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An unexpected underwater hello

Turtle! Thrill races through me, and I forget to breathe. Just 20 feet below me in the clear Caribbean is a sea turtle. She is partially nestled under long fingers of dark-brown soft coral that waves gently in the current. I look again, intently, because I can hardly believe my eyes.

Minutes before I had jumped off the dive boat, hoping that maybe this time I'd see a turtle. The water rushed around me, and then the bubbles cleared, opening the window on the world of coral reefs. I had quickly located my snorkel buddy (my mom), and we'd given each other the "all clear" signal before starting to explore.

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Yes, it's a turtle! My heart is pounding, and I can't seem to get my head above water fast enough so I can call my mom to come and see. She and I always stay close so we can share our joyous finds. She quickly responds to my excited call. This turtle is a beauty. My excitement is accentuated by the tossing of the surface waves. The turtle rests serenely in place.

Eagerly, I study her form, lines, and color, not wanting to miss a single detail. She is young and only about two feet long, but her shell is the most strikingly beautiful I've ever seen. The five hexagonal shell plates down the center of her back are so smooth and even. The pattern is perfect. The shell plates that flow from either side of each hexagon are equally balanced and gracefully curved.

A pair of matched scales covers the top of her head; other scales decrease proportionately in size to fill in around her neck and shoulders. The scales increase in size again along her front flippers. There, I glimpse patches of cream-colored skin between the scales.

What stands out most are the colors in her shell: Dark brown swishes in a pattern of dried-wheat bouquets seem to be painted on each rusty-bronze shell plate. There is a touch of lighter color behind each bouquet, almost as though they are backlit.

Mom and I float quietly above the turtle. I've finally caught my breath again. Then the sea turtle starts to swim. Calmly, methodically, she sweeps her front flippers forward, and they seem to glide back. Sweep ... glide ... sweep ... glide....

We follow, careful to stay far enough away not to disturb her, but close enough to connect to her unhurried, peaceful rhythm: sweep ... glide.... She swims along, sometimes pausing to search for food, or rising to the surface for a breath of air. I rise with her each time, lifting my head as she lifts hers, touching the wind-whipped world above for a few moments, looking across the waves at her, before we rejoin the quiet ebb and flow underwater.

Mom and I swim with her, incredulous at our good fortune. And then something even more wonderful occurs.

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The turtle surfaces for a longer breath. I sense that something is going to change. Mom senses it too, because we both stop swimming and wait. The turtle turns back underwater and starts heading directly toward me, still with that unhurried, peaceful pace. I stay motionless, letting the water swirl around me. My face is toward the turtle, who seems about to run into me.

On she comes, until she is within four inches of my mask. Then she turns her head so that she can look at me directly with one eye. Inquisitively, she lingers. I gaze back. My heart is pouring out love to this exquisite creature, so graceful and unperturbed near me. I forget to breathe again.

Quietly, slowly, the turtle swims around me and over to Mom, where she once again lingers and gazes into Mom's mask from inches away.

It is almost as if she were saying farewell, for after that close encounter the turtle swims out over the drop-off where the shallow water ends and the blue water grows deeper and darker. Our turtle is swallowed by the ocean.

I can see her now, sweeping and gliding through the water. I know that I will continue to see her in my mind's eye for years to come as I remember, with the deepest gratitude, the day a sea turtle shared part of her life with us.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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