So much dark, as far as the eyes behind my goggles could see. So much silence, save for the inhales and exhales of my air tank. The only movement I can sense is my own: flippers swaying 1,500 meters above the sea floor, where the sun can’t reach.
A cable connects my torch to the battery canisters around my waist. A more experienced marine biologist would tell me to turn the torch off, to better find the sea life I’m searching for: creatures lit up by their own biology. Creatures I might miss capturing on film.
But I can’t read my depth gauge without the torch on, and I can’t handle any more sensory deprivation. There’s nothing to hear, nothing to smell, no solid ground to feel. Nothing to see either, not yet, but somehow I feel better about this abyss when I can light my way.
I want to be here, I remind myself, “here” being somewhere between Tahiti and Mo’orea. This is all I’ve worked for. Duke University, full scholarship. Bachelor of Science, Summa Cum Laude. Presented to: Inara Azrak, a name mispronounced at every graduation ceremony. Now: Princeton, full scholarship. Gaining the required research experience. Boat right above me. Fellow divers—my classmates, the Chief Scientist, and our Polynesian guide—within a safe radius.
Also weighing on my mind: decompression sickness. Disorientation. Hypoxia. Nitrogen narcosis. Losing track of whether I was coming or going.
I watch my exhaled bubbles float up, imagine myself at a desk, in a lab, doing menial tasks. Typing numbers into a spreadsheet. Counting snails. Mixing chemicals. Writing proposals for funding. All of that is looking better—safer—by the minute.
* * *
When I was a seventh grader growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina, my biology teacher, Mr. Wharton, found a black egg case, called a mermaid’s purse, washed up on the shore of Wrightsville Beach. We observed it in a seagrass tank for about a month before the egg hatched into a baby clearnose skate, almost twice the size of the purse. We gazed in fascination at her cartilage skeleton as she pressed her flat, transparent body against the glass.
“She looks like ravioli with eyes,” my best friend Milah said.
“Those aren’t eyes,” I said. “They’re her nostrils. Her eyes are on her back.”
Mr. Wharton decided against letting the class name her, as he didn’t want us getting attached. But Milah and I secretly named her Skatie—“Katie with an S,” as Milah would say. Another friend, Carrie, suggested Pearl, but I was quick to point out that pearls come from oysters, not skates.
“You always act like you know everything, Inara,” Carrie complained.
“She does know everything,” Milah said. “At least when it comes to sea creatures.”
A few weeks after Skatie hatched, the class took a field trip to the beach, where we gathered around the shore as Mr. Wharton released her. We stayed at the beach for a while, looking for rocks and seashells to take back to the classroom. I noticed Milah was picking up some empty glass and aluminum cans someone left in the sand, so I pocketed my seashells and joined her.
“I hope Skatie will be okay,” Milah said as we walked to a nearby garbage can.
“She’s in her natural habitat now,” I said.
“But look at all this litter. There’s got to be like a billion times that in the ocean.”
I didn’t admit I agreed with her. It didn’t feel right, taking Skatie out of our safe tank and setting her loose in an unknown world of predators and pollution. Why couldn’t we have taken her to an aquarium?
“We should trust Mr. Wharton,” I said as Milah deposited the litter in the garbage can. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Our conversation was interrupted when Carrie ran up to show us a rock she found, made of seashell fragments that looked glued together. I took the opportunity to show off my knowledge of how sedimentary rocks were formed. Then we rejoined the class to line up outside the bus, all while I hoped I had distracted Milah from worrying about Skatie.
* * *
Likewise, I was sure my parents, proud as they were, didn’t feel right about their daughter venturing into the darkest depths of the ocean out in French Polynesia.
My mother’s side of the family are desert nomads, called Bedouins, while my father’s come from Syria and southern Lebanon. They both grew up between the Black, Caspian, and Mediterranean Seas, never setting foot in any of them. They were happy to hang my framed college degree at the top of their mantle, but hoped somehow my research wouldn’t take me to places where the sun couldn’t reach.
Nonetheless, three nights before I left for the expedition, my parents threw the biggest, loudest going-away party, as if to prove they weren’t the least bit worried. Some of my white friends attended, but could only handle my extended family for an hour or so. As was the custom, I danced until I sweated, ate until my stomach bloated, and held multiple conversations at once by shouting over the music.
