There Are Dragons Below.
My name is Simon which is almost a joke in itself as, yes, of course I’m British.
We are actually Scots, but my parents gave birth to me well South of the Scottish border, a source of seething resentment still, 30 years later. I was born in a tiny Somerset village, population then about 547 fair souls.
If you know anything about what we just call the West Country, you’ll know there’s very little there but apples and cows… and apples to any Englishman means cider because we Brits have never found any substance on this good Earth we couldn’t turn into alcohol. Apples? Child’s play.
So, I was actually born at home with a midwife in attendance and with a cawl, the placenta, over my face. Now, in accordance with British folklore, this has particular significance; it means you’ll never die of drowning. Since, at that point in my life, if I lay face-down in the nearest river, I still wouldn’t have drowned, it had absolutely no bearing on my life… yet.
But then, when I was six or seven, we moved to a town on the shores of the River Severn, which just happens to be the largest tidal estuary in Europe. I have to say that, despite living in England, I had what most would consider an idyllic childhood.
We lived on a tiny dead-end road which had a flight of steep steps that led down to a secluded rocky bay, so the summer holidays were passed barefoot, down by the water, climbing rocks and playing in the mud. It was the kind of place where people left their doors open at night. We spent endless summers in a feral state. Mum would open the door and just yell,
“Out! Don’t come back till dinner,” and we would disappear… a mad tribe of prepubescents and one dog, gone for hours on adventures of our own imagining, usually splitting up into warring factions — think, Lord of the Flies without dead people. Hostilities would cease with the inevitable first show of blood. We would traipse home; Mum would patch the wounds and then unleash us anew to raise fresh havoc on the neighborhood.
Suffice it to say, the MacArthur clan was known far and wide. Fearful mothers would see us approaching and snatch their kids off the lawn lest we somehow infected their beautifully disciplined children with a similar waywardness.
I feel I need to dispel the notion that my parents were bad people, quite the opposite. I come from a tight-knit, loving household, but my parents were all too content to raise their kids in a hands-off, free-range sort of environment. It works like gangbusters on chickens.
It was almost like a sausage factory; kids mixed with a kind of loving, but benign neglect should somehow produce a string of self-assured, relatively well-adjusted adults, was the theory. In truth, a kind of anarchy did reign in our household. No power tool or apparatus that spat flames was off limits.
We tried desperately and repeatedly to make the world’s most noxious stink bombs in the basement. Had the government known, our house would have been declared a Superfund site and the entire neighborhood evacuated. Discipline was a very distant concept, even though Mum had cause to use the lash frequently. Our hides were so thick at that point we barely noticed.
It has to be said though, my parents were homicidal. Anna was my boxer, best friend, watchdog and chief mischief-maker on madcap excursions too numerous to count. We were inseparable. She usually slept on my bed. My parents had her put down one day when I was away at school because she was getting very old and had insane growths in odd places. I haven’t forgiven them for that either.
That eternal blot on their souls is only twenty-odd years old. I’m told I didn’t utter a single word for two weeks.
Now, as in any family, of course there was a pecking order. Angus, as the youngest, was naturally the one we experimented on, so when we built our highly dubious wheeled contraptions and pushed them down a steep hill, Angus was invariably the pilot, and when it crashed, we would just patch him up and go back to the drawing board:
“Perhaps something more than spit holding the wheels on next time.”
But it made him strong!
Another experiment involved sticking very short crayons in both of Angus’ nostrils to see if he could still breathe. This one wasn’t an unqualified success; we determined that we needed something a little bigger if we were to stop his breathing altogether. The problems came in trying to get the crayons out, Angus turning blue, and the whole thing going public. Did I mention that Ang was asthmatic?
We lived a very bucolic existence, and so animals were a constant presence in my life and I rapidly developed an affinity for animals of all shapes and sizes. Mum had a degree in animal husbandry, and used her veterinary skills to bring in extra income by milking cows for a few of the local farmers.
So, many was the day I would get up with her before dawn to help with the milking which actually involved me playing with the pigs, fresh-born calves, chickens and cow poop — lots of cow poop. Cleaning me up before school was an unenviable task.
Likewise, a simple trip to the zoo when I was five rapidly became a fiasco when I was spat on by a camel as I clung lovingly to its leg and had my entire arm swallowed by a zebra as I tried to stroke it through the bars. Mum realized it was time to go before someone lost a limb.
If I saw anyone with four legs, I was going make contact, trust me. I was like a heat-seeking missile for anyone baring fur and with a warhead loaded with unadulterated love. Many was the poor creature that found me clamped adoringly around its neck, ignorant to its obvious alarm and pleas to its mother to please get this damn human off me. I was oblivious to impending doom, and it was all Mum’s fault.
