May 29, 2011

Fear and Snorkeling at Playa Santa

I grew up in Michigan, where we have no oceans.

We have Lake Michigan, a deep, blue, cold body of water you cannot see across. Might as well be an ocean, right? Actually, I often think of it as better than an ocean. From mid-June to early September, when it's swimmable, it couldnt' be more pleasant. No salt, cool but comfortable and always a relief from hot sand. You can stand at its edge and picture Wisconsin just over the horizon.

It can be vast and intimidating and rough, but it is finite. It is, at least generally, safe.

You do not get the same feeling standing at the edge of the ocean. The horizon is somehow more distant; the water is deep and dark and swimming with untold, unfound creatures; it is unfathomable, infinite, dangerous.

I've stood on rocks on the north shore of this island and watched the waves swell and recede, swell and recede, picturing myself being helplessly tossed in their wake. Crushed. Powerless in their grasp. I have new found awe and respect for the ocean.

Which is why it takes me at least a little bit of courage to step off land and wade in, even where it's calm, even where it's shallow.

There's a beach an hour west of camp, called Playa Santa. I drove there on my first long solo trip here, with snorkeling gear in my backpack. I parked the truck, staked out a spot on the empty beach, and awkwardly high-stepped my flippers into the water.

You do not snorkel alone.

The last time I went into the Caribbean, I took a jellyfish sting to the back of my knee. This was more than 12 years ago, and I had been 14. So with that in mind, I glided cautiously out over the sea grass, with the coarse sand and sea cucumbers drifting by beneath me. I looked warily around, for fish, for jellyfish, for anything. This was not some sane, sterile place. Anything could be here. This was the ocean, vast and supremely unknown to me.

I was afraid and alone. Anything that grazed me there made me jump. This was hardly leisure, so I didn't stay long. I didn't even make it out to the reef, 100 yards offshore. I turned around and went back and spent the rest of my time near shore.

Recently, I went back to the same beach, this time with friends.

We donned our masks and snorkels and high-stepped out into the sea. Harmless sea cucumbers, coarse sand, sea grass drifting by beneath us. Us. This time I was less afraid, with some more experience and company in tow.

Out, floating on the water. Out, over the beer cans the locals and tourists have donated. Out, over the meager makings of a dying reef. Out, to the real reef.

There was a leak in my mask, salt water seeping into my nose and down my throat, sitting on my lips, stinging a scrape on my knee. Lake Michigan doesn't do this.

Lake Michigan also doesn't have coral reefs, tropical fish, and sea urchins.

There might not be a thing in nature less appealing than a sea urchin, black spines as clear signs they're best left untouched. They're novel from the shore, but old news in the deeper water as it becomes clear they're everywhere, from baseballs to basketballs, black and unfriendly.

I swam out, looped around to the back of the reef, saw a few pretty fish, but nothing new or exciting. I decided to head back in, through the middle of the reef. There were openings, a path.

But in the ocean, depths can be deceiving. Spaces are not nearly as open as they seem, and from the surface to the reef, what looks like a few feet can quickly become just one.

One foot to navigate the stinging brain coral and sea urchins and whatever else God has put there. I found myself in such a space.

Open water above me, my back and snorkeling tube above the surface, unfriendlies beneath me, no room to maneuver, no way to turn around, no space to get by, nowhere to put my hands, the surge of the waves pushing me involuntarily back and forth.

It is a scary thing to be in a space like this, water you can stand in, no apparent way to stand in it. In this, I understand panic. I understand claustrophobia.

That urge to panic comes, and you can accept it, or you can reject it as it wells up in your throat with the salt water. I pushed against it, kept as cool as I could and slid back. I spotted just enough space in the rocky coral to set down my feet and stand up and put five feet of me above the water and just one below.

When you have no place to put your feet, you have no way to shift your weight. So the small surge of the waves was just enough to push me over. I stumbled down and by some miracle found some urchinless real estate, millimeters from the spines of one. I've never been stung, and I was doing my best to keep it that way. I searched for another place to move my hand, but instead got back to my feet and took a few steps, quashing a few urchins under the rubber of my flippers, careful to keep them off my heels.

A few more steps, slowly, wobbly, patiently, shaking. Very soon, I saw a path in front of me. I slid down into the water, gliding cautiously over the coral and the urchins, to a narrow pathway back to the grass, back to the shore.

All of that fear over a few things with stings that are, for now, still mysteries to me. The ocean can get so much worse than a few urchins and coral. It's vast, scary, and people take lifetimes to learn tiny slivers of it.

This was enough to further deepen my respect for the ocean, but not enough to keep me out of it. I'll go again.

But ask me again if I prefer Lake Michigan to the ocean. No salt, no urchins, no coral.

I am definitely a Lake Michigan Man.

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