At first glance the shark did not appear too intimidating, resting as it was beneath a coral shelf 30 feet below the sparkling surface of the Atlantic. Five feet long, fat and with the velvety hue of wet sand, it was lying on the ocean floor, its gills pulsing like symmetrical vents on a well-oiled machine. It seemed meditative, poised beautifully in its roost.
Seeing the shark before it saw me--I approached from 20 feet behind--probably helped me stay calm, as did the fact that I couldn't see its face. Also, our dive guide had more or less promised, in a tone people use to get you excited about good things, that we would see nurse sharks on our dive, a few miles off Key Largo, Fla.
"They are almost completely benign," he had said. He even had pictures of other clients petting wild nurse sharks.
By observing a shark at such close range, I'd essentially accomplished my mission as a first-time "Snuba" diver: I was enjoying some of the depth and range of experience you usually get only from scuba diving, but without the bother and expense of certification, fancy classes or exotic gauges and gear. Snuba divers breathe compressed air from a regulator as they swim, just as a scuba diver does. But with Snuba, the air tank is not on the divers' back; it remains on the surface floating on a raft and is pulled along by the diver's body, via a 20-foot-long air hose. The tube links the diver to the tank and a lightweight harness keeps that tube comfortably in place, so that any tension between human and tank is not felt in one's mouth.
Snuba permits a diver--for $155 in my case, training session included--to be free of tanks and related worries while still accessing the most colorful and, in terms of sea life, bountiful zone in tropical waters: the 30 feet immediately below the surface.
It gives non-divers a good chance to see what diving's like before taking the plunge into classes and certification. It also permits a guy like me who has snorkeled a lot but never taken a diving class to, well, see a nurse shark close up. The drawbacks, of course, start with the limits of your air hose: 20 feet of depth and roughly 40 feet, at most, between you and your dive partner (two divers typically share a single air raft; for a few extra bucks, you can get a tank of your own).
The raft can get sluggish when fighting surface winds or currents, cramping a diver's style further. To be plain: Snuba is like scuba diving on a leash.
And so it was that I found myself slowly approaching a resting shark, as I motioned for Bill, my friend, and our guide, Jeff, to share in my find. Jeff pumped his fist, Michael Jordan style, to celebrate the sighting and promptly kicked past me to sneak up on the animal (a move that, in retrospect, makes me shudder, especially in light of what I have since read in Outside magazine: In April, a 16-year-old boy, diving off of Marathon Key, Fla., grabbed a three-foot nurse shark by the tail, inciting the fish to instantly clench its jaws around the boy's chest. The shark did not let go until both parties were rushed by the Coast Guard to a hospital, where the shark's spine was split.)
Jeff positioned himself about a foot behind the shark and beckoned me to join him, which I did. Again, I shudder at the memory.
As Jeff reached for the shark's tail, it realized we were there and (thank God) swam swiftly away--a truly impressive moment, given the sheer power of a fish that size. Sharks are girthful, and use their width to drive forward with each body gyration. The nurse shark before us executed maybe six thrusts before disappearing into the deep blue background. It suddenly occurred to me how futile it would be to battle an animal of that strength in its own territory.
Snuba was conceived in 1988 in--you were about to guess this--California, but the activity is not offered on the less-than-tropical West Coast. Instead, the founders sold franchises to entrepreneurs in regions where shallow, visually exciting diving lurks just off the coast: the Florida Keys, Hawaii, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and, undoubtedly, various Caribbean islands. Jeff claims to have the only Snuba franchise in the continental United States. He says he has taught more than 7,000 people, from age 8 to 82, to Snuba dive.
Our Snuba experience--which also afforded quite satisfying but less dramatic views of barracuda, a moray eel, lobster, spotted devil rays, huge grouper and the piscine manifestation of every color in the rainbow--allowed Bill and me to stay underwater for roughly 40 minutes at a time on two separate dives.
The first was on a coral reef, which meandered in a maze of long arms along the sea floor, each arm varying in width and rising up to within 10 feet of the surface. Some were separated by sandy valleys. Among a coral reef's special charms are the myriad geologic nuances on a given formation and the almost certain assumption that each coral canyon, hole, ledge and cranny conceals a visual feast of life, so impossibly vibrant in color that you must stare for a moment to verify the reality of the vision before you.
The names of many of the species hint at the near-hallucinatory spectacle awaiting reef divers: clown fish, parrot fish, sergeant majors, eagle rays, yellowtail, sea spiders, fan coral, brain coral, octopus and much more (there are more than 600 species of fish and coral in the waters off the Keys). Some fish are smaller than a human thumb, others bigger than Mark McGwire. Many are accustomed to divers and hang around during human invasions, tolerant but keenly aware of the intruders. Others lack any trust and zip away at the first sight of people. At times you may shift your focus from a particular spot and find yourself engulfed in a cloud of fish--purple, blue, yellow, silver--as it moves like a synchronized squad, each player dodging to and fro at exactly the same moment.
