Lost and found in the middle of nowhere.
The story of a wayward dive instructor.
The first dive at the corner.
The current is ripping. It’s the kind of current that strips divers of fins and offers to purge their reg for them. Holding onto a rock in the sand channel, I’m lying low letting the current pass overhead and taking in the scene. Grey reef sharks are drifting back and forth in the forceful azure blue waters ahead and sea garden eels are jutting out from the ocean floor swaying side to side. A school of yellowtail barracuda passes overhead while a sea turtle slowly returns from the surface to take a rest on the bottom just beside me. Everywhere you rest your eyes there is life: white tip sharks, red tooth triggerfish, giant trevallies, big eye jacks, scorpionfish, angelfish, gobies, shrimp, lion fish and on and on. At this moment, I realized had arrived to the center of the universe and the absolute middle of nowhere. I was in Palau.
It was 2 AM on balmy and humid night at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. After finishing what I assumed would be the last nasi lamak I’d have in a long time, I approached the ticketing staff at Air Asia counter nervously. I was worried about the baggage overweight charges for carrying what was now the entirety of my life’s possessions: diving gear, sun worn t-shirts, tattered board shorts, Havaianas, Nikon dslr, laptop and an outdated iPod. The woman working the counter was refusing to let me board my flight to Manila but it wasn’t the baggage at issue. “Sir, you need a return ticket to board this flight to Manila.”, She informed me. “I’m not returning, I’m continuing on to Palau.”, I replied. “Palau? Is that in the Philippines?”, the counter staff asked in a confused tone. “No, Palau is in Palau. It’s an island country in the Pacific”, I said growing increasingly impatient. “I’m sorry but are you sure? It’s not in our computer system.”, she said. “Yes, I’m sure. It’s a real place and I’m going.” I replied determinedly. It was a recurring conversation that I had been having since I first decided to take a dive master job on the small island in Micronesia. “I’m going to Palau.”, I’d say. ”Where?”, someone would ask without fail. Palau is so small that the marker icon on Google Maps completely obscures the island country until you zoom fully in. Palau is so small that on the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel my driver said “There’s the town.” I said, “Wait where?”. “We just passed it.”, Norman replied. I was stuck here at the airport just trying to pass through on the way to a new beginning, but the story actual starts in K.L.
Down and out in Kuala Lumpur.
Just a year before that night at KLIA, I myself had never even heard of Palau either. I was living in Kuala Lumpur, and found myself sitting on the curb next to my 50cc Yamaha scooter drunk and in shambles somewhere near Bukit Bintang. The global financial crisis of 2008 had crushed our dreams and washed away the international fashion company my soon to be ex-wife of 7 years and I created while living in Osaka. With my savings completely depleted, marriage ending, and stranded in what now felt like a dark and hostile city, I was lost.
In that darkness, a stranger approached. An older Malaysian man seeing how distraught I was sat down beside me on the curb to see if I was ok. In the soft glow of a street light, we talk and I explained my situation. He began to tell me the story about his life, loss, and starting over. It was comforting to hear him speak. He was like a grandfather that had appeared out of the fog of an alcohol-induced mirage to offer me advice. He said to me, “So you’ve lost everything…so the question is what are you going to do?”. I didn’t have an answer and I drifted off into my hazy thoughts. I looked up and he had already left, but his words ricocheted around mind stirring up old memories.
The longing for the ocean, memories of A.C.
