An Underwater World of Wonder
By Barbara Theisen
Did you ever want to really get away from it all? Have you thought what it might be like to enter a whole new world where all of your senses could be exposed to something unique? This is what we are treated to everytime our family goes snorkeling. The underwater world is not man’s natural habitat. I find I’m merely a guest here, allowed to stay only for a short visit. To experience the underwater world – a world full of wonders – is truly one of my greatest delights.
The cruising life has given us the opportunity to enjoy day after day of snorkeling adventures – either just off our boat or a short dinghy ride away.
Daughters Kate and Kenna agree that exploring the wonders down under the sea is a real treat and they’re always quick to grab mask, fins and snorkel and take off to explore what lies beneath the sea.
|An elegant triggerfish swims by.|
Kate is at home in the water as she is on land. She is a joy to watch beneath the water’s surface. Graceful as a ballerina and sleek as an otter, she dives, turns, twists and spins. She marvels at anything new and delights in seeing old “friends”. She has identified hundreds of fish and dozens of different corals. Back on dry land she will spend hours drawing what she has seen in amazing detail. Our “Reef Fish Identification” book is well worn.
Kenna loves to float along and seems to absorb all that is around her in her gentle undemanding way. We will often hear her singing through her snorkel - face underwater, legs slowing kicking in rhythm to the song. But don’t let her passive method of snorkeling fool you. Her keen eyes will pick out the hawksbill turtle camouflaged against the grassy bottom or the moray eel sticking his head out of a coral ledge. She has the same exuberant smile when she sees her favorite fish – the French Angelfish – for the hundredth time as she did when she discovered it for the first time.
|A loggerhead sea turtle at Lighthouse Reef Coral Atoll in Belize.|
We’ve been exploring coral reefs wherever our sailboat home takes us – the Florida Keys, Bahamas, Cuba, the Yucatan coast of Mexico and the barrier reef of Belize – second only in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and home to three of only four coral atolls found in the Western Hemisphere. And I’m always amazed how individual each reef is.
Coral reefs come in all sizes, shapes and colors. Some may be home to a wide variety of tropical fish. Another may have fewer types of fish but have huge schools of those species that do live there. Another reef might be remembered not for the fish at all but for its amazing chunks of Brain Coral or its forest of gracefully branching Elkhorn Coral.
Corals are actually tiny animals related to jellyfish and anemones, but unlike their free-swimming cousins, corals group together by the thousands forming colonies that attach to hard surfaces of the sea floor. They build skeletal structures in an endless variety of shapes and sizes. And for an underwater explorer, they provide endless fascination. They paint the sea in vivid oranges and reds, neon greens and yellows, soft pinks and purples. There are corals that resemble large boulders and corals that wave delicate fan-like branches in the rippling water. They may look like a giant cactus, a tiny mushroom, a patch of wild flowers or a head of lettuce. Swimming through a coral reef is swimming through one of the earth’s most diverse ecosystems.
|Kate holds out a banana and is quickly surrounded by hundreds of Sergeant Majors.|
We love to hand feed the fish when we’re snorkeling. It’s a fish feeding frenzy when we take a banana with us underwater. What fun to be surrounded by dozens of tropical fish all trying to grab a quick nibble. Bananas are a great food because they’re usually cheap and readily available in most tropical ports but most importantly, they’re easy to hold onto underwater and don’t disintegrate.
Cheez Whiz is also lots of fun to feed the fish. We have been swarmed by hundreds of fish all trying to feed out of our hands. The small yellow and black striped Sergeant Majors are usually the first to arrive, as they are fearless little creatures.
I asked our resident fish expert, daughter Kate, what else we’ve had success hand feeding to the fish. She quickly answered broccoli. Well, actually I remember watching feeding time at an aquarium once. Broccoli was a big hit with the fish and with the loggerhead sea turtles. And a big old stalk of broccoli would be easy to hold onto underwater and wouldn’t fall apart. Maybe she had something there. But still, I couldn’t remember every trying it ourselves. Hey, wait a minute. Now I’m getting suspicious. Kate hates broccoli. Sounds like she’s trying to get out of eating her veggies. Nice try kiddo.
|Kenna Theisen does her imitation of a starfish while snorkeling in the Bahamas.|
My first thought when I begin to snorkel is how silent the underwater world is. True peace and quiet. But as my ears adjust, I begin to hear the muted sounds of life under the sea. A parrotfish crunching coral. The clicking sound a spiny lobster makes as he retreats back under a ledge. The grunting of a grouper. And occasionally, the odd noise that I finally determine must be strains of a country song that Kenna is singing.
But I think what amazes me most about life underwater is the graceful motion with which every creatures seems to move. A school of blue tangs swim in a billowing wave of beauty. An aloof queen angelfish moves with royal elegance. A several hundred pound sea turtle dips and glides with the slightest push of a flipper. A Spotted Eagle Ray soars effortlessly across the bottom. Underwater life moves like a finely choreographed ballet. Of course, daughter Kate explains this “phenomenon.” She tells me that water, being thicker than air, has more friction. Living in this environment, animals must be able to move with no wasted motion. The graceful action I see underwater is a result of these smooth, fluid movements.
Our snorkeling adventures have put us in close contact with fascinating creatures. We’ve watched a nurse shark eating dinner and have seen the shadowy image of a hammerhead swimming in the distance. We’ve swum through schools of brightly hued butterfly fish and come upon damselfish, no bigger than a paperclip. Emerald green Stoplight Parrotfish painted with red and yellow never cease to amaze us as do the large, turquoise Queen Triggerfish. We’ve delighted in the discovery of lovely purple sea urchins with purple and white spines and watched a huge starfish turn from green to red as we brought him from the bottom towards the surface. Barracudas have often appeared suddenly over our shoulder, curious as to our intentions. We have had the thrilling experience of swimming with hawksbill, green and loggerhead turtles.
|Tom, Kate and Kenna get ready to snorkel into an underwater cave in the Bahamas.|
But I think most remembered would be the special and unexpected gift Kate received one Christmas. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we saw a lone dolphin swimming towards our anchored boat. Although dolphins are frequent visitors, especially when we are sailing, as they love to play in our bow wake, this dolphin appeared to have a singular mission – to visit us. Kate, who was already dressed in her swimsuit, quickly grabbed her snorkeling gear and jumped overboard. She swam to the bow of the boat where she was greeted by a bottlenose dolphin. The dolphin circled her three times and then together they dove, swam and splashed. It’s a mystery why this dolphin zeroed in on our boat or why he chose to play with Kate. But we will always remember this precious gift from the sea.
Barbara Theisen has spent more than ten years living aboard Out of Bounds with her husband Tom and daughters, Kate and Kenna. For more information on living the cruising life visit the Theisen’s Website at www.TheCruisingLife.com.