One by one, we pull ourselves down a weighted line suspended from the ocean’s surface, moving steadily toward a pod of dolphins swimming beneath us. Two hundred and fifty yards off the Big Island of Hawaii’s South Kona Coast and 50 feet down—that’s where we’re supposed to linger, letting our bodies adjust to the ocean’s squeeze. If we do what we’ve been taught, our heartbeats will slow, we’ll clear the pressure in our ears, and we won’t freak out. But this is merely a warm-up, a prelude to what’s coming next: using fins to kick ourselves another 50 feet down on a single breath, all while avoiding blacking out and dying, of course.
I started snorkeling in New York City, in my bathtub, at age 6. By 7, I was exploring the living room, gazing at couches and end tables through my mask. The shag carpet looked like coral. There weren’t any fish, but our cairn terrier was the size of a snapper. I first tried scuba in my high school’s pool and got certified in upstate New York, during college, in the vichyssoise waters of Skaneateles Lake, which William Henry Seward, the 19th-century governor of the Empire State, called “the most beautiful body of water in the world.” We saw trout.
Over the next 20 years, I became a passionate diver, lugging 40-plus pounds of scuba gear around the world as I ventured into deeper realms of wrecks and reefs. But recently I’ve returned to my snorkeling roots. Perhaps because when I snorkel, the ocean feels like my personal enormity, while scuba diving makes me feel less like a swimmer than an astronaut sealed up in a suit, following rules. Don’t stay down too long; don’t move too fast; don’t hold your breath. That’s not what I want.