For many people, scuba diving is an almost meditative experience. Swimming through the ocean and meeting colorful underwater creatures can be both magical and therapeutic.
This is certainly the case for PT Hirschfield, founder of Pink Tank Scuba. After being diagnosed with terminal recurrent endometrial cancer back in 2014, she has dived every single day, as a way to relax.
On a recent dive in Rye Pier on Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, Australia, she met a new friend—a pufferfish named Rapunzel.
When Rapunzel noticed Hirschfield’s camera, she grew immensely curious and swam up to her. For about ten minutes, this sweet ocean critter refused to leave Hirschfield’s side. Meanwhile, they swam around and took a bunch of selfies together. It was an adorable and amazing moment—which was thankfully captured on camera.
When Hirschfield posted the video to her Facebook page, she received a wide variety of comments. Most of them were the “That’s so cute” or “You’re so cool” type of comments she was expecting.
But some people noticed a long stringy object hanging off of Rapunzel and wondered what it was. As it turns out, that protrusion was not a lock of Rapunzel’s beautiful long hair but rather a parasite slowly killing her.
Upon hearing the news, Hirschfeld was dumbfounded.
“There is much in life that lies insidiously beneath the surface, and like the silent tumours now hidden deep inside my body but rarely penetrating my thoughts, Rapunzel hid a life threatening condition beneath her sweetheart smile. Perhaps she was just a sociable little soul, or maybe she had approached me in the express hope of help?” she wrote in a blog post.
Many commenters wanted her to intervene, but Hirschfield is no animal expert. Some suggested that she cut or pull the strand off but, since it was partially buried beneath the skin, doing so might not remove the parasite and could end up hurting Rapunzel. She turned to her friend at the nearby marine discovery center for advice.
“Rapunzel is suffering from a fairly advanced sub dermal parasitic worm infection,” said the expert.
“I’m guessing it would be treatable with a worming medicine, but generally wild animals should be left to their own as it is all a part of nature. Generally it’s ok to do whatever makes a fish more comfortable, but infections and diseases are a way to remove weak fish from the gene pool. So it can be counter-productive to treat them and let them breed.”
Usually, Hirschfield listens to her friend’s advice, but this time, she thought differently. She understood his argument, of course, but she related to Rapunzel too much not to step in and do something.
“Rapunzel and I are one and the same. Infections and disease threaten to remove us as ‘weak fish’ from the gene pool. But something in me says that while the body is often weak, its frailties can often be transcended by strength of spirit,” she wrote.
The next day, she returned to the pier and went diving, looking for Rapunzel. She could not find her but she did find another pufferfish lying at the bottom of the ocean floor. It was nearly dead, consumed by the same weed-like parasites that had infected Rapunzel. Its left eye had nearly been destroyed.
When she flashed her camera, the fish floated up to her, looking for help. Hirschfield moved some of the parasites away from its eye, but knew that it would not save the fish in the long run.
While the situation felt sad and helpless, Hirschfield has dealt with this feeling many times before. When she was first diagnosed with cancer, she was proclaimed “incurable.”
A friend, however, promised that she would live long enough to celebrate 365 dives (one every day for a year)—but she did not believe her.
Now Hirschfield has completed over 700 dives with no signs of slowing down. She might not have been able to save Rapunzel and may not ever see her again, but meeting that little fish changed her life for the better.
“Thank you Sweet Rapunzel for all the lives you have illuminated with your precious smile and video selfies with me this week. You have reminded me of some of the most important truths in life. Your new friend, Snow White.”