Guest post written by: Brianna Madia

When Chaco invited me on a trip down to Isla Espiritu Santo off the coast of Baja California Sur, I took one look at the snow outside my window and replied, “Yes.” The itinerary came through a couple days later and I scrolled through it over a cup of coffee. Sea kayaking. Beach camping. Snorkeling. Swimming with sea lions, and possibly even whale sharks. I felt my breath catch in my throat. That sounded absolutely incredible, but more importantly, it sounded absolutely terrifying. 

For a moment, I had forgotten that I was afraid. I had forgotten to cling so tightly to the fear I had nurtured for all those years. I was too swept up in an experience I wouldn’t have otherwise had if I hadn’t tossed myself off the side of that boat.

As a desert-dweller, the idea that I’d have a fear of deep water probably sounds reasonable. But dry stretches of sand and rock weren’t always what I called home. I was born and raised on the edge of the ocean. Or rather, the edge of the edge of the ocean. A tidal estuary of the Atlantic known as Long Island Sound.

Summers were spent at the beach where I’d wade cautiously out into the waves. I must have watched Jaws a hundred times by my tenth birthday, torn consistently between the fear of the shark and the horror of its inevitable death. Despite my apprehensions, I swam competitively for 16 years and even spent a year living on a little sailboat in those same waters off the coast of my childhood home. I liked the idea of floating precariously above what I feared the most…of wading in and then quickly scurrying back out. I kept myself so close, in fact, that you might not ever suspect I was afraid at all.

I landed at the Cabo San Lucas airport and met up with the Chaco crew outside. Writers, bloggers, gear testers, photographers…all filing into vans bound two hours north to La Paz where we’d take small boats out to the island. I stared out the window at what felt like familiar landscape. Brown, jagged mountains like Nevada. Tall, spindly cactus like Arizona. Dirt roads winding off the pavement in every direction like Utah. By the time we reached the Sea of Cortez, it was dark. 

The following morning, a crew loaded a small wooden boat with all of our backpacks and camera boxes and drone cases and then sped off toward the horizon. The next two wooden boats were for us. We traced the shore for an hour or so, passing pristine beaches and bird-covered cliffs before the waves began to swell and the rocky coastline fell away. We had entered the channel. A six mile stretch of open water between Isla Espiritu Santu and the mainland. The bow of the small boat crashed down over whitecaps and washed us over with salted spray. I clung desperately to the arms of people I’d only met the day before. If there’s anything that scares me more than deep water, it’s big waves.

Much to my relief, the waters began to calm as we neared the island. I was surprised to find the volcanic rock that comprised the national park looked almost identical in color to desert sandstone. It was a striking visual…this red desert, cactus-covered rock jutting up from crystalline turquoise water. Like two worlds smashed together. Half the landscape I loved, and half the landscape I feared.

Our camp was a surreal collection of small canvas tents on a stretch of sand between giant Cordon cactuses. We waded ashore as pelicans rocketed into schools of sardines in the deep water out beyond. The next day I would be in that water with them and the idea of something 100 times my size scooping me into their cavernous mouth kept me up all night.

The following morning, we sat in a semi-circle and listened as our guide told us about the sea lions we would be heading out to see. Notoriously curious and playful as pups, they were known in this particular area to swim right up to snorkelers and scuba divers. The adults would laze about on the rocks above, calling out occasionally with guttural belches if visitors got too close for their liking.

We boarded our small wooden boats again and began slipping into wetsuits as we made our way out to the rookery where the sea lions lived. I was lost in nervous thought when multiple fingers and cameras began pointing out left frantically. Not 50 yards from our boat, three of four manta rays were jumping from the water as if they had wings.

“Flying tortillas!” our boat driver shouted, amused at the fuss we were making over something he had probably seen hundreds of times. 

Twenty minutes later, with all our eyes still fixed on the horizon for any more surprises, we approached a small, jagged island. At the sound of our engine, sets of glossy black eyes began emerging from behind rocks and beneath sleeping fur. I knew if I didn’t get in the water soon, I wouldn’t get in the water at all. After all, the longer you wait, the more the fear grows. Like standing on the high dive, waiting to jump. It’s best to simply leap before you have much time to talk yourself out of it.

Before I knew it, I was in the water. In one direction, it was sun lit and shallow against the base of the rocky island and in the other direction…nothing but inky darkness. I swam toward the light blue, breathing so frantically that my goggles were fogged up when the first long, slippery shape whirled past me in a plume of bubbles. I froze, treading water and wiping the inside of my goggles with my thumbs as waves lapped at the sides of my face and down into my snorkel. I took a deep breath and dipped back down beneath the surface just in time to see a wide-eyed and thick-whiskered face speeding toward mine. He came to a stop inches from my eyes and spun over onto his back, peering at me upside down. I could feel my heart beating in my throat. He pushed his black nose into the lens of my goggles before flipping over suddenly and gently chewing on my snorkel. He was, in every sense of the word, a puppy. 

After dancing in circles around my flippers, he spun suddenly and disappeared into the foggy blue. I dove after him, swimming as deep as I could until the pain in my ears became too great. I plugged my nose between my fingers and blew out to equalize the pressure. My chest tightened with the lack of oxygen, but I spun around looking for the telltale silhouette of my friend.

Nothing but blue in every direction. Blue so blue it seemed black. 

For a moment, I had forgotten that I was afraid. I had forgotten to cling so tightly to the fear I had nurtured for all those years. I was too swept up in an experience I wouldn’t have otherwise had if I hadn’t tossed myself off the side of that boat.

I think sometimes we’re prone to believing that only brave people do brave things…that adventure is only for the unafraid. But there’s a whole lot of us out here who do things we’re terrified of.

The fear of regretting an opportunity…the fear of missing out on an experience…that should be the only fear we truly nurture.

Oh and for the record, I was the last one on the boat that day.

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