Of all the adventure and beauty planned for my “Discover the Medieval Coast” tour, I was most excited about snorkeling around the Medes Islands, the richest natural reserve in the western Mediterranean Sea.
Since before Johnny Depp donned an eye patch, I was swooning over swashbuckler movies with my mom. Going to a pirates’ playground dating back to the Middle Ages would be great fun.
The archipelago is located a mile off the shore of Estartit of Torroella de Montgri in the Baix Empordà county in Catalonia. The largest islands– Meda Gran and Meda Petita—were first home to Ancient Greeks and Romans. But in the 15th century, pirates moved in, motivating King Martí Humà to fortify the area, resulting in castles clustered along Costa Brava today.
Ottoman corsairs, or Barbary pirates, from North Africa occupied the islets next. And though French soldiers took them in the 17th century, during the war with Napolean they were defended. Today the area is protected above and below, making the real appeal of the Medes Islands what lies beneath.
I’ve always loved the ocean. Maybe because my sign is the fish or because I loved Jacques Cousteau. Since he dove the area exploring lush layers of red coral, sponges, sea grass, starfish, sea bass, eels, barracudas, rays, fan mussels and red mullets, divers have followed suit. Now I would, too.
Onshore I stuffed my first wetsuit into a bag remembering movies I’d watched as a child, thrilled when a giant octopus put a submarine in a chokehold.
But as we pushed through the fog, then stopped in the middle of it, I thought of Open Waters and all the Jaws marathons I’d watched with my son. It was the kind of chill thrill–an excitement and dread–I’d hoped for.
I’ve been asked how I had the courage to move to an African country I’d never seen. The short answer is, “It felt right.” Putting on a scuba mask, however, never has. Dodging cobras in the square while being chased by henna hustlers is my new norm. Breathing through a tube still isn’t. I’d snorkeled in Florida and Honolulu, and though the mask made me feel smothered, I knew if I panicked, my flippers could plant firmly in the sand. Not so this time.
The air temperature was 65 degrees and I knew the water would be cold.
After stuffing, then zipping myself into my wetsuit and posing for pics,
the girl who slowly lowers herself into pools in 108 degree weather in Morocco dreaded plunging into the freezing sea.
“Hold your mask, count, and on 3, step off,” I was instructed. I was a kid again on my neighbor’s diving board trying to get the nerve to jump. Almost every time, I’d climb down, walk to the ladder, and lower myself into the pool. But I’d come too far–not because we’d driven from Lloret–but because living abroad started with a solo trip to Costa Rica. I’d called it my No Fear tour. I’d learned over the last nine months that the real No Fear tour isn’t a trip; it’s a long journey called life.
One, two, go.
As water rushed into my sleeves and up my arms, members of the group shared support, body heat, and a floating ring if needed. I’d spent the last ten months keeping my head above water, a fish out of water, a mermaid in Marrakesh. In Puerto Viejo I’d finally floated on my back without my feet sinking… by relaxing. Face up, I’d smiled at the sun. This time, if I wanted to see beauty, I had to relax, but with my head down, submerged in a world where I can’t breathe.
I stopped fighting the waves with my fins. I depended on the mouthpiece, the tube, and my arms to keep me afloat. I relaxed, listened to my breath, and I looked. I released the ring, knowing I could swim. I could breathe. A school of grouper and a meadow of sea grass waved me on.