One of the Most Important Things to Know About Snorkeling or Pretty Much Anything Else

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik
Photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik

“Those who can be like a puddle become clear when they’re still,”
– Lao-tzu

The first time I panicked while snorkeling was when I hit the water. Immediately, I felt like I might sink. Or if not immediately sink, quickly exhaust my energy, snorf a lungful of sea water, maybe vomit, and then sink.

Just 30 seconds earlier, I was standing at the edge of the catamaran. I turned to one of the guys working the tour.

“So just jump in?” I asked, peering through the smeared and scratched glass of my mask. He smiled big and reached out to tighten my straps.

“Yeah, just hold your mask when you jump so it doesn’t come off.”

I took a deep breath, peered down into the azure sea as it fwapped against the boat hull, and jumped.

Let me say that I am a poor to mediocre swimmer and had never snorkeled before this trip. Right away, I was in distress. Trying to keep my head up in the air while dumping water out of a snorkel felt way too complicated. At first I used one arm to handle the snorkel and straighten my mask, but quickly realized I’d need both hands to get everything in order. To accomplish this, I pedaled my flippered feet madly, exhausting myself. As if to mock me, the small ocean chop kept slapping me in the face.

You’re not going to drown, I assured myself. I stopped futzing with my snorkel and paddled away from the boat. As soon as my thrashing slowed, the ocean floor became visible through the crystalline water. The sand was pale, inviting, and I could make out the indistinct shapes of sea creatures moving below. Excited to see more, I bit down on my snorkel and started to breathe. It felt funny, not surprisingly like pulling air through a tube. I dunked my face into the water and panicked for the second time.

For some reason, it felt much harder to breathe with my face submerged. I sucked desperately on the mouthpiece just as a wave welled up and filled my snorkel with sea water. I gulped a mouthful and narrowly avoided regurgitating my grilled mahi-mahi lunch. OK, man, time for a reset, I thought. I went to my happy place, found my power animal, and reminded myself that I was not the first person to use a snorkel. Several million people, many much older, younger, more out of shape, and/or worse at swimming than I have successfully snorkeled. I just needed to relax.

It’s amazing what not freaking out can do for you. In a very general sense, freaking out is the best way to make all of your fears come a little closer to reality. When rock climbing, freaking out makes you the worst climber you can possibly be. This also holds true for traveling, cooking, trying to pick someone up at a bar, playing badminton, or pretty much anything you can think of. The only good time to freak out is if you’re an actor whose character is freaking out, or if you’re in a freak-out contest, which I’m not sure even exists. When you don’t freak out, you’re much better at having fun and, not coincidentally, you’re more fun to be around…

Or, more poetically, “When we stop struggling, we float,” to quote Mark Nepo. It’s counterintuitive, but there’s a truth to it. Calmer, I found I could stay comfortably on the water’s surface with little effort. I tried looking down again, but since I was no longer hyperventilating, I could breathe.

In my field of view appeared spectacular mounds of pale coral speckled with sea urchins. Some were black and spiny, like balls of lacquered toothpicks. Others had rounded spines like fat pink tongue depressors. A small, dark green sea turtle with a light band around its neck glided by. Big black fish with flowing fins, yellow stripped fish, a long, silvery fish with an eel-like body and pencil-thin nose… A little bit of water flopped into my snorkel, so I puffed it out with a sharp breath, like the guys on the boat suggested. Not only wasn’t the experience scary or hard, it was relaxing, almost meditative.

“Don’t do this,” explained one of the tour leaders before we jumped in, waving his arms and legs in demonstration. “If you’re thrashing around down there, you’re scaring the fish.” So I moved slowly, comfortably buoyant, serene. I dove down into the water-warbled light and gently touched a lipstick urchin. Schools of fish divided unhurriedly at my approach. I was a visitor in their quiet world for a moment and they seemed OK with it. I was OK with it too.

Walking on Lava: A Pedestrian Lesson from Hawaii

Lava sunset

Take the helicopter tour, one friend suggested. You can hire a boat that takes you right up to where the lava meets the sea, someone else offered. But when the guy at the hotel info desk mentioned a walking tour to see the Mauna Loa lava flows in Kalapana, on the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife and I decided immediately and in unison that was the way for us.

We signed up for the tour and drove the Saddle Road to the town of Hilo, on the other side of the island (walking this leg of the journey would have taken days — a little long for this trip). We ascended nearly 7,000 feet on the drive, passing over the southern flank of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world provided you measure from its base on the sea floor, and through several different climate zones along the way.

In rainy Hilo, we met our tour guide, a young blond girl from Massachusetts who’d just graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in volcanology. We were the only two on the tour that day. We followed our guide to the lava viewing area just outside of Volcano National Park, parked our cars, and started to walk.

Walking is by definition a human-scale endeavor, measured in footsteps. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” Nietzsche said, and maybe there’s something to this. I certainly use walking to clear my head when things get too crowded up there. Thomas Jefferson praised walking as a key to good health for the body and the mind. A slow amble puts us down in the landscape, on intimate terms with the real cost of getting from here to there. On foot, we get to experience the fine textures and details of a journey.

We crossed the expansive lava fields, our shoe soles the only barrier between skin and blasted black landscape. We trod on the cracked and crazed mounds of lava rock, wove in an out of big broken domes called tumuli, crunched over the fragile folds of ropy pahoehoe. The trek offered a sense of what the beginning — or maybe the end — of the world might look like.

Our guide stopped and knelt carefully. The ground was mostly silica, and can cut with a touch. She pinched what looked like a fine, straw-colored hair between thumb and forefinger.

“Have you heard of Pele’s hair?” she asked, handing me the fragile strand. “It’s lava that gets spun out by the wind and cooled into a thread… Who knew Pele was a blond?”

Three miles over this terrain and we felt it in our legs and ankles. Each step landed on a different texture or angle. In the distance, a plume of pure white steam rose from the lava entry at the water’s edge. We walked by homes and vehicles that had become embedded in the lava flows. Studded with little bursts of red flower, an ohia tree 10 feet tall stood as a measuring stick to the decades since the lava had passed that spot.

An hour and a half into the hike, we came to the sea cliffs. Here, molten stone broke through a burnt veneer and globbed into the foamy, chaotic surf, generating steam billows that rose up and black sand particles that filtered down.

“There aren’t many places you can see new land being created like this,” our tour guide said with a geologist’s indefatigable reverence.

Nearby, we found a fresh “toe” of lava that had broken through its crusty containment and bulged up and out, folding over onto itself repeatedly, like glowing red layers of hot fudge. It quickly cooled and sealed over, only to break through again. We poked it with long sticks, which burst into flame on contact. Our shoe rubber grew soft.

On the way out, it started raining, offering a welcome coolness. The sun set behind the shoulder of Mauna Loa and we clicked on our headlamps. Certainly, the different perspectives of a boat or a helicopter would have been interesting, more cinematic maybe, but we already observe so much of our world through screens and windows. Better, we thought, to go face to face with the lava fields — slow, with effort, scorched and soaked and awed by the primordial beauty of it all.

Walking is not the fastest way or the easiest way to do just about anything. Humans have invented countless modes of conveyance to spare ourselves from the drudgery of conducting our many chores and journeys on foot. But in this age of acceleration and expediency, walking remains important. It gives us a chance to think or, if walking with another, to discuss, unhurried by the relentless ticking of The Clock.

We returned to our cars in the drizzling darkness, dreading the drudgery of the slow, winding drive back across the island, but happy that we’d chosen to go by foot. Walking is a great reminder that the journey is, at the very least, as important as the destination… If there even is such a thing as a destination, after all.