The smell of salt water hit me with a warm blast of air, as my grandfather put down the electric windows in his long red Cadillac with the big tail fins. It was summer and my family was going to the Atlantic City boardwalk. The slatted wood deck lined and framed the Atlantic Ocean with arcades, casinos, junk food, rides, and the legendary Steel Pier. It was the mid-70s and I was 7 or 8. I convinced my father that we needed to take a ride in the Steel Pier Diving Bell. The diving bell was a welded monstrosity. A crude circular steel tank with 10 or 12 portholes to look out of, that was lowered 22 ft. below the surface of the ocean under the pier. I vividly remember the mixture of anticipation, excitement, fear and pure adrenalin as the diving bell was shaking and rumbling while it descended into the water. Standing on my father’s knee with my face pressed against the glass, I was desperate to see something amazing. Maybe there would be a shark or a school of barracuda! But I might as well have been looking a piece of glass that had been covered over with algae green spray paint. The water was dark, eerie, and lifeless. I squinted and concentrated with all my might to catch some glimpse of movement but then the rumbling began and we started to ascend. And a sense of disappointment washed over the experience. There was nothing there, but I wanted to go back for another look.
Three months after that night by the side of the road in K.L., I made my way to the island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Tao means “Turtle Island” in the Thai language but everyone just called it “The Rock”. Arriving on a Christmas Eve for a Dive Master and Instructor training program at Buddha View, I set out to rebuild my life one dive and one Singha at a time. Almost a year had passed, filled with some extreme highs and lows. Life on Koh Tao was a collage of drunken madness, hammock napping, stray dogs, motorbike racing, sunsets, romance, Thai street food, and diving. Lying in the hammocks on the deck of our island shack on stilts with a small slice of Chalok Baan Kao in view, my roommate turns to me and says, “It doesn’t get any better.” As we watched the sunset put the wraps on another perfect day on “The Rock.”
The next morning I was having a coffee in local cafe when the television on the wall started displaying images of turmoil and unrest bubbling up in Bangkok. People in red shirts were protesting in the streets, and it was alleged that the self imposed political exile Thaksin Shinawatra was paying rural farmers to create problems. I had passed through Bangkok a couple times during this period, but there was no sense of danger or animosity. Often the protestors would wave and smile to me. Overall, it felt more like a cheerful summer musical festival than civil unrest with people selling t-shirts and taking naps in the street. However, the protesters were cornered off in a small area of the city, and lit a shopping mall on fire. The video footage was picked up by international news outlets and scared off foreign tourists. Around the same time, a volcano in Iceland erupted grounding flights which combined with the protests left the island of Koh Tao completely deserted. No tourists meant no work, and no work meant no money.
Sitting in the bar at Buddha View taking in reality of the situation and thumbing through a dive magazine, I came across an article about the “reef hook”. Invented in Palau for divers to handle the extreme currents, the reef hook allowed divers a chance to view sharks drifting in the up-currents at the world famous dive site called Blue Corner. I turned to my buddy Mark, and said, “Now this is diving.” Little did I know that a week later, Palau would be one of two places to offer me a job out of the fifty or more emails I had sent out seeking employment. When the email came in there was no hesitation, I packed my bags, said goodbye to my good friends and set off to the rock islands of Palau.
“Hey oleh, why do you look so down?” says Silas, my co-worker and fellow dive master at Fish n’ Fins. It was a question that I had been turning over in my mind all day. Despite being in an island paradise, Palau felt decidedly empty. The buzz of scooters, the influx of happy backpackers, Thai street food stands, DJ beach parties, the Muay Thai fight nights, stray dogs, good friends and all the things about island life I had fallen in love with were conspicuously absent. The late night Bem Ermii burger stand in the middle of town was a poor consolation, and the scattering of dim lit mostly empty karaoke bars serving Bud Light in a can just seemed to rub it in. I had traded in my motorbike, jungle hut with an ocean view, and dear friends for a lifeless $500 month room at Lehn’s Motel on an island where the only sandy beach was accessible by a 45 minute boat ride. Thinking back on the glossy photos of the epic diving that had allured me in the first place, I thought to myself is this the universe’s idea of a sick joke? Just then Silas broke me out of my thoughts and said “Hey, there’s a cheap room in our building. Why don’t you come live with us brother? Here have a chew.” He handed me a bu, and showed me how to prep a proper betelnut. Slicing the betelnut in half, Silas gutted the juicy center and threw it away, then proceeded to pack with a white lime powder called aus that burns the tongue and mixed it with a generous pinch of sweet Red Man chewing tobacco from a weathered pouch, and wrapped it all with kabui leaf which produces a red juice that stains your teeth. I tried my first chew of betelnut mashing it around in my mouth, and then spitting out the juices on the ground. Betelnut was the taste of Palau; bittersweet.
