Kiss of The Ocean

We asked our community to share their fondest memories of the Ocean and why they love it. Our friend, Sebastian Nicholls of Sustainable Oceans Alliance, submitted the following essay. Want to share your own memory? Post a photo, share the memory and tag #oceanmemory on social media! 


My first memories of the Ocean fade easily from my mind, like the mist and foam that often rise where water meets land. In Miami, white beaches caressed the edge of the turquoise sea, as waves gently crept up and slid back into the light blue they came from. Rugged coasts, where I formed my first real memories of the Ocean, provide theaters for more violent encounters. In Chile, mountains rise sharply from the Ocean’s edge. I didn’t know this at the age of four when I first admired those seascapes, but those mountains, the Andes, rise from a far deeper trench that marks the western outline of South America. Its greatest depth sinks farther below the surface than any of its peaks rise above it (8,055 meters below, versus Aconcagua’s highest summit 6,092 meters above).

Where the Ocean meets the coast, it bears scant trace of the gentle Caribbean seas I had come to know. The water rises in a steady assault against the rock, so persistent that in the end it wears down stone walls that once blocked its advance. Even in the rugged southern seas, pockets of calm remain, oases where geography and the winds conspire to calm the shores. When I lived in Chile, my family often visited such places. Cachagua was one of my parents’ favorites, a rocky coast with coves that mollify the sea’s temper, and pebbled beaches where my brother and I could run to feel the freezing water wash over our feet.  There, running away from waves, we saw bubbles coming out of the sand. Intrigued, we dug for amphipods, bringing them back to fill buckets on the beach only to find out they were named after pests—“sea fleas” they’re called in colloquial Spanish. Undeterred by their name, we carried on collecting, competing to see who could catch more of the curious creatures.

The Ocean brought life itself onto the beach with each wave; later I’d find out that is literally so. Yet more than just the surf zone and the water washing over my feet entranced me. Staring out into something endlessly immense, I was fascinated by the paradox of the fixed yet unpredictable Ocean: it was always there, but the waves and currents could make the coast look completely different in a matter of hours, even seconds. I liked looking out onto the horizon—a smooth-topped island breached the sea’s surface just a few hundred feet from shore— and I could often make out Magellanic and Humboldt Penguins crowding in a waddle, species named after the explorer who once hugged Chile’s shores and the current that still does.

 The power of the Pacific followed me. After living in Chile for three years, my family moved to Guatemala. The constancy of the Ocean, thousands of miles away but in a sense the same in Guatemala as in Chile, soothed my young self. By the age of six, I had already moved four times and lived in five places. It was difficult to leave friends behind and start over every year and a half or so. The Ocean’s ebb and flow was never far, though, and always just as entrancing. My second cousins, who lived in Guatemala and kept a house on the Pacific coast, fed my obsession, telling me about seasonal changes—in fall and spring, whales hugged the shore on their migration; in the summer, sea turtles came out of the deep blue to lay eggs on shore. Yet the coast on the other side of the country is completely different. At Rio Dulce, a river flows into the sea. The mouth of the river furnishes rich fishing grounds, as the brackish water and shallow habitat dotted with water plants provide a fertile nursery. The guides told us manatees sometimes come explore upriver. The fact that both were Ocean, yet so different, fascinated me.

All those experiences, while drawing me into a world of wonder at the Ocean, scarcely scratched the surface. I had seen the Ocean from above—from land, planes, or boats—but never much below its surface. That changed one summer in Colombia. My family comes from Bogotá, the capital, which sits in a valley 10,000 feet above sea level and in the middle of the country. When we visited, we would go only there, until I turned eight.

 

After checking out the aquarium, we went back to the beaches. I watched as turquoise and aquamarine hues turned into tame waves and crept up the fine white sand. For the first time I could see beneath the surface of the Ocean. I waded out and found a starfish, bringing it back to my family. I felt it moving on my hand and couldn’t believe this thing that looked and felt like a rock could move. I noticed that after each boat arrived and anchored, hundreds of little fish would swim near the boat’s hull; as soon as the boat left, the fish would be gone too, leaving no trace of where they came from or where they went. That beach and sand bank were some of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, but I’d be drawn deeper into the Ocean’s wonder later that day.

My dad found a scrappy guy with a dinghy that would take us “somewhere else.” Carrying masks and snorkels into the boat, he urged us to climb in despite our apprehension—to me, the boat looked as if it could handle one person, max. My dad didn’t look much more confident in the dinghy’s seaworthiness. Our guide told us we were going to “the good reef,” and after about 10 minutes we were there. I had never used a mask or snorkel, both bizarre, alien contraptions. Our guide, sensing my confusion about what I could possibly do with that tube, told me not to worry—“just pretend you’re kissing the girl you like.” I hadn’t kissed anyone yet, and I think it showed, but at that point I was more nervous about trusting a bendy plastic tube to breathe than kissing anyone. He told me to pretend I was doing CPR and mouth-to-mouth respiration to save the girl I loved. I was still confused, but I put the mask on, with the snorkel attached, and jumped in.

I saw the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, in bright colors and shifting patterns. Tropical fishes added dashes of flair to an exquisitely three-dimensional scene. It was full of life in a different way than anything I knew—the fish floating at all levels. I swam through a school of fish and watched the mesmerizing dynamism of the Ocean, changing with the movements of life, fluid like the water that fills both the Ocean and the body of every living thing within it. I was hooked. I thought back to the bright domes, walls, and roofs that paint colonial Cartagena with color.

The reef was infinitely more complex—a city where people could float at all heights, with structures to provide habitat and food for a thousand different needs. The coral reef I swam over did that, constantly and effortlessly. Patterns overlapped and contrasted in dazzling compositions. I didn’t even think back to the instructions our guide had given me—to treat snorkeling as giving mouth-to-mouth to a crush. Surrounded by a living universe in all directions, I forgot that I was supposed to think about CPR to figure out how to breathe through my snorkel—seeing the Ocean’s beauty filled me with life. Inadvertently, I fell in love in a way I couldn’t have imagined and have never felt as strongly since. I had felt the kiss of the sea.