For the 50+ Traveler

Did I ever think there would be a scenario in which I would willingly jump over the side of a boat and into the ocean? No, I did not.

But that’s exactly what I did one warm September afternoon on the Caribbean Sea, when I joined a group of new acquaintances on two separate snorkeling outings off the coast of Mexico’s Quintana Roo.

What was it that convinced me -- a non-swimmer -- to take such a leap of faith?

First of all, I really wanted to experience the underwater world of a Caribbean reef. A real-life version of Finding Nemo? Yes, sign me up!

Then there was the whole self-challenge aspect: I like to think of myself as adventurous, and I wanted to prove that I could learn something new as a mature traveler.

And finally, I’ll admit it -- there was a hefty dose of peer pressure involved as well. I didn’t want to fail in front of my young traveling companions.

As a guest on a sponsored press trip to the lovely Mexican state of Quintana Roo, I would also be expected to write about the experience -- a tough task when you don’t participate!

The writer's snorkeling group.
Cindy Barks

Taking The Plunge

So, I took the plunge on two consecutive days -- first from a small boat off the Caribbean coast in the Riviera Maya, and the next day from a larger boat between the Cancún-area islands of Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy.

Before the trip, I alerted the tour guides that I didn’t swim but was willing to try snorkeling with a flotation device. I was assured that everyone would be required to wear life vests, which helped to reassure me somewhat.

Still, there was the fear of jumping overboard that I had to overcome.

For some reason, while I was growing up, I never learned to tread water or execute a basic freestyle stroke.

I do have a level of comfort in the water, however, from years of floating in pools and jumping waves at the beach, and I’ve never had a paralyzing fear of the water.

Even so, on the first day of the press trip, I watched with trepidation as everyone around me confidently strapped on their fins and snorkeling masks and quickly jumped over the side of the boat.

I was among the last to take the plunge, and I initially went deep underwater before the life vest propelled me back to the surface.

The writer with her snorkeling group.

The Learning Curve

As I came up, I saw the tour guide leading the others through tall, rolling waves toward the reef. I immediately started kicking wildly with my fins and gasping through my breathing tube.

I knew it wasn’t working well. After taking a few gulps of salty seawater, I felt a hand on my arm. One of the tour guides with Alltournative was beside me with the lifebuoy ring, offering me quiet instructions. “You’re kicking wrong,” he said, explaining that I should use my fins underwater rather than on the surface.

Even with that direction, I continued to get water in my breathing tube. My guardian angel stayed by my side, prompting me to rest on the lifesaving ring from time to time. Finally, he said, “For you, don’t move your arms, just your legs.”

That helped me to get my bearings without getting water in my tube. And soon, I noticed the underwater kicking techniques of the others in my group, and I started imitating their circular motions.

Gradually, I relaxed and started watching the scene unfolding below me: vivid blue fish flitting in and out of the coral reef, interspersed with a variety of fluorescent oranges and reds. At one point, I found myself directly above a school of dozens of yellow-and-black striped fish, all swimming in formation.

Even though I became somewhat comfortable submerging my head in the water, I was a little relieved when the group began moving back toward the boat. I struggled a bit to climb the ladder on the side of the boat and was a little disoriented when I got on board.

The writer's view of the coral reef while snorkeling.

Try, Try Again

With all of that in mind, I approached the press-trip leaders that night to ask if there was an alternative to snorkeling the next day. I explained that I had experienced a few difficulties and that I would prefer to do something else if possible.

They responded that the snorkeling excursion would take place on the boat trip between Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy and that there would be no alternative activity. They assured me, however, that I didn’t have to snorkel if I wasn’t comfortable with it.

But the last thing I wanted to do was sit alone in the boat while everyone else snorkeled. Without hesitation, I said I would try again.

And I’m so glad I did! On the second day, the techniques I had started learning on the first day came together. I didn’t sputter into my mask, and my underwater kicking seemed almost effortless.

I’m happy to say that I didn’t require assistance from the great guides with Asterix Tours on that second outing. Admittedly, I was in the “slow group,” but I followed the guide easily as he directed us to the nearby reef.

And those underwater views! From the schools of multicolored fish to the vivid coral formations to the stingray that fluttered through the water beneath me, I was blown away by the vistas I saw through my mask.

The writer with her snorkeling group.

Reaching New Heights -- And Depths

The sense of accomplishment that I felt as I climbed the ladder into the boat that day was wonderful.

I’m the first to acknowledge that my technique wasn’t particularly pretty. An underwater photo of me from the first day could be described more as flailing than swimming.

But I didn’t really care. I had managed to leave my comfort zone and learn something new.

And isn’t that what’s so great about traveling? It provides the chance to reinvent yourself every once in a while and prove that you can, indeed, reach new heights -- or new depths, in the case of my Caribbean snorkeling adventure.