I’m slightly ashamed to say that I’ve always been a little bit “freaked out” by the ocean. Or, more accurately, the thought of the ocean. It’s not that I’ve never been in one—I go to school in coastal Maine after all—and it’s not really that I’m scared of them (although I am undoubtedly terrified of whales). It’s just that as a Minnesotan lake-lover, the thought of all that space down there filled with who-knows-what just kind of, well, freaks me out. Taking this into account it’s understandable that I was a little bit anxious of our week long project of snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panamá. As a kid I always had to build my courage even to use goggles just in the lakes I spent all of my childhood summers in, so snorkeling has always been something unimaginable.
Nevertheless, we set out at 7 am one Monday morning to make the several hour trip south to Panamá, across the border to a small town where we were dropped off at a dock with two boats awaiting us. I forgot all hesitation and excitedly boarded the first boat to travel the half-hour to our research base. Despite the choppy waves and endless bouncing, the short trip left me feeling extremely calm and content and amazed at the places we were traveling. This feeling continued after we hiked the quick walk through a pasture to our cabins for the next week: quaint, wooden buildings that we learned were completely off the grid using generated electricity and rain water; I felt very comfortable and at home instantly.
The next morning some queasiness came back as we hopped in the boat to start snorkeling. Our morning started with dolphin sightings and swim tests before we put our masks and flippers on. Feeling like a bug with my goggles and mouthpiece I lay facedown in the water and tried it out—and I really liked the new perspective of the ocean floor! But the biggest moment came when someone spotted a large starfish a bit deeper out and people started diving to go down and look at it. I tried to hide how intimidating this felt to me. How much else would I see while I was down there? What if it made me uneasy? Knowing I’d have to do it at some point, I took a deep breath and propelled myself down to get a closer look at a starfish that put the ones I’d seen in the Minnesota Zoo aquarium to shame—and it was amazing! Probably to no surprise for anyone else the world ten feet below me wasn’t drastically different than it appeared from the surface; I wasn’t suddenly facing the looming expanse of the entire, whale-ridden ocean, I simply got a more detailed look at what I already saw. Pleased with the discovery that I liked this new snorkeling thing I went with the group to a new site, one that had more coral and went deeper.
Throughout the next few days during any free snorkeling time I couldn’t keep myself away from the deeper, lonesome coral reefs with strange cow fish, alien-looking goliath fish, and adorable tiny fish that would hang around the colorful coral even while I drifted above them, suspended in the water and looking in on what I liked to think of as their tiny town. Who would have thought that I’d be one to go as far and as deep as the lifeguard allowed? I no longer felt fearsome of what strange mysteries I would encounter down there or of what I might glimpse even further out in the sea. I was fascinated by these mysteries, by these ecosystems I was just beginning to learn about that I thought would always be off limits for me to study in the field because of my apprehension of a place I knew little about. After four days of nonstop snorkeling at every opportunity I was sad to leave the island on the this-time-calm boat ride back into town. We saw dolphins again as we left but all I wanted was to be back in the water spending more and more hours staring at odd little creatures that caught my attention under the deep blue sea.