They were wrong. Heaven is not in the sky, it is in the sea.
The coral is beyond everything beautiful. With its shoals of flickering fish. Underwater only the sound of my breath, small crackles, the scrape of parrotfish beak on coral. Green hair waves in the water wind.
We swim into the shallows. Turquoise pales to white. It’s like reaching the end of Narnia.
Each grain of sand is clearer than clear. My hand looks super-real. I float.
The light is pure. Soft. Gentle. Utterly brilliant. Mysteriously not blinding. Sunlight plays waterlights on the sea floor.
I grasp sand in my hands with amazement and joy. White drifts. Flecked crimson, purple, cornflower, scarlet and rose.
Sand falls from my fingers in slow motion.
I want to float endlessly in the warm water that is no-water because it is almost not-there. Watching tiny coral skeletons flow from my super-real amazing hands.
The light. The light. Is this what it is like to die?
On the boat my feet hurt gladly, sandgrains caught between rubber and skin. Heavenly sand.
‘That is what it is,’ said Reepicheep. ‘Drinkable light.
We must be very near the end of the world now.’ Lucy could only say, ‘It would break your heart.’
‘Why,’ said I, ‘was it so sad?’ ‘Sad!! No,’ said Lucy.
– from C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. As they sail upon the Last Sea.
And that was my first experience of the Great Barrier Reef. Far from land, in the dark ocean a sudden opening into smooth waters surrounding a cusp of bright white sandspit. For nights my dreams glowed turquoise and blue.
Researching the symbolism of water and sea I came across references to drowning and awakening. Water has cleansing powers, and the ocean’s immensity is said to represent the unconscious mind. Thus immersion and resurfacing carry connotations of baptism and rebirth.
You may remember Jane Campion’s powerful film, The Piano, in which the mute Ada is shipped to remote New Zealand by her father to marry a stranger. She finds solace in her piano, but her misery permeates this dark narrative. Finally, despite rescue at hand, Ada throws herself overboard with her piano to drown. She sinks into the deep silent ocean. But life reasserts itself and she surfaces. ‘What a death! What a chance! What a surprise!’ she says. ‘My will has chosen life?!‘
My experience of snorkelling the reef also embodied a surprise awakening, less literal but equally transforming. I had expected beauty, of course. I’d longed to see the Great Barrier Reef since I was a child, had viewed thousands of images of its colour and diversity. But nothing prepared me for the three-dimensional reality of exquisitely shimmering life.
The journey was fearful, my drowning phobia running riot on the two-hour outward bound trip. The epiphany was breathtaking. The beauty of that sunlit waterwashed undersea world subsumed me and lifted me out of myself entirely.
Returning to normality broke my heart. I wept into my goggles as I swam back to the boat, undone by profound feelings of loss. I’d been awakened to another reality, perhaps even another state of consciousness, and could not bear to lose it.
I didn’t. I will always carry with me the memory of supreme peace.