A disastrous snorkeling adventure highlights the kindness of strangers.
I love snorkeling. Like, a lot. I've been snorkeling all over the world for years and have never had a thrashing like I had yesterday. A lot of factors were at play:
1) I'm just south of the equator and my 50 SPF was a total placebo...I now realize as I work to recover from a serious bout of sun poisoning and a dangerous burn just this side of blisters;
2) The outrigger company put me on an expert dive trip...as a random unattended snorkeler...probably to fill the manifest + make an extra $60 and/or a lazy oversight;
3) Mercury was flailing his energy about, just leaving retrograde (ignore that if it's not you're thing, but if you're into it...you know exactly what I'm saying).
We met early in the morning at the dive shop on the main drag in Sanur. The check-in procedure was chaos, even with only four other participants + two staff/guides. I eventually advocated loudly enough to get my gear. "No. Not dive gear, snorkel," I kept saying. To which they kept saying, "Is a dive trip so you want to snorkel?"
I didn't understand at the time, not being a diver and never having been on a dive trip, what they were trying to say to me. I assumed they booked me on the trip and so they knew what was up. Also, there was a 14-year old kid in our group. I naively thought, how rough could it be? Yeah, turns out that's a diplomat's kid who dives all over the world while his mom lunches, or whatever. This was his 25th dive and he's a blackbelt or something.
So - in hindsight - the correct question to ask me would have been: "We are going to extremely rough, extremely open waters. You will not float around in a coral reef while we go off and dive. You'll bounce around getting clocked by giant swells, focusing too hard on staying alive to even bother sticking your mask in the water to learn what's lurking below your feet. Now, do you want to snorkel with us?" They did not say this. So we loaded into the seat-less, door-less vantruckcar and headed to the beach.
Manta Point was stop numero uno. It's a cleaning station for manta rays just off the tip of an island called Nusa Penida. Nusa Penida is about a 30-minute speedboat ride off the SE coast of Bali. That same tip is where three different seas (Bali, Pacific, Indian) and currents converge. Of course I didn't know that until after I had vomited seven times off the side of the boat and the captain tried to console me with that factoid. By that point, the divers had all swum off to do their expert diver stuff underwater. I was too busy watching my breakfast float away to worry about snorkeling.
Kindness #1: The long-haired captain who came aboard shoeless and remained so, turned off the engine and walked to the opposite side of the boat, holding the edge and pulling toward him as if he would somehow counterweight the extreme rocking. It was so endearing, even seen through a snotty, salty haze. Each time the boat rocked to one side, we'd take in water...then to the other side, also taking in water. The captain's young, tattooed assistant in the seemingly ironic trucker hat kept bringing me filtered water in an adorably tiny plastic tea cup. His name was Ketut, meaning he's the fourth born in his family. He was saying, in a nurturing voice, "It's big today. Vomit okay. Big wave. Vomit, girl, so you snorkel. Vomit okay."
With Ketut's permission, vomit I did. Three hurls for breakfast and four wretches of bile for good measure. I more or less jumped in after it because I knew being in the water would help me feel less sick. A bit of vomit on my swimsuit was really the least of my worries. Swimming in the swells was nearly impossible in a life vest and fins. The life vest of course wouldn't remotely close around my boobs, which was another fun exchange with the captain's young assistant as he helped me buckle it. He was legitimately concerned my boobs were going to pop the vest off my body (which he told me in broken English and hilarious sign language), that he made me wear a whistle. A fucking whistle. Around my neck like child lost at the zoo. "You make noise for me. I watch you swim." Swim is a generous term. I more or less rode the crest of each wave and simply drifted further from the boat in no particular direction. I was shouted down by three concerned dive parties, "You okay? You lost? You dive? You have ship? You swim?" Oh man, the ridiculous sight I must have been in my stupid tiny vest and snorkel mask in the middle of three tumultuous oceans with not a fellow snorkeler to be found for miles and miles.