The sharing culture.
I walked into my completely empty room with water stained white walls in the G&N apartment building and dropped my bags. And it hit me that I’d be sleeping on the hard tiled floor that night. A knock on the door, my friend and co-worker Jonathan comes in and tells me “The family downstairs has a bed for you.” Downstairs a Samoan family and Silas were working feverishly to get a heavy solid wood carved bed frame out the front door of their one bedroom apartment. It was a hot and humid night, and everyone was sweating like mad moving the bed at various angles over their head to make it pass through the narrow opening of the front door. A bare light bulb hung from a cord and illuminated the face of the warmly smiling grandma that looked like my nana but with faded tribal face tattoos. Jonathan who’s nickname was Tattoo (after the character in the American TV show Fantasy Island) stood at about chest height to me. He threw a mattress over his head and disappeared as he lugged it up to the second floor. As I setup my bed, a second knock on the door came. The guys had got a pizza and a case of Asahi Blue. “Welcome to the brotherhood.”, Silas said as he smiled. Over pizza and beer, we talked about moon phases, tides, diving and “berius” , the Palauan word for current. The ocean lesson of the evening: don’t dive against the current. The rhythm of the Palauan language interrupted by laughter filled the air and went on until all hours of the night. It was my first introduction to the traditional sharing culture of Palau.
Check the current.
The dive boat pulls up to one of the world’s most famous dive sites called Blue Corner. A corner reef jutting out into the ocean with ledges at 20–30m that has reef walls that drop to 100m and deeper. It is a dives site with just about everything: current, sharks, and almost every marine life species you could imagine in all directions. In time, I would come to know this dive site like it was my own backyard but this first day it was mysterious and unknown. The first task before any dive in Palau was to size up the current. This check included the direction (outgoing or incoming), the speed, and whether it was picking up, slowing down, or about to switch. My Palauan brothers Jonathan, Silas, Ken, Matty, Clint, Bucksy, Tong, Angelo, Uncle Troy and the rest of the crew had informally become my ocean mentors. Eager to learn everything I possibly about the ocean from my new family, I asked Ken “Hey what’s the current doing?” Ken turns to me and says “It’s outgoing.” I said, “How do you know?” After a pregnant pause, a bit of confusion shows on his face. Ken says “Man, you just look.” “Look at what?” I said. His confusion shifts to exasperation, “The water!” It took me months to learn that what he meant was you analyze a variety of things, including but not limited to the wind direction, the surface tension of the ocean smooth vs rough, the direction of the boats, where other dive groups were surfacing, the direction the fish were lining up, how high the fish were off the reef, how far below the surface the buoys were, the moon phase and more. If you want to learn: you. just. look.
“Howley! Hey, fucking white boy, go buy us some beers.” said Troy the captain of Ocean Hunter. That was what Troy called me for those first months, my name was “Fucking White Boy.” I remember the day he stopped calling me that. We were working on a project together installing sensors into the reef that would pick up shark tags in the area and collect data. The sensor was at about 45 meters and I was in the middle of securing a sensor with cable ties when my reg was ripped out of my mouth. I turned around a bit flustered and put the reg back in and there was Troy laughing his ass off underwater. I went back to work but I could hear his bubbles as he approached to try and do it again. But this time just before he got my reg in his hand, I spun around and punched him in the gut. He never called me “fucking white boy” after that day, and we came to be good friends, me and Uncle Troy. Incidents like this would happen quite often. One day in particular stands out because it marked what I had considered to be the end of my hazing period with one final unannounced challenge. Silas and I had just arrived at Peleliu Express, a dive site notorious for it’s unpredictable and intense currents. It was my first time ever diving the site, and I was excited for an adrenalin filled dive. Silas was scheduled to lead, and I would be the chase guide. I’m helping customers with kitting their gear when I hear him say with a devilish grin. “Hello everyone, and welcome to Peleliu Express one of Palau’s famous dive sites. Your lead guide today will be Rick, and he is an expert at Peleliu.” Everyone was excited and soon after they started back rolling into the water, I whispered to Silas on the side, “Hey what are you doing? I’ve never dived here before.” He says “Don’t worry, just go until you see the big rock and that’s the (reef) hooking station.” Bear in mind this dive site covers an expanse larger than a football pitch and there’s a hell of a lot of big rocks that all kind of look the same. Leading that dive looking for “the big rock” and cursing Silas all the while, I came to what I guessed was the reef hooking station and lined everyone up figuring for sure I was wrong. I pictured everyone back at the dive shop having a good laugh at my expense that night. But to my surprise Silas rolled up and just nodded approval. Back on the boat, I asked why’d you do that to me. He said “I knew you were ready.”
