The worst part is that I don’t remember his name. I’m really bad with names, and I always feel terrible about it.
I remember him, though.
We were staying in Nusa Lembongan, an island southeast of Bali in Indonesia. We’d heard the snorkeling in the area was good, so Jesse’s parents found someone who’d be willing to take us out – a happy, laughing, middle-aged Balinese man. Our captain for the day.
We walked from the sand into the water, wading towards the boat. A younger man – not the captain – was helping each of us step up onto the vessel, silently smiling and nodding in response to our thank-yous. We hadn’t been introduced to him yet, but he climbed on to the boat with us. We’d find out later that he was the captain’s brother.
Once we were out on the water, I sighed. As always, being out there felt like relief. While driving, the captain turned to us frequently to chat and point out features on the land.
His brother sat towards the back, only coming forward once: to grab my hands and place them on the seat in front of me when the water got choppy.
After a few minutes on the water, another boat approached us. There was some shouting in Balinese between the captains, and then we abruptly changed direction. Turning around in the spray, our captain explained that there was a fever of manta rays in a cove nearby. MANTA RAYS. I turned to Jesse and beamed.
We pulled into the cove. The captain dropped a ladder off the side of the boat, while his brother handed me a pair of flippers and a snorkel mask. He gave me two enthusiastic thumbs up, and then pointed to the ladder.
“He wants you to get in!” said the captain.
“Nice to meet you!” I said.
He smiled and bowed his head in response, then pointed at the ladder again. I noticed he was wearing flippers, too.
Once we were in the water, I spotted the manta rays. They were about a meter and a half wide, and I’d never seen anything like it first-hand. My instinct was to stay exactly where I was and just watch.
Someone grabbed my wrist. I thought it was Jesse, but I turned to see the captain’s brother. He used his other hand to point at the manta rays, and then started swimming, trying to lead me towards them. I panicked and pulled away from him, and lifted my head out of the water.
The captain, leaning out over the side, asked if I was okay.
“Don’t they bite? Or, like, stab you?” I shouted over the waves, terrified of getting too close. All I could think about was Steve Irwin.
After being reassured by the captain that the manta rays were safe to approach (no stingers!), I rinsed out my mask and put it back on. The captain’s brother pointed in the direction of the rays again. I saw safety, and excitement, and kindness in his eyes. He saw how nervous I was, but how badly I wanted to get closer. He took me by the hand again, and I relented. We started moving towards the rays.
Eventually, he let go and we swam alongside each other. He dove down deep – deeper than my body fat percentage and lack of experience would let me dive. He moved like someone or something born to move in water. I followed him, trying (and failing) to emulate his fluidity. He was made for this world, and I could feel how much he wanted to share this world with me.
We made it to the manta rays. He grabbed my wrist and pulled it, trying to get me to touch one, but it didn’t feel right. I don’t touch wildlife. He got the hint. I kept a respectful distance, but got close enough to appreciate their form, their alienness. Being in the water with them, right next to them, felt like being in the presence of something numinous.
As I tread water, both hands moved to cover my mouth in an involuntary gesture of awe. I glanced to my left, and there was the captain’s brother again, grinning at me. I came up out of the water, ripped off my mask, and he followed.
I shouted something along the lines of “wow!” or “holy shit!” or “they’re incredible!” and all he did was nod furiously, grin, and then put his mask back on before motioning for me to do the same.
We swam again, following the manta rays. We got close again. Awe. Excitement.
On that boat trip, we stopped in several places. A drop-off, where I found and tried to follow a clownfish off the underwater cliff before getting spooked by the endless dark water. A shallower area, filled with coral, where we relaxed and let the current move us. It was the best day of that entire vacation. For hours, I was surrounded by my favorite things: water, silence, nature.
Later, after we’d docked, taken some selfies, and the brother had left, the captain explained to us that his brother was mute. At around 5 years old, he contracted some kind of disease, where the fever was violent enough to have caused damage. From that day onwards, he didn’t make a sound.
When he told us, we naturally reacted with sadness and sympathy. But the captain shook his head and gently laughed it off. He waved his hand toward the ocean and said simply, “he is happy.”