All of this life resides in the indelibly blue tropical theater, perfectly temperate, dreamily illuminated by the reflection of sunlight off the sand. Rougher seas stir up sand and other matter, creating a spooky veil that facilitates heart-stopping encounters with creatures--some altogether too large--as they emerge from the curtains of sea debris into your field of view.
Safety rules for Snuba are not complicated, I learned, but they are important. Barring unforeseen problems, your duties will be limited to clearing your ears as you descend, breathing as slowly and as evenly as possible to conserve air (and thus give you more diving time), staying aware of where your guide and partner are, respecting your surroundings (for example, not sneaking up on sharks) and rising to the surface slowly.
Jeff taught us most of that and more in a pool in Key Largo, including some basic emergency responses and standard communicative signals. As a paying customer, you should expect to be almost perfectly comfortable while diving, and you should not hesitate to inform the guide if something isn't right (for example, if your mask leaks).
Jeff's Snuba setup, which he has since expanded to Key West, imparted an authentic feel, as we ferried out to the dive spots on a boat full of scuba divers, some of whom expressed skeptical curiosity about our activity.
"How is that?" asked a young man from Charleston, S.C., as he nodded apprehensively toward Jeff's little tank raft after our first dive. The guy was wearing enough gear to qualify for equipment jockey for the Cousteau Society. He had a knife the size of a bayonet strapped to his calf.
"Not bad actually," I said, but felt compelled to add quickly, "though it's got limitations." I didn't want to seem too impressed with Snuba in front of a dude who looked ready to remove a kidney from the Loch Ness monster.
He answered, with another nod to the raft, "I just kept thinking every time I saw you guys down there that I'm glad it's not me who's strapped to that thing."
Yeah, well, that's from a guy who has already paid his dues as a scuba diver. For those working with limited time or budget--or an uncertainty about commitment to scuba diving--Snuba is a quick-fix entre to Poseidon's playground, one that will likely lure you to a self promise to pony up for scuba certification somewhere down the road. And even if it doesn't, at least you'll get a shrimp's-eye view of things that have been tantalizingly out of your air range as a snorkeler--even, if you're lucky, the "almost completely benign" nurse shark.
Washington writer John Briley last wrote for the Travel section about U.S. and Canadian ski resorts.
The Florida Keys are the only spot in the continental United States with Snuba franchises, but the sport is offered in numerous tropical locales worldwide, including the Caribbean and Hawaii. In Florida, expect to pay about $140 for a lesson and an afternoon of diving (two dives). Locations in the Keys include:
* Islamorada: Caribbean Watersports Dive Center, Cheeca Lodge, Mile Marker 82.
* Key Largo: Caribbean Watersports, Westin Beach Resort, Mile Marker 97.
* Key Largo: Sea Dwellers Dive Center, Mile Marker 100.
* Key Largo: Silent World Dive Center, Mile Marker 103.2.
* Key West: Galleon Marina, 617 Front St.
For information and reservations, call 305-451-6391 for the first four locations, 305-292-3361 for Key West.
It is best to make a reservation for Snuba before arriving in Florida, although you may be able to grab a spot last-minute. Do not book a dive the day before flying because you need time to decompress before enduring the air pressure attained during air travel.
GETTING THERE: Key Largo is about 50 miles from Miami International Airport, so flying to Miami and renting a car is the quickest way to go. From the airport, take Route 836 west to Route 826 south to the Florida Turnpike and follow signs to U.S. 1, Florida Keys (Key Largo is about one hour from the airport, in light traffic).
Sometimes you can save money and time by flying to Fort Lauderdale. For example, US Airways, Continental, Delta and Northwest are quoting a round-trip fare of $178 from Washington to Miami, with restrictions; to Fort Lauderdale, the same airlines are quoting a fare of $134.
WHERE TO STAY: We bunked in the Largo Lodge (101740 U.S. Hwy. 1, near Mile Marker 102, 305-451-0424), a well-shaded collection of one-story duplex cottages, each with a small, functional kitchen, air conditioning and cable television, but no telephone (there is a pay phone on the premises). The lodge does not allow children under 16. Rates are $85 per night from May 1-Nov. 30 for a double (maximum of four people), and $105 per night from Dec. 1-April 30.
If you want a more upscale experience, or a place that allows children, try the Westin or the Marriott, both of which are full-service resort hotels.
WHERE TO EAT: For an ample seafood dinner, with good service, an upscale coastal atmosphere and a bayside sunset view, hit Sundowner's, at Mile Marker 103.9 just north of the Marriott. Order whatever seafood is most fresh and definitely try the seared tuna fish appetizer. We spent $80 for two, though you could escape for less.
An intoxicating little lunch shack is the Crack'd Conch, at Mile Marker 105, serving fish and other sandwiches, various battered appetizers, and more than 90 varieties of beer (sandwich and a beer from about $9 per person).
INFORMATION: Florida Division of Tourism, 1-888-735-2872, http://www.flausa.com.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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