I have no desire to scuba dive or snorkel. That’s always been my policy and preference as a traveler–and one I’ve managed to stick to—until a recent trip to Guánica, Puerto Rico. When the group I was with announced that we were going to snuba on a beautiful Caribbean coral reef I was partially intrigued, partially terrified, I jumped on the boat with everyone else, promising myself that I could back out at any time.
Snuba, I learned, is a cross between snorkeling and scuba diving. You stick a breathing device in your mouth that’s attached to a hose bringing air from a tank located on a raft. A 15-pound weight around your waist ensures you sink to the seafloor–and that you stay there.
“There are two rules,” the deeply bronzed dive master said as we sped toward the coral reef. “Breathe, and never take off your breathing device, because then you can’t breathe.”
Sounded simple enough. We split up into two groups of four—one that went snuba-ing first while the rest of us snorkeled around a bit. I tell you, the waters were unusually choppy and I swallowed a good bit of water. I began to envy the other group, swimming undeterred beneath the rough surface.
Soon enough, our groups traded places and I found myself snuba-ing, sinking into the watery depths 15 feet and counting. That’s when I found myself deep underwater without a mask.
Somehow the clasp wasn’t attached properly, and off it went. I flailed to the surface, bringing the others with me, since we were all attached by tubes. Gasping, I emerged from the water in a panic, eyeing the safety of our boat just ahead.
“I’m going back,” I told the dive master.
“No, you’re not,” he said as he patiently fixed my mask and helped me put it back over my head. “Let’s go.”
I ducked underwater and let the weight work its magic. As I kicked along on the ocean floor, I felt constricted. The hose was choking me! Once again I scrambled to the top, bringing everyone with me.
“I’m going back to the boat!” I said.
“No, you’re not,” the dive master said as he unsnarled the hoses that were tangled like a giant knot of noodles.
Third time’s the charm. Back down we went, mask firmly placed, hoses neatly straightened out. I waited for something else to happen, but it didn’t. I sank to the seafloor, following the dive master, noting the pure silence broken only by my methodical breathing.
He pointed toward a rock, where a spiny lobster was greeting us with waving claws. We tunneled through staghorn and elkhorn coral, past schools of iridescent butterfly fish. We floated across a patch of waving sea grass dotted with enormous conch shells. I felt like a mermaid checking out my watery kingdom.
The experience became a meditation on amazing beauty, on the wonder of sweet rainbow fish darting to and fro, on the vast blue world all around me. Above all else it was a tribute to putting fears aside, because you never know what you’re going to discover.
After 45 minutes or so, the dive master pointed toward the surface. I wasn’t ready to return to terra firma, but we had to go. I gave one last nod to the underwater world, and kicked up to the noisy world above.
Barbara A. Noe is senior editor of National Geographic Travel Books.