Thursday, December 6, 2012

Snorkeling at the Sombrero reef in the middle Keys

November 28, Marathon, Florida

I often say that one of the best days in my life was snorkeling on the Caribbean side of Mexico in Puerto Morelos, a sleepy fishing village about twenty miles south of Cancun. We were there in 2009 for our tenth wedding anniversary with my oldest son and his girlfriend and hired a snorkeling guide to take us out to the reefs. The turquoise water was about 82 degrees with visibility of about twenty five to thirty feet.  Our guide was a local Indian who knew the waters so well he was able to find the best schools of tropical fish and even had us swimming along with the sea turtles. Afterwards we all went to a little cantina for freshly caught fish cooked over a wood fire. While we waited for our amazing meal, we all danced in the sand to boleros latinos. I don’t think life gets much better than that. I have also gone scuba diving once before in the Bahamas where they did not require you to be a certified diver. That day was also incredible but I worried a bit about my technical abilities and did not really like diving down more than fifteen or twenty feet. With my middle brother and his daughter visiting us in the Keys, we hatched a plan to go snorkeling. Vic declined to go for various reasons of his own (water too cold and choppy?)

My two brothers are experienced divers and have quite a bit of gear. Even though we had enough equipment of our own, we needed a boat to take us out to the ocean reefs as my younger brother's sailboat wasn't ready to take out.  My sister-in-law knows the people who run one of the local dive shops in Marathon, Tilden’s Scuba Center, so we booked an afternoon trip for three of us: my brother Jerry, niece Kathryn, and me.

After each of us sorted through the pile of gear to find the best fitting mask, snorkel, flippers, and wet suit, we packed a small cooler, a beach bag with towels, change of clothes, and sunscreen and headed out just a few miles to the dive shop. There we had to show them our equipment to be sure it met their safety standards, signed waivers, and paid the reasonable fee of $40 per person for the four hour trip.  The water temperature out on the reef was 72 degrees—not bad but it is surprising how easily you can get chilled after spending an hour or more in the water--hence, the choice of wearing shortie wetsuits. We joined about twelve other folks on the dive boat for the afternoon reef trip. About half were diving and the rest snorkeling or snuba-ing (a hybrid form of snorkel and scuba diving which allows you to experience breathing underwater without special training or certification).  See photos below:

I had no idea what the reef here would be like and was a little skeptical about how good this experience would be. After boarding the boat, the dive instructor reviewed where we would be going, what to expect in the water, and the protocol for safe diving.  Little did I know that we were going to what I later learned: “Scuba diving Magazine's 2006 Readers Choice Awards rated Marathon #1 for Top Marine life in North America and was rated #2 for Top Snorkeling in North America (#1 in the Keys).”


I knew there were coral reefs in the Keys and that diving and snorkeling are fairly popular activities in here, but I didn’t realize that the “third largest living coral reef in the world runs parallel to the entire Florida Keys island chain and supports over 1200 species of marine life.” The cool thing about snorkeling here is that the tops of the coral heads were only about eight feet below the surface so you could get a great view of the marine life without even diving down.

After about a twenty-minute boat ride to the Sombrero Reef, we arrived at the landmark of a lighthouse about eight miles out from Key Colony Beach and within view of the Seven Mile Bridge. Each diver took turns jumping off the stern of the boat. We were in moderately choppy seas with winds of 10-15 knots, but the water felt pretty warm. We were given about 45 minutes to explore the reef on our own with the suggestion that we find a buddy to hang out with for safety. As soon as I looked down in the water I was amazed by the profusion of fish, some even swimming right into my face.  This is a protected marine sanctuary so the rule is “No touchy, No Feely,” but it was a bit hard to follow as the fish brushed up against me several times. Since we were snorkeling mostly on the surface of the water, it wasn’t hard to avoid damaging the coral or sea fans. The coral itself was stunning and included several different kinds of formations: gorgonians, brain, finger and lettuce corals. Almost any direction you looked you could see schools of all kinds of parrot fish and angel fish, as well as several different types of grouper, snapper, and damselfish.  We also saw a few barracudas and needlefish hovering near the bottom of the coral formations as well as a six-eight foot nurse shark.  (Luckily we were told ahead of time that the barracudas and nurse sharks were harmless.) One other big highlight was spotting a sea turtle sleeping on the ocean floor and seeing the grace of stingrays gliding through past the undulating sea fans. I was not too keen about seeing an eel as they remind me of snakes, but I have to admit it looked harmless peeking out of its coral cave. All I can say is wow. I could not wipe the smile off my face.

