Yesterday morning we were dragging a little after our UpCountry day, and so didn’t get right up and out to the snorkel beach. Instead, we lingered over breakfast and took our time – we figured if we were at the beach by 9am we’d be OK. What we didn’t know, and neglected to check, is that the surf was really high, making water visibility poor and snorkeling more challenging. This reinforced what Lis had read, which is that you should check surf conditions before entering the ocean.

But, we were blissfully unaware that it was a bad snorkel day, and loaded up our stuff and headed out. We were wanting to try Ulua Beach, which the condo owners had said in the condo guest book was one of their favorites. But we were unable to find it (turns out my navigator had the map upside down) and so went back to Malu’aka Beach that we had enjoyed so much our first day.

We saw few cars in the parking lot, and Lis wondered if this was a bad sign, but I was my usual optimistic self and said “Oh, I’m sure it’s fine.” Then as we approached the beach we heard what sounded like thundering waves. Lis said “Uh oh,” and this time I was inclined to agree. Then we got on the beach and saw that the surf was pretty big and there were few people in the water.

We went up to the small surf shop– there were several people congregated there, apparently waiting to board a catamaran that at that moment was struggling to disembark its previous passengers in the high surf. There was a cruise-director type woman there shepherding them, and we went over to her and said “Looks like the water’s too rough for snorkeling?”

She cheerfully said, “Oh, no; once you get past the sets it will be fine.” I said “Sets?” She said “The waves come in sets, but if you watch you can swim out between the sets and it’s fine. There are turtles out near that bouy – you just want to make sure you don’t get too close to shore.” She sounded very sure of herself, so I believed her. Lis was more dubious, but I convinced her to give it a try.

We managed to make it out past the breakers with no trouble, but what the cheerful woman had failed to mention, and we should have known from our reading but forgot, is that the churn of the high surf had kicked up lots of sand, and we couldn’t see anything – it was like being in fog. Still, half the fun of snorkeling is just floating in the water, so we decided to stay out and float around for a while and then head back in.

We did this, and after a while our eyes adjusted to the sand-fog and we were able to see a little. At one point we drifted over a small bit of coral where a school of small fish was hanging out, and we floated with them. It was actually pretty cool because the swells were so strong that we would be pushed all the way over one way, and then all the way back, again and again, in unison with the fish, who were also being pushed around. It made me feel like a plastic grocery bag in the wind, all weightless and blowing hither and yon.

Watching the fish struggle to stay near the coral to feed, I realized that a day like this is like a stormy day for them – Portland in February, right there in Maui. It was kind of interesting to see.

After about 30-45 minutes we decided we were done. Unfortunately, the cheerful lady had also failed to mention that once you got in, you’d have to get back out again. As we swam in we saw the waves were even bigger than when we’d entered – big swells moving past us and then breaking on the shore with a thundering crash. I figured we’d sort of body surf in, but my plan was a vague one at best.

As we neared the beach, everything sort of speeded up, and the next thing I knew a wave had pushed us almost to shore, but the one behind it was pulling us by the ankles back out to sea. I said to Lis “Jump in to the wave!” and she tried but fell. Then the next wave was coming, pulling at us. I said “Jump in to the wave!” but she was on her bum and unable to get up. I dived through, but the wave crested over Lis – I saw her yellow-finned feet go straight up in the air and then backwards and then over to the side, and then the wave sort of spit her out. We managed after this to get to shore – Lis was completely covered in sand, like she’d been breaded – which I guess she kind of had been.

She looked a little shell-shocked, and said that she was having a terrible sharp pain in her ear – “I hope I haven’t broken my ear drum.” She sat on the sand and recovered – after about 15 minutes she said she was fine, and after about an hour there was no more ear pain. So no harm, no foul. But we did learn a lesson or three.

Lis: Mary has always talked about being pulled in by the surf in O’ahu and how scary it was, and I didn’t quite get it. I do now. I looked shell-shocked because by the time I sat down I could hardly breathe and I was a little nauseous, and I was pretty sure I was never going to hear out of my right ear again. I told Mary, “I NEVER, EVER want to snorkel in these conditions again.” When I was first getting out of the water, she tried to explain to me what I had done wrong – that I had to jump into the wave. She finally understood when I told her I didn’t need her to explain the concept to me. The concept is meaningless when you are on your butt and someone is yelling at you to jump up into a wave. It was a little like a recurring nightmare I have in which my legs don’t work. Mary was yelling at me, “Jump! Jump!” and there was just no jumping in those legs of mine, especially since I was already flat on my ass. Like she says, lesson(s) learned.