It’s an activity that can be done by little children, the elderly, and all ages between. It’s an easy way to spend lengths of time viewing tropical delights without having to take diving classes or rent expensive equipment. It’s a cheap way to enjoy the clear blue waters of the Pacific islands. The activity is snorkeling. And it’s one of the most frustrating experiences I have had in my adult life.
My husband convinced me that while he was in business meetings at our Hawaii hotel, I should take a shuttle to beautiful Hanauma Bay and do snorkeling, which was one of his favorite activities from his previous Hawaii trip without me. Feeling adventurous and wanting to get out and explore, I agreed and booked the trip. The outfit included round-trip transportation plus equipment.
After I settled into the front seat of the shuttle van, the Chinese-American driver asked me, “Why you alone? Where your husband?” I explained my solitary presence, and the driver told me to look at the people behind me and make some friends, because I shouldn’t be snorkeling alone. As a self-professed introvert, this idea was not a welcome one for me. I like going on adventures by myself, not with strangers. But I am an educated person, and knew he was right about not swimming alone.
When we arrived at the park, we had to stand in line to pay admission. By the time I visited the bathroom and got in line, my new friends from the van were all in the group ahead of me. I had to wait to view the informational video, and then ended up losing everyone. So I was on my own. I figured I would find the nice couple who said I should tag along with them at the bottom of the hill.
I was told to expect some instructions in the video about using the snorkel, including what to do if you got water in it. I have no memory of ever using a mask and snorkel in my life, so I definitely needed a primer. However, this was not covered in the video. On my own again, I figured it couldn’t be very hard to learn.
The film was mostly about protecting the reef and sea life, specifically by not stepping on the coral and not touching the creatures. This requirement was important to me to follow, as I care very much about the natural world and about leaving no marks.
Enthusiastically, we all poured out of the little theater when the video ended and headed down the steep hill to the bay. My first disappointment was that I still couldn’t find the other members of my group. No buddy system for me. Second was that lockers cost $8, and I had a wallet and phone to stow at a crowded beach. Before I handed my life over, I sat down in some grass to eat the lunch I had packed and snapped a photo of the beach with my phone.
Stomach filled and bladder emptied, I put my personal items in a tiny, overpriced locker, and looked for a place to settle. Despite my parting with a few items, I was still walking around carrying a mask, snorkel, and flippers, plus an oversized purse stuffed with a water bottle, binoculars (why??), sunscreen, lip balm, and a fluffy hotel towel.
The sand was a deep, soft type of sand that is awkward to walk in. I was still wearing my closed-toe Keen sandals that become filled with sand within seconds and are impossible to empty without taking completely off. So I took them off and added them to my already full arms.
I settled into a spot on the sand adjacent to a seemingly optimal area of water for snorkeling, and tried to get organized. I laid out my towel and began doing some inventory. Mask and flippers, check. Snorkel, check. Wait. There was no mouthpiece on my snorkel. I looked closely to verify that this was not just some alternative snorkel design, then decided that no, it would be impossible to breathe by closing my mouth around the open end of a plastic tube.
The shuttle was of course long gone. They had given us the equipment in the shuttle and I had no idea if the snorkel had a mouthpiece when it was handed to me. I searched through my big bag to see if it had fallen off when I had tried stuffing the snorkel in earlier. No such luck.
I gathered up all my things and trudged back over to the locker rental that doubled as equipment rental. After waiting for two other people in line, I got to the front of the queue and explained my predicament to the clerk. Thankfully, she was sympathetic. She went to the back of the storage and said, “This is a personal one, but I understand that bad things happen. Please just make sure to give it back.” I assured her I would and showered thanks upon her.
Now “back in business,” as I often say in my head, I shuffled to a new section of the beach and sat down to fit the snorkel onto my mask. I didn’t have a mask. The mask disappeared. I could have returned to the equipment rental–the clerk had offered me a mask–but then I would have had to pay for the shuttle company’s mask I had lost. So I resumed my wobbling through the deep sand carrying more than my arms could fit. The mask was black, so it only took me a few minutes to retrace my steps and find it. Back in business once again.
