Advocate reporter Lana Michelin on a beach in Maui: the most innocent of outings can become risky in water.

Deep water, deep trouble

You never know which day will be your last. In my case, it could easily have been a Friday. More specifically, it could have been a hot, overcast Friday morning in Maui — the kind of day that hinted at adventure.

You never know which day will be your last.

In my case, it could easily have been a Friday. More specifically, it could have been a hot, overcast Friday morning in Maui — the kind of day that hinted at adventure.

My family had travelled to the Hawaiian Island last month on an early spring holiday. We were about halfway through our relaxing stay when we decided to try something new: snorkelling off Kamaole Beach at Kihei, a long strip of white sand that’s regularly licked by warm trade winds and blue Pacific tides.

My husband, our two kids and I set down our folding chairs, towels and borrowed snorkelling gear on the northern side of the beach. A smattering of rocks juts into the ocean there, and bits of coral regularly wash up on the sand, suggesting some interesting underwater views.

Unfortunately, an angler also thought this was the perfect spot for ocean fishing. During a trial dive, I felt his fishing line brush against my arm. Fearing I would next feel his hook, I suggested to my 12-year-old daughter Emma (also known for obscure reasons in the family as Lou) that we go to the opposite side of the beach and try snorkelling there.

Leaving my husband and teenage son on the north side, we trekked across hot sand, through warm shallow water and past early-morning sunbathers to the south end of the beach, which was less peopled.

Although neither Emma nor I had any snorkelling experience before that day, the sight of a couple of other snorkellers paddling past a small point of volcanic rocks in the water reassured us that we were in a good place to see some underwater marvels.

Only one pair of flippers fit us both, as it turned out. But I didn’t think too much about it. Since I’m a competent swimmer, I gave them to Emma to wear, feeling pretty confident I could do without. Pointing to the promontory to our left, I suggested we swim out into deeper water, towards the rocks.

Emma was game. But then, she’s always fearless and I am usually the sissy. Not this time, though. We both slipped on our gear and put our heads underwater. It was a little disorienting at first to be breathing through a tube beneath the waves, with nose and eyes encased in plastic. But the sights were amazing.

A silverly school of fish parted for us as we swam over rocks decorated with pretty pink coral and sea urchins. Gradually, the rocks became larger and more covered in sea life as we got further and further from shore.

Coral grew bulbous and resembled brains, urchins grew spiky and lethal looking.

Water magnifies everything, but I couldn’t touch the crab-inhabited rocks far below, even if I put my feet straight down. And it’s a good thing, I remember thinking, ’cause it’s kinda freaky down there.

I began feeling like an astronaut must feel making a first trip into silent, alien space.

Suddenly, I felt the need to surface to make sure Emma was behind me.

Shockingly, I found nothing around me when I came up but indifferent blue waves.

The rocks we had been aiming for were a long way to my left. We hadn’t swum towards them, like I thought, but headed almost directly out into open water.

More alarmingly, there was no Emma in sight — anywhere.

I shouted her name and began treading water as beads of moisture began clouding my vision behind the goggles. “Emma!” There was no Lou, only more salt water in my mouth as another wave hit my face.

Panic started to build and I couldn’t shut it off. I was gripped by anxiety in my chest, as waves continued to smack me.

When Emma surfaced finally, there was momentary relief — but I still couldn’t suppress my overriding panic.

Now it applied to my general state of being, for my arms were getting so, so tired, and I was starting to swallow so much salt water.

Somehow I knew I had to put my breathing tube back in my mouth and stick my goggled head back underwater if I wanted to survive. I had to draw on my reserves to make it back to shore.

But I was too overwhelmed and just couldn’t make it happen.

I remember saying a silent prayer and wondering: Is this it for me? Am I going to be the kind of person who drowns within sight of a public beach?

As a reporter, I’m familiar with tragedies, like kids falling into water over their heads and quietly drowning only a few metres from their parents, or seasoned swimmers who disappear before their friends’ eyes while trying to cross a narrow channel.

Afterwards, people on shore always ask: How could someone have died right in front of me and I didn’t even realize it?

Now I know from personal experience that drowning is not some big, dramatic thing. It can be preceded by a feeling of helplessness, of being immensely overpowered and plain exhausted.

Great natural forces simply overtake you and you slip quietly away.

If I could have bounded up and down in the waves, furiously waving my arms and shouting “Help!” so that the tiny beachgoers could hear and alert the distant lifeguard, I could also have swum back the 50 or so metres to safety.

But I simply couldn’t.

Even if it was possible, I wouldn’t have lasted as long as it would have taken someone to reach me from shore.

I remember treading water for as long as I could, because I didn’t want to alarm my daughter. Finally, when I couldn’t hang on for a minute more I said in a small voice: “Help me, Lou.”

Thankfully she was close enough to hear and grab my arm.

As she dragged me back to the beach, like a piece of deadwood, I kept asking her, “Are we there yet?” My mind couldn’t process the idea of being safe until I could feel sand beneath my feet again.

All the while Emma bravely kept reassuring me, saying “We’re almost there” — the same words I had used on so many car trips when younger versions of her and my son had also asked: “Are we there yet?”

We hugged when we could both stand up again, and I thanked her.

As we turned, we saw a few beachgoers looking at us quizzically. Their looks implied ‘Are you all right?’ And ‘Did I just see what I thought I’d seen?’

I smiled back. The whole thing began to seem faintly embarrassing — and still does.

So why am I sharing this story?

As summer approaches and other people hit beaches around Central Alberta and beyond, I’d like them to remember that nature is always stronger than we are — regardless of our swimming skills.

When you go into deep water, it’s unpredictable. Panic attacks and other things can happen to you.

Go with someone else — or at least wear a life-jacket, when applicable. It could save your life.

Later that day, when we were all having a pleasant lunch at a beach-side restaurant and the other half of our holiday still stretched out before us, full of endless possibilities, I thought of how differently everything would have turned out if Emma hadn’t been there for me.

I also thought of times past when I’d stepped in to save my young daughter’s life. Many a time, as a toddler, she’d threatened to pull some death-defying stunt or other, such as running off the upstairs landing, like Wile E. Coyote off a cliff.

I figure we’re about even now.

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