Life is the Bubbles: Snorkeling in the Galápagos

Welcome to week two of my Galápagos Adventures series. We are headed under the sea this week as I recount some of my snorkeling tales. Many of you may not know that once upon a time, I tried to get my scuba certification (spoiler alert: I was not successful). The fear of drowning combined with the fact that my dive buddy repeatedly handed me his extra mouthpiece upside down so water kept shooting out my nose while I was underwater (plus the sign that alerted me to alligators and snakes in the water) prompted a minor panic attack and resulted in my decision not to continue the journey. I was “straight-up not having a good time.” The experience ruined the water for me for a long time. I did not touch a body of water for almost three years, which was pretty difficult for me since I had grown up loving the ocean. When I found out that I would be studying abroad in the Galápagos, I knew snorkeling would be a recurring activity. I cried a little while packing my snorkel in my suitcase because the thought of getting back in the water absolutely terrified me.


The first day we decided to go snorkeling I had to really pump myself up. I repeatedly reminded myself that I would be fine and my friends would not let me drown. The water was FREEZING and the initial shock plus my anxiety meant that I could not breathe. I was panicking and wanted to get out of that water like my life depended on it. I wanted to make these memories with my friends though (and I wanted to look tough, I had a reputation of being unshakeable that I wanted to maintain), so I just reminded myself to breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. I told myself that every time I got in the water (which was almost every day!) and eventually overcame the fear of the water that had been weighing me down. That does not mean I do not have some tales for y’all! I have plenty and I am so excited to share them with you!


A ray a little too close for comfort

We had class and planned activities during the week, but the weekends were ours. My friends and I decided to do a 360° tour of the island on one of the first weekends. It is exactly what it sounds like, we got in a boat and went around the entire island and periodically got off to snorkel. The first snorkel location required a bit of a trek over rocks to get to the water. Pretty much every time you have to walk on rocks in the Galápagos, it is treacherous (they wobble and shift and you just hope you make it without falling on your face). The walk already had me on edge and when I saw the cloudy water, I was not excited. I like being able to see what is around me at all times; in this water, you could not see if something was near you until you were right on top of it. I saw a giant stingray and immediately started doggy paddling away (after what that stingray did to Steve Irwin, I do not trust them).


Sharks also a little too close

Then, I came face-to-face with a shark. I actually love sharks when we have a good distance between us. Shark Week is the most wonderful time of the year. I know a lot of random knowledge about sharks; a lot of people know that sharks can smell blood from a mile away. Did you also know they can smell urine? What did I do when I saw that shark? I immediately peed. I wet my wetsuit. Then I panicked because I knew that was one of the dumbest things I could do. I doggy paddled away. Luckily, the spiel that I often give about sharks not being monsters and not wanting to attack you was true. Sharks and I are homies again and I have incredible respect for them (but I would still appreciate a little distance).



One of the blue-footed boobies at Isla la Lobos. Check out those feet!

One of our scheduled group activities was a trip to Isla la Lobos (Island of the Sea Lions). Sounds magical, right? It was. There were blue-footed boobies everywhere and I was so happy that when it was time to get in the water to snorkel, I was not nervous at all. The water was so clear, I could see the bottom and that comforted me. I saw so many sea turtles (always my favorite thing to see while in the water), I was on cloud nine! It did not matter how many times a sea turtle swam up next to me over the course of the summer, it was still exciting and is one of the highlights of my life. I was having a blast until I felt my body get lifted out of the water. I could not see what had come up underneath me and lifted me out of the water. “OH, LORD! SOMETHING HAS GOT ME! IT’S A SHARK OR A TINY WHALE! THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE END! REMEMBER ME FONDLY! TELL MY PARENTS I LOVE THEM.” I saw my life flash before my eyes and when I came back down into the water I started scrambling to get away. SAVE YOURSELF! Against my better judgment, I turned around because I wanted to see what was trying to get me. When I turned and saw my friend Katelyn, she saw the terrified look in my eyes and immediately started apologizing. She was braver than me and had dived down a little deeper (I refused to ever let my snorkel go beneath the surface of the water because I wanted direct access to air at all times). She had not looked before coming back up and accidentally hit me. She is lucky I did not pee on her because I was afeard for my life. I made an announcement to my friends to always look before coming back up to the surface because my heart could not handle it and I would just die next time. They would have to helicopter me out of there.