As I said, I grew up on the coast, but the water in the UK is never warm and the River Severn was more like fast-flowing mud than an actual river. I only ever went into the water up to my waist because I couldn’t swim, but I played in that mud often. Years later I realized that I’d spent much of my childhood knee-deep in either raw sewage or cow poop, probably why I’m immune to every disease known to man.
Long story short, the only occasions I really had to go swimming in water that wasn’t totally opaque were the infrequent school trips to the nearest pool some 15 miles away but, as you’ll see, water becomes somewhat pivotal in later life.
I know Mum hated to see me flap my wings and leave the nest — what mother doesn’t? — but having instilled in me a boundless curiosity for the wider world, she could hardly protest as I set out to make it my own. She also gave me my own sense of colonialism; yes, by all means go forth and conquer, but do it with love, compassion and understanding.
I’d always had a taste for travel, and when the opportunity presented itself and I had some time to burn before college, I took off for parts unknown. Gran and Grandpa had emigrated to Australia, and I hadn’t seen them in years, so I thought it would be the funniest thing ever to fly halfway around the world and knock on their door… unannounced.
Now, my dad’s parents died before I ever got a chance to know them. Mum’s parents, on the other hand, hung around out of sheer spite.
You have to understand, there are your everyday vanilla Presbyterians, there are dour Presbyterians, there are Scots Presbyterians, and then there are dour Scots Presbyterians.
My grandparents were the most dour Presbyterians you could ever conceive of. Other Presbyterians sought them out in a quest to eradicate joy from their lives entirely. From there onward, there was only self-immolation to look forward to.
In truth, my grandparents were a pair of rotating black holes of utter misery surrounded by an accretion disk of happy children, slowly being shredded, like dying stars and then gone, sucked into oblivion, only to pop out in another part of the universe as slack-jawed, flesh-eating zombies. In their immediate vicinity, smiling was a sin, mirth to be met with a good flogging.
Suffice it to say, I’m a militant atheist thanks solely to my grandparents.
Now, my grandfather was hardly a handsome man. He had a face like a deeply abused piece of airport luggage left unclaimed on the carousel for years, gouging and scraping as it goes endlessly around. Somehow he had hair sprouting from places hair just wasn’t supposed to grow. His ears, eyelids and nostrils were disaster zones, with hair clinging to them like so much kudzu.
When I was still very young, I put this down to some sort of infection brought on by the total absence of joy.
It took me four days to hitch from Sydney to Adelaide. Make no mistake, Australia is a fucking big place. Anyway, the look on my grandparent’s faces when I knocked on their door spoke volumes, not Oh, how delightful, but more What the fuck are you doing here?
The funniest thing ever? Not bloody likely!
I bring up my grandparents for one reason: I have more than a sneaking suspicion that the rigidity and strictures imposed by them on my young mother had a profound effect on how she raised her own kids. We, her kids, were her rebellion — a direct contravention to everything they stood for. We were to live free and happy. And to that end she was extraordinarily successful.
Fast forward 15 years. I’m now living in New York, working as a photographer, when I get a call from my friend Mike,“Wanna go to Mexico?”
We needed a break, and it was the kind of spontaneous nonsense that really floated my boat, so I say, “Sure, why not?”
And before I know it, we’re in a taxi, cruising the streets of Cancun, staring at garish Mayan-themed hotels. We thought it looked like Vegas and kept looking for Elvis.
Anyway, rapidly realizing that Cancun wasn’t our cup of tea, we beat a hasty retreat and found our way south to a then very-undeveloped Playa Del Carmen. Back then it was a sleepy little fishing village, famous for absolutely nothing. It was perfect. We found beautiful cabanas at the Blue Parrot, right on the beach. This was heaven.
We dropped our bags and went looking for tall, cold cocktails. Then we lay back staring at the ocean. And there I would have been content to stay, margarita in hand, for a solid week.
Mike, though, had other ideas. I could already see a wicked glint behind his sunglasses. Had I had greater intuition, I might have heard my future self screaming at me, “Run, man, run!”
But I just look at Mike and say, “What?”
“Come on,” he says.
“Come on, where?”
Mike’s chin is pointing forebodingly towards the reef about 300 yards out to sea, “Out there.”
“You’ve lost your tiny mind!”
I realized too late that I hadn’t left my emergency contact info with anyone, and that my week of debauched relaxation was sinking rapidly into the pink coral sand.
You see, I knew Mike had grown up around water too, but real water — water you could actually see through.
“Mike, I swim like a sack of wet sand.”
“No worries, I’ll tow you out.”
“You won’t drown, I promise.”
“I’ll kill you if I do.”
And so it was that I found myself on my back in 60 feet of water, eyes the size of dinner plates, heart pounding like a kettle drum, hyperventilating but insanely exhilarated on my first real, berserk aquatic adventure.
