“Here, we dry ourselves with the power of the sun.”
This was the response to my question about where to grab a towel, before stepping into a boat for a snorkeling tour off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. Holding a snorkeling mask and flippers, I wondered how well I’d applied my sunscreen that morning and stepped down into the boat.
After a long winter in New York City that didn’t seem to wane well into April, a trip to the Caribbean coast of Colombia offered a welcome burst of color. I was the same pale tone as the grey Manhattan I had left, but in Cartagena, the colorful streets were full of vendors with fruit displays of dense color to draw the eye. I stopped to admire fat blooms of flowers and hues of paint. I attempted to let the names of unfamiliar fruits roll off my tongue: lulo, uchuva, guanabana…
A couple days of exploring the old fortified city later, I stepped onto the boat for a snorkeling trip. I had donned the flippers and mask before, mainly in the Caribbean, but never too far from the shore or in water too deep that the mind starts to wander what sort of creatures could be freely swimming around. My Spanish skills were very rusty from college years spent in Miami and I settled for not asking too many questions. Then, the boat driver killed the motor.
We had sped out into the sea, rounded a curve in the face of the island, to find ourselves 200 yards from shore. I assumed we were being shuttled to a place with guaranteed fish and coral; I didn’t expect that place to be so far from dry land. The group was divided in two: those who would go snorkeling, and those who would go scuba diving. The scuba students got the English-speaking guide, while the snorkelers were left with a smooth-skinned smiling teenager. He motioned for me to toss my dress aside and slip into the flippers.
Just as the rubber of the 2nd flipper snapped into place, he was helping to hoist me up over the side of the boat, my feet dangling over the clear water below. The bottom was no where in sight. Just as I secured my face mask, he put his hand on my back, and with a little grin, gave me an encouraging push into the water. Letting go of my grip on the side of the boat, I was off.
A swimmer since childhood, I’m confident in the water, but don’t think I’d ever been so far from land. The water was neither warm nor cool, just a lovely neutral temperature that didn’t shock the system on impact. Our instructor dove off the boat with the confidence of a boy who grew up in the water, who had probably mastered this distance and depth as a toddler.
The colors were just as striking as back in the old city of Cartagena. Settling into a rhythm with my breathing, I floated and focused in on the underwater world beneath me. Flat fish with electric blue stripes darted past. Gnarled coral in a range of hues was at times forty feet away, at other times five feet below. Our instructor took a deep breath and dove, gracefully gliding towards the sandy floor and a school of tiny fish. He observed them up close as they darted around him in all directions.
I was settling into the isolation and color of it all when I began to notice iridescent floating objects, some the size of fingernails, others as large as a peach. As we explored — and I turned back to see the boat easily 100 yards away — they became denser and more recognizable. Jellyfish. Hundreds, no thousands of them, and nowhere to go.
My mind instantly jumped back to a Discovery Channel documentary of the deadliest jellyfish on Earth off the coast of Australia. One touch almost guarantees death. Suddenly it was harder to regulate my breathing.
The instructor swam on, diving every now and again. I rationalized that if the jellyfish were something to worry about, he would instruct the group back to the boat or away from the denser packs of transparent bodies. I tried to look through them, but the more I tried to ignore their existence, the more I was aware of the sheer number of them and my distance from the shore.
The hour was soon over and we climbed back into the boat, leaving the land of dense jellyfish behind. The motor fired up, and beneath the sun in Colombia, I didn’t need a towel.