The snorkel pool

The snorkel pool.
The snorkel pool.

I recently experienced what may be the most strange-dash-detestable-dash-wonderful thing I have ever encountered: The snorkel pool.

For those who aren’t familiar—I certainly wasn’t—a snorkel pool is basically a man-made* pond stocked with colorful (and, in some cases, worryingly large) tropical fish.

* Normally I keep my writing gender-neutral and say “human-made”, but if this thing doesn’t have “guy” written all over it, I don’t know what does.

This particular one is located at a resort on the Big Island in Hawaii which I happened to be visiting for a business trip. (Yes, my job sometimes sends me to vacation spots under the auspices of work—and on someone else’s dime. I take this whole ambitiously lazy guy thing very seriously.)

The idea is to give guests the whole snorkeling-in-the-ocean experience without the inconveniences of snorkeling in the ocean—such as, for example, the ocean.

It is an incredibly credible simulation of the real thing. The water is a dark, murky green (though not too dark and not too murky). The bottom is sand and rock, and the sides are done up to look like reefs. It’s very big and pretty deep, and there is a crap-ton of fish of all colors and sizes. Having done some real snorkeling, I can say with authority that the effect is pretty believable. You can almost convince yourself that you really are snorkeling in the sea.

Except you aren’t snorkeling in the sea. You’re snorkeling in an oversized fish tank without a lid.

“Technically, it’s a lagoon,” my friend Jeff said.

Until I got to Hawaii, I didn’t realize Jeff would be on this trip. Jeff is one of my favorite people on the car-writing circuit. He’s got a garage full of funky cars and is very generous with seat time. He taught me to drive his Model T (which is harder than you would believe; it has three pedals, none of which do anything you would expect). He let me drive his right-hand-drive Mini—a real Mini, not one of the new BMW-built postmodern Minis. For a car guy like me, Jeff is like Willy Wonka, but without the big purple hat.

I don’t know if Jeff even owns a purple hat, but I do know he owns the largest collection of Hawaiian shirts known to humankind (See? I told you I keep my writing gender-neutral), and he wears them with reckless abandon. Most of these car press junkets have a dress code of “business casual.” I generally wear collared shirts and presentable jeans. Jeff wears Hawaiian shirts. Sometimes, if he’s in the mood to dress up, he’ll wear pants that cover his legs.

For this trip, the dress code was “Island casual,” something I didn’t realize until the plane was approaching Kona and I was desperately thumbing through all the pre-trip information I had heretofore ignored as I tried to figure out the name of the hotel where I was staying so that I could fill out Hawaii’s version of an immigration card. I normally don’t pay attention to such trivialities; I just look for the person with a little sign that has the name of the car manufacturer I am going to see. Once, when I was explaining this to a lady on a plane who was unfortunate enough to ask me what I do for a living, she asked what I do if there’s no one with a little sign. “What are you talking about?” I said, looking at her incredulously. “There’s always a person with a little sign.” That was the first trip where there was no person with a little sign, but that is another story for another day.

The plane landed and I noted that the guy driving the truck with the stairs on it (apparently jetways do not exist on Hawaii; perhaps they were on winter vacation—maybe in Minnesota?) was wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

“Crap,” I thought, “I should have bought a Hawaiian shirt for this trip.” Instead, I brought polos and plaids. (At least I think they are plaids; I know nothing about fashion, something that is blindingly obvious to anyone who has seen me. The shirts have stripes that go up-and-down and stripes that go side-to-side. If that ain’t plaid, it’s close enough for me). My inner monologue, in no immediate need of any explanation about my lack of fashion sense, continued: “Good thing Jeff isn’t here. I’d be ashamed for him to see me in Hawaii without a Hawaiian shirt.”

When I got to dinner, guess who I found? Yep, Willy Wonka himself. Happily, he did not say anything about my decidedly non-Hawaiian polo shirt. Jeff is a kind and understanding individual, and shame on me for thinking he’d judge me. Unfortunately, he did not escape punishment by the universe: At dinner, he got caught up in a long, alcohol-fueled lecture by my tablemate about the failings of the Obama administration with regard to foreign policy, a fate I managed to escape by engaging another tablemate in a conversation about a Lexus on which he is trying to put a million miles. (It currently has 952,000.) Sorry, Jeff; karma* is a bitch, especially when it malfunctions and punishes you for something you didn’t do.

