The sea and I had some unfinished business to attend to.
After my snorkeling misadventure in Chile earlier this summer (Adventures in Snorkeling Part 1), I was absolutely determined to snorkel again. I had to do this; a somewhat unsettling experience could not scare me off enough to never try it again. The underwater world was just too beautiful and fascinating and I couldn't stay away from it.
My mother and I took a short-notice but well-needed trip to Destin, Florida, and I knew that this was my chance to once again try to snorkel. Destin is gorgeous, with sugar-white beaches and some of the most vivid blue-green water I've ever seen, and while Destin is known for its beautiful beaches, it is not well-known for its marine life. There is certainly marine life there, but there is not as much to see as there was in Chile or even other places in Florida. The biodiversity is not as strong along the shore in Destin, but I knew there was something out there and I was going to find it.
We had booked a snorkel tour so that my mother could have the experience of snorkeling as well, but I desperately wanted to find a way to snorkel on my own aside from the snorkel tour. A large misconception that a lot of people have is that you can snorkel at just about any beach you like. This is not the case. The water has to be the proper depth, the waves have to be gentle enough, and you have to be aware and watching for dangerous marine life. I have the curse of knowing too much, so I am hyper-aware of what organisms are out there and exactly what it could do to me, so I am often more cautious than most people. Rip currents are also a big issue in Destin in particular, so it was another thing to keep an eye out for. Aside from all of these possible issues, in the back of my mind I was desperate to find somewhere to snorkel.
After driving all night, we arrived early in the morning and at 7:50 am, we ventured out to the beach by our hotel. It was gorgeous. The sun was shining brilliantly in a blue sky, and the glorious blue-green waves washed in over the sugary sands. I was in heaven. There was something else I noticed, too: a small part of the beach had relatively gentle waves compared to the rest of the area and I could just barely see something moving in the water. This was promising.
Later in the day we ventured back, and cautiously I watched the waves for a few minutes to see the intensity and patterns of the lulls in the waves. They appeared to be gentle enough to allow me to snorkel, and so I pulled out the snorkeling gear I had desperately wished I had brought with me to Chile and entered the water.
What I saw down there took my breath away.
In the shallow mint water, schools of fish fluttered back and forth around me. At least five different species of fish pulsed in the pastel waters, shimmering like jewels. As they twisted and turned together their little schools, a beautiful whoosing sound filled the water. I swam among the fish, trying to get a better look at them, but they were much too fast for me. Still, I raced behind them, following them as they flashed and danced along. I hovered along, seeking out all the marine life I could. I found several stray pieces of algae and a hermit crab scuttling along the white sand. For what felt like only a few minutes but must have been an hour and a half to two hours, I glided along the shallow bottom, exploring a world I had only ever dreamed of seeing. Much to my great relief and joy, this time, snorkeling felt right. This time, I could breathe. The water was warm, and I didn't have to worry about being on a time limit. I could take my time and adjust to the area as I needed and accustom myself to the act of snorkeling. There was no rush, no need to hurry or get something on time. No pressure. I had all the time in the world to go at my own pace and learn how to snorkel in an open water setting on my own accord.
For everything that went wrong the first time, everything went perfectly right this time. Eventually, the waves became a little too rough due to an incoming storm and I had to leave, but the intensity of the waves pushed me out just in time to get some shots of the gorgeous sunset.
The next day my mother and I went on the snorkeling tour. Basically a boat brought us and about 30 other people to optimal snorkeling locations and let us do as we pleased so long as we came back at the time limit. Everything proceeded about the same as the previous day; the first stop on the tour had the same fish as my little spot and looked fairly similar and had similar conditions. Except for one thing.
Jellyfish don't necessarily bother me. I can look at them from afar, but I don't want to get too close to them for obvious reasons. Another issue is that I have absolutely horrific eyesight (-3.25 in case you're curious; basically everything that isn't five inches in front of me is incredibly blurry). I don't have contacts just yet, so I had to snorkel pretty much blind. In shallow water, this isn't much of a problem. I can't see everything all that clearly, but I can see enough to enjoy the act and feel comfortable. However, in deeper water where jellyfish were abundant, this was a bit of a different story.
We swam out to deeper water. I could handle snorkeling in it, but the color of the water began to get darker, the floor further down, and everything became less clear. This was slightly unsettling but not excruciatingly so. There were no issues until I noticed a foot-long jellyfish no more than two feet from me and drifting right towards me. I was so blind I almost didn't see it and nearly knocked into it. The jellyfish in the water that day were moon jellies, and these generally aren't particularly dangerous, but they can deliver a painful sting. People with more sensitive skin typically have worse effects, though, and I certainly didn't want to discover if I was one of the unlucky people with sensitive skin. Regardless, it probably would have been a fairly unpleasant feeling to have a foot-long sting on my leg.
