Beautiful Swimmers

Snorkeling at the surface, a parent revels in watching her children make their first scuba dives.

kids scuba diving

Kaeo Clarke free dives about 25 feet down to catch up with his sister, Kailani, who’s below him in scuba gear.Wendy Mitman Clarke

The water off the West End of Isla de Roatán, in Honduras’ Islas de la Bahía, is sapphire blue, and the reefs are alive with fish that shimmer like jewels. But I wasn’t really seeing any of it just yet. I was watching my son fall slowly through the glassy interface of the thermocline toward his father, who was just below him. As they descended, their breathing created a garden of silver bubbles that grew ever upward toward the sun above. Floating on the top, looking down through my mask, I watched as they signaled each other that the pressure in their ears was equalized, their breathing was fine, and they were ready to go. And off they went, the two of them, no longer simply creatures of gravity-bound Earth but something new, partners in this deeper world.

A long time ago, or so it seems to us, when Kaeo was about 5 years old, Johnny, my husband, and I bought him his first set of good fins and a mask. As I watched him play in his aunt’s swimming pool, the elegance and joy of his movements made me swear a secret promise. Somehow, I vowed to myself, I’d give him a chance to explore this part of himself. And not just on some Disneyfied vacation, where things never last. I wanted to make it so that he could live in a place where he could do this every day in the real world. This wasn’t a major motivating factor in our decision to go cruising full-time, but it was always there in the backs of our minds as parents and as divers. Both of our kids have an abiding love and respect for the sea; living on it could only deepen their curiosity and understanding of that world.

Our cruising buddies Tim and Paula, who dive so much that I think they may have hidden gills, recommended West End Divers, on Roatán, as a great place to get the kids certified to dive. Now that Kaeo was 13 and his sister, Kailani, was 10, they could each get a junior open-water certification through PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. So while we waited in Honduras for the weather we needed to head to Panama, we enrolled both of them in certificate programs. After three and a half days of intensive classroom work in the dive shop, homework on Osprey, and in-the-water training, they passed their final exam one bright, clear morning. We took them for a celebratory lunch, then headed out to the reef.

While Kaeo and Johnny wandered off through the deeper canyons below, Kailani and I snorkeled over the shallow edges. A sharptail eel, olive colored with pale yellow-white spots, fearlessly snaked over the top of the reef not two feet away. We saw ocean triggerfish, indigo hamlets, and dozens of juvenile yellowtail damselfish; velvet black with iridescent electric-blue spots, they’re arguably the most beautiful fish on the reef. Enormous shoals of dusky-blue tangs flew along in perfect unison; when they suddenly stopped to feed on a coral head, they fluttered like aspen leaves.

None of these visual wonders, however, compared with the sight of my children. When Kaeo finished his dive, it was Kailani’s turn. Like a basejumper leaping from a ledge, she spread her arms and fell through the top 25 feet, effortlessly clearing her ears all the way down. I could almost imagine her shouting for the sheer fun of it. Kaeo dove down and swam next to her as she descended.

This makes everything worth it. Though there are times when I wonder whether the cruising life is really the best for them, on this day I was never more certain that it’s unequivocally a gift, one they’ll never lose, forget, cease to care about, or grow out of. We’ve given them the world, the sea, the reef, their independence, this unique life. If all we have is this one moment, may it always be this sweet.

The Clarkes, who spent the winter growing gills underwater in the San Blas islands, are contemplating their next move.