He finally had a spiritual awakening deep below the Pacific Ocean.
- Posted on May 26, 2020
Dive a few feet underwater and you’re in another world. It’s quiet down there. You can hear yourself think. If you’re me, you stop thinking so much. You slow down. Look around. See the world maybe a little more the way God intended. I’m a restless guy. Married four times. Moved all over the country. Grew up on a farm and later worked as a teacher and coached football, wrestling and track.
Scuba diving is what I keep coming back to. I learned to dive 30 years ago. I’ve been a diver almost half my life. No matter where I live, I find water and dive. I’ve chainsawed holes in the Wisconsin ice and plunged in.
I always say I’m a C-minus on land but a Mensa genius underwater. I don’t mean I get smarter; I mean I become a better person down there. I’m kinder. More patient. More tolerant and observant. My rough edges smooth out, and I become the calm, generous guy I try—and mostly fail—to be on land.
I never knew why that was until a few years ago. That’s when I made a tiny discovery during one of my routine dives. I was in shallow water off Long Beach, an industrial port city south of Los Angeles. I looked down and saw a bright orange seahorse, 4½ inches long, hovering near the ocean floor.
That seahorse didn’t belong there. The waters near Long Beach are too busy and too cold. Seahorses are shy and prefer warmer water. San Diego marks the northern limit of Pacific seahorse habitat, some 110 miles away.
I swam closer, fascinated and enchanted by what I was watching. I didn’t know it then, but that little seahorse had just changed my life. Wind the clock back to 1950, when I was born in Oelwein, Iowa. A town about as far from the ocean as you can get. Still, my sister and I grew up surrounded by nature and the cycle of life. We played in cornfields, watched calves being born and learned gardening from Mom.
Dad loved farming, but he couldn’t make the financial part work. We ended up moving to Council Bluffs, where Dad drove a truck and I attended high school. I knew my way around a farm but struggled in school. Kids made fun of me, and I burned to make something of myself.
I squeaked through college, but I had no idea what to do after graduating. I wound up teaching. I enjoyed the work and the students. And the job was portable. I’ve taught school in Wisconsin, Florida and California.
For years, I found it hard to settle down. I was always chasing that elusive something that would make me feel good about myself. I moved around. Cycled through relationships. Tried out different roles at school: teaching, coaching.
Just before I turned 40, I took a vacation to Mexico. I was at one of those beach resorts where you dive with tropical fish. On a whim, I put on a wet suit and regulator and slipped into the water.
My world transformed. For the first time in my life, the restless engine churning inside me slowed down. The water was quiet. Colorful fish darted around like jewels. The sound of my breathing and the swish of fins were all I heard. It was like a place apart. I didn’t want to leave.
My top priority when I returned home to Wisconsin was getting back in. I learned to scuba dive and went diving every chance I got. Eventually I moved to California to be closer to the ocean.
I began to notice how different I felt and acted underwater. I’d pretty much stopped going to church, but I sensed something holy down there. Or someone. In that presence I was able to relax, look around, not take everything so personally.
Back on land, I was just as ornery and impatient as ever. I didn’t like it but didn’t seem able to change it.
One day, 11 years after I learned to dive, I was off the coast of Laguna Beach in Southern California. It’s rocky there, and I was watching fish dart in and out of crevices. Suddenly I noticed a huge shape looming beside me.
It was a gray whale, about 40 feet long, just a few feet away. I should have been terrified. That whale could have killed me with a flick of its tail.
Instead, I looked in the whale’s eye. The whale seemed to stare back at me and into my soul. There was no condemnation in that gaze. The whale moved on, and I swam in a daze toward the surface.
After that, I began diving every day. I even lived by the beach in my white minivan for a while. I was working at a school in Long Beach, so I mostly dived there. It’s not a beautiful spot, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be underwater.
To help some octopi I found living in the bay, I created a small habitat out of discarded toys lying on the ocean floor. I called the habitat Littleville. Maybe I wished I lived in Littleville.
One day, checking on Littleville, I noticed something small and orange hovering in the sea grass a few hundred feet away. A seahorse.
I knew that seahorses didn’t belong there. I also knew an unusual pulse of warm water had traveled north to California that summer. Maybe the seahorse had drifted on the current and was trying to eke out a living in Long Beach.
I hovered, not wanting to scare the seahorse away but desperate for a closer look. It was so small. So helpless. The water wasn’t very deep. Beachgoers could paddle out here and churn everything up.
Finally I had to surface. I returned the next day and almost every day thereafter to check on the seahorse. A few months later, it was joined by a companion! Seahorses often form close attachments to one another.
Winter was approaching, and I feared the sea grass wouldn’t give the seahorses enough protection. I gathered sticks, pine branches and other bits of plant life on land and used them to build a sheltered area for the seahorses on the bay floor. They moved right in.
Soon I discovered more seahorses in the area and built habitats for them too. I gave the seahorses names like Deep Blue, Daphne and Bathsheba. I visited them every day. Something about them drew me.
I kept detailed notes about the seahorses and water conditions in my dive log. I got so excited, I shared the observations with marine biologists in the area. Normally they wouldn’t listen to some random diver. But the presence of this particular species—the Pacific seahorse—so far north caught their attention. They came to see for themselves, and before I knew it I was appearing on local TV news.
The attention went to my head. At last, the respect I had been craving! I took tons of pictures, posted online, hammed it up for the cameras. One day I dove down to visit my seahorses and…they weren’t there! I searched everywhere. At last I saw them deep in the recesses of their habitat. It was obvious they were hiding. My attention had become too intrusive. I had scared them away.
From that day, I backed off and let the seahorses call the shots. I stopped taking pictures and posting online and, instead, just hovered nearby, observing. Slowly I came to know each seahorse’s daily rhythms and personality.
The more I watched, the more I realized those seahorses were the exact opposite of me. They were quiet. Calm. Patient. Most of all, they were content. They didn’t rove around, seeking the next best place or food source. They moved into the bay, found mates and settled down. They faithfully played their role in God’s ocean drama.
What was my role? For so many years, I had devoted every spare minute to being underwater. Why? What did I find down here?
The answer was obvious. What I found underwater was God. It was God who spoke to me in the silence I heard in the ocean. God who gazed at me in the eye of the gray whale.
And now God was showing me yet another side of himself in the lives of these fragile but faithful seahorses.
I struggled on land because I found it hard to admit that I wasn’t so different from the seahorses after all. I too was loved by God because God made me and redeemed me. If I truly accepted that, I could stop my lifelong search for validation. God’s love was enough for the seahorses. Maybe it could be enough for me.
For almost five years, I have shepherded the seahorses. I observe, take detailed notes and help scientists understand this fragile species.
I keep the exact location of their habitat secret. Once, I even had to move parts of it after a bunch of high school football players got dangerously close, blowing off steam at the beach.
Maybe one day the seahorses will leave. I’m okay with that. For me, the seahorses have already done their work. In their quiet, unassuming way, they took hold of my life and turned it in the right direction. I’ll keep diving, and I’m sure God will give me another job.
I still work on my manners above water. But the restlessness? The insecurity? Gone.
The ocean knows the real me. God knows. He loves me because he made me, and he shows me where to go. I’ll follow him anywhere. I strap on my tanks, start my regulator and plunge in.
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