I am happy to report that all of my snorkeling goals were fulfilled during my time in Chile this year.
After my first outing near the beginning of my time in Chile this year, I had the opportunity to go out two more times, and both of these had a tremendous impact on my experience level and me as a person.
The original plan for that day was I was supposed to go into the field to one of my favorite sites that I had been looking forward to since my return. Unfortunately things didn't pan out, but instead it opened doors for me to do something probably even cooler: snorkel again with Allie.
She needed some panchotes, a cute little crab species, and the sea conditions most likely would never be this good again, so we had to take advantage of them now. We decided to go at low tide (it is normally best to go at high tide for snorkeling or diving, but in our case we were trying to catch critters that were in deeper water, so this was the better option). Low tide was early in the morning right around sunrise, which was arguably a little difficult to wake up for but would prove to be gorgeous.
This time, I decided to bring a GoPro along with me just in case and we also decided to try graduating me to a weight belt so I could actually dive down and grab a crab if need be. In the early morning air, we ventured down to the same beach where we had snorkeled the first time and entered the water.
The second I entered the water and escaped the waves, a lot of things became very clear to me. The dive belt made it significantly harder for me to breathe. I had to sit for a minute and just breathe because I was so out of breath and it was so hard for me to get air at first. It was no wonder to me that I had such a hard time during my first outing the year before, there was simply no way I was ready to have the added struggle of a wetsuit, a dive belt, gear that didn't fit me, and waves all in one time. I wasn't ready for that sort of excursion. But here, with the ever-patient and wonderful Allie, I could have time to adjust. My first outing this year with Allie and Katie was the perfect way to begin, and this was the most logical next step. After some breathing, I got used to the belt and we were able to move on.
We circled around one particular spot, scrutinizing the rocks for any sign of panchotes. Unfortunately, everything appeared rather bare. I searched desperately, looking everywhere around me over and over again. I was determined that we would somehow find her one. We swam in circles, seeking out the elusive little crustaceans. Certainly they had to be somewhere, right?
I used the GoPro a little, trying to capture a little bit for my film so people could see the ecosystem but also so I could have a personal reference for later on if needed (trust me, it helps to have an idea of what the ecosystem is when you are researching it), but also so I could have some cool photos of our excursion. But, my primary focus was to find those crabs. We had to find them, we just had to.
I was beginning to worry when suddenly Allie shot down and picked something up. I realized what it was: a panchote. I rushed to start recording and captured the last few seconds (you can see them in my short film). I don't know if I've ever been more proud of Allie than I was in that moment. She caught the exact specimen she needed all by herself when people told us it was highly unlikely. If you can learn anything from that, it is that anything is possible, regardless of what others think. The world is full of opportunities and chances, and the best thing you can do is try. You might not catch them every time, but sometimes you will have that rare moment when you catch that beautiful panchote you wanted so desperately.
We continued looking for more but unfortunately they were nowhere to be found. I nearly caught one, but after swooping down to grab it, it ended up being the wrong species (but hey, I still dove down and caught it!). The conditions began to diminish rapidly so we both made our way back to shore, our little prize in hand and another snorkeling adventure in the books (and on film). Two gringas who had conquered the sea together.
There was one secret wish I had been holding onto for the entirety of my trip. After last year's little incident, I had quietly been hoping that somehow, some way I could redeem myself and return to the place where I had difficulty the first time and brave those waters again. I especially wanted to do it with the person who went the first time. I wanted to show him how much I had improved, and I was quite frankly sick of being seen as inexperienced. I still didn't have a great deal of experience, but it was certainly more than the year before and I knew that I could handle it. I wanted nothing more than to prove it. I wanted to ask if it was possible, but a trip would require a lot of time and resources just to get me to try snorkeling again, and I was simply too nervous to ask and thus I quietly watched and waited for my opportunity that I was sure would probably never come.
After several "almost" trips, there was one last opportunity for me to do it. The day before I was supposed to fly back, we had to get algae specimens for a group of incoming students, and they were finally considering taking me. However, the sea conditions didn't look necessarily promising, and I was terrified that it would not work out. I had been told "no" so many times, especially at the last second, and I was terrified that my last chance would slip through my fingers. But the morning dawned and the answer was still a pensive "yes," so I boded my time in anxious anticipation. We packed everything into the car and made our way to the fateful beach.
I won't lie, I was terrified as we pulled in. I was terrified that we would get there and the conditions would be too poor for me to go. I was terrified that I would get out there and the exact same thing would happen again, just like last year. Deep down, I wasn't going to risk it if it was unsafe, but I was very nervous that it simply wouldn't work out for me. We pulled into the parking lot, got out of the truck and looked out to sea. I've never scrutinized the waves so much in my life. I watched them for a long time, feeling the pattern and contemplating if it was possible. The waves where we would enter were not fantastic, but they appeared doable to me. If I could just get past the entry point, the rest appeared to be manageable. There was a pulsing underneath the surface, but it wasn't too terribly severe. "Brooke, you need to make a call." Breathing in deeply, I replied that I was going to try.