This was it for me. After nearly knocking into the jellyfish, my adrenaline kicked in and the feeling of being very blind and helpless came full force. Suddenly, a horrible feeling I remembered all too well came back: I couldn't breathe.
This time, there was no one to help me. No one to swoop in to the rescue, scoop me up, and bring me back to shore. No one to be there for me while I tried to regain my breath and my composure. This time, I was alone.
However, I was determined to help myself. I didn't want every single experience with snorkeling to involve me getting spooked, losing my breath, and needing someone's help. I forced myself to calm down and swam towards the shore. I was inhaling water again and feeling my breath being constricted, not nearly as much as during the incident in Chile, but still there. But, I kept focused. I thought of the two wonderful people who helped me the first time, and thought of what they would do. I steadied myself and swam towards shore, all the while watching out for more jellyfish but also calming myself. Eventually I made it back to shore and regained my breath, but I realized part of where the issue that first time in Chile had stemmed from: adrenaline. Yes, the belt, the waves, and the ill-fitting snorkel were the main culprits that day, but the adrenaline and fight-or-flight response to that very first wave that sent me catapulting back to shore ripped my breath from me and made the entire situation so much worse. Sitting on the shore, breathing in deeply and re-situating myself, I realized all of the issues from that first time. As I heard the horn sound for everyone to return to the boat for the next stop, I was a bit disappointed. Would I never be able to snorkel comfortably in water that wasn't incredibly shallow?
The next stop brought us to very shallow waters where shells and seagrass beds abounded. Part of me was still a bit shaken from the last stop and part of me was also a bit cautious since seagrass beds are great places for stingrays and the like to hide, but I was determined to keep trying. Before entering the water, we saw a pod of dolphins race by as they chased a nearby school of fish. They were there and then gone in the blink of an eye, but seeing them actively feeding was beyond fascinating to me. After the dolphins left, I entered the water again.
The water was much more shallow and free of jellyfish, and the abundance of little crabs and other small marine life hiding within the the short seagrasses were just too much for me and my nervousness quickly faded. I dug through the grassbeds and along the sea floor, combing for good shells and hermits that thought I couldn't see them. I brushed my fingers through the seagrass, searching for marine life that was hiding within it. Small schools of fish darted around me, often surprised that I had found their secret hideaway. The feeling of sheer joy and fascination from the day before returned once again, and the time began to once again fly by. Before I knew it, it was time to return to the boat. I was sad, I wanted to linger just a little longer. Reluctantly, I swam back towards the boat.
On the way back to the boat, something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. I whipped around to see something I had been looking for: a crab. After the ridiculous amount of time I spent working with crabs in Chile, I had a bit of a soft spot for them (more like a love/hate relationship to be bluntly honest), and I had been hoping to find one. Having experience with handling crabs, I reached down to grab the blue crab in the way that I knew how to do from Chile so I could bring the crab to show my mother except that the crab had other plans. Infuriated that I had tried to grab her, she quickly darted up from the sand and began to swim in circles around me, lunging out and trying to pinch me. I had no idea that crabs could do such a thing and was a bit taken aback. I dodged out of her way but still pursued her, but she continued to lunge out at me and then threw a ton of sand in my face to get me off her trail. At that point I didn't have enough time to find where she had hidden herself and unfortunately had to call it quits for the day. She had won today.
Once I was on the boat again, I realized something: nothing could keep me away from the sea. Nothing could blow out my fascination, not my poor eyesight, not the occasional spook, not even foot-long moon jellies. I just needed contacts and more practice. I realized something else, too: I am absolutely, most assuredly in the right field. When you are doing something you love, you feel it in your core. I am unabashedly, endlessly fascinated by marine life, and it truly invigorates and excites me to be that close to something I find so intriguing and see it in its natural habitat. I sadly never had that real face-to-face experience with the sea in Chile, but I will someday. But, there were many times when I came close. There were days when I would watch my sea stars (estrellas) as they moved with their little water-propelled feet as they slowly but surely glossed across the walls of their tanks. Some might find such a thing boring, but I didn't. I was entranced watching them move. Sometimes I would watch the octopi (pulpos en espanol) as they pulsed and changed color in the tanks next to my project. I could have watched them for hours. I spent hours down by the shore, scouring the rocks for life. I truly loved marine life, and Florida only reiterated that for me.
I was so thrilled to be able to snorkel. I was thrilled to prove to myself that I could do it and that I finally had the opportunity to do it right. But more importantly, I was thrilled to rediscover for myself that I'm right where I am supposed to be. It's a truly wonderful feeling indeed.