How the Ocean Gave Me One Last Dive With a Lost Friend
Dive guide Manuela celebrates after a close bull shark pass in Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo, Baja California Sur, Mexico.
If you’re a diver, there’s a good chance you’re looking for something. A good day on the water, a change of perspective, or maybe some weathered green stones waiting for eyes that will cherish them memory-treasures, in other words, lessons and discoveries and stories that escape from the sea with us and evolve into beings that buoy us against life’s gravity.
And it is powerful, this pull beneath the waves, where you take your breaths with you to have them taken away. You see behind the blue curtain and your timeline splits. And now you know a secret language; one you can describe but never quite translate. You speak it with your dive buddies though, and eventually, through time spent under pressure, your incantations transform you into found-family, sharing a lightness that makes you glow from within.
This is my sixth trip to Cabo Pulmo, having attached myself like a barnacle to this whale of a good time my fellow volunteer aquarium divers have been enjoying for over a decade. This merry band of cold-water divers hasn’t seen a bad dive yet. Besides, we’re usually scrubbing windows when we dive together back up North. Anything else is a vacation, literal or littoral.
We didn’t come the year prior, waiting on testing and vaccinations and, most importantly, for an invitation for the likes of us to return. With some of the dust settled on the tortuous roads we traveled to be here once again, the gaps in our ranks begin to stand out.
“OK, last day! Where do you want to dive?” our dive guide Manuela asks. The sun is bright, the breeze light and the water might just be the closest thing to perfection this side of the Pacific. Tomorrow, we head home. Back to “reality,” to our beds and routines—to our familiar selves.
“How about we try for sharks at that one spot. Would be cool to do, for Mike.” Manuela looks up knowingly. The rest of the group nods, remembering who Mike was in our own separate pieces. He passed away last year, but in this moment, a fleeting ghost of Mike’s “is” still travels with us in our thoughts.
Like the countless pieces of jade he stalked beneath the waves of Big Sur, Mike is molded and polished by the life storms he sought and those that came his way—his hardened exterior complemented by a shining, glowing soul. Mike is easy to love, dense with life, a gentle force of nature. And Mike is relentlessly generous in sharing what he loves.
One year on this trip, I introduced him to micheladas—the next year, he cleared out the store of Clamato.
“No one has seen sharks there for a few weeks at least,” Manuela cautions, “We may not see anything.”
Fishy storm-chaser Mike Guardino dives into a massive school of bigeye trevally jack in Baja California Sur in 2018.
We clamber into the boat, ready to be launched into the sea by a gurgling pickup truck living somewhere between salty salvation and rusty damnation on this bustling Baja beach.
The panga is quiet and content as we take in our surroundings one more time, memories and reality pouring into each other, tributaries to a mixing flow of emotions, lightness and heaviness rushing together to find equilibrium—like a bare-handed diver hovering in an above-ocean kelp forest, weightless in a belt of multicolored lead balloons, waving at you through the window.
“OK, divers, are you ready?” Some of us go on two, the others on three. We splash into the balmy Baja bathtub. BCDs deflate and masks crack the surface—it’s the best visibility of the week, and we can see our sandy target several atmospheres away as if looking through the vacuum of inner space.
The author and Mike on their last dive together in Big Sur, relishing in their success of finding a few “good stones” in 2020.
I’m distracted on the way down as I usually am, fiddling with my camera, adjusting settings, wiping bubbles from the dome port, clearing my mask, looking back for the rest of the group. I don’t see Manuela. I look down, then deeper still. She’s waving at us, pointing excitedly.
A shark! A bull shark! Fist pumps emanate from the water column. It’s swimming away from us. This is it, our one look until next year, and I resign myself to the small packet of pixels my wide-angle lens will be able to deliver as evidence.
We’re catching up to Manuela, and then, to the shark. It has turned around and is swimming up to us. Oh no, I think to myself. We’ve had a dive or two over the years where the sharks made their veto known. “Maybe this is a warning—short dive, shoot.”
The shark stops—she’s a big female, one of the matriarchs of the area. She calls the shots around here. She flips around and glides down to the sand just ahead of the group, matching our descent rate and depositing us gracefully just beyond the deep reef. Sunbeams ripple across her massive shoulders as she disappears into a groundswell of silty haze.
We gather to Manuela, giddy and satisfied. “Wow, we saw one!” is the message scrolled across our smiling eyes. Except Manu’s—hers are wide open and looking through us.
We all turn separate directions, and our stomachs drop deeper than our gauges. Coming in from all sides is a peaceful herd of a dozen bull sharks. Behaving more bovine than beastly, they seem content to simply be outstanding in their field as they graze the sandy plains just beyond our sea-floored jaws. It’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
For the next half hour, we commune with the sharks—us in a bubbly huddle and them on meandering figure-eights. Nobody turns on their lights. Not a strobe fires. Cameras roll quietly, respectfully, in the background of an experience that both human and chondrichthyan seem reluctant to jeopardize.
I’m transfixed, frozen in awe. A glance at my computer and its subtle nitrogen warnings breaks me out of my reverie just enough to sense that feeling on the back of my neck that someone is approaching.
I turn around and see the large female making her closest pass yet.
A memorial created by local divers and friends sits overlooking the ocean at the entrance to one of Mike’s favorite dive spots in California.
We lock eyes, and I burst into tears. She glides by me as salt waters mix, and visits the rest of us in turn, graciously uncorking all of our pent-up emotions. A shadow catches my attention. It’s my dive buddy Brother Jack, receiving the shark’s benediction. He turns to me and we nod at each other, weeping.
It’s time for us to go up. We watch the herd fade away slowly as we decompress. We break through into the warm air and signal the capitán in such a way that he can tell he’s bringing a different group of divers home.
Brother Jack surfaces next to me.
The late Mike Guardino explores the majestic kelp forests in the jade-colored waters of his hometown in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
“Did you see Mike down there?” I ask him, wiping my eyes with a wet hand.
“That was Mike all right,” Brother Jack states calmly, smiling wide.
We embrace, and pile into the panga. Cinnamon wafers and water cups and humbled disbelief get passed around the boat. “Cosmic” is the only descriptor that seems appropriate for what we’ve just experienced, so we leave it at that.
If you’re a diver, there’s a good chance you’re looking for something. But what I’m beginning to understand is that the Ocean is equally intent on showing us what we need to see. It knows who we are from the surface to our deepest depths. The Ocean sends its emissaries to greet us, with lessons and discoveries and stories to share.
I can’t imagine your loss, dear Reader. But what I do know is that I walk lighter now, knowing that my buddy Mike isn’t lost anymore. He’s right where he’s always been: Living as a cherished memory-treasure, forever polished by each new dive into a generous sea.