by Bill Markley
You never know when you’ll breathe your last.
Antarctica, December 1973, Jim Borchers and I had spent four months at McMurdo Station, a US base on Ross Island, and at a field camp on the shore of Lake Bonney in the Dry Valleys. We were working as part of a Virginia Tech research team—freezing and dreaming of snorkeling off tropical islands in the South Pacific. Jim was so determined to snorkel that he kept his snorkeling gear with him even in Antarctica fearing it might be lost otherwise.
This was my second trip to Antarctica or The Ice as the locals call it. On our return to the States, Jim and I had arranged two months R&R in New Zealand.
Jim and I belonged to the Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity. Johnny Weld, a fellow Deke, was working for the Peace Corp in the Tonga Islands. Jim and I decided to make our way there for a visit and snorkel in Tonga’s tropical waters. We had written Johnny telling him of our plans, and approximately when we would arrive.
The Kingdom of Tonga, nicknamed The Friendly Islands and located in the South Pacific east of Fiji along the International Dateline, is the last Polynesian kingdom.
Our C-141 military flight left the Antarctic ice runway and eight hours later landed at Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Jim and I took a ferry to Wellington on the North Island, caught rides with friends, and hitchhiked to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. From there, we caught a flight to Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu. We took an open-air bus filled with locals one hundred miles across the island from Nadi to Suva the port city. In Suva, we booked passage on the Aonui, a ship hauling a load of concrete to Tonga. We had to wait in Suva a week for our ship to arrive.
During our stay in Suva, Jim and I camped in the backyard of The Sea View Guest House, a bordello. Don’t worry, Jim and I had little money to spare. As we pitched our tent under the Sea View’s clothesline, a crowd of Fijians gathered round to watch us. We may have been the first Americans they had ever seen camp in their neighborhood.
Just several hours before the Aonui was to leave, Jim and I ran into Johnny on the streets of Suva. He had been unsure as to when we would arrive and was now on vacation. Johnny told us we could live in his hut as long as we were in Tonga, and where we could find its key.
After several days at sea, our ship arrived in the Kingdom of Tonga. The captain told us that the Aonui would most likely leave sometime the next day. If we were going to snorkel, today was the day. At Nuku’alofa, the capital city on Tongatapu Island, we spent a good part of the day entangled in and extracting ourselves from the customs bureaucracy. Then we had to wait at the Peace Corps office for what seemed an eternity until someone was available to show us the way to Johnny’s hut.
Arriving at the hut, Jim and I were excited to get snorkeling. We quickly changed into swimming trunks. Jim had his snorkel, mask, flippers, and reef sandals. Johnny had snorkeling gear in the hut that he said I could use.
It was late in the day as Jim and I left the hut and walked toward the shore. Crossing the unpaved road, we headed down to the long narrow beach. We waded and swam through the waist-to-chest deep, shallow lagoon out to the reef. The lagoon was about three hundred yards wide from beach to reef. The coral rock of the reef was slightly higher than the lagoon. The ocean’s waves washed over the top of it. Jim and I were the only people out there.
Sitting on the reef, Jim instructed me how to strap the flippers on my feet, and fit the mask and snorkel to my face and mouth. He had snorkeled many times, but I was a beginner.
We slipped over the side into the ocean and out away from the coral barrier trying not to get cut by the sharp coral rock. We swam with the reef to our left and the open ocean to our right. The reef wall dropped down to about twenty-five feet below the surface. Interlaced flat pancakes of red, yellow, and orange coral with occasional brown antler coral covered the live coral wall. Vehicle-sized brain coral and purplish sea fans dotted the ocean bottom. Solitary fish were brilliant in color; schools of fish coordinated their movement together almost as one organism. The water was clear and warm. It was like swimming in an aquarium. We weren’t in Antarctica anymore.
Waves washed over the top of the snorkel tube every so often, giving me mouthfuls of seawater. The mask did not fit tight and slowly filled with water. When these events happened, I panicked and thrashed around until I got everything back in order. I should have practiced using this stuff in the bathtub before throwing myself on the mercy of the Pacific Ocean.
After swimming for what seemed to me quite a distance and for a very long time, I was done looking at all the wonderful sights and tired of gulping down seawater.
“Hey!” I shouted to Jim. “I’m going back!”
“Okay! I’m staying out here a little longer.” I believe Jim was part porpoise.
I climbed onto the reef, sat down in knee-high water, took off the flippers and put on the reef sandals. Jim was now swimming parallel to the reef back the way we had come. I followed along, walking on the reef while trying not to get cut on the sharp coral. Jim would dive down and then surface after about a minute. When we were about opposite the hut, Jim dove down once again. He was out of sight for over a minute. I concentrated on the spot where I had last seen him.
Two minutes went by and I began to worry. I did not see him surface anywhere and did not see his snorkel tube. Another minute went by. I started shouting Jim’s name. Even though I did not see his tube, he might hear me. No response. I worried more. Maybe he was hung up on the coral. I did not want to think beyond that.
As quick as my shaking fingers could work, I took off the sandals, strapped on the flippers, and fitted the mask and snorkel tube to my face. I jumped out from the reef into the ocean.
I swam and dove where I had last seen Jim. With sundown rapidly approaching, the coral was taking on darker, more ominous shapes. Jim was nowhere to be seen. I poked my head out of the water shouting “Jim!” but no response. I dove back down and continued to search. Several times, I stopped swimming and shouted Jim’s name. I was getting weaker. It must have been more than ten minutes since Jim had disappeared. Exhausted, I climbed back onto the reef.
It just couldn’t be. Jim could not be out there under the waves. Shouting his name, I scanned the sea searching for any sign of him. It did not hit me that he was dead. I felt ashamed because it seemed too callous not to be more upset than I was. Jim’s dead, I reasoned. I better get back to the island and find some people who could help retrieve his body to send back home to his parents.
I waded toward shore as fast as I could go, at times through chest-high water. The closer to shore I got, the angrier I was with myself that I was not upset my best friend was dead. Wading and swimming as fast as I could through the lagoon, I worked myself into a frenzy of grief.
Was Jim dead? No. He dove down, swam over the reef on the high tide, and came back up to the surface of the lagoon. Somehow, we did not see or hear each other. Thinking I had left the reef for the hut, Jim did not look for me. He played around, leisurely swimming through the lagoon toward shore looking at interesting pieces of coral rock, poking sea cucumbers, and surprising eels.
Meanwhile, as I emerged from the lagoon, I came upon a church full of hymn singing people.
“Help!” I gasped out of breath. “My friend! He’s drowned on the reef!”
Four men stood outside the open church doors. One of them knew English and understood what I was saying. He told someone to call the police and the rest of us ran down to the shore to a boat. There were no oars so we grabbed loose planks out of the bottom and began paddling fiercely out to the reef. I was already tired and this was a real strain; but I continued to push myself to the limit. All I could think of was Jim lying at the bottom of the reef.
At this time, Jim was climbing out of the water and onto the beach, as a motorboat full of men put out toward the reef. A crowd of about three hundred people had gathered on the shore—watching.
Jim stood at the water’s edge looking back at the reef, reluctant to leave it behind and return to Johnny’s hut. Two small children walked up to Jim and stared at him, soon followed by several others who pointed at him and talked excitedly in Tongan. Adults arrived and the excited talk increased, bringing more people. What have I done to attract this attention? Jim thought.
The mob had now surrounded Jim excitedly talking to him in Tongan. A man in an open light blue shirt pushed his way through the crowd to Jim.
“I am the constable. What is going on here?” he asked Jim in English.
“That’s what I’d like to know!” Jim replied.