I’ve been snorkeling a few times but this week was the first time I’ve ever done it off a boat. The experience was a good lesson in the triumph of reason over instinct.
My previous times in the water were gentle – I began on a beach in Cozumel where there were plenty of fish but the water never exceeded a meter in depth. Nice gentle surf and no worries about undertows (or sharks). Later I swam off a beachside cliff – a coral wall where the water was more than ten meters deep but again I could stay close to the wall and safety. A few years later I snorkeled along a point of land in Puerto Escondido. The surf was a bit strong but the water wasn’t deep. In every case I had a strong swimmer right beside me the whole time.
This time was different. We put on our gear and then went down a ladder into three meters of water. As soon as I was in – essentially by myself, the person before already swimming away, the person above waiting for me to get out of the way— I regretted it. Having nearly drowned twice before, I was anxious. The fact I had since taken swimming lessons hardly seemed to matter. I suddenly knew I couldn’t do it. I even mumbled that past my mouthpiece.
This is instinct at play. Our primitive emotions demand that we fight, flee or freeze. Hardly helpful when you’re clinging to a boat in ten feet of water. The boat woke me up by banging into my ribs – I have a nice bruise to show for it. The shock awakened my reasoning mind. I literally said to myself – this is easy and you know how it works. You have a floatation device around your waist and fins on your feet. You have a breathing tube in your mouth. Lie flat and breathe.
So I did. I kicked a little and did a little breast stroke and moved away from the boat towards a reef. Fish – black and yellow or iridescent purple surrounded me. Large silver ones swam lazily by in tandem. A few small barracuda lurked still as sticks of wood. Coral fronds and fans waved. Sometimes I could sense the other swimmers near me; other times I felt completely alone.
The panic didn’t fully go away. A suck of salt through the snorkel brought it back; a sudden feeling of exhaustion in my arms almost sent me scurrying back to the boat. But each time my mind took over. Just float, it said. Kick with the fins; don’t use your arms. Rest and look and take pleasure in what you see.
That’s how reason works when instinct and emotion fail. We get into jams all the time as individuals and as societies. Sometimes instinct and emotion help – they at least point us toward danger. But they seldom lead us away. That requires language and reason and thought. It requires calmness and time. It is not the first tool in our toolbox but reason is always the most powerful and adaptable one. It will keep you from drowning and, ultimately, it will keep us all from disaster.
And that’s ten minutes (Cuban time).