The worst part of this experience was not having an underwater camera to capture the beauty of the undersea life.  I can only resort to sharing some photos from the internet that others took at this same reef. These photos capture the experience quite accurately only it is way more fun to be there in the water.

Snorkeling Sombrero Reef

Sea Fans & Parrotfish at Sombrerro Reef

School of Blue Tang at Sombrero Reef

Purple Sea Fan & Immature Yellowtail Damselfish

After our first snorkeling experience in one area on the reef, we all boarded the boat and took off on less than a five minute ride to a different spot for another 45 minute exploration. I have to admit that sitting on the boat while waiting to get back in the water, I started to feel pretty queasy as the boat rocked around quite a bit at anchor. Fortunately, I thought ahead and packed a small bag of candied ginger which is a natural remedy for seasickness.  As soon as I got back in the water I was fine. The second spot on the reef was equally awesome. This is where we spotted the sleeping turtle and the eels.  After almost two hours in the water, we were all pretty tired and happy to be heading back just in time for sunset. What a great way to spend an afternoon!

When we arrived back at my brother’s house, I saw that I had several missed calls on my cell phone.  My heart sank when I saw this as the calls were from my aunt whose husband was in the hospital. I listened to the first voicemail and learned that my uncle had died less than a half hour before we returned from our extraordinary experience at Sombrero Reef. I had a premonition when I was looking down at that beautiful underwater seaworld that my uncle might be making his transition from this earthly existence and indeed he was. This news meant that we would leave the Keys early the next morning as my aunt would need my support during this difficult time. Vic and I were thankful that we had already planned to spend the month of December in Zephyrhills just a few miles from my aunt’s home even before we learned of my uncle’s hospitalization. Perhaps it was a blessing to be leaving earlier than planned as I would be tempted to go snorkeling several more times if we were to stay.

Such is the flow of life—much like the high and low tides, we are not immune from experiencing nature’s dualities. This will be the second funeral we have gone to since we arrived in Florida.  Both had lived a life of over eighty years and both deaths were not unexpected, but they have been symbolic markers of the reality that we each have a fixed calendar of days to fully embrace life.  (Can you feel a quotation coming?)  This time it is from Eckhart Toile, author of the Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment:
“Watch any plant or animal and let it teach you acceptance of what is, surrender to the Now.
Let it teach you Being.
Let it teach you integrity — which means to be one, to be yourself, to be real.
Let it teach you how to live and how to die, and how not to make living and dying into a problem.”



  1. It sounds like you had a wonderful snorkeling experience at Sombrero Reef. We dove there years ago. I sure understand about getting queasy. I seem to get seasick worse in the Keys than anywhere else. Even underwater you still feel the rolling waves and I usually stay sick until I get back to land.

    So sorry about your uncle. I hope your aunt is doing okay.

    We'll be back next week, and I hope to get a chance to meet you. Did you find a Zumba class in Z'Hills?

    1. Thanks for your condolences, Karen. I was really looking forward to meeting you in the Keys while we were there. I have been going to Zumba at the YMCA in Zhills. We will have to get together for some holiday cheer when you get back!.

  2. I'm so sorry to hear about your uncle. I know your aunt will appreciate your being there. It's a sad way to end such a great trip as this one. Your snorkeling sounds just amazing. What beauty you saw even if you couldn't take the pictures yourself. Perhaps you had more time to enjoy it sans camera. If definitely taken notes here to use if we can ever get a campsite down there. :-)

  3. Sorry to hear about your uncle; may your memories of good times with him console you as you mourn his passing.

    Sounds like you had a great snorkeling experience ... I'm not much for snorkeling, but hubby loves to get out there with his gear whenever an opportunity presents itself. I've pinned this post for future reference.

  4. sad about your uncle, good that you are there to assist


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