You have to understand, my fear of the sea was biblical. I was convinced I could drown without ever actually being in the water, so this was utter madness, and yet there I was, afloat on the ocean. And, sweet Jesus, if I put my goggles on and look down, I can see half-way around the damned globe! I thought back to my childhood, the River Severn, and the near impossibility of seeing my hand in front of my face.
This was ridiculous; 70 percent of the Earth is covered in water, and I know almost nothing about it, and I can see hundreds of thingies down there, countless friends to be made. Friends… with… Fins! This was something wholly new. And it was in those moments that something just snapped.
You know, psychologists talk of how times of immense stress can change perception. I think that in those moments the overwhelming, irrational fear was permanently rewiring my brain, and was instantaneously creating new synapses, new neural pathways, new ideas, new ways of perceiving the world. At that moment, it didn’t matter whether I even lived or died. I was tripping on Life.
Mike was forgotten, and I was outside my body. I’m not sure how long we were out there on the water; my perception of time was being warped back in on itself. Hyper-reality was making chaos of the ordinary.
I know this with absolute certainty: the man who left the beach to go out to that reef never did return. In a very real sense, he did drown out there, in the warm, crystal clear waters of the Caribbean. He no longer exists.
But yes, Mike did tow someone back.
I thought the fact that I couldn’t swim was degrading and more than vaguely ridiculous, so a short time after getting back to New York, I enrolled at the Y and took a few weeks of swim classes so I could at least delay my drowning by a few minutes before succumbing to the waves, but when classes came to an end, a voice inside me kept clamoring, “This isn’t where it stops; this is not the logical conclusion.”
There was a huge and mysterious, nebulous something missing. I just didn’t know what exactly. And then the light bulb went on, so it was that I then embarked on the thing that would utterly change me and inform how I have lived my life going forward.
A matter of days after I ended swim classes, and with my aquaphobia still magnificently intact, still totally incapable of treading water for longer than 10 seconds, it somehow seemed totally logical to enroll in scuba school, which I did at a shop on Atlantic Avenue, and to my own amazement, got my open water scuba certification a few months later, diving in the beautiful waters of Barbados.
I really needed a prescription dive mask which I didn’t have, so everything was blurred underwater, and I kept saying to myself, “I bet this would be really cool if I could only see what the hell it was.” But it didn’t matter. I was hooked. I had found that almost inexplicable thing for me: a passion that knows no bounds.
Now, years later, I’m a rescue diver, so I can save your stupid arse if you get in trouble, and a very vocal — nay, militant — advocate for oceanic wildlife. If I’m not diving, I’m thinking about diving. I cannot imagine my life without it. Whenever I can, I take off for the Caribbean to go immerse myself in the environment that I have come to love so much.
I have had meetings of the mind with all manner of aquatic beasties that have left me speechless, including an almost sexual encounter with a pair of stingrays in the Cayman Islands (Don’t ask! I have no idea what was going through their heads). I have played a game of patsy with a willing octopus in Honduras.
In the Bahamas, I was entirely enclosed within a school of shimmering reflective fish called silversides. I was inside the mirrorball. I cannot quite elucidate what it’s like to be inside a living, breathing, undulating shell of wholly other life. I have frequently been outwitted by aquatic creatures; my wife will tell you that ain’t so hard, but believe when I say fish do have a sense of humor.
I’ll never be an accomplished swimmer, but it barely matters — I slew that dragon; I overcame the greatest fear I ever had. The rewards have been nothing short of astonishing. When I think of what might not have happened had I not so thoroughly vanquished those fears, I sense a great void, a nothingness stretching far, far into my future.
This was who I was supposed to become in order to better express my own awe at Mother Nature. Ultimately, this is what my mother gave me: a gift beyond price.
My mum had imbued in me an appreciation for the natural world that cannot be taught in any university or through any textbook. You have to be raised in it, by someone who knows it intimately. As a result, I have had experiences that defy any explanation I can muster, mind-blowing experiences with non-humans. It’s a gift I’m not sure I can repay.
So, in many ways, this story ends as a paean to my Mum, who, in her quiet wisdom, has led me to a far, far richer life than I could possibly have imagined had she been anything like ordinary.
These days I’m never more at peace than when I’m diving, still seeking out adventure, something that will never leave me. I frequently find myself laughing through my regulator when I think of my bygone fears. I’ll go along as the sea beasties play their sweet pranks on me and I’ll laugh even harder.
Simon Andrew MacArthur is a photographer, sometime filmmaker and writer, living and working in New York. When not at home, he can often be found enjoying his great fondness for the warm waters of the Caribbean, its people, and the many beautiful denizens below the waves.