In the South Pacific Ocean I held my breath, plunged in and swam deeper into the water to get closer to the schools of White Tipped Sharks huddled at the bottom of the ocean. With my flippers, I pushed myself deeper into the water. The now useless snorkel was my only reminder of air as I kept going, with only my mask for navigation. Though the moving sand did not entirely obstruct the water, the sun grew less intense the farther I traveled.
Just remember to not get too close to the sharks, I had to keep reminding myself.
I almost froze when I spotted the Stingray. They work so hard to avoid being seen, so they can surprise they prey and have their next meal. I spotted it, but it made me stop. It surprised me that I had come this far, and nothing but a little water separated me from animals that could seal my fate.
I stared for a while, then realized that I needed to get some air, so I turned toward the light.
I had been underwater so long that the oxygen was pulled from my muscles, and I didn’t have the energy to kick.
When you become acutely aware of your desperate need for air, your body plays tricks on you. I forgot about looking back at the sharks and Stingray below, I even forgot about the Sea Lions and Lion Seals above. I’ll deal with whatever’s on the surface once I get there.
Now, get yourself to kick. Think. You can do it. Push. I managed to kick my legs once and started to move my way through the water. I hoped momentum could keep me going, but nothing was fast enough any longer.
You can do this, I thought. Push again.
I pushed, I moved, but the surface still seemed miles away. Now I know there’s twice as much hydrogen around me as oxygen, but oxygen is so much bigger than hydrogen… Oxygen is the most abundant chemical element by mass in our biosphere, in our air, sea and land. But I can’t get to the oxygen in this water.
I can’t let this be the death of me.
My chest started to tighten. My chest started burning, like someone lit a match and the last oxygen in my body was setting my lungs on fire.
I clenched my teeth tighter around that snorkel mouthpiece. I know I couldn’t breathe yet, but I couldn’t let this piece go free and possibly move my mask while I was trying to save myself.
Come on, I thought. Your legs are strong. You can do this. So I pushed again until I could see a few people trying to swim toward me. I tried to keep moving until someone threw their arm around my waist. I hoped they would be able to breathe for the both of us until we broke the surface.
I remember feeling wet sand being pushed against my skin as they dragged me out of the water until they let me lay on my side so I could cough. I had no water in me, but I had to do anything I could to give myself oxygen again.
Once I was able to breathe comfortably again, I tried to think of my breathing. I know I can’t get oxygen toxicity by breathing too deeply… Take a deep breath. Get the oxygen to my blood. Your toes are tingling. Inhale deeply. Now imagine your oxygenated blood rushing to your feet. The oxygen’s to your brain now. Keep thinking, mentally pushing the oxygen throughout your body.
When I got back inside that evening, they had started a fire in the fireplace for me. And I thought, how fitting. I was stuck in the water, with all that hydrogen and oxygen, until I could have some oxygen to breathe again. We are over half water as it is, meaning the majority of our mass is oxygen. And there I was, now at a roaring fireplace, with oxygen fueling the fire. It’s funny, how on this one day a basic element like oxygen could help me go when I’ve never been before, could warm me up at the end of the day, and could show me in it’s absence how crucial is was everywhere in my life.