I was attempting to keep myself calm and remain collected as we prepared to venture out to sea, but unfortunately I think some of my nerves slipped through and my lab mates noticed. I wasn't scared that I would get injured or that something would happen, I was scared that I would have a repeat of the previous year. That would have ruined me, and I couldn't allow that to happen. I was suiting up (for battle) when my lab mate, the one who had been there the first unfortunate time, motioned for me to come over to where he was standing. He pulled me aside next to the water, and without saying anything put his index finger on his forehead. At this point I was confused, but he motioned for me to do the same. With his eyes closed, he began to hold his index finger at his forehead and his thumb over his nostril, breathing in deeply and switching to the other nostril to breathe out long and slow. "Breathe, Brooke. I need you to do this ten times." I was still a bit confused, but by now I trusted him deeply (literally with my life) and so I repeated the same gesture. "More slowly and deeply." We both stood and breathed as the sea breathed beside us, and a little grin came over my face. I was going to do it, so help me.
We were nearly ready to venture into the water. "We're going in together, ok? We will go in backwards with our fins on. Once we get past the waves, you have to immediately turn around and swim as fast as you can out from the surf. Once you make it out, rest for a moment and BREATHE." I nodded and told him I understood.
I began to secure my fins when I heard someone yell, "NOW!" My lab mate had already entered the water and I was rushing to get in myself. The "we're going together" part was out the window now, but my other wonderful lab buddy grabbed my arm and helped me get in. "Don't be scared, there's a wave coming, don't be scared," he gently reassured me. I wasn't scared, even as I nearly tripped over a rather large rock, but I was so grateful for him as we pushed through the surf. We had been through a lot together during the past ten weeks, and it was only fitting that the two of us entered this together, arm and arm.
"GO!" I heard him yell. It was finally time. Without even thinking about it, I lunged backwards, propelled myself into the water and thrust myself out to sea. I don't think I've ever swam faster than I did in that moment. The waves were choppy and the visibility was the worst I'd ever seen, but I was determined to make it. I couldn't see anyone, only the blue-green water and floating filaments in front of me, but I trusted that my lab mates were nearby and that I would make it to them. The water continued to be choppy and I wondered if I'd ever make it to where we were going. It was a long shot, several hundred feet from where we had entered, but I had to make it out there. Eventually I arrived at calmer water, but I still saw no one. I stopped for a second and shot around in all directions, searching for any signs of life. "MUY BIEN, BROOKE!!!! MUY BIEN!!!!!" I don't know if I'd ever been happier to hear that voice in my life. I swam up to my lab mates immediately, still exhausted from my mad dash but thrilled to have made it.
The boys dove down to obtain algae specimens while I kept an eye on waves, on them, and the bag where we kept the algae. I would watch as they disappeared below me into the depths I knew weren't nearly as deep as they appeared due to the terrible visibility, and I would swim rapidly to them as soon as they returned to the surface. I personally worked on my breathing and my ability to move around in the water (a little more difficult in a wetsuit and with the added length of fins).
After a little while they finished collecting algae and motioned for me to follow. I was a bit disappointed that I had not had the opportunity to also try diving down, but by this point I was just happy that I had made it out there and had gotten this far. We began to swim towards our original entry point and everything appeared to become a little more shallow beneath me. My lab mate who had been there the year before stopped me for a second and told me that he wanted me to breathe for a minute. "I want you to breathe out of the water first, and then breathe in the water and then I want you to dive down to that point," he motioned to a spot about 10 feet down. "Do you want to?" At this point I was thinking, "Do you even need to ask?!" I breathed for a long time above water, focusing on breathing deeply and calmly, and then he motioned for me to be horizontal in the water. Using his hands, he motioned for me to continue to breathe slowly and deeply, and then he began counting down with his fingers. At three, I shot down into the underwater world. My body glided faster than I thought it would, and the bottom that had been difficult to see earlier was now far more visible to me. I made it to the rock, surveyed it for a moment, and then realized I was completely out of air (or at least so I thought). There was a great deal of space between me and the air, and I shot up as fast as possible. Not what you want to do, but normal for newbies. I surfaced and immediately blew the water out of my snorkel and inhaled a large breathe of luscious air. My dear lab mate was beside himself. "MUY BIEN, BROOKE!" I was so happy I couldn't even contain myself. I swam towards him and gave him a huge hug. "Are you ok, everything's fine?" he asked, somewhat confused. "Of course, I'm just very happy. THANK YOU, THANK YOU!" This was huge for me. I had finally done it. Last year I barely made it out to the meeting point. This year I had just dove 10 or 12 feet by myself. He had the biggest grin on his face and asked, "Do you want to do it again?!" Of course I did! "But this time, we'll do it together."
