is a scuba-diving term for when you inhale oxygen from your dive buddy’s tank. It is sparingly, if rarely, performed in situations such as if you run out of air.
The reasons this would be hazardous in my circumstances are: 1) when you are breathing compressed air (scuba), you must remain at that same depth or dive lower or it compromises our land-loving lungs and you can get what is called ‘the bends’ (potentially fatal) 2) It was extremely difficult to remain at the same ocean depth level because the salt water is very buoyant and I wasn’t wearing anything (scuba divers wear a weight belt in addition to their heavy air tank for this reason) 3) I was not wearing goggles either. We were creating art and ugly masks would ruin the photos. Did I mention I was in salt water? Well, salt water not only stings the eyes something fierce, it also makes it really hard to see!
So, I would take a breath of compressed air from a scuba diver who was part of the crew, swim out to the dolphins, do my best to strike an interesting pose with the dolphins, remember to swim deeper and keep my eyes open. ALL while holding my breath. Phew!
It was scary, challenging and took its toll on my body. Each shoot underwater lasted approximately 1 hour. Then we all had to ascend to the surface – as every scuba diver must – between dives. We did 3 shoots per day and I was wrecked by the end of the day and was nearly blinded.
But it was also one the greatest adventures of my life. Underwater, I didn’t feel human. The ocean was where I lived and I was some sea creature being photographed for the Discovery Channel.
What was it like swimming with dolphins? Euphoric. Ecstatic. However, these were no ordinary dolphin encounters for me. I was working! And those cuties put me to shame. They never take a bad picture. I cannot say the same for me.
Next stop: Turks & Caicos to swim with sting rays. This time, we were shooting at a lovely secluded island. Therefore, no scuba dangers. However, the crew put ‘chum’ (bloody fish carcasses) in the ocean in order to attract the rays. Again, I was the only person this affected due to my lack of costume. The rays are part of the shark family. They do not have teeth, but have very strong jaws and thought my pink flesh looked delicious. By the end of the trip, I was covered in sting-ray “hickies”.
I still marvel at what a lucky mermaid I am. Todd even let me name the title of the book: “Goddesses, Sea Sirens and Mermaids”.
This experience is the perfect example of what Joseph Campbell said, “ You have to let go of the life you planned in order to find the life that is waiting for you.”