Of Snorkeling and Stars
An Aquarian finds her skin beneath the sea.
My flippered feet fall below the water line as I stop to watch wriggling sea fans of coral, purple in their own majesty. Nose stoppered up by snorkel mask, I am finally breathing on my own with no restraint. In through the mouth, out through the mouth.
There is no sound in this blue bay other than my bubbling breath.
How odd for this Aquarian to take so long to find comfort in the sea.
Two years ago, I stood on a jetway readying to load myself back onto a plane from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Cincinnati. Scrolling through Twitter, I said to Mark, “Oh thank God, those Miami (Miami University in Oxford, OH) students tested negative.” Three students had returned from China in February and the concern was COVID neared our shores (it was already here). The students may have returned with more than just memories. They tested negative and a week later, we all shut down anyhow. Mark and I spent our days dreaming of a return to Puerto Rico.
Now, I have come back to the whisking waters off the southern coastal town of La Parguera in Puerto Rico. Angel, our young guide, a local who grew up on these emerald blue seas, motors us along on a Boston whaler dive boat past homes that rock gently on the water with no allowance to rebuild if they’re torn apart by another hurricane. In the small boat, our fearless twenty-something assures us it will be calm as we head to snorkel through one of the most precious reefs available to the island.
He asks if we’re experienced snorkelers. “You won’t believe some people come out and don’t know how.” He’s talking about me. The one I used to be.
My experience with snorkeling began in Hawaii off the shores of Maui when I was pregnant with my son, Davis. From land, I waded into the kind waters, flapped around a bit, spotted a few angel fish, and called it snorkeling. I never looked at snorkeling as a sport despite my claims of being a water girl.
Those claims only extend so far.
Being an Aquarius, one believes in being a water person. The water sign is only a water bearer, not necessary a water be-er. To be one with the water, I started first by screeching at YMCA lifeguards who begged for me to enter the water during swim lessons when I was five. My older siblings were learning. I begged to join until the chill of the pool turned me sideways grasping for the edge. There is photographic evidence of me seated at the rough corners of concrete, crying with legs crossed below the water, while my siblings went on with their lessons.
In time, the water became mine. It was a quiet place I could call my own away from four siblings. At Maude Neiding’s public pool, my mother with siblings in tow showed up early for our swim lessons in a frigid northern Ohio summer mornings to learn to swim. I quickly progressed through the stages of beginner, intermediate, advanced, and life saver. Blue jeans and flannel shirts tied together as buoys, I passed the Red Cross certification test. The card rests in my safety deposit box in case I’m ever called in for questioning. Though lifeguarding would not be in my future, swimming would be.
We were raised five miles from Lake Erie’s shore. My mother used to wade to the fringes of its timid waters, her hair style an excuse for not entering the muddy pools created by waves smashed against the local beach’s jetty rocks. She never learned to swim. On our many vacations to Florida and her entrée into the world of the west coast, she never dipped her head below to know true silence.
I would not be her.
Through grace and the wherewithal of my children, I’ve been fortunate to swim in many seas: off the coasts of Senegal, Malaysia, Vietnam, France, Italy, Spain. Costa Rica, Cancun, Puerta Vallarta, California, Oregon, Washington, the Great Lakes (three of them), Maine, Connecticut, Virginia, most of the southeast, not to mention the many man-made inland lakes whose craters fill with rainfall and dammed up creeks.
I would never claim any to be the most beautiful; I only know the ones that bewitched me in an evil sense. Key West and Culebra, PR.
Ten years ago, on spring break, Mark and I took our teen kids, Kay and Davis, to Marathon Key. After a night of too many daiquiris (for me, that’s one), we embarked on snorkel trip toward Key West’s open choppy waters. My husband and kids spooned hands and flippers alongside the fishes, I fed the aquatic life my breakfast instead.
Snorkeling required breathing only through my mouth. It was not natural. It also required a fair amount of trust. In myself.
Then, during that first trip to Puerto Rico, our stay included the island of Culebra, to the east of San Juan, with a short excursion to Culebrita, an uninhabited island with a curvaceous isolated beach on one side and washed up reef on the other. While Mark played among the coral in his fins and mask, and called out, “over here, over here,” to point out various sights, I struggled again with breath.
There was a fear I could not overcome. I panicked, took a few Netti pots worth of salt water up my nose and gave up. I would be a sun worshipper the rest of the days or swim free of a mask and tube that bound me. Atop the water, but not in it.
For our second trip, the western edge of the territory called. It’s a sight to behold. Beaches (playa) are so numerous they are simply called variations like Playalita, Playela, or Sandy East and Sandy West. On a drive to Rincón, known as a surfing town, we decide to snorkel. A nearby dive shop sells and rents snorkel gear. In the pandemic still, paper masks are worn outside in PR. They’ve taken this seriously. Purchasing seems more reasonable than renting gear. My stomach flutters from having eaten little at breakfast other than a banana. And also from fear. We’re investing in equipment I don’t know if I’ll use.