And so we dove. Over and over again, we dove. "Ok, this is the last one!" and then once we resurfaced, he would grin and ask, "One more?" I was absolutely beside myself. Sometimes I couldn't quite make it all the way down, I just didn't have the energy or the breath for it, but I tried. He stayed patiently at the bottom, waiting for me or occasionally showing off how long he could stay down. One time as we surfaced and he was relaying instructions to me he asked in Spanish if I understood him. "Of course!" I replied without hesitation. This was a big moment for me. Last year I couldn't even say in Spanish that I was having trouble breathing and now we were communicating completely in Spanish.
Once as we went down I saw one of the fish species that I had worked with. "Did you see the trombollito?!" I had the biggest grin on my face. "Ok, now we are going to go down, look at the trombollitos for a second, and then come back up." He clearly knew how to convince me, and after some time breathing we dove down. I made it down to the rocks and saw a different fish species (borrachilla, one of my personal favorite fish there). In the lab, they lose a lot of their color, but in the wild they are brilliant and look like they have little gems. They also have no fear, and they continued swimming right alongside the rock even as I was right next to them. Unfortunately, I just didn't have it in me to stay very long and had to resurface very quickly. The more practice you have, the longer you can stay down. I resurfaced faster than I would have liked, but my goodness I was happy.
We dove down a few more times before returning. Once before we dove down into the greenish-blue water, I realized how happy I was in that moment and how much I would miss it. This was where I always wanted to be, in the blue water, happy and confident with the two best lab mates I could have ever asked for. Proving to them that I could do it, and proving to myself that I could, too. Me, in the sea, as it should be. But there was a small part of me that was very sad, knowing this could be it. The end of an era. I would possibly never see these people again. We would possibly never do this again. I could see the moment slipping from me and it hurt. I watched him move his hands gently against the backdrop of one of the loveliest blues I had ever seen as he signaled me to breathe deeply and slowly and I felt everything quickly fleeing from me. I imagined myself looking back on this moment weeks and months from now and missing it dearly. But I was here now, and this memory would be here with me forever, for better or for worse. And so I focused on the two of us in the sea in that moment, breathing juntos in the place that I loved the most, the place I had fought so dearly to reach.
Eventually after several dives I was simply too tired to continue. I didn't have the breath in me and tried to no avail. "I'm so sorry, I don't have any air left in me," I apologized. I was sad to leave, but I had done it. My goodness, after all this time I had done it. But now we had to return through the surf, and this part did scare me a bit. "We are leaving together, right?" I asked pensively. "Of course!" Together we made our way closer to the shoreline after they grabbed the bag containing the algae and I focused on breathing and keeping my lab mate in sight. The bottom was suddenly and considerably closer and the waves were far stronger. Once I was in shallower water, I attempted to take my fins off, but they simply wouldn't budge and I was getting a little nervous at this point as the waves were becoming stronger. Like always, my lovely lab mate was there beside me and helped me out of the water and we made it out together.
By this point I could barely drag myself out of the water I was so exhausted, but I had the biggest smile on my face. After ripping my annoying fins off and pulling off my mask and snorkel, I looked at my lab mate with both an exhausted but jubilant smile and gave him the biggest hug I could muster. "Gracias, gracias, gracias." I had done it. We had done it. I cannot even begin to explain how big of a moment this was for me and how liberating it felt, how exuberant I felt in that moment. As my other lab buddy exited the water I gave him a big hug, too. I was so unabashedly happy.
I left that beach victorious. The night before a friend told me I had another opportunity to redeem myself, and sure enough I had done it. I could not have picked a better way to leave. It was honestly the best day of my young life and I truly mean that. As I packed up the last of my things from the office the next day, trying to hold myself together before I left my second home, I remarked that it truly was the best day of my life. "Really?" that same lab mate asked me. "Really." And I meant it.
And now here I am, weeks later, missing that same moment. It's funny how we get to do the things we longed for right before it's too late, right at the last second. I wish I had more moments like that, more time in the water, but I am so eternally grateful for the time I did have in those cold waters in the sea that I had worked so arduously to return to with the best dive buddies I could have ever hoped for. It's been difficult, but now I am halfway to getting my dive certification, and I'll have new adventures. It won't just be adventures in snorkeling, but adventures in SCUBA diving (buceo). During my pool dives, we had a portion of the class where we had to practice snorkeling skills, one of which involved diving to the bottom of the ten-foot pool. "I'm not sure you'll make it in that wetsuit," the instructor remarked. I was a bit skeptical, too, since I didn't have a weight belt, but I was determined to try it. To my great surprise, I made it to the bottom, gliding easily all the way down and staying down longer than I had before. I have grown so much. But, I still have growing room. I'm not finished with those Chilean waters, and I have new ways to approach the sea now. And maybe, just maybe, I'll still have a few of my best dive buddies around to accompany me on some of the best adventures of my life. Until then, I have some dive adventures to accomplish here.