About three months had passed, and all the early challenges had started to fade into the background. It had been a rough stretch. The Brit who had started with me had already had enough, packed it in and gone home. After hosing down the boats at the end of day, I checked the boards to find my name on the roster for leading my own boat the next day. Usually ex-pats at our shop were accompanied by a veteran Palauan dive master, and especially if you were a rookie. I flashed back to one of the first nights of drinking Asahi with the boys at the empty lot at the dock across from the shop. They called it “Safety Stop” because that’s where you decompressed at the end of a long workday. Clint puts down his beer and looked at me real seriously then says, “Hey oleh, let me ask you something. Are you here you here to play or are you here to work?”. Without hesitation I replied, “I’m here to work.” He nodded in approval, “Good.”
I wanted to learn everything about diving Palau and I was prepared to work. Now it was time to step up. That night, I went with the crew went to one the locals bar and we mixed it up. Drinking and dancing to Palauan music, which is always one guy at at casio keyboard playing a melody over a bouncy synthetic drum beat and a singer. It was light hearted scene with old and young doing that uniquely Palauan walking shuffle dance and twirling their partners. Ruth and I were dancing and laughing, taking turns cutting partners with an older Palauan couple. Later that evening sitting at the bar, Ken was explaining to me over an Asahi that when Palauans fight they like to throw things. His advice in the event of a fight was to grab your beer, and get under the table, in that order. Just then Tong drunkenly yells out at me from down the bar, “Hey Rick..ollleeck…you think this is your island?? …biiittch.”
Apprehensive about leading my own boat for the first time the next day, I step out for some air and ask Jade “Hey where should I dive tomorrow, it’s half moon and I’m not sure which sites are going to be good.” Shaft who had overheard me, interjects angrily “Why are you asking about tomorrow’s diving tonight?” I said “Hey, I’m didn’t ask you. I asked Jade.” He got in my face and things were quickly escalating. Punches were about to fly when Jade got between us and says calmly, “You decide when you get out there and see what the conditions are, never mind, have a chew.” In Palau, betelnut solves most problems. Dive tourists would often ask “Where are we diving tomorrow?” and a common refrain from the old school Palauan dive masters would be “Somewhere blue.”
So many stars.
One year and probably hundreds of Asahi Silvers later, Palau had become my island home in the Pacific. I had managed to find and buy the only dirt bike on the island. It wasn’t actually originally for sale, but I called and went to the owner’s restaurant every day until he finally relented to selling it to me. A used and battered Korean dirt bike that I had saw parked in a backlot of a side street behind a bbq restaurant. That bike changed everything. Off road rides on jungle paths on the big island of Babeldoab under a full moon were my favorite. Sometimes if I got restless in the middle of the night, I’d put my headphones on race down to one of the docks to look at the stars.
