Title pretty much says it all. But before I get into the details, I wanna make something very clear.
This whole incident was entirely my fault. I do not blame the tour provider at all. In fact, I think their efforts are part of why I’m here telling the tale. I even went on another tour with them later in the evening. They’re fantastic and I’d recommend them to everyone.
They are not responsible for my near death experience. I am.
I know 99% of you will read this and be like, “ok cool cool cool.” It’s those 1% of internet users who worry me. Because it’s a very lovely tour business, and I don’t want it sunk because a handful of folks think the problem was them. It isn’t.
Instead, what I hope this blog post will do is shed a little light on knowing your own abilities and acting accordingly. The tldr is life jackets.
We went out to snorkel at South Water Caye at around 10 a.m. The water was pretty choppy in the morning, which delayed the trip a bit. We planned to leave at 8, but our tour guides were cautious and advised waiting a little until the water was calmer.
About 45 minutes later, our toes were in the sand as we took in the scenery of South Water Caye. Belize has tons of tiny little cayes along the coast, all with magnificent snorkeling/diving opportunities.
Our captain steered the boat towards an excellent snorkeling area. There were a few other boats in the vicinity with folks already marveling at the beautiful corals and fish beneath the surface. I was psyched.
I’ve been snorkeling before a few times. I had just finished a snorkeling excursion in Costa Rica the month prior. I knew what was up. The guides will fit your equipment, offer you a life jacket, and you’ll be on your way. I’ve always, always taken them up on the life jacket offer.
But this time, I got complacent. The water was calmer now, and only about six feet deep. Plus, it was so, so clear. I didn’t think I needed a life jacket.
Okay, mistake number one.
Mistake number two is that I naturally take forever and a day to get out of a damn boat. I’m short, so jostling my way out of a boat and into water is no small feat. So by the time I was in the water, everyone in the tour (my mom, my guide, and another tourist) had ventured off. In hindsight, no big deal. I’m one to explore on my own anyways. But this proved to be a not very smart decision.
Now this next part is hard to explain, unless your hair is like mine and is just… stupid. It’s long, thick and tangles if I breathe too hard. So the salty water was doing a number on my giant mop of hair. And it was starting to tangle my mask up too.
Had I noticed this right away, I could’ve bobbed over to the boat and fixed the issue no problem. But I was so distracted by the pretty ocean colors. Then I just started noticing that… my snorkel tube keeps filling up with ocean water. And it was making it really hard to breathe.
So I surfaced to readjust my mask and realized that my breathing tube was completely tangled in my hair, no longer fully upright and sending more ocean water than oxygen my way. So I tried to get it out of my hair and my stupid hair would not. Let. Go.
Remember how I said the water was roughly six feet deep? I’m 5’2”. Every few seconds, a wave would wash over me, and I’d be thrown off my balance, struggling to regain my breath, and still tugging on my mask trying to untangle it.
So it would go like, struggle to untangle, get knocked over by a wave, gasp for air, rinse and repeat.
You can only do this for so long before you just get tired. And then you start slipping. Ocean water gets in your lungs while your gasping for breath because you can’t be bothered to wait for the wave to recede completely. You get disoriented and forget which direction your boat is in. And, most importantly, you get scared.
I’ve often thought of how I’d react in survival situations. But when I was bobbing up and down between waves, every ounce of common sense left my body.
What you’re supposed to do in a situation like this is roll onto your back and not panic. Did I do that? Of course not.
It’s hard for me to remember everything that went down. I know that I tried to wave my hands. Once, when a wave receded, I screamed.
I know that I wanted to swim towards my mom and the boat, but it was too far away, and I was so tired. Another boat was much closer, but even then, I didn’t know that I had it in me to swim there. I just can’t emphasize enough… I was really, really worn out.
Luckily for me, I made enough of a commotion that several things happened at once. The boat nearby saw me, and immediately drove over and threw me a life jacket. Our guide swam over and grabbed ahold of me once I grabbed the life jacket. Seconds later, the boat I arrived on was here.
Honestly, once I had the life jacket and could breathe, I instantly felt better. I coughed up some of the ocean water, got my breathing back to normal and apologized for making a scene. Tell me that isn’t the most Midwestern reaction you’ve ever heard.
I got back on the boat and we all headed back toward the caye. The guide checked and double checked my equipment to make sure there wasn’t a leak. There wasn’t. Like I said, user error.
I wasn’t too freaked out by my experience, to be honest. Once we drove out to another caye, I was itching to get back in the water and snorkel some more. Only this time, with a life jacket. Everything went smoothly, and I stayed within arm’s reach of my guide.
The entire drowning experience probably lasted, at most, two minutes. Which kind of makes me wonder if it was even drowning at all. I was scared, I thought I might die, but it was over so fast. My mom, a nurse practitioner, looked me over and deemed me well enough to continue the snorkeling adventure. So… was it really drowning? I can’t really say.
What I can say is that wearing a life jacket would’ve saved me a world of trouble. It would’ve taken one extra minute to put on, and made my whole snorkeling experience infinitely easier.
I was reckless and thought I could snorkel without one. The water was clear, shallow, and I had snorkeled recently. Complacency isn’t a reason to ignore safety. And the ocean is a terrible place to test your agility.
Learn from my mistakes. Wear a life jacket. Even if you think you don’t need one. Life’s too short to take risks.