A few short feet below where you are standing at any given time about anywhere in Florida is an expanse of water so ordained as the Atlantic Ocean by certain nautical Dead White Men (DWM) and while abstract and the ghost of Western Tradition, this title has stuck for this region … This actually endless and rising body of water so marked on certain maps. The Atlantic is close at hand at all times even when inland while it may not seem so. By the waters, a thin veil of civilization – that is constructions of all manner of mildly entreatingly and fey style – follows the water only interrupted by the occasional gasp of nature which comes upon the traveler all green and unorganized. Nature, real nature, is a total mess.
Outside of those lonely moments of trees and verdant abundance and quite a few huge spiders and biting creatures, there are many beige and tan storied buildings, from luxury apartments to luxury houses and expensive eateries. This ocean can be enjoyed in a number of ways, but for many it is snorkeling, the sport of flopping face down and staring at fish typically at a coral reef but one can snorkel anywhere, even in a swimming pool.
Snorkeling to those few who don’t know is the junior Cub Scout version of scuba diving in that it takes no training, minimal equipment, and one can do it slightly buzzed if not a little drunk. Snorkeling doesn’t have its own flag but when present, the boat that went to the reef will hoist the scuba diving flag to allow the speed boaters to know that in addition to manatees, they can run over a few tourists.
There are many places in Florida, but having flopped in the water from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, there is some great differences in location and tour company and some very striking similarities. It is true, Dear Reader, that these experiences I have had do not make me an ‘expert snorkeler,’ but then to claim expert at this ’sport’ is like saying one is an expert in afternoon walks or floating face down after a South Hamptons pool party. As any guide on any snorkel tour boat, you take to the reef will tell you, you don’t need to be an expert to snorkel, you just need to know how to swim. Sort of know how to swim. Kind of swim a little.
The industry of snorkeling that is along the coast of Florida is a busy one, and there are some 11 million people who partake according to some. I have logged over 11.25 hours of open water snorkeling and at least 40 minutes in a swimming pool trying out my new mask I bought from Reefs R Us, and each time I see new things, but I also see some familiar behavior. The first thing that is common is that all these adventure tours attract as many people as possible, people with little-proven experience other than a verbal agreement and perhaps a signed waver, and without any training, butter them up with sunscreen and toss them into one of the most important and endangered environments in the world to drift about. The warnings not to damage this delicate environment differ slightly, with the more exclusive trips I have taken in Key West being more ecologically adamant and actually drilling the customers with the rules of leave no trace, while the cheaper version in Fort Lauderdale just tossed in a filthy shipload of morons into a clearly degraded environment. From the reefs of Key West to the beaches of Miami there appears every in-between level of sound advice to tourists – don’t wreck the coral.
On every trip there is a version of that short talk on the dangers of swimming vertical and thereby kicking the living shit out of the reef. Snorkelers also get clear warnings not to wear flipper and walk on the boat, whereby a goodly amount of these avid swimmers will then don their swim fins and walk about the boat. They are asked to not use spray sunscreen on the bow. And then a line of unevenly tan German women will explode in this substance. Needless to say, these same people are the ones in the water swimming into shallow areas, moving about, trying to touch fish, and generally molesting the environment.
I too am guilty of environmental degradation of a precious reef. I was not in this country, so local laws do not apply. And this may have been forty years ago or five. I was off the coast of Honduras on the Isle of Roatan and my Sexual and Emotional Partner (SaEP) at the time, and I went to visit the beautiful local reef. The weather was nice but windy, and there was a heavy chop in the water, but we were told not enough to stop us from enjoying our time. Also, the boat was primarily going out to drop some scuba divers in the water since they pay more and are considered the real deal, the Harley Davidson riders to our Yamaha scooters if you will. So, we were tossed on one side of the boat, the guide and her divers tossed off the other side, the man watching the boat stayed put in order to spot all of us. So, excited to be in the warm water and see some damn good fish, we swam out to where the guide indicated would be the best viewing. Indeed, under the water was amazing.
Like nothing I had seen before (I had not been to the Florida Keys yet). Meanwhile, above the water, the wind increased and my SaEP was not faring well, not being a very active swimmer. It turned out; I wasn’t an active swimmer either.
The waves rose and fell, and I worked hard to keep from being blown further out to the ocean. I made that everything was fine, but then I heard “*glub* I’m having *glub* trouble breathing!” Everything is fine, I said in between small swallows of salty water. I swam over with my face in the water. One cannot really huff and puff in a snorkel tube. Not the sort of tubes they rent, not the kind of equipment they offer in Third World/Developing World countries. I was winded, and when I attempted to catch my breath by remaining still, I drifted, and waves came higher and splashed into my tube, the tube I was using to breath. I stood up and balanced on the reef. A huge damaging action, but I have to regain my breath before swimming over and comforting my drowning friend. I wanted to comfort, but I realized …
I was drowning too. I looked for the boat. I saw it between waves. It was far away. As I caught a fin on the rise of a coral, I waved frantically, to then be carried off by a wave. No one was apparent on the boat. Our watcher had perhaps sat down or was lying in the sun to avoid the wind. We can swim for the shore, I exclaimed. Not so good, as the wind seemed like it would move us up the coast rather than to the shore, where we could see the breakers crashing against the sharp rocks. Stay here, I said, swallowing a gulp of rather pungent water. This is how tourists die, I thought. This is the headline, ‘Two Dumbasses Go Out And Then Drown Because They Really Don’t Know How To Swim’ I thought. I used my fear to calm my friend. Stay on the reef. Just hold your fins on the reef and stay in place. I am going to swim to the boat.
I then did what my parent taught me to do in the water when I was younger when I used to swim all the time in the three-foot collapsible pool that eventually rotted and ruptured and Howie hauled away for scrap money. Do the backstroke. No points for style or form. Pure survival … Flop on your back and kick like hell. I pushed off the ‘equipment’ from my face and set my sight on a landmark that would align me with the boat I was aiming for. I then started to kick as hard as I could. I could survive this, but could I get back in time to save my friend? Could I survive this?
I finally reached the boat and made a fuss to the sleeping ‘attendant.’ He didn’t understand my English or Spanish, but before I could protest, blueing hands grabbed onto the gunnel. I lifted up a tired and shaking body into the boat. We both tossed up quite a little saltwater. Exhausted, we sat in silence and the divers came up. Great time, fantastic fish, what’s wrong with you? the guide exclaimed. I think we almost drowned, I replied. I felt bad for the reef. I was that jerk who helped wreck the environment.
While the rules and regulations are clearer in the United States of America, the same is true that dummies are tossed into the environment, and little kicks, nicks, and broken edges add up. “You know, what you did out there could get you a huge fine,” the captain said to the extremely attractive Italian woman. Oh, what did I do, she cried. You were standing on the reef. Oh, that?
Snorkeling is a wonderful activity. If the waters are right, you can float there in the vast ocean, focusing on a snail as it crosses the sandy floor. You can swim about looking for fish, or you can watch the coming and going of just some small section of this vast and currently active wonderland. The reefs of Florida, and I assume the rest of the world, are amazing and I am glad tour boats are willing to take anyone, to take me, strap on some fins, and dive into unknown waters. I want to see more of this ocean wonder. I want to see it all. Maybe even go back to Roatan. Will my kicking of that coral have caused damage? Have others been there too? Can I go back and it will be alive and vibrant? The oceans seem to be rising, getting warmer, there seems to be all manner of dire prognostications. Will I ever see the Great Barrier Reef?
I used to think I wanted to see the world before I die. Now, I realize, I want to see the world before it dies.