The titan triggerfish regarded me with suspicion. She dropped the piece of coral she held in her mouth and turned to get a better look at the strange beige fish with yellow fins.

Me.

Equipped in my scuba gear, I gazed back at her but kept swimming. After all, I was in her territory: a coral reef off the island of Koh Tao, Thailand.

Suddenly the trigger at the crown of her head raised. Probably guarding her eggs, she began to propel herself in my direction, mouth wide open. She was going to attack.

 A titan triggerfish swims among abandoned dock pilings off Koh Tao, Thailand, in April 2019.
Michael Larin
A titan triggerfish swims among abandoned dock pilings off Koh Tao, Thailand, in April 2019.

I try to incorporate scuba diving into all my travels. Just as colors, tastes, and customs vary across countries, every underwater community has a unique culture. Each environment is home to a different mix of flora and fauna, but animal behavior also changes. I have swum with entire schools of triggerfish near Cozumel, Mexico, that showed none of the aggression of that Thai titan.

Even the largemouth bass at Dutch Springs dive training lake in Bethlehem, Pa., have their own custom: They sometimes approach divers and repeatedly swim into them until the divers start turning over rocks, helping the bass catch the tasty crayfish underneath.

The residents of Koh Tao live in harmony with the ocean. Koh Tao, which means turtle island and is reachable by ferries (about 3 hours) off the finger of Thailand that heads south to Malaysia, is home to an abundance of marine life. It’s now a major destination for scuba divers, many of whom end up staying there several months. They adopt the Koh Tao lifestyle.

Thai people take their shoes off before entering a house, but the people in Koh Tao, foreign or not, often walk around barefoot all the time. They eat tons of fresh fruit. They don’t try to beat the afternoon heat but instead slow down and relax. The rhythm of each day is as soothing as the tides coming in and out.

Experiencing another culture often makes me see my own in a new light and inspires me to bring home what I’ve learned. Thailand taught me to get off my phone more, to eat more fresh fruit, to calm down.

And everyone really should learn to take their shoes off before entering a house, because it’s a lot cleaner.

I kicked as hard as I could to get away from the triggerfish, which was darting toward me faster than I could possibly swim. She tried to chomp at my calf but narrowly missed, then straightened herself to strike again. But by that time I had moved outside her territory, so she swam away, proud of herself for a job well done defending her nest.

And there I was with my dive buddy, a little way off from the reef. As far as the eye could see in all directions, there was nothing but azure water punctuated by rays of light. This is what divers call the big blue. There was no culture, no behavior, no deadlines. The only reality was the endless water all around.

This was peace.

Harri Leigh grew up in Cheltenham and now lives in Harrisburg.