Essay by Alysa Delgado

When Finding Nemo came out in 2003, I was only nine years old. Even though I was young, I still remember the magnificence of the graphics, the water so fluid, and the coral reefs so vibrant. I remember asking my mom if that’s what coral reefs really looked like. My mom nodded and said something to me along the lines of, “I’ve never seen a movie seem so life-like. I’m sure that’s almost exactly how they look.” I remember smiling back at her and continuing on with the film.

Eleven years later, I got to find out for myself whether or not Finding Nemo got it right. While I didn’t travel to the Great Barrier Reef, I had the wonderful opportunity to study abroad in Panama on a Tropical Ecology program during my junior year of college. One of our units was Marine Ecosystems, and for about a week we stayed in Guna Yala (also known as the San Blas Archipelago). Since the reef alongside the archipelago was rarely used by anyone other than the natives, it was basically untouched. Just so you know, Finding Nemo is spot on.

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After one particular morning out by the reefs, we were all standing at the shallow shore of an island neighboring the one we were staying at when we were told our boat back would be late. We were all exhausted, and a few of my groupmates were murmuring about just swimming back to our island. I kept quiet, hoping that it was only the ambitious ex-swim team bunch of our group up to the challenge. But alas, within the next few minutes, all 16 other group members were on board.

Now, in 2014, I was not a good swimmer. (Actually, I’m still not, but I’m definitely better after this particular day.) I also am not a general fan of open water, mostly because of sharks, but also because I know how powerful the ocean can be. So, I was faced with a choice. Either be the only member of my group to wait for a boat to come back to get us, or concede to the peer-pressure and swim the half-mile stretch with them.

Ahead of me, everyone was diving in, furiously freestyling as if it were a race back to our shore. Shaking, I too, entered the shallow water and waded out until my feet couldn’t touch anymore. In that moment, I honestly don’t know why, but I decided to swim.

And I swam. Or, tried to. Like I said, I wasn’t very good at it.

The crystal clear, blue water that I had come accustomed to seeing below me quickly turned to darkness. I tried to stay calm, and focus on the splashes ahead of me made by my peers. But, after only a few minutes, those splashes got further and further away, and I felt very alone.

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Photo by Alyssa Hagerbrant.
Every time I was coming up for air, I got slammed in the face with a wave of water. I didn’t know which way the island was anymore, and above all else, I was getting immensely tired. It was then that I remembered our boat captain saying how in this particular channel that I was swimming over, he’s caught several sharks. I started to panic.

I looked straight down in the darkness, regretting everything–deciding to swim, coming to Panama, even being interested in ecology in the first place as all of those decisions got me to that exact moment. I wanted to scream, and cry, and honestly just stop swimming. For a very real three seconds, I did not think I was going to make it.

Thankfully, this thought was interrupted by one of our program leaders, Julio, shouting at me from 20 feet ahead in the water, “¡Vamos, Alysa!,” which translates to “Come on, Alysa.” I remember rethinking those two words to myself, over and over. The waves began to seem smaller, and my arms were regaining some strength. And despite what I thought I couldn’t do only a few seconds prior, I just kept swimming.

When I finally made it back on to shore, I collapsed. I remember seeing all of my peers already drying off, some even laughing. But, I started crying. My lungs ached, my arms felt heavy, and my whole body was shaking; I felt weak. Somehow, I walked to a hut not far from shore. I climbed in a hammock, and sobbed.

I couldn’t believe what had just happened. Even though I was safe on shore, the panic I felt in the water was still coursing through me. The thought that I wanted to give up was ever present in my mind. Julio had followed me to the hut and kneeled down next to my hammock. Though he couldn’t speak English, and my Spanish was still spotty, he tried to calm me down. Again, two words of his stuck out clearly in my mind: “fuerte” (strong) and “corazón” (heart). After that talk, my lungs hurt a little less, and my crying slowed down; I no longer felt weak, and I’d soon come to love that moment as the first time I truly felt strong. And I loved myself for feeling that way.

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Alysa on the Isla Porvenir dock. Photo by Erin Marek.
I think about that moment in the water any time that I’m feeling overwhelmed, helpless, or alone. Whether it’s from school, or work, or issues with friends or family, I think about what would have happened if I had given up, if I hadn’t found the will to keep going. I remember how great it felt to know that I had accomplished something I never thought I was going to be able to do. It’s that feeling of strength, and self-love, that helps keep me afloat every day in my life. I so badly wish for everyone to have a moment like mine, just off the coast of Isla Porvenir, so that no matter what, we all can find our strength to just keep swimming.


 

Alysa Delgado is a masters student at the University of Alabama. Driven Media is excited to have her as a contributor in the Fall 2016 self-acceptance essay series.