Dancing with Sea Lions

ImageIt wasn’t much of a dance on my part, more like a comical floundering. But the juvenile California Sea Lions were graceful acrobats, gliding and somersaulting through the water around me.

We were at Los Islotes, Sea of Cortez, where the National Geographic Sea Lion had dropped anchor for the chance to snorkel with its namesakes. It was mostly the youngsters who slipped into the water to check out their new playmates while the females and a few big bulls stayed on the rocks. (Los Islotes is a rookery, and thus protected, so no landfall is permitted.)

Like dogs, sea lions explore with their mouths, so there were plenty of nips on flippers and underwater cameras. Several snorkelers got “up close and personal” shots of the inside of the sea lions’ mouths with their Go Pros. I wasn’t one of those because all though I was armed with a Go Pro, I was still learning to use it and, admittedly, I wasn’t doing a good job at conquering my fear of the water. Putting my face in the water freaks me out, so it took several minutes for me to let go of the zodiac and only then because Jack Swenson (naturalist and photographer), who was manning the safety boat, distracted me with “Look, there’s a sea lion right there!”

That’s definitely what I needed. Plunge the face in, and be rewarded with a playful creature twisting its body around the rope which anchored the zodiac to a buoy, as he (or she?) alternated between chewing on the rope and poking its inquisitive nose toward my cabin mate Judy. (How appropriate is it that me, crazy cat lady, get assigned a cabin mate who’s a veterinarian?)

I spent several minutes, floating there, watching, marveling at this creature’s ease in the water, wishing that I was the same. After the sea lion grew bored with its game and swam away, I followed and found myself in the middle of a circus. Snorkelers and sea lions diving and twisting around one another in an underwater dance…or maybe an underwater fashion show where the sea lions are the models and the snorkelers the paparazzi.

Unfortunately, the Sea of Cortez is not as warm as you think it might be. Even with a shortie wetsuit on, I couldn’t spend much more time in the water before I was freezing, and had to retreat to a hot shower on board ship. (Thank you to Mary and Grace who made a “Janet sandwich” on the zodiac upon seeing how violently I was shivering during the ride back to the Sea Lion.)

We had many more encounters with playful sea lions during our two weeks in Baja – they loved to chase and dive under our zodiacs. I hope to play…to really dance…with them again in the future. ImageI just hope I won’t see many more of them with fishing line tangled around their necks.

The Deep Blue

“It’s okay senorita, it’s all right.”

I’m not sure how long I stood on the platform of the dive boat, weighted down by the 30+ pounds of scuba gear, but long enough for the crew to offer me multiple encouragements and probably start placing bets with each other on how long it would take me to actually get off the boat and into the water.

“Big step, senorita, take big step.”

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It was only my second time with a scuba tank on my back (not counting the first lesson in the four-foot deep pool). The prospect of stepping off into the air, where only the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico awaited me, was terrifying. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s afraid of the water, but there probably aren’t too many of us aquaphobes who deliberately seek out water activities. (And pay good money to do it!)

So here I was, standing on a dive boat off the Mexican island of Cozumel, while Carla – my instructor from Dive Palancar – beckoned from below and the crew reassured me that everything would be okay. I had a tight grip on the railing even as I had one foot lifted in the air, ready to step off.

Why was I here? Why did the thought of submerging my head under water scare me so? (I don’t know about you, but the sensation of water coming up over my chin freaks me out.) The only bad experience I’d had in the water came during childhood when I was 6 or 7. We were fairly new to the neighborhood when the red-headed girl who lived in the green house at the end of the street invited me over. (I want to say her name was Amy, but Amy may have been the blonde girl who lived on the street behind us instead.) I was thrilled to get an invitation from a popular girl with a swimming pool in her backyard. It was one of the those huge above-ground pools – maybe eight or ten feet deep – surrounded by an even taller fence to keep out trespassers…or keep others in.

Not long after we had jumped into the pool, the red-headed little devil began playing rough. She grabbed me, pushing me down, holding my head under water. Somehow I got away from her and climbed back up the ladder. I don’t remember all I said, but it definitely included “I don’t like you” and “I don’t want to play with you any more” and “I’m going home.”

Well, that caused a tantrum to erupt. She started yelling and screaming at me “You said you would play with me!! That means you have to stay and play with me!!” and on and on. I headed for the gate. Her brother, a couple years older, promptly headed me off, and blocked my exit. (Where were the little bastards’ parents? I have no idea.)

As they both yelled at me, I began to cry and – finally – started screaming. Fortunately, my older siblings had made friends with the kids a couple doors up the street and were outside playing. They thought the scream sounded familiar and came to investigate. They rescued me. Thanks Laurie and Doug!!

I had been taking swimming lessons at the local junior high before that incident. I had been the darling of the class, diving down to grab the rings the teacher threw into the pool. Afterwards, I would cower under the bench and refuse to come out. The teacher gave up on me. I’m not sure how long it was before I stopped going at all.

“It’s okay, mademoiselle, take big step.” (Apparently one of the dive crew was French.)

This was not childhood. I could let go. Finally I took the “big step” (like you see in some movies: the diver lifts one foot up and essentially walks off the boat, not the falling off backwards like you see in others.) As promised, my BCD vest – filled with air – brought me back up to the surface to meet Carla, and allow her to guide me down to our target depth of forty feet. Yes, I panicked a bit. I wasn’t equalizing the pressure in my ears correctly and that’s quite painful! After a brief return to the surface where Carla patiently calmed me down, we descended again. And stayed down.

I had difficulty maintaining my depth and proper buoyancy, so Carla did spend a lot of time holding on to me and guiding me along the reef, but that was fine with me. (She’d asked my permission, while still on the boat, if she could grab me if needed.)

It was an amazing experience. The corals are beautiful and the fish are amazing. We saw a small nurse shark, enough lobsters to feed my family, huge crabs, barracudas, a moray eel, and several sea turtles – including one who was eating coral while we watched. We were fairly close to it, but after a brief glance at us it went back to eating. That was really cool!

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Am I glad I did it? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. In fact, I did it again the very next day. And, yes, I did hesitate once again while standing on the dive platform. But it didn’t take me as long to get in the water…because, this time, the boat crew pushed me in.