I am in the Pacific Ocean off the Kona coast of Hawaii, wearing two wetsuits, and shivering in the dark. Scuba divers, kneeling below, and snorkelers, floating on the surface, point bright flashlight beams to attract microscopic animals and hopefully their predators, manta rays. A carnival of these angel-shaped beasts—whose wing-like fins span 10 to 20 feet—glide, loop, and corkscrew through divers’ bubbles.

She’s so close, I suck in my gut. A scream lodges in my throat. I now know how whales launch themselves out of the sea: sheer will power. “

I cling to a Styrofoam-covered hula-hoop our guide uses to herd snorkelers. The soundtrack to “Jaws” pounds in my head. One ray fans her wings and swims right toward me. Her cephalic fins spread open to corral invisible plankton into her gaping three-foot wide mouth, big enough to swallow me in one gulp. She must weigh more than a ton, if she so much as taps me, our guide might discover my body before the rays’ cousins, the sharks. The ray rolls and descends.

I grip the hula-hoop. Okay, I’ve seen them, let’s go. I search for the boat, but my guide grabs my arm and yells, “Big Bertha’s right below you.”

She’s so close, I suck in my gut. A scream lodges in my throat. I now know how whales launch themselves out of the sea: sheer will power. I nearly pitch myself onto the guide, but I cannot stop staring at Bertha’s gullet, which is a ribbed cavern. Why is it white, not red? I waggle my flashlight at her to get another look. She undulates, arcs, and somersaults. Ten gills on her vast black-and-white belly fan open, revealing screens of mesh, each hole a tiny white square, a perfect filtration system. She spirals and displays herself again and again. Her friends swoop, unfurling their fins, spinning into arabesques as if choreographed.

I am the last one back on the boat.

Debra Borchert’s work has been published in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, Journey, Stitches, StringTown,The Writer and True Girl. Her short stories have appeared in And All Our Yesterdays (Dark House Press, 2015), Unsavvy Traveler (Seal Press, 2005), X Files (Flying Trout Press, 2006). She is currently at work on a novel of historical fiction.
Photo by Swanson Chan

6 thoughts on “Arabesque

  1. Debra:
    That was great !! You paint a fabulous ‘word picture’ . I can just imagine the scene and if I saw something as big as that ray, it would scare the hell out of me.
    Bill D.

  2. Oh I really liked this and I felt like I was right there in the water with you…and sharing your fear…I too often hear the theme to “Jaws” when in open water. Beautiful descriptions of the Rays and their grace in the water.

  3. Debra, I didn’t realize I was holding my breath while reading this until I got to the end. Enjoyed going on this journey with you vicariously!

  4. I, too, felt the same fear, eventually followed by the reluctance to return to the boat at the end. Nice job describing the evolution of emotions. I especially liked the vision of the breaching whale.

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