It’s 5:15 AM and the alarm is going off somewhere to the side of my bed. I slap it off and for a split second I don’t remember where I am or why I’m getting up. It’s dark, the noises outside are different… And then it comes back: I’m on Maui and I’m going snorkeling. Time get up.
20 minutes later I’m cruising down the main drag in warm island air, listening to “Return of the Mack” on the preset station and watching the sun start to change the colors of the sky in the east. Before I know it the sun’s up, the boat’s on shore and we’re loading on the Kai Kanani II. I slug some coffee and pineapple and think about how much better fruit tastes on vacation as we make our way to our first stop of the day: the Molokini Crater.
The captain and crew give us the safety talks, the rundown of the crater and snorkeling. There’s two ways to get into the crystal blue water: take the stairs and slide in or go for broke and jump. I opt to jump from the side of the boat, outfitted with flippers, snorkel mask and a yellow floaty wrapped around my waist.
That first splash was so satisfying.
I spend the better part of 40 minutes facedown in 30 to 60 feet of crystal clear blue Pacific Ocean water. I swim through a school of brown fish with a white stripes, coming just close enough to nearly touch them before they swim below and around me. I remember to stick my head up and make sure I’m not at the edge of the crater, where the captain says the tides will sweep me to Tahiti. I cruise the edge of the reef below and watch fish swim in and out of every nook and cranny I can see. The whole thing is bustling with life. Once in a while I turn out and slow swim into deeper water, just to see the sun rays come in through the blue.
Eventually they call us back. I top off my coffee and eat more fruit while we head to “Turtle Town” for the next chance to swim. The second splash is just as satisfying as the first.
Feeling confident I kick and glide my way along a lava flow beneath me, covered with reef, spiny sea urchins and teeming with fish. I’m looking down at a hole and tunnels that connect below the reef and wondering if I’ll ever dive through something like that when my heart stops.
Shark. That is a shark.
It glides below me through the tunnel I was just in, in my imagination. As quick as the shark is in sight it’s entire body is visible and it smoothly disappears into the shadows below me. My mind is racing. They wouldn’t take us somewhere dangerous. Am I safer in a crowd? Am I safer over the reef or over the sand? I decide to move closer to the group.
As I bring my head out of the water I hear one of the crew members pointing out the shark to other snorkelers. She’s not panicking. In fact, it’s a reef shark – completely harmless to us. Relieved, I turn around and start following the flow again. I look up and my breath is completely taken back. It’s not a shark this time. It’s a sea turtle. Floating just below the surface, completely relaxed. A giant sea turtle, looking at me.
I swim a little closer, trying to move slowly and calmly so I don’t startle it away. We’re suspended in the water forever, staring at each other and barely moving. I look around and there’s no one else. Just me and this turtle.
The moment breaks and the turtle swims down, down, down below a ledge in the reef and into a shadow. For a split second I think I should follow and then I remember that silly floaty on my waist. Should I just take it off? Probably not. I swim on to keep exploring.
The ocean sounds electric in my ears, thanks to the millions of movements from underwater life. It’s warm around me and clear to the bottom. I see cornets, starfish and colorful fish I’ve seen in pictures but never in person. Bubbles are coming up from the ledge the sea turtle swam under. I head over to see if he’s coming back and am startled to see 5 scuba divers beneath me. I wonder about the weight of the air tank on their back and panic attacks underwater.
I pull my head out of water and hear the crew calling us back to the boat. It’s time to head to shore. I stick my head underwater and swim back, hoping for one last glimpse of ocean life. It’s hardly 9 AM and I’m salty, sun kissed and satisfied.