Things were looking up, and I had graduated from rookie status to a respectable Palau dive guide. I was frequently leading dives and occasionally had my own group. Most dive days were like living in an episode from the BBC’s The Blue Planet. Dolphin, mantas, sharks, rays, tuna, macro, WWII wrecks, drift dives, cave dives, and more. Around this time, my best friend at work Andrea introduced me to her boyfriend Paul, a marine biology PHD, tech diver, and videographer. A British ex-pat who had left a successful career in marketing to pursue his true passion in life, the ocean. Paul and his buddy Richard had been studying fish behavior over the many years they had been diving Palau, collecting anecdotal information from locals and dive masters, diligently making notes in calendars, and keeping records of their observations of all their dives. There was an excitement in the air that they were onto something big. Night after night I would join them for beers whenever I could and listened into their daily debriefings. The were on working on a project that combined marine science and fish behavioral studies to bring divers to epic underwater spectacles: massive spawning aggregations of various species. Suddenly I realized that I had been diving everyday and missing everything. Symbiosis, spawnings, aggregations, and various fish behaviors were all around. A whole new world had opened up, and I just had to look.
A pack of strays.
Morning island sounds of nature, the sun breaking through the window, and the dogs wake me up. Stretching and looking around the room, beer cans scattered from the night before, I realized I had fell asleep in the back room of Paul’s house again. I went into the kitchen to find Paul quietly making coffee and observed his strict “No questions before coffee” policy. Sipping his coffee, Paul pulls drag from a Marlboro light and says “Mate, why don’t you just take Nicole’s room when she leaves, you crash here every night anyways.” That is when I moved into what Blaire and I fondly named The Paul Collins Shelter for Stray Animals and Wayward Dive Instructors. It was Paul, Richard, myself, two cats: Fat Cat & Biscuit, two dogs: Tiger and the notorious D.O.G.
Paul and Richards excitement and enthusiasm for their new project was contagious. It was inspiring. I desperately wanted in. But I didn’t know enough about marine science, building boats, or running a dive operation to be of real value. As a designer, I helped create their logo, but I needed more. I wanted to make something for myself. It had been almost 4 years now since things had fell apart. For days, on the rides out to the outer reef and on the way back home, I would look off at the horizon and turn ideas over in my head. What would I do? What do I want to do? As a kid, I was fascinated with being underwater and the ocean. I would try breathing from the air pockets trapped under the steps of the ladder in the deep end of my Nana’s pool to see if I could stay down longer. My uncle Tom had a picture of the Hawaiian North Shore in his bed room, but growing up in Massachusetts, Hawaii’s North Shore might as well have been another planet. During classes, I used to draw surfers, skaters, and palm trees in a sketchbook I carried around with me fantasizing about the island life. Now here I was half way around the world a trained artist living on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
One day while riding home from the dive shop on my dirt bike and thinking about starting my own dive gear brand, I was struck by the sight of an enormous halo around the sun. It was incredibly bright that particular day and the ring around the sun seemed to fill the entire sky. It was a sign, and that’s when I decided to start my own company and that it would be involved with the ocean. It was also important that it would give back to the ocean which had given so much to me. When I got home, I did some research on what I had seen. The optical effect of a ring around the sun or the moon is known as a 22º halo.
It’s been 2 years since I first arrived in Palau. Our boat pulled up to Blue Corner, and Jonathan and I checked the current. We roll in with the group on the outgoing side. And the current is ripping. It’s the kind of current that strips divers of fins and offers to purge their reg for them. Holding onto a rock in the sand channel, I’m lying low letting the current pass overhead and taking in the scene. Grey reef sharks are drifting back and forth in the forceful azure blue waters ahead and sea garden eels are jutting out from the ocean floor swaying side to side. A school of yellowtail barracuda passes overhead while a sea turtle slowly returns from the surface to take a rest on the bottom just beside me. Everywhere you rest your eyes there is life: white tip sharks, red tooth triggerfish, giant trevallies, big eye jacks, scorpionfish, angelfish, gobies, shrimp, lion fish and on and on. At this moment, I realized had arrived to the center of the universe and the absolute middle of nowhere. I was home.