One of my favorite activities when I travel is snorkeling. I have been hooked on snorkeling since my first time in Puerto Rico in 2007. Starting with that experience, I have made a goal to snorkel as often as I can. Whenever my destination is a tropical place, I immediately investigate snorkeling excursions at that destination and research on the marine life that inhabits that region. The water has become my ‘happy place’ and I always feel serene under the water interacting with the natural world. I enjoy myself when I am under the water where it is quiet and observe and sometimes intermingle with the marine life. Whenever I am in this place, I feel a sense of wonder and even a little envious of the sea creatures, because their lives seem so simple and blissful. They swim without a care in the world, not concerned with anything, no worries.
I have had extraordinary experiences while snorkeling. When I snorkeled near Key West, I saw a 15-foot reef shark swim beneath me. I admit I was afraid for a second, but as I looked down into the water and saw the shark’s head I felt a sense of awe. I had never been close to a shark before, and viewing one up close was astonishing.
In 2013, I snorkeled Hanauma Bay on the island of Oahu. Immediately when I entered the bay, I was up close with a Parrot Fish. I was in pursuit of the giant sea turtle which was living in the bay. Unfortunately for me, when I ventured into the deeper water to find the turtles, I was pulled into the current. I was retrieved by a life guard who pulled me onto his surf board to bring me back to the shallow end. Since I did not have a life jacket, he suggested I stay in the shallow end. I had gone to other areas of the bay to find the turtles, but they eluded me.
On my recent trip to Cancun, Mexico I was determined to have a close encounter with a giant sea turtle. I did my research and found an advanced snorkeling excursion which explores the reefs where these turtles settle.
The Open Waters and Virgin Reef snorkeling tour offered by Total Snorkel explores three different areas in the Great Mayan Coral Reef: a virgin reef, a shipwreck and exploration of the sea turtle migrating area. I was one of only three on this private snorkeling tour. A married couple and advanced snorkelers, Jeff and Lisa from Memphis Tennessee, were with me on this journey. Our guides on this trip were Joe, the captain of the flat-bottomed skiff boat and our divers and guides were Mike, Kris and Bob. This small intimate group had one on one instruction and supervision in the water with expert divers. We had instruction on holding our breath under the water with our snorkels submerged, so we could dive deep see the coral, plant and marine life up close.
Our first stop was the virgin reef area, with waters about 30 feet deep. Our instructors were experienced skin divers that could plunge themselves to the bottom and hold their breath for several minutes. From this vantage point, the divers took photos and videos of the marine and plant life as well as the snorkelers on the surface and beneath the water.
Our second stop was the shipwreck. The depth of the water was about ten feet and the ship was leaning sideways with the mast and bridge of the boat above the surface. The ship was rusted and covered in coral and various plant life. We were warned to be mindful of where our hands, arms and legs were while close to the shipwreck, to avoid injury. Since the depth of the water was shallow, I could really explore the shipwreck up close. I was surrounded by hundreds of tiger fish when I first went underwater. This school of fish swam around me for several minutes and some of the fish came very close to my face, one or two appeared to be curious of this strange creature in their water. All inside the shipwreck in various crevices, schools of fish congregated in what seemed like a choreographed dance routine. They swam flawlessly in the water with a rhythm that humans cannot imitate. As the snorkelers were exploring the shipwreck, Mike was swimming along the bottom taking photos and videos of the fish and the snorkelers exploring the wreck. After Mike was finished and passed the camera to Kris, he tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and looked in the direction Mike was pointing. A school of needlefish passed. The fish were nearly translucent beneath the water, it took me a second to focus my vision to see them. At first all I saw were their eyes. As the school swam left to right in a perfect formation, I saw all needlefish completely.
Our third stop was the turtle reef. The three snorkelers and divers plunged into the water. After a few minutes in the water Mike popped his head up and called out to us, “Hey, there is a turtle over here!”. The three of us swam towards him with the velocity of Olympic swimmers on a relay race. Mike went underwater again in pursuit of the turtle. A minute later he resurfaced and asked me if I saw him. I responded that I did not. Mike explained that the turtle he saw was huge but as soon as he saw Mike he was ‘spooked’ and swam away quickly. After a few minutes, the six of us climbed back into the boat. Mike declared we were going to one more area to see the turtles.
Our fourth and final stop was another area on the turtle reef. We entered the water again and swam on the surface and explored the reef beneath us. Mike quickly spotted another turtle on the bottom and the three of us swam over to meet him. I glanced down into the water from the surface to the bottom and spotted the turtle.
Our turtle was a Green Sea Turtle nesting on the ocean floor. The water underneath in this area was a deep green color and our turtle was camouflaged amongst the plant life and reef. Still, this turtle was not at all ‘spooked’ like the previous one and did not swim away in fear. Mike plunged down with the camera and took several photos and videos of this sea creature in his habitat. Mike knew I really wanted to see a turtle up close, so after photographing and filming him, he passed the camera to Kris and approached me at the surface. Mike made a gesture to remind me to take a big gulp of air, as I did he held his hand out to me. I took Mike’s hand and he pulled me to the bottom while I was kicking with my fins to get myself deeper. We dived down about ten feet and Mike released my hand and I was swimming approximately one foot above our turtle.
I am not sure if our turtle was a male or female, but I named ours Mr. Turtle. I swam above him just observing, careful not to startle him. For a few seconds, I was alongside him and we clearly made eye contact. I studied Mr. Turtles’ head and noticed he glanced over at me with one eye, probably just to determine to himself if I was a threat. He must have been used to people, because he swam and went about his business as usual. Excitement had taken over me then, and I forgot to keep holding my breath. I swallowed a mouthful of the salt water and I had to resurface to get the water completely out of my submerged snorkel. While I resurfaced, and treaded water, Mike went back to the bottom with the camera and took more photos and videos for several minutes. Then, our excursion was over and we climbed into the boat for the last time and headed back to the marina.
My meeting and brief encounter with Mr. Turtle is now my favorite snorkeling experience. I had achieved my ‘holy grail’ of snorkeling. I made a brief acquaintance with Mr. Turtle, and I must admit I envy his life. His concerns are basic: swimming, eating and mating. His life appears so idyllic to me. He doesn’t know he is an endangered species or that poachers are hunting him. Mr. Turtle is a phenomenon of nature, and he doesn’t even know it.
My time in the water observing and interacting with nature never fails to amaze me. I cannot wait to plan another snorkeling excursion and again return to my ‘happy place’ swimming and interacting with nature below the surface.