Dreaming of Snorkeling

by Marta Turnbull

When I am 80, I shall tell my grandchildren, I first successfully snorkeled off the bow of an Arabian dhow in the warm waters of Zanzibar–or so the dream goes. It was not my first attempt. I had donned a mask and fins multiple times–that was the easy part. The challenge–bordering on panic–was trying to breathe through the snorkel mouthpiece.

“Silly,” I tell myself, but the panic is real. The previous attempts were in the Caribbean, first off Grand Cayman and next at Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Choppy waves, chilly waters, congestion from a chest cold, rocks with sharp edges, ungainly fins — all added to the stress of putting a large piece of rubbery plastic in my mouth and trying to breathe through a tube without drowning.

But in Zanzibar, the turquoise water is glass-like calm, bathwater warm, and so full of salinity that I can float standing upright. Can I be successful this time? With much trepidation, I sit on the edge of the boat wiggling my feet into the long, yellow flippers. I pull the mask over my eyes and nose, hold my breath and splash into the water. Popping to the surface, I look at the beautiful, exotic boat next to me; and I hear the dream in my head. When I am 80, I shall tell my grandchildren that I…

I am not alone. My friend — who does not swim well, but is game for trying snorkeling — is standing on the boat’s ladder with her life jacket on and ready to slip into the water beside me. I image that she must be having second thoughts, too; so I assure her that we don’t actually have to swim to the island like the other snorkelers. We can just hang out next to the boat getting our bearings.


She smiles and says OK; inserts the mouthpiece and joins me in the water. I look at her–lips distended and peering through the mask like a nearsighted cartoon character. I fit my own mouthpiece and tentatively lower my face into the water. I take a shallow breath and, amazingly, inhale no water. I take another breath, then a deep one.The boatman suggests that we not look straight down, but gaze forward into the water at a 45 degree angle. It makes a big difference. I can breathe and see gorgeous fish. Little green, purple, yellow, blue, and striped fish are swimming so close that I reach out to touch them. They dart away, but I am delighted. My friend and I float along the top of the water looking into the sea world we have never seen before. We decide we can swim to the island and set off, leaving the boat–and my fear of the mouthpiece–behind.

Travel has a way of persuading even the most timid that fearful things can be done.  Not at the first place, necessarily, or even at the second.  But at some place, things are possible.

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