Snorkeling @ Playa El Coral

by - 6:39 PM

If I say 'jeep safari', what's the first thing that comes to your mind? Whatever it is you're now thinking about, I'm willing to bet it's not snorkeling. Snorkeling was in my case the very last things I thought about when I booked a jeep safari in Cuba. But there I was, on a grey Caribbean morning, about to start a jeep safari when I heard snorkeling was part of this day trip. I wasn't very excited about that prospect: the ocean, and everything in it, scares me shitless.

Halfway between Varadero and Matanzas you can find a nature reserve where you can go snorkeling at Playa El Coral. This is where my parents, the rest of our tour group and I all hopped out of our Suzuki Jiminies. I was nervously swinging the bag with my diving mask back and forth. As I'm pretty much blind without my glasses, normal masks are a waste of time and money for me. Just before we left for Cuba I'd bought one of those masks that cover your entire face. Decathlon had been advertising them for years and I'd decided to take the plunge. It's impossible to wear glasses inside of that mask, so I'd had my glasses taken apart and attached the frame to the visor of my mask with some washi tape. So professional. But at least I would be able to see. That much I knew: I could see well through this thing, but I had no idea if the mask would work as well as promised. What if it started leaking? What if I'd drown in it? What if I'd swim straight into a shark?
Okay, the latter had little to do with the mask and all the more with my lifelong shark phobia. Either way, I had a lot of things to worry about on the very short walk from the parking lot to Playa El Coral...

We were welcomed by one of the divers who work at Playa El Coral. He showed us our options: scuba diving, snorkeling with some gear you could borrow at the beach, or snorkeling with your own gear. I chose the third option. I hadn't taken my mask with me for nothing. I didn't have flippers with me, but I turned them down when they were offered; I'm better off swimming without them. They are just too heavy on my feet and I feel like I can't control that all that well.
Next I was offered a lifejacket, which I saw as a personal insult. I'm Dutch, I learned to swim when I was in kindergarten so I wouldn't drown in the channels, ponds and lakes that are literally everywhere in my country. I didn't need a lifejacket. Lifejackets were for losers.
I wanted to hand the lifejacket back, but was told I couldn't go snorkeling without it. I mentally rolled my eyes. They'd obviously never seen a Dutch girl swim before. So I made my way to the waterside, wearing my bright orange lifejacket...

As soon as I stepped into the ocean I thanked God that I was wearing it though: the waves were high, the waters rough. I was thrown around like a rag doll, but at least I stayed afloat. With a few kicks of my legs, I was back with the rest of the Jiminy jeep safari group.
We were told to follow our guide in two files. He'd take us to the reef and show us where to swim so we wouldn't bump into the coral. After this short instruction, I finally put my mask on. Of course people stared at me and gave me weird looks. With both the lifejacket and mask on, I felt like an aquatic Teletubbie. I probably looked the part too and felt quite uncomfortable because of that. Then I dipped my face in the water and realized it was all worth it.

I wasn't even at the reef at this point in time. Actually, I wasn't even five meters from the shore. But there were tiny little fish everywhere and I could see them clear as day.
The group started swimming. Not me though. I started panicking. A lot of people accidentally kicked and slapped each other (that's what you get for swimming in rough waters with a group) and I was out of breath right away. I was used to breathing quickly through a tube while snorkeling. Usually with water trickling into my mask. That wasn't the case now. Everything was different with my full face mask: not a single drop of water came in, which was a good thing, but my quick breathing made me run out of breath within seconds. It scared me. So I took one deep breath to calm down - then immediately noticed I had more oxygen in my lungs, more oxygen coming into the mask. Another two deep breaths later I'd mastered breathing in this new mask. I was ready to swim.

I soon found myself at the front of the group. I enjoyed swimming there, breathing surprisingly naturally in my mask. The coral doomed up in front of us like a mountain range, some of it almost breaking through the surface. We swam through a pass between coral mountains, then arrived at huge coral fields. I could already see them when I was still swimming through the pass. Then a gigantic wave picked me up and threw me onto a coral mountain.
I was stuck on top of the coral, but scrambled off it as fast as possible. Not just because it hurt like hell, but also because human touch is deadly to coral. I felt bad for myself and the bump coming up on my shin, but felt worse for the coral I'd touched. So I swam away as fast as possible. I'd just reached open water and the coral fields when I realized I could be bleeding. The coral had scratched my skin pretty badly. And my blood was now flowing into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean because of that coral collision, it'd attract sharks in no time. I touched my shin, which still hurt like hell, but couldn't really feel anything because of the pain. So I decided to float on my bag and stick my leg up into the air.
No blood, thank God. I'd worry about the coral possibly being toxic later.