Kindness #2: My guys, who were in deed watching me swim, eventually brought the boat in to the restricted area (diver's only) to rescue my sorry ass. I didn't even need to use my toy whistle. they could see I was a lost cause. None of the other boat captains got upset with them for the infraction because they were also watching me get tossed around. They didn't want to end up on television talking about the dead American snorkeler any more than my own crew did.
I didn't even see a single manta ray for all that drama. I was so excited to watch them dance. Of course the moment I stopped banging my shins on the rocking ladder and finally sat down on the back of the boat, the captain started yelling excitedly. He was pointing out mantas skimming the surface and playing in another boat's wake. "Manta! Manta! More manta!" There were a good 10 rays all of three feet from where I'd been rescued. Of course there were.
Kindness #3: When the divers made it back on the boat, I wasn't done being sick. I stayed at the back, hunched over the side, doing my best to not wretch on an empty stomach. The Indonesian dive master snuck up behind me and started massaging my neck and back with what I think was tiger balm. She was practically cooing, "Manta Point is rough. You can vomit. I make you safe. It is safe to vomit. I make you safe. Vomit now." I teared up. Something about it struck me as so sweet, and absurd, and embarrassing, and kind.
Kindness #4: After a while, I peripherally saw her walk to the front of the boat. There was a negotiation of some sort happening with the captain. The other passengers were brought into the conversation at one point. I stayed hunched over the back, choking up bile every so often. The boat suddenly came to a stop in a flat, still, crystal clear cove. We could all see miles of coral reef even from where we stood in the boat. "We decide to dive here. You snorkel." I knew they'd changed their entire schedule for my sake and I felt simultaneously stupid and so grateful.
Kindness #5: Before gearing up for the next dive, a tall Dutch man with gorgeous full lips took off one of his sea sickness bracelets and handed it to me, "We can share. I have a pill for you as well." He stayed with me while everyone fell backward off the deck and I swallowed two dramamine. He helped me fit the band on just the right pressure point on my wrist, "You can snorkel here. This is a good reef. You okay? I've been sick and it's hard. You're okay now." It was all I could do to not cry and make myself seem even higher maintenance than I apparently was that day.
The third dive after lunch was a "drift dive" with zero visibility for snorkeling. The depth was intense and after 30 seconds I could barely see my friends under the water. I drifted along in the strong current for a bit. Drift snorkeling...? Trademark it. I was quite relaxed, to be honest. Until eventually I realized I couldn't even remotely see the bottom, or anything at all. I lifted my head to learn that I was completely alone, in the middle of open water nowhere. Again. Since this wasn't my captain's first rodeo with an adrift American snorkeler, I remembered the silly whistle around my neck and gave it a blow. The boat showed up out of nowhere.
Kindness #6: As they puttered up beside me, they called out, "No more snorkel?" I told them I couldn't see anything anyway, but I wanted to stay in the water. Truthfully, I knew I'd vomit my meatballs and watermelon if I stepped a foot on that boat. They put the ladder over the side for me to hold on to and bob around. I said, "This is okay?" Ketut said, "Is weird, but is okay." Every so often they'd poke their head over the side of the boat to make sure I hadn't died. If I caught their eye, they'd mumble to themselves and each other, "Weird, but is okay." At one point, the captain stuck his head over and said, "Want the fun?" I had no idea what he was trying to say, so I just nodded and waved absentmindedly...at which point he basically spun donuts with me holding on, flying off the back of the boat. He laughed so hard he cried. Ketut just clapped.
Leaving aside the thrashing my body took, and from which it's still very much recovering, yesterday reminded me over and over again that people are good and people are kind. I'm an introvert who typically hates being the center of attention, but when you're sick and sideways in a foreign country, strangers taking care of you like you're family is more than welcome. That's the memory I take from this snorkel trip, and that's better than any photograph of a pristine reef.
Love + whistles at the ready,