“Not the hood, Mom,” my teenage daughter hisses. On a sun-drenched Hawaiian beach, Julia backs away as I continue my elaborate preparations for snorkeling. For someone who’s barely warm enough in a hot tub, dressing for the ocean isn’t easy. With considerable yanking and tugging, I’ve managed to pull a skin-tight surf shirt over my bathing suit. Next, I’ve wriggled into a long-sleeved, full-body wetsuit. Even without the hood, the insulated fabrics create a sauna-like effect. Lines of sweat stream down my neck.
Glancing around the beach, I wonder who would come to my aid if I passed out from heat stroke. Perhaps that blond in the black thong? Ever vigilant against sunburn, I slather my face with zinc cream. My 10-year-old son stares, his mouth hanging open. “Jeez, Mom, your nose is all white. Rub that stuff in!” he says, then sprints toward the water. My husband Zach gives me a friendly pat. “You’re getting there, hon,” he says, and follows Alex into the ocean.
I try to appear dignified as I don my bright pink snorkel and buckle my neon yellow flotation belt. Julia offers one last piece of daughterly advice. “You won’t drown with that belt on, Mom. You really don’t need the inner tube.” She heads for the turquoise waves, ignoring my offer of sunscreen. At the water’s edge, I pull on my huge blue flippers and prepare to waddle in. By now, my family is far from shore, swimming and snorkeling in their bathing suits. Glaring in Julia’s direction, I grab my trusty inner tube and adjust my hood. Then the cool water swirls around my legs, and I stop caring about the amused smiles of nearby swimmers.
When Zach first suggested I learn to snorkel, I shook my head. I’m from Brooklyn, where leisure time is spent playing stoopball and fish comes from a can.
But he persisted and, eventually, I put on the snorkel and mask. “Are you sure I’ll get enough air through this thing?” I asked repeatedly.
I imagined mouthfuls of seawater rushing into my lungs. I saw myself gasping and choking, longing for a lounge chair and a frozen margarita.
But Zach is a kind and patient teacher. Before the sun left the afternoon sky, I learned to breathe underwater. On my first day of snorkeling, I cheerfully paddled next to fish and turtles. Dazzling surprises greeted me as I rounded corners and peered under rocks—a fish with zebra-like stripes, one with tiny blue polka dots, another boasting a neon green tail. When I began to feel numb from the cold, we headed back toward the beach. I held Zach’s wet, sandy hand. “How about another snorkel date tomorrow?” I said.
I could surely have chosen a more sensible hobby. At best, finances permit just one week per year of island paradise. And, even in Hawaii, winds and rains cloud the water, dashing a snorkeler’s hopes. But most vexing of all is my own body, which is completely unsuited to any activity involving the ocean. I’m always cold. On tropical beaches, scrawny 5-year-olds don’t hesitate to dive right in. But I take baby steps into the water, covered from ankles to chin by my fleece-lined wetsuit. Not to mention the extras—booties and a sleek black hood. And, after years of avoiding the water, I’m a terrible swimmer, in need of multiple flotation devices.
But once I’m in, all the preparations are worthwhile. In an instant, the gleeful chatter of other swimmers gives way to a vast and silent universe. I savor the endless blue of the water, glistening under radiant sunshine. Draped over one side of my inner tube, I am weightless and carefree.
Snorkeling is a delicious treasure hunt. Photos of tropical fish don’t come close to the thrill of swimming with brilliant yellow tangs and tiny spotted puffers. I come upon two iridescent parrotfish enjoying a game of chase, their shiny scales blending from emerald to aqua, then into violet. A moment later, a school of a thousand long silvery scad swims toward me, and, in a flash, changes direction. Below me, like an underwater cactus, lies a tangle of green- and plum-colored coral.
I last for one ecstatic hour before the chill penetrates my ample layers. Shivering, I wonder again why I’m drawn to this, of all hobbies, rather than, say, something I could do in a sweater. But then, why must we be well suited to the things we love? After all, if I’d let pragmatism trump passion, Zach and I might be swimming in different oceans.
Suddenly, a blur of lime green and pink zips by. It’s the Christmas wrasse, a fish whose dazzling image I’ve often admired in my snorkeling book. Without a second’s hesitation, I paddle toward it as fast as my bulky equipment allows.
Rachel Trachten is a Berkeley freelance writer and copy editor who yearns for a Hawaiian vacation.
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