You step into the warm sand and wiggle your toes. Then you run towards the ocean, and you can hear the laughter of kids building sand castles and splashing in the salty water. When you reach the water, a smile comes to your face; it seems like an endless expanse of swimming pool. You step deeper into the water and waves lap around your knees; then you step in even deeper, and the sea is up to your waist; next, you bend down, and let the water slip around your shoulders. You let out a cry, because the water is cold; your bathing suit won’t protect you much from that. Then you leap forward and start swimming.
Your arms and legs paddle the water, and propel you farther into the ocean. You take a deep breath and close your mouth, then dive into the blue sea. You had put on goggles to protect your eyes, so you are able to see through the water. You swim downward, and touch the sand that has settled at the bottom with your hands. The sand slips through your fingers and makes a cloud around your arms, before drifting back down––or being carried away––by the ocean current. By this time you need air again, and swim back up to the surface.
Once your head breaks through the surface of the water, you gasp in lungs full of air, but once you catch your breath you don’t hesitate to dive under again. This time you see pieces of shells mixed amongst the sand below. You see a conch shell, and your heart soars with delight; it is whole, not a chip of it is missing. You reach down to grab it, but it moves just beyond your grasp, so you swim closer to it…but again it seems to move further away. You try to grasp it a few more times, but just as before, it never lets you touch it. You look around to see if any of the other shells are affected by the waves, but they haven’t moved a bit. When you look back down at the conch, you realize that it is ten feet below you now. How did it do that? you wonder. You swim toward it, hoping to just grab it…
Suddenly, you realize that you’ve been underwater for almost a minute, and your lungs are screaming for air. You look up, and see the surface far above you. You didn’t notice that you’d swum that far down! A strong current comes out of nowhere, and drags you farther out to sea. You kick and fight the water around you, but it does nothing. The current is too strong. Panic flares through your body. Are you going to drown down here? What are your parents and friends thinking, back up on the beach? Did they see you go under, and are they calling the lifeguard? Or are they all too busy chatting, and have no idea that you are sinking into the ocean’s depths?
All of a sudden, you realize that you are now being carried into a reef. Had you not been in life-or-death danger, you would have been star-struck by the beauty of the diverse corals and other aquatic life around you. You thrash in the water, and notice that you’ve caught the attention of a creature, but you don’t know what it is, because you only see it out of the corner of your eye. Then, you see the conch in front of you, and nearly gasp with surprise. You grab out for it, and to your shock and delight, your hand wraps around it. Suddenly you feel rejuvenated, as if your lungs are full of air again. How did that happen? You don’t care; you’re just glad that it did.
Now, you notice your surroundings. You gaze at the reef in awe. The vibrant colors around you dazzle you, and with the hand that isn’t clutching the conch, you can’t help but reach out and touch a orange brain-coral you drift by. A school of blue fish swim around you and tickle you with their soft fins. A large smile spreads across your face; this feels like a dream. You let the current drag you along, although it’s not nearly as strong as before, and you could easily swim against it if you wanted to.
A sea turtle swims by, but when she sees you, she turns her head away from you defensively. Why would she do that? You’re a human, not a shark; you don’t mean it any harm. The reef suddenly disappears below you, and you find that you are now floating above an underwater cliff. You gaze down it, and stare deep into the fathoms of the ocean and the darkness beneath you. Your curiosity calls you to swim down, and see what lies in the world beneath you. You follow its command, and slip downward, still clutching the magical conch. As you swim leagues beneath the surface, you almost forget that you are a land creature, instead of one of the sea.
When the chill of the deep water creeps into you, you look around, and for a second, you wonder if you have swum into outer space. The only light around you now is the twinkling stars. Or are they stars? They are stars––the stars of the deep sea. They are the light that the creatures down here give off to communicate or lure in lunch. They are stars of bioluminescence. You reach forward to an especially bright star, and find that it is a dragonfish. The small creature looks somewhat like something out of your nightmares, but it also brings a sense of calm to you. It is welcoming you to its home. You follow it as it swims through the abyss, and it shows you the grandeur of its habitat.
You would have followed it forever, if something had not told you to go up. But which way is up? You don’t know for sure, now, but your legs and arms direct you that way. When you go up, you squint, as you are wrapped in warmth and light. The dragonfish cannot follow you, so you say goodbye. When you reach the top of the cliff again, you look around you.
Your heart fills with horror. Everything is lifeless. At first, you think that you are in the wrong place, but recognize the shapes of the coral…or what used to be coral. The skeletons of the coral are pale and brown. A plastic bag drifts by. A plastic bottle lies in the sand. Oil, darker than night, slides around you. How did this happen? How long were you gone? You swim sorrowfully through the dead reef. Even the current seems dead. The sea turtle you saw before swims by, one of her flippers wounded. Now you know why she had turned away from you: she knew what humans could do.
Now, she just looks at you with deep sadness in her eyes. She knows that you, as an individual, are not to blame; it is your kind that are to blame. Your tears mix with the salt water as you think, “It doesn’t have to be this way…it doesn’t!” The turtle turns her gaze away from you. You feel shame for your kind. Having arrived on the beach once again, you sink to your knees in the sand. “It doesn’t!” you exclaim again.
Suddenly your eyes open. You are lying in your bed in your house.
It may have been a dream, but you know that what you saw in the dream is true. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” you say aloud, and with all your heart you know that this is so. But will you do anything to prevent it?
That’s up to you.