* My wife Robin always corrects me here: Karma, she likes to remind me, doesn’t kick in until after you die. Had Jeff really earned bad karma by lecturing me about not wearing a Hawaiian shirt in Hawaii—which, I must reiterate, he did not do—he would have been spared the lecture at dinner, and would instead come back in his next life as a cockroach, most likely in the house of the guy who was lecturing him about the failings of the Obama administration. P.S., Robin, it’s my blog, and if I want to use the improper definition of karma, I will. Pthpthpthpth.


“Technically, it’s a lagoon,” Jeff said. “It’s a body of ocean water cut off on all sides from the ocean.”

“It’s not a lagoon,” I said. “It’s a glorified swimming pool. It’s an artificial experience, although, I will admit, a pretty darn cool one.”

Artificial experiences are a pet peeve of mine. In nearly any given situation, I’d rather have the real thing. I don’t want to go to a trendy restaurant that looks like a hole in the wall; I want to go to an actual hole in the wall. I want genuine crappy, not simulated crappy.

I had most of the next day free (“We have a flight leaving at 6:00am and a flight leaving at 9:00 pm,” the travel agent told me. “Which would you prefer?” Hmmm, let me think), so another journo—not Willy Wonka, but Ben, a guy who has the same cheery attitude as the candy store owner in the 1970s version of the movie, but without the annoying tenancy to break into song when kids attempt to shoplift—decided to join me for some real snorkeling in the real ocean.

First, though, we made a quick stop by the Snorkel Pool for the “Feed the Manta Ray” program, in which we, aided by one of the staffers… brace yourself for a surprise… fed the manta ray. Manta rays, for those who have not fed one, are big and fast, soft and slimy, and will snuffle food—preferably something equally soft and slimy, but decidedly less big and not fast—out of your hand. It feels a lot like feeding a very small booger to a really big booger.

Manta ray food sufficiently snuffled, Ben and I took our snorkel gear and walked to the ocean, ready to have a real experience, leaving those sucker tourists who were satisfied with the snorkel pool a good twenty feet behind us. Down the sand we trudged, past a sign that warned us to beware of waves and undertow and man-o-wars and sea turtles and sharp rocks that will lacerate your feet and even sharper coral that will lacerate everything else and manta rays (or sea rays, or sting rays, or death rays, or whatever the heck they are called) that, unlike the one we fed in the snorkel pool, have not had their barbs (or whatever the bit of anatomy that killed Steve Irwin* is called) removed. The sign also warned us that we probably wouldn’t see any of those hazards coming, because the waves stir up sediment that would block our view of both our impending doom and the fish we would be risking our lives to see.

* Early in our relationship, I used to amuse the daylights out of Robin by wrestling Crocodile Hunter-style with her (later our) dog Barklry, all the while narrating the episode in a lousy Australian accent. Lucky for me, Barkley thought the whole thing was good, albeit mildly confusing, fun. The upside, besides pushing Robin closer and closer to the brink of marriage and tiring out the dog, is that I can truthfully paraphrase that old Groucho Marx joke: Last night I wrestled a dog in my pajamas. What she was doing in my pajamas, I’ll never know.

So how was our genuine snorkeling experience? Ben and I had quite the tour of the ocean bottom as the undertow attempted to pull us in the direction of Los Angeles, and we got quite the workout as we attempted to swim back to Hawaii. We saw lots of bubbles. We saw lots of sand. We saw lots of waves, usually as they hit us full-tilt right in the face mask. We saw lots of rocks, usually as the waves drove us into them while we tried frantically to swim in away from them. We even saw people pointing and laughing at us as we attempted to put on our flippers while the waves made continuous and largely successful attempts to knock us onto our keisters.

And did we see fish? Oh, did we ever! Lots and lots of fish. Big fish and small fish. Bright and colorful fish. Huge schools of fish. We even saw a manta ray.

Of course, that was after we left the ocean and went back to the snorkel pool.

UPDATE: Jeff has since informed me that the manta ray was/is actually a spotted eagle ray. Future generations should be on the lookout for a cockroach in a Hawaiian shirt.

© 2017 by Aaron Gold

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