When the blood crisis was over, I explored the coral fields. They were beautiful. Words don't do the justice. I saw countless fish, more unique species than when I visited the Great Barrier Reef. The coral was amazing and looked healthy and colorful to my layman's eye. I also saw sea cucumbers. Don't ask me why I like something that looks like a sea turd, I just do. I even whispered to myself: 'Sea cucumbers! They're everywhere!'
And so I managed to stray away from the croup, closer to the deep dark ocean beyond the coral fields. I didn't notice until I looked ahead to where the water was darker. I couldn't see anything there. Just dark blue waters, too dark to see through. My shark phobia piped up: 'A great white will appear right there any minute now!'
Of course no shark ever showed up, but that thought was enough to make me race back to the group and look over my shoulder every few seconds.

In the meantime the jeep safari group had become surrounded by a school of fish from all kinds of species, most no bigger than my hand. It was Finding Nemo in real life. Except without turtles.
I swam around for a while and as the fish got used to the presence of loads of people, they came closer to me. And closer. And closer still. Until I could touch them. And touching fish was about the last thing I wanted. I like to admire them from afar, no need for close-ups. You see, I'm not just afraid of sharks. All kinds of fish make me jumpy.
For a while I enjoyed looking at all the little tropical fish, ignoring the bigger ones that were all around me. I couldn't ignore them any longer when they came right up to my face. I abruptly pulled my head out of the water, kicking my legs and flailing my arms to scare all the fish away. I scream when I accidentally touched one.
So many fish so many fish so many fish! My mind was going a million panicky miles an hour. Get them away from me get them away from me get them away from me! They were everywhere. I only calmed down when I looked up at the sky and pretended I was in a pool. As long as I couldn't see the fish, I was okay. When I finally looked down at the water again, I only saw the shadows of fish, which somehow made them less real to me. A few deep breaths later I was ready to continue snorkeling.

The first thing I saw when I broke through the surface again was a fish. Right in front of my face. And it was pooping. Also right in front of my face. I didn't know how to react to that, so I laughed hysterically in my mask. Then I swam away; I didn't want to get fish poo all over me.
Our snorkeling tour was almost over, so I took in as much of the view as I could. All the coral, all the fish... It was magical. Scary and panic-inducing, but also wonderful. The colors were surreal. When I climbed onto the rocky beach again, I was awestruck. Despite all my fears and all the panicky moments, I'd immensely enjoyed this little snorkeling trip. But I was also all too aware that my generation might be the last to see coral reefs this healthy...

I quickly changed into my normal clothes. The guide who'd shown us the way to the reef came up to my parents to tell them their daughter was a great swimmer. I laughed it off, even though I'd been adamant I was a good swimmer when I was handed a lifejacket. The guide had probably missed out on my panicked flailing when a fish bumped into me. The fact that fewer people will be able to flail like that if we keep dumping plastic into the ocean at our current rate made me sad. Coral reefs are too beautiful to destroy, experiences like this one too priceless to give up on.
As I stepped into our Suzuki Jiminy to continue our jeep safari, a plan began to form. I'd faced my fears at Playa El Coral, now it was time for me to give something back to that big scary ocean. By the time Playa El Coral was just a speck in our rearview mirror, I had it all worked out. But that's a story for another time. And while I was in Cuba, I had no idea if my plan would even work. I had no idea if it'd ever turn into a story. So I focused on living in the moment, so I had more Cuban stories to share on my blog. Which I will keep doing for another few weeks now. I promise you that!

x Envy

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4 Fellow Ramblers

  1. Ooh I can't wait to hear about your plan!
    It's so sad that the ocean is being destroyed :(
    Sounds like you had a fab time! The sea is one of those things I'm irrationally scared of - what if there are THINGS in it? And sharks? And snakes? And a kraken???
    Cora |

    1. Let's not think about all the big scary things in the ocean and focus on saving turtles and cute fishies!


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