Beyond the Reef by Brittany Rohm

Warm water licked my bare feet as I waded into the South Pacific. Sand the color of lightly toasted sugar tickled my toes. Behind me, towering palms swayed in the sea-salt breeze, guarding the tiny island of Lifou. Through the narrow strip of jungle, in the protected bay on the opposite side, swimmers bunched together, thrashing rubber fins and scaring away the marine life. But over here, where the sea extended to the horizon, I was alone.      

I took a final breath through my nose. The briny aroma reminded me of my childhood on the Alaskan coast, and I savored it. Then I secured my mask, bit down on the snorkel, and cinched the camera strap around my wrist.

Stomach-down, I stretched my arms overhead. The gentle current pulled me away from the shore and over the reef below. Countless branches of staghorn coral crisscrossed like a pile of pick-up sticks. Mustard-yellow brain coral ballooned out, and minuscule fish swam through the polyp labyrinths. Peach-colored tendrils of anemones swayed back and forth, as if dancing to a slow song.

Sometimes, inclement weather whipped the Coral Sea into a frothing frenzy, but at that moment, the liquid mass personified a Buddhist monk. I yielded to the ebb and flow, trusting the soothing motion to take me where I wanted to go. Over spindly black urchins, sea stars with more legs than a spider, algae of maroon and indigo, I drifted without a care. Time slipped away unnoticed.  

Suddenly, as if it had been severed by the bite of Leviathan, the reef ended. The vast ocean spilled out before me. The undulation stopped, suspending my body in the directionless space.

Rays of sunlight pierced the now-sapphire water, touching on one organism after another, casting everything in movie-star light. Along the reef wall, striped sergeant fish commanded their troops forward. Parrot fish darted by, flashing their rainbow-colored bodies. Damsels sailed past, showing no signs of distress. Painted sweetlips, graphic tuskfish, golden sweepers. Small schools, big schools, bustling university campuses.

Hypnotized by the brilliant menagerie, I almost forgot about the camera. A titan triggerfish zoomed my way, and I snapped a shot. Two butterfly fish flitted past, and I pressed the shutter release button without even taking aim. Remora, fusilier, flutemouth. Dashing, propelling, rushing. My finger became possessed. I clicked in rapid succession, as if this incredible realm wouldn’t exist unless I had photographic evidence.


But when a black-spotted puffer fish caught my eye about fifteen feet away, I let it be. If frightened, the animal could inflate to twice its size and expose poisonous spikes. Besides, I intended only to capture fascinating critters on film, not terrorize them.

And then a shadow moved near the base of the reef.

No, not a shadow, a shark.

My heartrate accelerated. My shoulders tensed, and I grasped the camera tighter. Whether I would use it as my sole line of defense or as an artistic tool, I did not yet know.

Years ago, I had seen great whites while in the water off the coast of South Africa. But enclosed in a metal cage, I had nothing to fear. Out here, only the watery expanse separated me from this predator.

I knew I could not outswim the shark, so my lone option was to wait—and hope to be ignored. I kept as still as possible, trying to slow my heartbeat and steady my breathing. Mentally, I checked my body for cuts, open wounds, anything that might emit an odor of blood. Nothing came to mind.

The shark swished its tail—once, twice, three times. I gulped in equal measure.

Hugging the ocean floor, about twenty feet down, it slithered in my direction. When it was below me, my shoulders relaxed. From broad head to gray caudal fins dipped in black, the shark spanned the length of my body. Mollusks, crustaceans, and small fish had reason to fear the impressive creature, but not me. Blacktip reef sharks, after all, did not eat humans.

Slowly, I raised the camera. The shark stopped swimming. Part of me thought it would shoot up towards me, happy to have tricked me into feeling safe. But part of me thought it understood my goal. I framed the imposing animal, held my breath, and tapped the shutter button.

With a tail flick, the shark glided forward a few feet. It neither raced to attack me nor sped off to hide. Perhaps it hadn’t noticed me. I took a second photo.

This time, the shark’s head angled up. For a transitory moment, we peered at each other. And just like the reef had abruptly fallen away, so too did my worries, my doubts, my anxiety about the future. Even happy moments from my past vanished. I surrendered to the shark, and to the ocean’s liquid embrace. Nothing existed except this exact second.

When I blinked, the shark curled around and coasted back toward the reef. I followed, keeping a respectful distance. The shark settled atop the seafloor, and I drew the camera to my eye and took a shot. Then another. And another. Unfazed by my presence, the shark was James Dean cool. I dove down for a closer look, but for once, I didn’t use the camera. The image I saw through my own lens, I wanted only in my memory.