The dive shop owner directs us to Steps Beach. I am in all out panic. The entry point is overly polished rock plateaus. Waves lurch toward the shorelines. The tide is coming at me like a bullet train. A group of snorkelers bobble beyond the surf. There’s a certain deflation of heart and courage that has overtaken me in recent years, in recognition my physical body does not want to listen to my head. It’s PTSD left over from the hit by a car. Snow skiing. Learning to surf. Probably not possible. My knee aches at the first sight of twists and turns.
We turn away from the Steps Beach. I’m dejected but we finish our day at Maria beach with a beer and a toast to try again in the calm waters closer to our Airbnb. Late afternoon, the sun descending behind a craggy point near us, I don my swim shirt and while Mark calmly explains “Blow out, then in, without the snorkel first.” The masks and snorkel now pinching my cheeks and pursing my lips into a fish lip pose, I water walk with my nose pointed down and practice. Practice. Practice.
We take a second day, at Boqueron beach, where typically 3,000 more beachgoers might have joined while staying at the casitas and villas before hurricanes, earthquakes, and pandemics. It feels vacant yet still alive. The gar fish and sea grass are an enticement for me to once again squeeze my face into snorkel gear. Blow out, then take in. It’s becoming second nature. My lungs expand. I am opening up to the possibility I can do this.
Back on the boat with Angel, it’s 9 a.m. The January sun won’t reach its golden sheen of mid-day for a few more hours. We’re anchored yards away from the reef and I assure Angel I’ve been practicing.
We take our breath for granted until a sinus infection sidelines us. Until our lungs are pressed by a pandemic, until a yoga instructor’s calm voice plays on a reel in your head, and you want to shout, “I AM breathing in, I AM breathing out.”
The platform off the rear of the boat is my first landing spot. Blue flippers slip easily onto my feet, no need for duck butter as used for water skis. Why is it what’s below scares me more than the surf on top. If Angel were pulling me behind a 22-foot Mastercraft, I’d be carving up the crests. The Mimosa II curtsies in the water. If I’m not first in, I won’t do this. Swim shirt snagged on my ponytail then dragged overhead, I plunge into the coolness which freezes my brain long enough to keep from telling me I cannot do this.
Angel lays out our route around the boundaries of the reef toward a triangular submarine yellow buoy and back. We will be out for an hour. I pray it’s not that long. We’re not fifty yards underway and he wants us to back up to see the puffer fish. This throws off my rhythm. Water shoots up my nose and I will be clear of any sinus impact for days to come with that one stinging stop.
Resolved, the mask returns to kiss my face and the snorkel is snuggled into position. Angel fish, jeweled damselfish. Parrot fish I’ve nicknamed graffiti fish. Schools of fish with diverse ranks calmly zigzag through elk coral and the occasional sea fan with purple tinges. Blow out, suck in.
In my bubble bath world, the current changes as we switch direction. My body sways and my breath is in tune with the ebb and flow of the sea fan’s drift.
I am writing this down in my head. It’s how I know it’s becoming natural.
The rope from the hat-shaped buoy comes into view tied to dead weight on the ocean floor. My intestines begin to shake. Hands quiver. Eyeballs trying to keep focused. What did I eat last night to cause disruption? Leftover empanadas. Do I have Covid? That burning, is that fever? This can’t be happening when I’ve finally made headway. We’re at our furthest point. The swim back will be longer due to the winds.
I rachet my head out of water, flip up the mask for a moment to right my insides. Angel is diving to point out a lobster, then a sea urchin, its pins made of calcium, which maybe my calcium stores are low, or potassium, since we’ve eaten more grease than greens this week.
It’s not covid. Nor food poisoning and couldn’t be from alcohol since my consumption has been curtailed for some time. How ironic that my first thought is covid. No, the queasiness comes from being too much of land, and not enough of sea. Secretly, I’m thrilled but have to confess aloud my predicament. Angel brushes it off. “We’re at the halfway point anyhow,” says the young guy whose figure glides like those gars through the seaweed.
The Mimosa II waits for me in the distance, weaving up and down. Flippers on my feet waggle through the water. Back to breath. Back to the rhythms. Back to the boat. There’s a sea fan up ahead, this one Pantone’s color of the year, Very Peri. My color, my purple.
Now when I sip in breath, the lungs expand and oxygen washes out beyond their membranes into the ocean to take in again.
Later that night the skies are like windows to the constellations. I’m no astronomer and would not have made a voyage across the seas by twinkling light. But my Skyguide app tells me the blinding bulb in our southwestern sky is Jupiter, near the center of Aquarius.
Without technology, I might never have witnessed this constellation. I consider this a sign to celebrate.
Our bodies, made up of approximately 60% water plus some added sodiums, are not that far apart from the makeup of sea. And I’m no longer that far apart from my own skin.
I’m curious how and where you have found the courage to be in your own skin. As always, thanks for reading! If you’re not already subscribed, please consider doing so. This post is also publicly accessible, so feel free to share!
Love how descriptive this piece is. I haven't snorkeled in forever. The sea creatures scared me more than the snorkeling!
As a fellow Aquarian, someday you should try scuba-diving! I swear it’s easier than snorkeling—you’re not fighting the surf as much. (And, even though we’re “water-bearers,” we’re also an air sign—so, maybe that explains it! Lol). Glad you got back to such a beautiful place!