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The turquoise waters of the South China Sea swirled into the flow of the Mindoro Strait and the Sulu Sea to the south, bobbing the small catamaran over gentle swells. The motion was almost hypnotizing to a very tired but very relaxed Annja Creed as she steered toward the GPS coordinates she'd punched in for a little-visited coral reef off the northeastern part of Palawan in the Philippines.
She'd fled New York City two days earlier, amid a stretch of work that had left her positively drained and eager for any excuse to leave town. Sharing a bottle of Santa Margherita pinot grigio with her good friend Bart McGilley, she'd remembered that she'd wanted to go diving in the Philippines for a long time. On her last trip there, the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf had cut that dream short by taking her hostage and Annja had seen a lot more of the tropical rain-forest jungles of the south than she ever wanted to see again.
In the wake of her experience, she'd found out that the government had rounded up a lot of the Abu Sayyaf followers and most experts considered the group fairly neutralized.
Annja knew there was a chance they'd regroup, but for the time being, they were content to lie low.
And that seemed like enough of an opening for Annja.
The twenty-two-hour flight from New York with a brief layover in Osaka, Japan, had left her even more tired, but the thought of some alone time and diving at the little-known coral reef inspired her.
She'd flown from Manila to the southwest island of Palawan, jutting out into the South China Sea. She and her fellow tourists had landed on a small dusty airstrip that looked like it might have been used for smuggling, transferred to a jeepneyone of the gaudily decorated World War II U.S. Army jeeps that had been converted into busesand bounced their way through a stretch of jungle down to a river.
On the river, a small boat snaked along the tributary until they emerged into a bay. Once there, they transferred to a larger boat that skimmed its way across the waves toward the island of Apulit. As they'd neared the shore, Annja heard music and saw the resort workers coming down to the beach strumming guitars and bearing trays of fruity drinks.
One sip told Annja that Club Noah was going to be an absolute delight. The tiny resort consisted of just forty cabanas perched on stilts over the gently lapping waves of the little U-shaped bay.
Annja spent her first few hours ditching the last remnants of her overly stressed world by having a few more of the incredibly refreshing and intoxicating fruity welcome drinks and by taking a long nap in a beach hammock. The breeze blowing in from the beach rocked the hammock and Annja had passed out. After a quiet evening exploring the beach and resort she retired to her cabana for a good night's sleep.
When she awoke the next morning, she polished off a large breakfast and then made plans to rent a small boat and diving gear. The dive master had not wanted her to go off alone, but Annja had insisted and eventually handed him a hundred-dollar bill that convinced him.
She knew that diving alone wasn't very safety conscious, but she'd done it enough times that she no longer felt worried about the possibility of something happening that she couldn't resolve. She'd faced down danger enough times to know her own abilities. By 10:00 a.m. she was happily sailing out to the dive spot alone and on her own terms.
She was roughly two miles offshore, and the tiny island sitting far off in the distance seemed a lot farther away than she'd expected it, too. Briefly, she reconsidered whether she should have brought the dive master along. But then she shrugged it off and set about readying herself for the dive.
Annja let the small anchor over the side and attached the dive flag to it so anyone coming near would know there were divers in the water. The last thing she wanted was a large boat steaming over her as she explored the area.
Annja stripped off the clothes she'd worn on the way out. The sun overhead blazed down and she felt the first beads of sweat starting to form along her hairline. It would be good to get into the water.
She strapped the weight belt around her waist and checked to make sure it was secure. A quick look at the oxygen tank gauge assured her that it hadn't leaked since she'd checked it onshore. She slid into the gear and tightened the straps around her shoulders. The open-circuit gear was the most commonly used around the world and Annja had no problems checking to make sure the oxygen flow was good.
She slid a pair of flippers on her feet and put her face mask into the water, smearing the inside of the glass before settling the mask on her face. She checked the straps around her head and sucked in, testing the seal.
The catamaran bobbed in place and Annja sat on the edge of the far side of the boat, away from the anchor. Looking around, she could see a boat in the distance, but it was too far away to be of any concern to her.
Other than that, she was alone.
Here we go, she thought.
And with that, she leaned back and pitched over into the water.
She'd decided not to wear a diving suit, opting instead for just her one-piece bathing suit. She figured the water wouldn't be too cold, and she was right. As the sea enveloped her, she felt its cooling effect on her body. But it was still at least seventy-five degrees, if not closer to eighty. She suspected there would be cooler currents and warmer currents, given the proximity of the island to three different bodies of water.
She blew out and tested all her seals. All good. She descended slowly. In this area, the water depth was only about fifty feet.
Immediately, she saw schools of brilliantly colored fish dart away from her. Pilot fish swam closer and in the distance she spotted clown fish zipping through the water.
