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Hawaii: Learning to Appreciate Underwater Wonders

Hawkfish up close

Okay, I admit it, I’m not particularly comfortable in the ocean. I’m not a great swimmer, salt water burns my eyes, and, hey, I don’t really know what’s UNDER THERE. And what’s all this passion for watching colorful fish swimming about anyway? Can’t you get the same thrill from going to your local pet store and staring at the salt water fish tanks?

My attitude about snorkeling becomes problematic when my snorkeling-crazed travel buddy and best friend wants us to go on snorkel vacations together. Now this is a person who becomes so entranced with the colorful fish darting in and around coral reefs that she’s unaware of how far she’s swimming from the snorkel boat. She’s often so far–flung, she can’t hear when the captain issues a swimmer’s last call.

My fears of starring in the movie where the boat leaves the divers helplessly paddling in open water nearly came to life when we snorkeled the reef off the Florida coast. To get to the best fish, the captain motored us into deep water and the shore became a distant memory. My friend entered the water and began enthusiastically pointing as different fish swam by. Being somewhat terrified of being in the ocean at all, I followed her like a puppy on a leash as she paddled in search of ever more interesting fish. After what seemed like hours, I poked my head out of the water to find, much to my horror, that our boat looked very tiny — because it was so far away. There were no other snorkelers in the water and the crew, unaware we were still in the water, busily readied the boat for home. I smacked my friend’s shoulder and speed swam all the way back to the boat.

Sea Urchin

You probably won’t see red pencil sea urchins in your local pet store’s aquarium, but you might if you go snorkeling. — Photo by Living Ocean Productions

Another time, my friend convinced me we should buy our own snorkel masks. After all, she explained reasonably, having our own masks and mouthpieces would ensure they’d fit well and wouldn’t be contaminated with others’ cooties. Of course, I later learned she figured our own equipment would enable us to snorkel more without the expense of a snorkel boat.

We ended up with our snorkel masks on a small Hawaiian bay surrounded by jagged black lava called a’a (the sound one makes when you step on this stuff). The waves looked big to me, but my friend gamely picked her way across the lava and waded out into the surf. Like a dummy, I followed along. Soon she was face down chasing fish. I, on the other hand, alternately peered through my new mask at the ocean bottom and looked up to see giant waves breaking all around us.

As the tide came in, the waves got larger and the surf rougher. Suddenly, a wave that looked two stories high curled over my head, sending me tumbling along the bottom, the sand shaving the skin off of my lower leg. Over the roar of the surf, I screamed for my friend to get the out of here and she reluctantly agreed. We headed toward shore, but the waves pulled at us. Near the beach, the sharp ahi ahi lava made it nearly impossible to stand up. My friend safely made it onto a ledge of lava. I was still in the surf, struggling against the waves. Panic rose as tendrils of strong waves pulled and pushed at me. My buddy called out, “Come on, you can make it.”

People laying in the ocean on floating devices

Our boat, the Fair Wind II, is big enough that you never feel crowded.

I knew she couldn’t help. No one could. The surf was too strong; the shoreline too rough. My strength waned and, for a moment, I realized with laser clarity: that I might drown out here. With strength born of pure adrenalin-fueled fear, I pushed one last time against the mighty waves, my foot finding purchase on a sliver of lava, and I hauled myself onto the black stone. As I stood unsteadily, a big wave pushed me onto the lava, lacerating my leg and sending blood running into the water.

Shaking and exhausted, I crawled ashore. My friend tended my bloody leg. As we headed toward the car, we saw the sign “kapu” or “danger.”

So it was with mixed feelings that I approached our FairWinds Snorkeling Adventure on the Big Island of Hawaii. My friend was pumped; I felt dread. I was the scar from my misadventure at Kapu Bay was throbbing.

We boarded the Fair Wind II a big catamaran with both a mainsail and powerful engines. As we motored out of Keauhou Bay on the way to the Kealakekua Bay Marine Preserve, the wide-bottomed boat eased through the water without the usual side-to-side rocking typical of smaller boats. One of the first things I noticed was the large crew. Though there were only about 30 passengers, there were eight crew.

Food on boat

Food on the Fair Wind II isn’t gourmet, but it’s hearty and tasty, especially after snorkeling all morning and working up an appetite.

