BY LORI HUGHES
Everything was fine. They weren’t very deep, about sixty feet. Brooke was following Julio as they drifted over the reef. They’d just left the dive boat and visibility was superb, 150 feet, and the coral was teeming with fish as a barracuda languished like a sleeping marauder and a Hawksbill turtle meander past. Julio was looking for a special nurse shark he encountered from time to time. He called him ‘Amigo’ and sometimes petted him. Julio had schooled her in the behavior of nurse sharks and they were docile, posing no threat unless provoked. He settled on a wide sandy area between coral outcrops and waited. He’d been diving since he was seventeen, twice a day, five or six days a week, and over the past twenty years had logged more than ten-thousand dives.
Two years ago, Brooke started diving with him a couple times a week and they’d become ‘dive buddies,’ inseparable – at least under water. On dry land, she would’ve liked to spend more time with him but their time together had been limited to after-dive beers and a few lunches on his days off. They remained ‘just friends’ – without the benefits – although there had been more than one time when she considered trading benefits. Since meeting, she’d denied her feelings but not her fantasies, admitting that if Mexico had a bachelor reality-TV show and she was the bachelorette, she’d pick him, hands down.
Today’s dive was on the Columbia Deep reef, which was a spectacular range of underwater, coral mountains rising out of the deep, separated by swaths of white sand that spread down to ‘the wall’ and the blue abyss. The currents were strong and unpredictable here and this particular location was restricted to expert divers.
Beyond the rhythmic sound of her regulator, she was only aware of the wonders of the deep. She’d done over three hundred dives and yet, the indescribable beauty and vastness of ocean life always filled her with awe, gratitude and respect – and a tinge of fear. It’s why, despite now being a ‘veteran’ diver, she teamed up with Julio. He was amazing, as at home in the sea as the groupers, turtles and sharks and he drifted with the gentle power of an eagle ray.
She was five-ten, 130 pounds and he was about five-eleven, maybe 160 pounds – all muscle. His smile would make any shark want to be friends – and any woman want more. He never stopped running his long fingers through his thick, black-black hair and his soft brown eyes, set deep in his coffee-brown face, danced to his insatiable love of the sea, and that body was … sculpted for hand-to-hand combat with sharks, barracuda and lovely senoritas. He was single, thirty-eight and the quietest, calmest, gentlest man she’d ever met.
As they drifted, he was twenty feet ahead, floating in an upright pose, hands clasped at his waist, taking in the scenery. He could navigate these reefs with his eyes closed. She followed. Suddenly, he went into swim mode and headed across the reef to where it dropped off into three-thousand feet of darkness. They’d often gone down the wall to 130 feet – she checked her gauge … 80 feet – so no surprise he was heading deeper.
He pointed down. She looked and saw nothing. She figured he’d spotted a shark or something. She didn’t see anything so gave a palms-up, shrug. He made a sign she didn’t understand and then began to swim deeper. She followed. Focused on keeping up, she didn’t check her gauge. Then he glanced back. He flashed the ‘okay’ signal – as a question. She curled her thumb and index finger into the ‘ok’ sign. Then checked her gauge – 120 feet. He swam close, grabbed her tank and they drifted together. Again, he pointed into the depths. There … she saw it. Air bulbs rising from below.
She was uncertain. Scared. He went through a bunch of signals, most of which she understood. He also made some muffled noises, speaking into his mask, but it just sounded like intermittent humming. But she got most of it. He was saying that someone was down there, maybe in trouble. He was going to check. She should stay here, at 120 feet, and drift with the current, which was now stronger. He gave her one more ‘ok’ sign and dove.
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