With all equipment accounted for, I had to work up the courage to take my cover-up off on a crowded beach, then to awkwardly put on flippers and walk towards the water. Then the worst part so far: relinquishing my glasses to my spot on the sand.
My eyes are not great. For example, right now if I take off my glasses I can not read the letters on this screen. I am nearsighted and usually feel like I am walking through a dense fog if I don’t have my glasses on. The driver had assured me that if I could see three feet, I would be able to see the fish. That ended up mostly true for the fish, but did not apply to the reef, other snorkelers, or my stuff on the beach (my nice binoculars! Why??).
I squinted my way towards the water. People had said to try to get the breathing down in shallow water before venturing out. That practice method is useless if the shallow water is constantly bombarded by large waves. I was on my own though, so I kept trying. Because it was high tide, there were ridges and dropoffs every foot or two of beach, so besides being pummeled by waves, I was tripping over my flippers in the uneven sand. I gave it a few attempts before falling down in the sand, ripping the flippers off my feet, and throwing them onto the ground next to my stuff.
I went back into the water. It was now or never. I slid into the water and pushed myself away from the shore. The water was murky, I saw nothing, and then my snorkel filled with salt water. Not knowing how to remedy that, I feebly tried blowing it out. No difference. I took the mouthpiece out and frantically tried to stay afloat using only one arm while the other held the snorkel and I tried spitting out the water. This was somewhat effective, if just for a minute before filling again.
At one point in my thrashing, my toes hit reef. Wanting to heed those warnings not to touch it, I worked even harder to keep myself up with one arm. Finally, not being able to clear the snorkel, I headed breathlessly back to the beach and collapsed onto my hotel towel.
Repeat the above about six times: one without flippers, and five times with. Each time I got exhausted and headed back to my stuff. Once I collapsed backwards onto the towel. Then I almost gave up. It didn’t seem worth the effort, especially considering I had only seen one or two fish.
The snorkel I had borrowed didn’t match the clip on my mask, so it was always at the wrong angle or would fall off. I was paranoid about the rip tide signs. I was scared that no one at the entire crowded beach was looking out for me or would notice if I was swept away. I was feeling sick from the sour taste of salt water and the way it burned my lips. I was exhausted from trying to stay off the reef, one time scraping the side of my thigh across it. I was frustrated about not being able to see when people swam towards me or when reef rose in front of me. I didn’t have a watch, so I worried that I would miss the return shuttle.
Despite all of my misgivings, I went out one more time. Somehow my breathing became coordinated. My frequent mistake of diving lower to see better and filling the snorkel was corrected once I became aware of it. The crowd cleared as did the water. The waves calmed as the water began to recede with the tide. And I started seeing fish.
I saw brightly-colored Butterflyfish. I followed schools of Tang. I was startled as huge Surgeonfish slid past me. I marveled at Blueline Snappers, and rejoiced when I spotted the Reef Triggerfish, Hawaii’s state fish (a.k.a. Humuhumu-nukunuku-apua ́a).
After about 15 minutes, I was satisfied.
I made my grand exit by stumbling over the sand ridges, falling to the side in the shallow water, and spitting gracefully at the feet of a Japanese tourist who was videotaping with her phone. Nonchalantly and pretending none of the previous had happened, I asked for the time. She looked at me quizzically, and I clarified by tapping my wrist. The time was a little more than half an hour before the shuttle pickup, and I still had a long walk up the steep hill ahead of me.
Triumphantly, I ambled up to the equipment rental window and returned the snorkel. I collected my phone and wallet and headed up the hill. When I reached the parking area, I was finally reunited with my group. The nice folks said they had looked for me, but unfortunately we missed each other on the crowded beach. We traded stories of fish and frustrations.
If I had stopped at the point when I collapsed exhausted on the beach after seeing two fish, I probably would have vowed never to go snorkeling again. The small success I experienced at the end convinced me that to swear off snorkeling for life would be a mistake. My husband may have a business trip in Oahu again next year. If I go, I am buying my own snorkeling equipment. I will snorkel when the tide is low and the water is clear. I will order contact lenses. I will wear flip-flops. I will bring a buddy. I will let go of the fear and find my confidence somewhere. It’s probably next to my binoculars.