Thursday, March 20, 2014

SNUBA - the beautiful love child of scuba and snorkel

A while back, I wrote how J and I escaped the mid-winter-all-season-polar-vortex-blues by doing absolutely nothing on a Caribbean island for a week. Well, now I'm here to tell you that I kind of lied a little - but only about the doing nothing part, not about the vacation part (I would never lie about a vacation). On our second day of vacation, we went on a SNUBA trip. And no, that's not a typo.

The word "snuba" is a combination of "scuba" and "snorkel," and the activity is just that - it uses the fins, mask, and air regulator of scuba diving, but instead of the diver having to personally wear the air tank, s/he is connected via a 20'-long tube to an air tank that is floating (on a raft) on the surface of the water. Because you're not responsible for your own air control (the snuba guide swims alongside the floating tanks and wears his own personal air tank so that he can adjust and monitor accordingly) you don't have to go through a lengthy (and often expensive) training session before getting in the water; instead, there is a only 20 minute, on-board tutorial during which you will be shown how to breath through the regulator and how to safely equalize the pressure in your ears.

Which leaves you free to simply swim and dive and enjoy all the wonders of the deep blue without the burdens of pesky things like air tanks and having to constantly go back to the surface for air.

I was IMMEDIATELY a huge fan. I have to admit that I adapted pretty quickly to the breathing while others in our small group struggled a bit, but most people got the hang of it after a while. We started out in shallow water (about 4' deep) so there were no worries about having to tread water while figuring out how to breathe through a giant piece of plastic in your mouth. 

You don't have to be an olympic swimmer to enjoy snuba diving, but it does help to be more than comfortable in the water. You wear a mask, regulator, fins, and a weight belt, (and if you’re like me, an underwater camera that’s strapped to your wrist) and have to navigate around the tube that's attached to your regulator, so you end up dealing with a decent amount of gear. While you certainly want to take all the time you need to familiarize yourself with your new lungs and legs, you don’t want to waste so much time remembering how to swim that you miss out on the fascinating world that inhabits the ocean.

Our excursion took us to two different sites in Belize’s barrier reef (fun fact: it’s the second largest barrier reef in the world!). First was the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which has an abundance of coral, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests. While it didn’t actually have the most colorful marine life I’ve ever seen (there’s a reef in the Bahamas that wins that contest for me), having the snuba tube elevated the experience to such an awesome level that I didn’t care about the lack of pretty pink coral.

Never before had I ever been able to just hang out on the ocean floor without the hassle of having to shoot back to the surface for air every 48 seconds (I don’t have the greatest lung capacity). I also had never been 20 feet below the surface - previous to this, the deepest I’d ever dove was 12 feet, and that was in a pool that didn’t offer much more to look at than tiled lane lines and a stray diving ring. But in the reef, I saw massive schools of fish, beautifully lacy corals, and one lone sea turtle - all without having to come up for air.

The second site we visited was called Shark Ray Alley, named for the abundance of nurse sharks and sting rays that gather there. I strongly suspect that the high number of marine life found in this part of the reef is due to them being fed by guides right before the tour boats show up, but nothing I saw in my short time there indicated that any animals were being mistreated in any way. We weren’t allowed to snuba in this part of the reef - only snorkel the old-fashioned way with just fins, a mask, and an attached plastic air tube. Though it was awesome (and slightly scary) to be able to swim with sharks and sting rays, I have to admit that I was thoroughly disappointed that we couldn’t snuba again. It was akin to someone putting truffle salt on your vegetables for the first time and then saying, “Nope! Only on the appetizers!”

But I digress. Going snuba diving was one of the better experiences of my life. I would suggest it to anyone who is already a fan of snorkeling but is hesitant to take the plunge (no pun intended) into full-on scuba diving due to money or time constraints. I should note that I had to search for this excursion. I’m not quite sure why, but it wasn’t advertised on any of the websites I was using to research and plan my Belize vacation. Almost every water sport you can think of (paragliding, sailing, etc., in addition to snorkeling and scuba diving) is peddled heavily on every piece of Belize travel literature - but I only stumbled on snuba because I happened to be reading an unrelated article on water sports in an entirely different country. I quickly decided that I just had to try this diving hybrid, and though it took some sleuthing, I finally found an outfitter in San Pedro that offered this as an add-on to a pre-existing snorkel trip (about 2/3 of the people on our tour boat were there just to snorkel). A few emails later, and we had ourselves a snuba date.

If you go:
*A SNUBA - Go Beyond Snorkeling! tour with Discovery Expeditions cost us $78/person (plus a $10 Hol Chan Marine park fee). They picked us up from our hotel's dock and the excursion lasted approximately three hours. All equipment (mask, fins, air tank, weight belt) and bottled water (for drinking) were included in the price.

Please note: I was not in any way contacted or influenced by Discovery Expeditions to write this post, nor did I receive any compensation; I simply wanted to share with you what I believe to be a relatively unknown yet wonderful experience!

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