As we headed the 45 minutes to our snorkel spot, they served us a continental breakfast – mini-frittatas,  muffins, bagels, tropical fruit, coffee and tea. Then a crew member came around and individually fitting us with mask and fins. My snorkel buddy has narrow feet and I was impressed that the crewman worked hard to find her fins that fit her skinny feet.

The weather was perfect – sunny with a cool breeze. Some passengers opted for the upper deck with terrific sunny views. Being sun sensitive, we chose the lower covered deck that features tables and booth style seating and big open areas for viewing the sights. As we enjoyed our breakfast, spinner dolphins rode the wake of our boat.

At the preserve, Captain Ron motored the Fair Wind II fairly close to shore, explaining that the coral reef was near the beach. On the opposite side of the boat, the ocean bottom dropped off 60-80 feet, enabling us to have a view of deep water and allowing passengers who wanted to use the diving platform or the two slides  off the back of the boat.

Snorkeling expert and underwater photographer, Nick, then held a Snorkeling 101 course for the newbies or those of us who wanted a refresher. He explained the most effective paddling technique (who knew I was doing it wrong?) and what to do if we got saltwater in our breathing tubes. I learned a lot and was surprised at how much more confidant I felt with this little snorkeling introduction.

Snorklers floating on water

Flotation devices like this one help snorkelers feel comfortable in the water.

Then Captain Ron told us where we could and could not snorkel and suggested a good route for us to follow. “Our crew will be watching and if we wonder if you’re okay, we’ll do this,” he said, making a fist on the top of his head. “If you’re okay, do this. If you’re not, wave your arms like this and we’ll come right away.”

He also pointed out the different flotation devices we could use – flotation belts or inner tubes—and the pros and cons of each and how to keep our masks from fogging. Then it was time to get in the water.

Unlike many other snorkel boats, the Fair Wind II has two broad sets of stairs that go right into the water. Instead of flopping into the water or trying to haul yourself wet into the boat like a beached whale, you simply walk up or down the stairs. Brilliant!

I slipped into the water followed by my snorkel buddy. Since the captain had defined our snorkel area, I didn’t have to worry that my friend would snorkel too far away. In fact, since our snorkel instructor had said, “the slower you go, the more you’ll see,” we opted to float face down hardly moving as other snorkelers churned around us, soon leaving us to ourselves.

Boat with Stairs off the back into the water

No unsightly flopping into or out of the boat. The Fair Wind II features civilized stairs that extend right into the water.

As the crowd of swimmers thinned and the water calmed, the fish began to appear in larger numbers –bright yellow, black with stripes, blue and pink. We floated effortlessly, buoyed by our flotation belts. I could hear my breath through the tube, but, unlike in the past, I felt no panic or fear. I didn’t have the urge to suddenly pull my head out of the water. Instead, I kept my face in the water, breathing evenly, and gently scissor kicking my legs like our instructor had suggested. When I did look up at the boat, I saw several crewmen keeping a careful watch on us, making sure we were doing well.

An hour passed quickly. Soon we could smell lunch the crew was barbecuing for us. We headed for the boat to enjoy a hearty lunch of hamburgers and hot dogs, BBQ beans, chips, fruit, and sodas.

Then it was right back in the water for another 45 minutes. By now I was feeling confident and able to remove my mask or breathing tube or float on my back as needed. We sighted more types of fish –members of the butterfly and parrot fish families, needlenose, puffer fish. My friend’s sharp eyes even spotted a shy octopus hiding in the rocks who played peek a boo with us.

Beautiful, yellow Tang

We must have seen a hundred of these brilliant Yellow Tangs. — Photo by Living Ocean Productions

All too soon, the captain called all aboard and we reluctantly climbed the stairs where crew members hosed us off with fresh water. Captain Ron called roll to make sure all of us were on board before we headed for home. Though it felt like we’d just floated around, I felt amazing tired in a lovely relaxed way.

And, you know, thanks to FairWind Snorkeling Adventures, I never felt any fear. In fact, I really “got” why my friend so loves snorkeling. And I can’t wait to go on my next snorkel.

www.fair-wind.com

— by Bobbie Hasselbring



Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at realfoodtraveler.com.