A tribute to the sea turtles who reminded me how magical the ocean can be


Despite what I thought was a near-death experience, I continued to get in the water. My dad got me a GoPro before I left so I could document my adventures. I was really bad at using the GoPro. For some reason, I had no control of my body in the water, so while other people could just use their legs to power through the water I needed my whole body. It made me nervous because I knew I probably looked like an injured sea lion and was afraid of getting eaten by a shark. If you look at any of my GoPro videos you will probably ask, “Oh my goodness. Were you ok? Were you in immediate danger every day that prevented you from actually getting a good video throughout six weeks on an island?” Mind your business. I was trying. One day, my friend Andrew left his GoPro in his locker. I told him just to use mine for the day since I am such a generous person (and this was my chance to get some good footage on the camera). Without the GoPro and the feeling that I needed to document everything I was seeing, I was able to just swim and be. I was having a great time and it was a great reminder to live in the moment. Andrew was capturing some great video when he happened to see me living my best life. Chuckling under the water, he felt like he needed evidence to share with the rest of our friends and our professors. I thought I looked like a marine iguana, gliding effortlessly through the water. I was actually doing some sort of swim-run (in my tactical swim capris bottoms) that Andrew has never let me live down. He showed everyone the video for the rest of the summer and they all got a good laugh. Every time I see the video, I remember how free and happy I felt, so I do not mind if people get a little joy from it themselves.



The marine iguana I thought I looked like while swimming



What I actually looked like in my tactical swim capris


My final snorkeling tale is a doozy. Most people still think I am a child. Sometimes it has its perks, like the fact that all the sailors on the boats would try to take care of me. They would help me get my gear on, push the hair out of my face, so on and so forth. I was a little offended when they handed me a toddler snorkel mask (the mask actually fit perfectly which was super annoying), but I have a much bigger mouth than a toddler and the mouthpiece did not fit. As soon as I got in the water during our snorkeling excursion on Isla Isabela, water immediately started filling my mouth. I knew I was not going to be able use it and turned around and headed back to the boat. I got a snorkel that actually fit and caught up with the group. I had already had enough excitement with the mouthpiece so I was really looking forward to a relaxing swim. I was wrong. At one point, the naturalist guide told us that there were a group of sharks resting nearby and that we needed to move our bodies as little as possible as we passed them. You know I have no control over my body so I just accepted that I was going to die. I resemble an injured sea lion in the water so they were going to think I was a nice snack. I survived and managed to keep control of my body while swimming by the sharks (I was very proud of myself but also ready to be finished for the day, I had tested fate too many times for one excursion).


The cave I was pushed into. What do you see?

I often tried to stick with the guides because I wanted someone who could save me nearby (Mama did not raise a fool). That was a mistake. We were swimming when we came to a cave. Apparently, there were sharks in the cave and it was going to be a really unique thing to see. The guide told me to come closer and I just shook my head no. He did not accept that and pulled me. He told me to hold my breath and PUSHED ME UNDER THE WATER INTO THE CAVE. Y’all know I did not like my snorkel to dip below the surface and I was in such shock that I had not actually held my breath. The wetsuits were buoyant so they made it difficult to stay under the water. As a result, the guide proceeded to hold me down under the water. I was drowning, flailing, beating on the cave trying to alert him that I needed to come up or I was going to die. I did not see a thing in that cave, but my GoPro did capture an image where there might be a shark. I do not know. You can be the judge and let me know what you see in this picture. I doggy paddled away from that man so fast and tried to get to Susan, one of our UNC chaperones. SUSAN!! HELP ME! THIS MAN IS TRYING TO KILL ME. She could see the fear in my eyes and stayed with me the rest of the excursion. I am forever grateful to Susan because without her by my side I probably would have had a panic attack and drowned when tears filled my toddler mask. I survived the experience, I never trusted that man again, but I survived.


Luckily, the experience did not reverse all the hard work I had put in that summer to get over my fear of the water. I was still able to snorkel with my friends (and a few sea lions) and fell in love with the water again. I would not be me without the ocean. I felt like I had lost myself for a few years, but I am glad I was able to find myself again in the sea.


The sea lion who would swim with me

I am grateful to all of my friends who supported me, even if they did not know at the time how scared I was, their presence was a great comfort. Susan, if you are reading this, thank you for that day. This is my chance to remind all of you to find the people and the voices that empower you, not diminish you. I would not be the person I am today without the people around me. Thank you for always letting me be me, it means more than you know.


In honor of my snorkeling adventures, please enjoy this recipe for Under the Sea Jell-O, photographed on my new Dolly Parton butterfly table thingy (Dolly, if you are reading this, I love you!). If you are feeling fancy, you can make the Jell-O yourself. Bailey and I are lazy and bought Jell-O cups, whatever floats your boat.


Thanks for continuing this journey with me and stay tuned for next week when I conclude our Galápagos series.


Under the Sea Jell-O


Under the Sea Jell-O

Ingredients

  • 1 cup blue Jell-O

  • Whipped Cream

  • Swedish Fish (for garnish)

Procedure

  1. Spray whipped cream on top of your Jell-O

  2. Top with Swedish Fish and Enjoy (easy peasy today)!