At last, it was time to go. I could have stayed until the sun no longer lit my surroundings, until my fingertips wrinkled up like raisins and my lips turned purple from the impending cold. But unlike for the shark, this was not my home. It was only a wondrous world I could visit when the opportunity arose. A world where currents stole time, sound disappeared, and life—uninterrupted—demanded attention. A world where two creatures as opposite as a shark and a human could inhabit one space, at least for a little while, and do nothing but float.

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Born and raised in Alaska, Brittany Rohm grew up with an adventurous spirit and a desire to travel the world. Her wandering feet have taken her to more than forty countries across six continents, and she has camped in electric storms, hiked active volcanoes, and been stung by a jellyfish. She currently works as a freelance editor and explores new places as often as possible.  

Comments

  1. Wow! What an amazing piece of writing.

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  2. The author made me feel as though I were snorkeling along with her. I held my breath while waiting out the shark's decision. Great writing!

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    1. Thank you! And the good thing about snorkeling is that you don't even have to hold your breath :)

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  3. Beautiful writing! Makes me wish I could be there with my camera!

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    1. Thank you, Delaney. And there's plenty of ocean for you and your camera to explore :)

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  4. Been a long time since I read a short writing sample with such poetic prose. Definitely have to book a ticket to the South Pacific now!

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    1. Thank you! And yes, I highly recommend visiting--and snorkeling in--the South Pacific.

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  5. Very impressed...thanks for sharing

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  6. Very well written. Made me feel as if I were floating in the water, serenely, watching and waiting for the next scene to scroll by... Loved it!

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  7. Hi Brittany- Great story great description and colorful. That's a moment in time that very few people will ever have.

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    1. Thank you! And yes, I feel very fortunate for having had that experience.

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  8. What a beautiful story! I only wish I could write like that :) Quite a talent you have!

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  9. Staring out over the nasty grey clouds overhanging Dublin city while on lunch in work, I felt like I was whisked away on a sunny southern holiday with a mighty adventurous lady...if only for a moment. The sun goes down and I'm brought back to reality.
    Nice piece Brittany; always a delight to read your work.

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    1. Thank you, Bobby! And having grown up in SE Alaska, I can commiserate with you on the cloudy, dreary days. Glad this story could whisk you away for a few minutes :)

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  10. A wonderful short story that makes me wish I could book a plane ticket immediately. Love your work Brittany!

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    1. Thank you so much, Patrick! I always appreciate your support :)

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  11. Really amazing description! Being a dive master and having dove in many places I admire the way you described not only the reef, but the emotions that were going on inside you. Thanks for sharing this story!

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    1. Thank you, Cris! And if you haven't yet been diving in this part of the world, I highly recommend it. (Though off Easo, there are no dive operators; you can only snorkel).

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  12. Wonderfully descriptive. Keep up the interesting storytelling!

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  13. Baby shark doo, doo, doo do doo doooooo!

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  14. This is superb writing. I felt like I was there with you, floating in that aquatic paradise. It is difficult to convey these rare, special moments with Mother Nature to people who weren't there but you definitely did. Please keep writing, even when faced with obstacles, keep writing! You have a gift, and the world will recognize it if you are relentless in your craft :)

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    1. Thank you so much! And yes, sometimes I do think it's difficult to describe such experiences, but then all the more reason for others to experience them for themselves :)

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  15. I have been familiar with Brittany's writing for sometime. She never disappoints me. I read in admiration of her ability to transform words into vivid imagery and her experiences leave me envious. Great writing and great story! Well done, Brittany

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    1. Thank you, Travis! But no need to be envious: one of my snorkeling adventures resulted in a (pretty unpleasant) jellyfish sting...

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  16. Congratulations, Brittany! I see why this was a fan favorite. Beautiful and descriptive writing, you do have a way with words. What a wonderful talent to possess. Cheers!

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    1. Thank you for reading, DQ, and for your positive sentiments!

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  17. CRAZY!!!!!! Must have been scary.

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    1. I was definitely nervous at first--but then it was just an awesome experience :)

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  18. Brittany, your writing took me to one of my favorite things to do, snorkeling. It was also so wonderful to see your writing and brought back memories of you as a very determined kindergartner in the play writing group.

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    1. Thank you so much :) It's been fun to come across some of my earlier stories while going through boxes of childhood stuff!

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  19. Brittany, this is a beautiful piece of writing, thank you for sharing it with us! Riley wants to go snorkeling with you. Maybe we can meet again some where in the South Pacific.

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    1. Thank you! And that would be great. I'd love to go snorkeling with her :)

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