The water was finally warm enough to snorkel when we reached the tip of the Baja Peninsula. Jeff was excited, I was uncertain. Waves swept into the small cove, lifting Serenity and the two other boats at anchor as they passed beneath us and crashed onto the shore. Our neighbor on SV Splendid Isolation had reeled in several fish for dinner and a report from our other neighbors on SV Sweet Dreams confirmed that there were fish to be seen in and among the rocks that lined the cove.
When I finally stuck my head below the water it was as if I’d been transported to a different planet. It sounded different, it looked different, it felt different. The topography and vegetation were other worldly. I didn’t speak the language and the words uttered from my mouth were no longer recognizable to me. The inhabitants of this planet were as curious about me as I was about them. And they were funny. Who knew fish could be so comical. I spent most of my time laughing or gasping, neither of which are particularly conducive to underwater breathing (definitely had not mastered that yet).
Growing up studying and idolizing The Little Mermaid gave me the false impression that maneuvering underwater is easy and beautiful, but I lacked any semblance of grace and poise. For the longest time I felt like the awkward, accident prone guest that everyone simply endured. I imagined them murmuring to each other “Who invited this chick to the party?” as they scurried away from my flailing limbs.
It wasn’t uncommon for me to forget to breathe when I was looking at something particularly cool. Then, instead of simply taking a breath through my snorkel, I would claw my way to the surface and suck in air dramatically like a person who just had a chicken bone freed from their trachea. I kept mistaking my astigmatism for a fish just out of the corner of my eye. I adjusted my mask constantly, just about as frequently as baseball players adjust their cups, always looking for just the right fit. Navigating the underwater terrain was tricky and I hadn’t yet mastered backing up or turning around or diving or even floating for that matter. Flippers, those strange plastic appendages, added more complication as I tried to move through tight spaces without touching or scraping the terrain.
Take this video of a cool little octopus I saw in Bahia Guacamaya for instance. The video could have been longer if I had remembered to breathe. I was holding my breath in anticipation of what this guy was gonna do next. When I finally got my head back underwater after spazzing out I could no longer find him.
Despite my clumsiness, I kept showing up for the party, all the while acquiring more refined underwater social skills. There are worlds within worlds if you start looking – so many macro and micro transactions taking place. I love to just drift with the water as it pushes and pulls and lifts me like a marionette. The cadence of the water is mesmerizing, rhythmic yet unpredictable. There’s something supremely soothing about letting it be the conductor and enjoying the visual symphony that unfolds around you. The more I just float with the fish, the more connected I feel to that world, the more I appreciate its otherness.
The brightly colored BlueChin Parrot Fish, munching on coral and pooping out puffs of sand as it eyes me suspiciously.
The Blunthead Triggerfish, who approaches with confidence and reorients itself in the water to get a better view as I pass overhead.
The Steel Pompano that swim with synchronicity in schools and look like a giant, silver mobile, catching and refracting light as they swirl in the water around an invisible axis.
The perfectly camouflaged octopus, who manages to look friendly and threatening at the same time and moves with speed and agility to a better hiding spot once it’s been made.
The Giant Damselfish, totally unintimidated by my size, fearlessly protects its little patch of algae.
The Spotted Eagle Ray that glides effortlessly past, its tail gently swaying back and forth.
The tiny fish that adopts me because its black and white stripes happen to match the black and white chevrons on my swimsuit. It swims with me for over a mile and is able to keep up despite the fact that it’s barely bigger than my thumb nail. Jeff was adopted by a little yellow one who perhaps felt a kinship with his yellow mask.
There is so much life to see. You get thirsty for it after awhile, thirsty to see who’s hanging around. Eager to step through the looking glass and be part of that beautifully, distorted surreality.