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Kayaking & Snorkeling In the Florida Keys For The Absolute Beginner
Let me begin by saying I'm a beach girl. Raised in the Carolinas, I practically grew up on the beach. However, going to the beach for a vacation in South Carolina and going to the beach for a vacation in the Florida Keys are two very different things. In South Carolina, when you go to the beach, you pack up your tunes, your swimsuit and towel, a three inch thick book and your sunglasses and prepare for a relaxing vacation napping, reading, eating a lot of ridiculously overpriced food, getting a sunburn despite your best intentions, and generally chillin' out.
My vacation in the Florida Keys was not even close to this...I never read a book, didn't sunbathe, no one ever saw the lovely bikini I had bought for the trip, and relaxation never was even an afterthought. And yet, it was still one of the best "vacations" I've ever had.
Suiting Up for Snorkeling
Since I'm a women, initially it was all about the clothes. My travel mate, who had been to the Keys dozens of times told me I would need a wetsuit and snorkeling gear. I had in my mind I was going to end up looking sort of like Ursula Andress in a front zip wetsuit, accentuating every curve and fellow male snorkelers would be falling at my feet, professing their undying love to me and my neoprene. I took to the Internet to look for a wetsuit. There I made a startling discovery. Good wetsuits are expensive! Was I prepared to sink this much money into a wetsuit, no matter how Bond Girl-like it made me appear, and then hate snorkeling and never wear it again?
E-Bay for All Your Snorkeling Needs
The practical side in me kicked in and I headed over to E-bay. My illusions of front zip suits making me look amazing went out the window...most of them were back zip which I found out later is actually easier to take off when wet and much more comfortable. I ended up getting a great deal on one with a back zip, (good-bye, Ursula!) in a beautiful two tone of cobalt blue and black. And honestly, those wetsuits are great and very much like a Spanx, they hold EVERYTHING in! I decided after trying it on, I was really going to like this whole snorkeling gig ALOT.
Next Stop: Snorkeling Gear
I have to admit, the thought of snorkeling in Florida scared me a little...first, because I had never snorkeled in my life and second because I have a very healthy fear of drowning. I figured if I was going to do this thing, I needed some good equipment. Again, I took to the Internet, first researching all there was to read about the best snorkeling gear. Because I'm a terminal klutz and I was afraid I'd forget to keep clearing my snorkel, I decided to stick to something called a dry snorkel. A dry snorkel has a kind of shut-off valve that closes when you're under the water to keep water from coming into your snorkel, then opens again once you are above the surface. The mask I bought was also a great one, because it has a purge valve which allows you to blow out through your nose and clear any water that may have gotten into your mask. I also bought a mesh bag with a drawstring type strap to hold all my gear which is really handy when you're dealing with flippers, snorkel, and mask. And you know, since I'm a girl and it's all about style, everything was in blue and black to match my wetsuit!
And We're Off To The Keys!
We left on a Sunday night and drove all night to get to Marathon, Florida. A word to the wise, if you're driving to Florida, take many, many quarters (there are toll booths EVERYWHERE!)and have someone who loves to drive and will let you sleep most of the way! I woke up just as we were pulling into the Curry Hampton State Park. We ate a few munchies, changed into our gear, and found a place to launch our kayaks and we were OFF! I got a quickie lesson in kayaking, paddling around through the mangroves, and it wasn't long before I had the hang of it.
NOTE: Beginning kayakers look very awkward. It takes a while to get your rhythm and movements going, so you don't look like some kind of wounded bird flailing around in the ocean. And it's VERY hard work! Before you go paddling, spend some time in the gym working on your arms and your upper body, because you'll need it. That being said, kayaking is a fabulous work-out.
Sun Is INTENSE In The Keys!
Another word of advice...wear very good waterproof sunscreen, because paddling in the ocean, you will get wet. Even while you're snorkeling, the backs of your legs and your arms, if you have a short wetsuit, are not immune to the sun's powerful rays in the Keys and you WILL get burned. (Not to mention having a really ridiculous looking sunburn!) Another concern is for contact lens wearers. I actually wore my contacts under the water while snorkeling. I know it sounds crazy, but my dry mask was that good. You may not want to risk it, so if you don't, there are actually places online where you can send your prescription and they will make you a prescription mask, and that way, you won't miss all that beautiful marine life you came to see!
Snorkel Like You Mean It!
We kayaked 2 1/2 miles to a small island near the state park and dragged our kayaks ups, so they wouldn't float away. Two things made snorkeling much more pleasurable for me once we had kayaked to the island. The first thing was I had practiced snorkeling before we got there. No, not in my bathtub, it wasn't quite big enough for that! To keep from looking like a complete fool, I had convinced a guy at work who was an avid diver to give me a snorkeling lesson in the indoor pool across the street from where I work. This was great, because it really made me feel much more sure of myself and my ability to keep my snorkel clear of water.
The second thing was really putting my face into the water. Now I know this seems really basic, but if you have a healthy fear of water like I have, you can be somewhat timid about having your face in the water. But think a minute...all the things that make you not like to have your face in the water are gone! You have a mask to keep water out of your eyes and you have your snorkel, so you can breathe. If you don't put your face far enough in the water, the feeling and sound of the water lapping against your ears gets extremely annoying. It also invites water to come trickling into your ears, causing an ear infection which I found out the hard way a few days later!
Snorkel Lover Forever!
We snorkeled for four days straight. We even ended up snorkeling one day at Bahia Honda, one of the top ten most beautiful beaches in the world, according to some. They won't get any arguments from me there. I can tell you between lifting the kayaks off the back of the truck and paddling for miles at a time, I developed some serious arm muscles! We literally fell into bed exhausted by 9:30 every night like two tired little puppies from all the physical exertion. But in between all the paddling and lifting and snorkeling and dragging, something magical happened. With my face in the water, paddling along, I saw beauty...beautiful fish in a multitude of colors, the brilliant turquoise of the water, the amazing sea critters scuttling along the ocean floor. I heard nothing but the sound of my own breathing, so all my senses seemed magnified. When my partner reached under the water for my hand to pull me toward yet another rainbow colored creature, it was one of the most sensual things I've ever experienced.
I won't forget it for a long time...