About twenty feet below her, Annja made out a brilliant array of bright pink coral. Her eyes widened when she saw the lush life swirling around the structure. A moray eel seemed to sense her approach and ducked back inside after opening its mouth and showing her a wide array of needle-sharp teeth.
I wouldn't want to get a hand caught on any of those, she thought.
She allowed the weight belt to pull her down, only occasionally kicking her flippers. The tug of the current moved her gradually to the side and Annja had to right herself to keep on the level heading she wanted.
Unlike a lot of coral reefs, the one Annja now approached was classified as a small table reef, meaning it was mostly isolated and didn't have a lagoon nearby. As she descended farther, Annja could see the incredible biodiversity present. Starfish littered one side of the reef, while saddleback butterfly fish with their distinctive black markings on their backs wove and dodged nearby.
A school of triggerfish passed close by, each one seeming to inspect Annja as if she was some unknown intruder.
Annja spotted more clown fish and marveled at the brilliant orange of their scales.
A dark shape passed in the periphery of her vision and Annja's heart beat faster for a moment until she turned.
She spotted a grouper.
Annja considered them to be an ugly fish, the way they floated through the darker waters, with their mouths opening and closing and their dead eyes locked on to whatever they happened to be swimming toward.
If she hadn't known better, she might have felt a twinge of fear. But groupers, for all their horrid appearance, presented no threat. And Annja had a sharp diver's knife strapped low on her right leg, just in case.
She almost laughed. And if that didn't work, she thought, she could simply bring her sword out. She felt sure that would take care of pretty much any threat the sea could throw at her.
Her breathing had settled down nicely, her inhalations coming slow and steady as she felt the last of her cares slip away for the moment. This was what she'd wanted for so long and to think that she was finally there, drinking it all in. Annja had left the rest of the world above and behind her.
She felt great.
She drifted deeper and could see the powder-white sand on the floor of the ocean where it met the edge of the coral reef. As she suspected, the water was a little cooler there, and she moved back toward the warmer waters, aware that she'd have to make sure she didn't stay too long. She knew she'd risk hypothermia if her core temperature came down too much.
This dive was about reconnaissance, anyway. She had just wanted to get out and find the reef, take note of some of its features and then prepare to come back over the next few days for more investigative work. Documenting this reef and its life would make for a fun project and it would totally take her mind off the work she'd left back in New York City.
She blew out a stream of bubbles that floated skyward. She glanced up and saw the bright sunlight filtering down toward where she bobbed close by the edge of the coral.
A school of powder-blue surgeonfish seemed to be buzzing close by a section of coral and Annja could see they were dining on the algae that had encrusted one portion of the reef.
The levels of life here were simply amazing. Annja could see how coral reefs accounted for so many of the ocean's species cohabitating in close proximity to one another. The reefs themselves supplied a level of food that brought small fish. And the small fish attracted larger fish that dined on them.
And so it went up the food chain. Right to the apex predators.
Annja steered herself left and saw the sharp spikes of a crimson-colored crown of thorns starfish atop an outcropping of coral. The notoriously voracious starfish dined on the coral and Annja wondered how long it would take to reduce the outcropping until it was level with the rest of the reef.
She heard the faint sound of a motor and glanced up toward the water's surface. Perhaps the boat she'd spotted in the distance earlier had moved closer. She thought she spotted a dark shape closer to the surface, but dismissed it as a shadow.
It was probably caused by a cloud, she thought. She turned her attention back to the reef.
Long spindly tendrils of sea grass waved to and fro as the current moved it about. Annja spotted smaller clown fish threading their way through the stalks, no doubt trying to use it to hide themselves from predators.
I wish I'd brought my camera, she thought then. The images in front of her face were truly incredible.
Still, there'd be time enough for that. She had a week at the Club Noah resort before she'd be forced to return to the hustle and bustle of her daily existence.
That was seven days away, though. And she didn't want to spend her time thinking of what the return to her world would do to her outlook on life.
No, she was here now and that was what was most important.
She turned back toward where she'd been watching the clown fish. But the little guys were gone.
She drew closer to the sea grass and peered inside.
She spotted a clown fish huddled farther back, closer to the wall of coral that was behind it.
Annja frowned. Is it me that's got him spooked?
The answer to her question came a moment later as a jackfish shot past her face mask, through the sea grass and gobbled up the poor clown fish. Annja saw the blur of movement, but had hardly enough time to register the effect.
One second, the clown fish was there; the next, it was simply gone.
The jackfish didn't hang around, either.
Life on the reef, she thought. Everyone's got to eat.
Annja looked around again. She realized the motor noise had stopped, but she didn't see any other anchors leading down to the bottom. Just hers. So there was no one else in the area.
She felt a sense of unease she couldn't explain. She checked her oxygen gauge and saw she still had plenty left.
A moment later she felt herself torpedoed from behind and thrust into the sharp coral face itself.