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Trouble diving on the Great Maya Reef.

Completely surrounded by bubbles, I feel myself surge forward at the mercy of the waves. Only a foot, maybe two, beneath me lies the razor sharp reef. The jagged coral could damage my air hose or worse, cut me to shreds.

Clinging to my dive buddy on my right and my dive master on my left, I focus on regulating my breath despite the imminent danger. I cannot afford to panic while breathing underwater. Hyperventilating might make me disoriented or even cause me to black out.

Forty-five minutes earlier, I had been sitting aboard our panga--a 26 foot, no-frills Mexican fishing boat--slipping into my buoyancy compensator, pulling the straps tight, and double checking my gear. Bobbing in the winter waves a mile off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula bothered my stomach and I was anxious to roll backward into the sea-glass blue water. This was my second trip to the Great Maya Barrier Reef. Enchanted the first time by the array of life on the vast living structure, I had to return. I squished my mask onto my face, wrapped my lips around the mouthpiece of my regulator, and splashed into the cool, clear sea.

There were six in our party: my husband and I, our dive master and his girlfriend/videographer, and an older couple from Canada. The day being breezy, we planned our escapade on the protected shore-side of Parque Nacional Arrecife de Puerto Morelos (Puerto Morelos Reef National Park) where endangered green sea turtles, translucent Caribbean reef squid, and schools of barracuda might greet us on the shallow, 25ft dive.

The Great Maya Barrier Reef, also known as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, stretches more than 450 miles from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula all the way to Honduras. Second only in size to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, it shelters everything from gentle-giant whale sharks to delicate, red and white banded coral shrimp.

In 1998, by Mexican presidential decree, the waters around the traditional fishing village of Puerto Morelos were declared a natural protected area and christened Parque Nacional Arrecife de Puerto Morelos. This designation meant the pristine ecological wonder would be protected for generations to come. While exploring towering pinnacles and underwater tunnels, we'd be careful not to brush against the coral. The slightest touch could cause the polyps--tiny living organisms that form the reef--to die.

Descending, I watched a silent, slow-motion world come into view. The white sand beneath me, punctuated with tufts of turtle grass, provided safe landing. I touched down, gave my husband (my dive buddy) the universal symbol for OK, and together we followed our dive master into a maze of coral canyons.

Flamboyant walls rife with color soared to the surface and schools of yellowtail snapper crowded through windows in the reef. I moseyed along trying to see everything at once. A spiny lobster scuttled backward into his cave waving his sword-like antenna at me. Delicate purple and gold fairy basslets danced with a bright blue and green supermale wrasse and a southern sting ray flew along the undulating sea floor and then buried himself in the sand.

I peeked into a corridor on my left and there, nestled among mounded orangey brain coral, a sleek, brown nurse shark lay sleeping, his body motionless save the gentle waving of his scalloped tail in the undersea wind. Off in the distance a green sea turtle soared out from the blue, changed course, and vanished again.

Not long into our adventure, I noticed our dive master's girlfriend (Lucy), and the Canadians had disappeared. Assuming Lucy, a videographer and a dive master in her own right, accompanied the older couple, I guessed they were together taking time to capture the mosaic of movement and color on film.

Gradually the water grew shallower as we swam through a submerged garden of purple sea fans and pink vase sponges. Delicate feather duster worms bloomed like flowers and a brittle star slunk through a bed of ostrich feathery sea plumes using his spiny black arms like an octopus clinging to the reef. A conch shell hid in an underwater lawn below a limestone ledge. Our dive master dove down and, producing a camera of his own, took some snap shots. I followed, watching as he studied the edible invertebrate through his lens.

Turning to check on my dive buddy, I noticed he was still on the outcrop above me. However, when I floated back up to meet him--a diver always sticks close to his/her dive buddy--he warned me off the ledge. With a flourish, he swam past me, but when I tried to follow, I found myself caught in the surge. Kicking with all my strength, I began to panic. Though I powered into the onrushing current, I could not propel myself forward.

Realizing I was in danger of being swept away, I forced myself to think clearly and take stock of my situation. The waves ebbed and flowed and I noticed, if I waited until the water surged forward and then kicked with all my might, I could gain ground. After several cycles of maintaining and sprinting, I finally reached the shelter of the reef. Our dive master, unaware of my close call, finished shooting and moved on.

We followed him over increasingly shallower plateaus, sometimes in as little as five feet of water. Occasionally we skirted stands of tree-like elkhorn coral breaking the surface. I carefully kept my arms across my chest so I wouldn't touch the fragile--and sharp--reef beneath me. The water became dangerously shallow. I hoped our leader would quickly guide us back into the safety of deeper water.

Suddenly my view was awash with foam. Waves crashed on the surface and we were caught in the roar. I had no way of knowing where I was or if I would be smashed into the serrated coral heads. My buddy grabbed my right hand and my dive master grabbed my left. Together we gave ourselves up to the unforgiving surge.

So here I am, completely surrounded by bubbles, listening to the ebb and flow of my breath. Rhythmic, it pulses like the raging tide. I am no longer thinking. Hours of preparation and training have automatically kicked in. I relax. Panic slips away. Over and over again I hear my scuba instructor say, "Don't forget to breathe."

White bubbles obscure my vision, like bubble fog, thick as pea soup. And then for a moment, I can see. In wash the bubbles again, swirling en mass, then clearing. Each time the view remains clear a little longer until, just as suddenly as it descended, the bubble fog lifts. We plunge over a bright red and green living mountain and sink into the relative safety of the deep.

Our dive master guides us over a subaquatic desert and, when we are a few hundred yards from the reef, produces a rolled up, inflatable yellow tube. He fills it with air from a valve on his regulator and floats it to the surface where it will alert passing boats of our presence. Then slowly, following our bubbles, we ascend.

On the rollicking surface it's hard to see above the waves, but as far as I can tell, our dive boat is nowhere in sight. Thankfully, the bright yellow marker buoy grabs the attention of a nearby fisherman. He picks us up, radios our craft, and learns that Lucy and the Canadians were swept down the reef and separated, not just from us, but from each other. Our dive boat captain has pulled each of them from the unpredictable Caribbean Sea. Hearing that we are safe, he asks the fisherman to deliver us while he tends to the shaken divers. We splash over the washboard waves and transfer from our rescue boat into the welcoming arms of our panga.

Safely back on board, sipping bottled water and wrapped in dry beach towels, we try to figure out what went wrong. In the end, I guess our leader just got lost in the maze of underwater spurs and canyons. As enchanting and exciting as the reef may be, it's not something to be trifled with. I'm glad we walked away unscathed. Never-the-less, I have every intention of revisiting the otherworldly Great Maya Barrier Reef. Its placid turtles and waving sea fans call me.

Laura LaBrie is a home-schooling Mom and travel writer.
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Author:LaBrie, Laura
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:2HOND
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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