Snorkeling in Akumal: Enjoying the View from Above
by Aileen Hewitt
If vacationers can be divided into two types, those who luxuriate in the familiar and those who thrill to the new, my family and I are definitely in the former category. We first visited Akumal in 1978 and have been returning ever since. Our flight into Cancun is like an old habit. We know where the taxi driver should stop for cold Coronas--to mark the official beginning of the vacation--as we head south from the airport. Each time we pass Playa del Carmen, we tell the same story, about the dog sleeping in the middle of the one street that was Playa 20 years ago. We remember when there was no telephone service and the water and electricity were intermittent. And when we slip into chairs at the beach bar for lunch, we are happy to recognize all our old favorites; the same menu, the same waiters, the same beach dogs, the same dive boats.
But several years ago, a serpent entered my familiar paradise. Always a contented snorkeler, I became envious of the scuba diving friends who were with us. Their gear was glamorous. The rituals of their suiting up and preparing their tanks and regulators fascinated me. I wanted to know more about the equipment and the rules of communicating underwater. And I wanted to drift along the cliff face of the reef, forty feet down, amid the brilliant coral and schools of fish.
I considered diving lessons, but worried that a broken eardrum from a childhood diving board accident would be a complication. Even ambivalence can become a pleasant pastime when you are on vacation, and for the next three years, I entertained the same scuba/snorkel debate, settling into my week-long dithering as easily as into my beach chair. But I wasnít getting any closer to making a decision, and along the way, the pleasures of snorkeling had begun to fade. Thinking about what I was missing caused me to miss what I was seeing.
It was my doctor who finally convinced me that two sinus operations and a broken eardrum did not augur diving success. Why couldnít I just enjoy snorkeling? Good question, one that I had already begun to ask myself. I felt ashamed that I had allowed a steady pleasure to slip away.
I had a new resolve and a new mask the next year. The first morning, I was in the water at dawn. The sun had just cleared the horizon, casting a dazzling white ribbon across the mirror of the bay. Below the surface, the sunís rays made a path of light over the grassy bottom, heading into deep water. Following the light, l swam out, past the massive brain corals and waving sea fans. I had 30 or 40 feet of visibility in every direction.
The sea turtles appeared at the limit of my vision, heading toward me, like fat awkward birds flapping stumpy wings. There were five of them, ranging in size from two feet to four feet. I swam aside and got behind them, awed by their look of ancient gravity, timing my arm strokes to theirs. We swam in the light path until we were back at the grassy bottom, in seven feet of water, where they began to eat breakfast. They favored the shortest grass, the new growth, the way a discriminating chef prefers the tender mesclun lettuce.
More turtles arrived, one missing a right front flipper. I was upset at the first sight of it, but the turtle did not seem at all troubled by the injury. I stayed with them for more than an hour, until I felt very much like a turtle myself, lifting my head out of the water when they surfaced to breathe, making eye contact. There is something innocent and improbable about a turtleís body, but the eye is knowing and world-weary, jaded even. Then, as if by some signal, they all headed back for deep water. Perhaps they knew that as the dive boats began to operate, they were vulnerable. Several had scars on their shells where I presumed a propeller had gashed them.
I was with nine turtles that first morning. Over the course of the week, I joined them for breakfast and watched them groom themselves, heaving sand onto their backs and scraping it with their flippers to dislodge parasites. I found them in deep water in the afternoon, swimming with the strange shark-like remoras which attach themselves with suction discs on their heads. I learned to recognize individuals by their sizes and markings and realized that I would not have had these experiences as a scuba diver in a group.
The next year I found the school fish. I suppose I had been resentful that I couldnít just drop into a school from the dive boat, the way my friends did. And being resentful, I hadnít spent enough time looking for the fish in the bay. One afternoon, in deep, gin-clear water, fifty feet or more, I was suddenly surrounded by a school of bar jack. A childís cartoon fish, the jack has a perfect profile, the foot long body tapering to a tiny waist before rising up in a surprise of a tail. Singly, they are not especially colorful, but in mass they are an iridescent lavender. These were so thick I couldnít see the ocean floor, just their swirl and flow around me. The school acted as one organism, curving apart, and then, with a flashing turn, re-forming like a stream of mercury. This pulsing quicksilver world was mesmerizing, an alternate reality. Suspended on the surface, weightless, bobbing rhythmically, I soon lost all sense of land life. I felt I could breathe the water, and groaned with pleasure.
There were over 100 varieties of fish in the bay: dainty angel fish and wrasse, like enameled jewels; party colored parrot fish with their silly looking bee-stung lips; yard long trumpetfish standing on their heads; huge lumbering grouper and hog fish that always startled me---something THAT big must be dangerous; the torpedo shaped great barracuda, quietly menacing as he swam parallel to me, though my diving friends said he was just curious.
I never tired of looking at these fish, but it was the schools that I sought. I wanted that out-of-body experience, the thrill of being completely disoriented by a visual blitz. The jacks were there almost every day, and the blue and black tang. Very dark above, and silver below, the tang gave the impression of disappearing. When the light was right, massive blocks of fish wheeled and popped right into another dimension, invisibility. It knocked me out every time.
I donít wish for scuba gear any longer. It is much easier to find my old favorites when I can take as much time as I like, not governed by the group or the rules of the dive. The schools of fish still engulf me. When I want to visit the turtles, I look for their patches of cropped grass and wait for them. I see the same individuals every year, the one with the missing flipper, the ones with the gashed shells, the brown one with all the barnacles. I think of them often when I am at home, their constancy giving them a special place in my imagination. Knowing where they are binds me to them. When I close my eyes, the curve of the bay is always there, the dive boats rocking on the surface and the turtles below. As it turns out, the familiar is not just luxuriant to me, it is thrilling as well, every time I put on my mask and snorkel.