Confessions Of A Terrified (But Now Addicted) Snorkeler

That moment when all you can hear is your breathing and the sound of the waves.

Snorkeling has always made me both terrified and in awe. Like I have to pee my pants (luckily in the ocean) but also stop and stare at the Dory right in front of me.

“This year there’s been four deadly shark attacks in the U.S.” spurts out the lady on the news in Starfish Market. Why are they playing this in here?!  I think to myself. I’m on the island of St. John and just snorkeled four times this week, one of them being a couple of hours ago.

The truth is, the odds of a fatal shark attack are 1 in 3,748,067 (International Wildlife Museum). You’re more likely to die from fireworks (1 in 340,733), lightning (1 in 79,746), or even heart disease (1 in 5) than from any shark worldwide.

Needless to say, I’ve seen some pretty heart-racing things snorkeling. Today in St. John I saw what we believe to be a barracuda, which at first I thought was a shark coming towards me. Freaking out, I started swimming for my life in the other direction. This is what usually happens to me snorkeling until I realize that these animals don’t aim to hurt us or even go near us. The barracuda was just swimming on the ocean floor, going about his day, and nothing more than that.

I’ve also seen countless stingrays and jellyfish, but the ocean creature story I always tell happened to my dad. Here in St. John three years ago, all of us are swimming in the water when my dad shouts, “Oh! Oh! What!” He books it to shore like he’s lit on fire, stumbling in his flippers and falling on the sand out of breath. He collapses and points in the waves not too far out and we see five of them: sharks. Meanwhile, we’ve all booked it out of the water. A random lady comes up to my dad and says, “Sir, are you alright?” while he sputters, “Those are sharks!” with a look of disbelief.

She puts her hands on her hips.

“Sir, those are tarpons. They’re large fish.”

My dad glances at her and back to the water.

“Oh.” He scratches his head. “Guys. Guys, she says those aren’t sharks. It’s all good.”

Definitely a favorite story of my family that’s both hilarious and memorable—the good old St. John tarpons. As snorkelers and swimmers we just have to remind ourselves that the chance of sea creatures harming us is very low; they’re just minding their own business and sometimes get a little too close to shore.

The best part of snorkeling?

Admiring the unreal ocean view.
Admiring the unreal ocean view. Photo: Amanda Dettmann

That moment when all you can hear is your breathing and the sound of the waves. Everything underwater is silent but everything is moving—all those little fish tails, your legs kicking, all the sand knocking against the rocks. That seaweed swaying in the saltwater. That starfish suckered on the orange coral. And you suddenly see thousands of tiny fish in a school packed together like a silver thread swimming throughout the ocean.

Takes your breath away.

You can’t even swim past them there’s so many. It’s like a thousand rainbow reflections in a moment of so much peace and clarity.

For someone who likes to be told what a totally new experience is like before it happens, snorkeling is just something that can’t be described. Every experience for every person is different. Everybody sees different things underwater and sea creatures come and go every second.

But my one wish for everyone on this crazy planet is this:

Try it.

Be afraid. Be full of anxiety. Be nervous and sunburnt on the back of your legs and butt and accidently inhale saltwater a couple of times.

Because then you’ll have done what you thought you couldn’t do: You’ll have snorkeled, proved yourself wrong, and loved it so much you’ll want to do it again in ten minutes.

Snorkeling isn’t for everyone. That’s okay. It’s a risk and can be like that shot of adrenaline on a rollercoaster drop if you’re in waters filled with thousands of sea creatures right before your very eyes. Snorkeling sometimes brings about nerve-racking sea creatures and anxiety-inducing situations. There will be a cute, tiny blue fish but also some big barracudas with teeth. That’s the truth. And that’s the ocean in all its glory.

The reward? So much greater than the risk.

The chance to get away from our laptops, tablets, and iphones.

To not be worried or stressed about anything for just a moment.

To really be one with the living, breathing ocean.

That’s the beauty of vitamin sea.


Prime snorkeling at Trunk Bay in St. John.
Prime snorkeling at Trunk Bay in St. John. Photo: Amanda Dettmann

Even as I’ve grown up through the years visiting St. John, I still believe that you should always snorkel with a buddy. Not only can this other person help point out the best sights to see that you might otherwise miss, but you can also help each other when your snorkel masks become fogged up. This often happens to me: I hold on to the shoulder of whoever I’m snorkeling with in order to wash the inside of my mask off quick while treading water. A buddy also ensures someone knows where you’re at, if both of you have drifted out too far, and if you should head back.


St. John pink coral.
St. John pink coral. Photo: Amanda Dettmann

A lot of people think bringing coral back home is okay. But coral is a living organism. It reproduces and allows small creatures a habitat. In other words, you could be bringing home some unwanted friends. Not only will your bag be smelly, but you’re hurting wildlife.


The best time to put on flippers is right before you head out to snorkel or just when you have the sandy ocean floor below you. Using coral as a support to stand on or adjust your flippers can damage a habitat for many sea creatures and is a safety risk for cuts and bruises as well. You never know where those sea urchins could be!


Take everything in. There’s so much colorful beauty under those waves in a once-in-a-lifetime experience…

Amanda spent one week in St. John.

Amanda Dettmann


Amanda is an avid traveler who calls Maine her home, but her favorite places include Amsterdam's Christmas markets and Shakespeare's Globe in London. She is passionate about poetry, theatre, and teaching writing to kids and adults with disabilities. She thinks the best part of traveling is hearing strangers' incredible stories. Her ultimate mission? To find the tastiest cappuccino in the world.

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