“Mabrouk!” said three of my aunts.
“Mabrouk!” said two uncles and one great-uncle.
“Mabrouk!” said at least four cousins.
They were congratulating me. As if I’d gone already. As if I’d dove into the South Pacific and resurfaced with a graduate degree and a pirate’s treasure in hand. I preferred when my relatives raised their glasses of iced arak and said, “Fe sahetek.” Good luck. That was what I needed to hear.
When the guests were all gone, I lay on the couch with my head on a pillow in my father’s lap. He rubbed my back and told me how proud he was, like I was a child. Not like I was in grad school, getting ready to embark on a deep-sea voyage. Maybe it was the exhaustion or the arak or some combination of the two, but for some reason I admitted to him that I was scared. That his overachieving Ivy League daughter who had always aimed high wanted to stay safe in a house where her embarrassing class photos still hung.
He brushed the hair out of my face, smiled, and said, “Hayeti, you’re going to be fine.”
Due to my fading consciousness, I hadn’t realized my mother had come into the room. I’d hoped to reveal my secret, shameful fear to only one person.
“You’ve gone diving before, Inara,” she said. “You’ve always been a good swimmer. You have nothing to be scared of.”
“I’ve never…” I yawned. “Never gone that deep before. It’ll be dark.”
“You’ve never been afraid of the dark,” my father said, sounding amused. “Remember those magazines you used to read in bed? I thought you’d have nightmares, but you never did.”
That much was true. As a child, I’d kept piles of Zoobooks and National Geographics near my bed. I’d read them by lamplight and fall asleep with images of sharks, eels, barracudas, and giant squids playing like a slideshow in my mind. But no nightmares. In my dreams I was never afraid.
The next morning I woke up in my childhood bed, no doubt having been carried there by my father. I pulled the covers up over my head and never wanted to get up. And it wasn’t because I was hungover.
* * *
Now I’m letting them all down. My parents. The professors who recommended me for this expedition. Every teacher who said I was gifted. Every adult who praised my work ethic. Friends like Milah who believed I knew everything. Anyone who believed I could be a marine biologist.
My time is limited—there’s only so much oxygen left in my tank. I’m not going back up empty-handed. Before I can change my mind, I take one hand off my camera and flip the switch that turns off my torch, plunging me unguarded into the pitch-black void.
My throat tightens as darkness closes in on me. Silence wraps around me like a weighted blanket as I comprehend just how alone I am.
And then I see them. Little white ghosts emerging in the dark like underwater will-o-the-wisps. They drift closer to me as I count five, then ten, then fifteen of them. Rippling white pouches with tentacles like thin white strands of human hair. Aequorea victoria. Crystal jellyfish.
I take aim with my camera and press the button, then again, and again. Once I’ve captured my share, I lower my camera and take a moment, just to watch. There’s a rhythm to their movements, a grace in their clear, luminous bodies. Their composition is simple. No brains, no blood, no hearts. Just three layers. Epidermis. Mesoglea. Gastrodermis. Those words feel small now, insignificant. Just ink on paper. This is real. Beautiful, hypnotic, and real.
So many uses for bioluminescence—defense, warning, camouflage, mating, distracting or confusing a predator. All those glowing fluorescent proteins, used in labs to make fish and rats and cats glow in the dark. Proteins that could help us track how cancer cells spread, how HIV infections progress. All here in their purest form, where the sun can’t reach.
I’m hardly the first to see such wonders, but this feels like an honor. A privilege. Nothing could have prepared me for this, no book or magazine or nature documentary. Nothing in any classroom. Even the photos I’ve taken won’t convey what it’s like seeing them up close.
The swarm moves on. I watch them float away until their light fades from my line of vision, as my surroundings become dark again. But this time I’m not afraid.
I turn my torch back on and begin my gradual ascent to the surface. I pause and count to sixty, giving my body time to expel any nitrogen buildup. I move on. Pause and count to sixty. Move on.
Light blooms above me. I turn my torch off, watch the sunbeams flicker with the current. I pause. Count to sixty. Move on. And as I reach the surface, I feel like I’m waking up from a dream.