A little while ago, TeeBeeDee member atowhee wrote a charming post about his passion for bird-watching. As I was reading his “10 reasons why I’m a birder,” I started making a similar mental list about my own nature passion: snorkeling. It’s not as easily accessible as bird-watching, unless you happen to live within swimming distance of a coral reef. But once you’re there, all you have to do is pull on a snorkel mask and put your face in the water: instantly you slip through the looking glass into a world so splendid and strange that it’s hard to believe you got there without a spaceship. But to get to the list. With a bow to atowhee, here are 10 reasons why I’m a snorkeler:
1. It’s an Endless Learning Experience. I love climbing out of the water after a snorkel and consulting the local fish and coral identification book. What were those weird ferns that resembled neon eyelashes? And what about that flashy reef fish shaped like a Chinese food container and colored chrome-yellow-with-black-polka-dots? How marvelous to know their names.
2. You must submerge yourself in southern seas. Floating in warm salt water means letting go, giving yourself over to the same fluid that supported you before you emerged onto dry land. It’s profoundly relaxing. Add sunshine and a blue sky: subtract stress.
3. Anyone can do it. If you can breathe you can snorkel. An ability to float is a plus, but with appropriate buoyancy devices, not absolutely necessary.
4. Snorkeling is a life-long activity. You can take it up as a young child and continue into old age, long after other sports may have proved too taxing. And on the reef, everyone is equal. A five-year-old may be the one to spot a marine creature her elders missed.
5. You don’t need a bunch of pricey gear. Getting outfitted costs very little. The three basic pieces of equipment are: a mask, fins and a snorkel. Make sure the snorkel is the “dry” type, one with a purge valve meant to keep the ocean out of your mouth.
6. The camaraderie. Hard-core snorkelers are always looking to bond with fellow enthusiasts – especially in the face of condescending scuba divers. Among divers, snorkeling is widely held to be a somewhat wimpy activity usually undertaken by a diver’s spouse who hasn’t worked up the nerve to get certified. This explains an example of snorkeler humor I recently encountered: a button with the legend “Snorkelers look down on divers.”
7. Saving the planet. Snorkeling, done properly, is a low-impact form of ecotourism that draws attention to the potential value of the reef and thus encourages conservation.
8. The time-traveling. You can encounter remarkable creatures like the crinoid, an insubstantial being resembling Christmas tinsel that has been around unchanged for some 400 million years.
9. The over-the-top beauty. Between the extravagant forms and the outlandish colors, there’s nothing understated in the gaudy realm of the reef.
10. The trance. When I’m snorkeling, I stop thinking and simply see. It reminds me of my favorite line from Eudora Welty: “The thoughts flew out of her head and the landscape filled it.” Seascape, in this case.
Given the short learning curve and the overall simplicity, snorkeling is easy. Getting to the right reef is less so.
The shallow water ecosystems in many parts of the world are being undermined by a variety of causes, both natural and man-made. You need specific, unbiased, accurate and up-to-date information—which can be remarkably hard to come by. The beautiful reef touted in a guidebook may now be a boneyard of dead coral. Ideally, there would be a reliable web site that tracked the condition of coral reefs, but I have yet to find one. (There was one I trusted, maintained by a graduate student at UPenn, but it seems to have gone out of business.) Maybe TeeBeeDee can help. If you’ve been somewhere recently with healthy, luxuriant shallow water coral reefs, please write and tell us. We’ll keep a list.
Another – admittedly pricey – solution is to take a guided tour. Joel Simon, of Sea for Yourself, has been guiding snorkelers for decades. I’ve taken one of his trips and it was well-run in every respect. Past destinations have included Bonaire, Belize, St. John, Fiji and Florida (for snorkeling with manatees). The tours are small—no more than 18 participants. http://www.seaforyourself.com/