Savannah L. Jennings
Picture yourself sitting on the bow of a boat, your skin warm from the sun’s morning rays, with your arm outstretched to touch the spray of water flowing beside you. You’re grinning from ear to ear in anticipation of what you will see today. You’re loving every minute of the ride, but wishing the boat could go faster through the meandering mangroves to reach the reefs allowing you to plunge into the sea and join the vibrant fish sooner. Once you emerge into the open sea, there’s an eagerness spurred by the ongoing competition with all your cousins to see who can spot the most flying fish skidding across the turquoise waves. That you’ll see hundreds of parrotfish, sergeant majors and barracudas is a given, but if you’re lucky you may see a moray eel, a stingray, a nurse shark or maybe a hawk’s bill turtle. The excitement continues to well as you speed closer to the waiting reefs, inhabited by the creatures you’ve waited all year to see.
No place I’ve ever been has had a greater impact on my life than Key Largo, Florida. The shared joy and awe we experience while snorkeling keeps my family coming back every year. I wouldn’t trade a single moment I’ve had with my siblings and cousins, just relaxing in the boat eating sandwiches that taste so amazing after a full day of swimming, swapping reports of what we’ve been lucky enough to see in the water that day, and arguing over the correct classification of the fish we’ve seen.
Snorkeling unifies and impassions my family like no other activity has been able to. Our group of 15 is one of the most mismatched and diverse sets of people you can imagine, but when someone sees an eagle ray swim by, I can guarantee there will not be a single person in the boat within 45 seconds as we all jump in to share the experience.
Tradition is a very effective bonding mechanism. We’ve been doing this for so long that there is a set routine we do not deviate from, nor do we want to. The common understanding of this routine is like being part of an exclusive club. The first night we’re there, my grandmother makes lasagna, which we all eat in my grandparents’ motorhome, parked in the same lot every year. Some people now have to sit on the floor because there aren’t enough seats for our large group. The rest of the week each family takes a turn cooking dinner in their trailers. My cousins and I head to the volleyball court for a not too competitive game or to the pool to play chicken after dinner. This continues until late into the night, until we go to our rented trailers and get rest so we can go snorkeling early the next morning. The normalcy is comforting and easy.
The tradition of spending a week of the summer in Key Largo began when my father was very young, and I would love it to continue when I have my own family. My cousins, who all live at least six hours from me, are very important people in my life. We’ve been able to stay close, despite our distance from each other, due partially to this annual vacation to the Keys. The sense of belonging I feel in that tiny campground is unrivalled. Being a part of this tradition makes me feel incredibly lucky.
Anywhere else, a week spent with my huge, loud family seems a bit excessive, but in the Keys we are never ready to leave when we have to. There is always the feeling that if we go out to the reefs just one more time we’ll see something even more amazing than what we saw the day before. The temptation is often so great that we sacrifice our ability to shower before the long drive home in order to ride out one more time.
Even though I’ve been out to the reefs off the coast of Key Largo probably close to a hundred times in my life, I’m struck by the beauty of it every single time. Some say traveling makes the world seem smaller, but visiting reefs makes the world seem infinitely larger to me. So many different organisms exist, countless numbers yet undiscovered. They all rely upon each other and coexist together in a complex system, the extent of which we can only hope to understand fully one day. Every little task the tiny fish carry out serves a greater purpose than it recognizes, like the parrotfish that audibly chomp on the coral and create the sand all around, that serves as vital camouflage for the stingray buried beneath it.
Since I have been snorkeling so many times, I recognize most of the things I see from past years, but nearly every time I go out I see something completely new to me. Last year we saw a school of hundreds of huge tarpon. A few years ago my mother and I saw a group of about a dozen eagle rays, with their white spots seeming almost fluorescent against their magnificent deep blue wings. That was one of the most beautiful displays I’d ever seen.
Having the opportunity to see all of this close-up evokes passion and appreciation for my surroundings. This is especially true when I’m able to see first-hand the noticeably fewer healthy, algae-covered corals in more recent years. Every visit we see more patches of white, barren coral, which fish have been forced to vacate. The fragility of this complex ecosystem is so evident. Being able to see all that is at stake makes the problem seem exponentially more important and urgent. The idea that I may not be able to bring my kids there in the future is very depressing to me.
Going to the Keys in the summer is a very important part of my life, and I feel it has given me much to cherish. Every year my appreciation grows, rather than diminishes. The yearly vacations have allowed my huge family to stay close throughout the years. I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to the magnificence of the sea at a very early age, when most people never in their lives are able to fully appreciate the beauty and life that exists below the surface of the ocean.
You’re back out on the boat, putting your mask, snorkel and flippers on as quickly as is humanly possible, nearly bubbling over with eagerness to get out there before other boats show up and scare away the rarer finds, like sharks and rays. You plunge into the cold water, wait for the bubbles to clear and look around. To your left is a huge barracuda, swimming way too close for comfort, as always. Directly below you is a puffer fish, clumsily bobbing around the reef, searching for food with its ginormous round eyes. Everywhere around you is color, vivid and attention grabbing. Each fish, anemone, and coral on the reef is beautiful enough to study by itself, so taking it all in at once is almost overwhelming.
You hear a cousin yelling from above the water close by and eagerly look up, understanding that she’s clearly seen something worth following. This time it’s a tiger shark, huge and foreboding, but moving nonchalantly as if he couldn’t care less that we’re there, invading his space. After we watch the shark for a while we begin to break into groups, all headed in different direction in hopes of seeing something amazing. You head toward the shallower reef and scope out a hole where there is nearly always some large creature lurking. You take a deep breath and swim down to take a better look.