When I was in second grade at Sherrod Elementary, I knew with the conviction of a seven-year-old what I wanted to be when I grew up. A marine biologist! Before I had ever read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, before a generation of children grew up devoted to Finding Nemo, before I had ever even seen the ocean, I knew that I wanted to be a marine biologist.
As a young, self-identifying nerd, I spent an abnormal amount of time at the library. Under the guidance of Ms. Little, our stereotypically aging, bespectacled, and patient librarian, I diligently learned the Dewey Decimal system and poured through the school library. After devouring popular children’s series, I eventually discovered the Science & Nature department tucked away on the lowest level of a corner bookshelf. (These bookshelves were only four feet tall, but hovered over a child like skyscrapers). Feeling as though I had discovered my own secret garden, I proudly checked out several books on marine life that, per the stamped library card on the inner cover of the book, had not been referenced in quite some time.
Of particular note was a small square book that consisted entirely of pictures of fish and their scientific names. This was my first exposure to something other than the sunfish and trout my cousins and I caught in Wisconsin’s Pipe Lake. The book was filled with fantastical creatures – parrot fish, anglerfish, queen angelfish, humpback whales. This was way better than my dad’s National Geographic’s. All pictures, no words!
For the rest of the school year, I continued to regularly check out this little book and marvel at the aquatic images. And then quickly, as with all children, summer arrived and my interests changed. I moved on to dreams of being an archaeologist, civil engineer, or hair dresser (yes, really). The details faded, my obsession dwindled, and I moved on.
Fifteen years later in college, I learned that UT Austin had an elective scuba diving course. As a Chemical Engineering student, the odds were slim that I would have time to squeeze it in amongst my required curriculum. Those odds quickly went to nil when the course was canceled before I had the opportunity to take it. Again my schemes were thwarted, and I moved on.
After college I was living in Seattle and an acquaintance, who happened to know a dive instructor, encouraged myself and a few friends to get scuba certified. That January of 2015 we submerged ourselves into the 50ºF water of Elliot Bay, and surfaced to a 52ºF hailstorm. All for the sake of getting our Open Water certifications! Now that my fingers, toes and face are no longer numb I can look back on this experience with humor. But at the time, when I had to urinate in my wetsuit to ward off hypothermia, I did not expect to ever feel fondness for the memory.
Elliot Bay is not known for its aquatic wonders. In fact, we only saw one crab and a broken toilet on our certification dives. So I quickly decided to plan a diving-centric trip to cement my new skills and witness the marine life from that little library book I once loved so much. After one week in Grand Cayman diving with parrot fish, angel fish, eagle rays, nurse sharks, turtles, sting rays, barracudas and more – I was hooked. And this time I was not moving on.
After Grand Cayman, my first ever trip to an island, my diving addiction took off and every trip I planned was centered around a body of turquoise water. This led me to dive and snorkel in Belize, Cancun, Zanzibar, Puerto Vallarta and all around Puerto Rico witnessing a multitude of species of turtles, eels, lobsters, reef fish and dolphins in their natural environment. And lucky girl that I am, my favorite Puerto Rican decided to get Open Water certified and later Advanced Open Water certified with me. My best friend, who had become my boyfriend, was now also my best dive buddy.
And so today, nearly two years after my first dive, I am packing and prepping for a three month sabbatical in Utila, Honduras to get my Dive Master certification and intern for a whale shark research center. This plan and decision was not expected, natural, or easy. After being granted a leave of absence from work, I initially planned to stay stateside to be with my family, road trip to National Parks, and train my two new puppies. But life throws you curveballs and when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presents itself to you, go for it with all you’ve got. Especially if you are fortunate enough to have a partner who supports and encourages you to chase your crazy dreams, even when those dreams put you 2,894 miles apart.
Who would have thought that a young nerd from landlocked Arlington, Texas would one day grow up to live a life that allowed her to swim with whale sharks, shoot her own Nat Geo-inspired marine photography, and study the life aquatic? Certainly not me. But I am so, so thankful for my hyper-intelligent parents, supportive partner and crazy career that in their own ways all contributed to this opportunity.
If there is some childhood intuition that still tickles your consciousness and presents itself in your dreams, examine why that is. Opportunities often present themselves at the least opportune time, and if we don’t go along for the ride and do the things we truly enjoy we’ll always be left wondering what is this life all about?
Until next time, from Utila!