Snorkeling in Alaska

To say the suit is snug would be an understatement. I nearly broke a sweat pulling it over my calves, and it was frustrating having to furiously twist my arms to get them out the other side. Now I’m grinding my foot into the booties and working my fingers into the tips of the gloves. Standing up, I feel elastic and toned, wound up and ready to spring open. But it’s only a feeling. The reality is that moving takes work, and the thick suit resists every attempt I make at that endeavor. I bend forward, lay the weights on my back and tighten the belt on my waist, then grab my flippers and waddle toward the water.

There’s no ice in Ketchikan’s waters, even in winter. But don’t let that fool you into going for an unprotected swim here in July, when the water temperature hovers around 50 degrees. While Alaska’s reputation for frigid weather might make that sound like a balmy number, it’s actually a benchmark water temperature in which humans become highly susceptible to cold shock and hyperventilation. I submerge for the first time, and the suit soaks up the frigid water—I feel ridiculous for initially questioning the need for such a restrictive getup. In this moment, it’s clear that the wetsuit is the only thing separating this swim from a fatal float.

We’re snorkeling at Mountain Point, the southern tip of Ketchikan where four channels come to a crossroads, and within the first few minutes of being in the water, I hear someone scream. I follow the sound of her voice and see her bobbing upright in the water, her arm extended and pointing out toward the middle of the channel. Flashes of white and black break the surface, and a burst of water explodes like a small firework. It’s a pack of orca whales, traveling the channel no more than 20 yards from me. I’m exposed—a sitting duck—but they swim on, majestically taking turns surfacing and flexing their tails.

The buzz of the whale sighting has my heart pumping, and as my body tempera- ture heats up the water trapped in the suit, my caution melts into curiosity. I plunge my face into the frigid water. I can’t see forever like in the Caribbean, but there’s a charm to the muted environment. The colors are bold, not bright, standing out against the darkness of the water and rocky sea floor. I see purple and red sea stars, their arms undulating and fluid, as if they were lounging on a La-Z-Boy. The kelp forests wave back and forth with the current, and through it, I see a red stone crab scurry sideways out of sight. All around me are small white jellyfish, harmless and beautiful; their umbrella bodies parachute forward.

The others have formed a circle around the guide in the shallow water. He’s passing around a sea cucumber, and each person takes a turn holding the fat, limp body. Then he reaches down and grabs an urchin, keeping his palm flat to avoid its spines. He explains how sea otters use rocks to smash them open, how they stack them on their stomachs while they float on their backs and eat them. I put my face back in the water and see a white and brown rockfish circling my fins. Each time I immerse myself, the cold water nips at my suit, and a chill tries to charge in through the cracks. But my suit stands the test, and I carry on down the coast.

Snorkeling itself is not exactly a social endeavor, but the before and after of the adventure certainly is. The guides especially, liked to talk up the idea—the unusual experience—of snorkeling in Alaska. Before we were in the water, our group agreed about the novelty of it all, about the happy hour bragging rights earned by snorkeling in Alaska. But as we drove back to the shop afterwards, I noticed that people were talking about all the cool things they saw: the fish, sea stars, crabs and orcas. It turned out that all the surrounding hoopla—like wearing a thick wetsuit and swimming in cold, deadly water—had taken a backseat to the ecosystem itself. Snorkeling in Alaska was no longer only seen as a courageous oddity. It was a worthwhile inspection of what is perhaps the most overlooked slice of the Last Frontier: the beauty and the surprises that await under the surface in a cold-water ecosystem.

When we get back to the shop, I tediously peel the soaked suit from my body and immediately take a hot shower. That night, the ship passes by Mountain Point as we depart Ketchikan, and I keep an eye out for the orcas. They don’t show up. I look back at the wake of the ship. I can’t see the sea stars from way up here on my balcony, but I know they’re down there hanging out, lazing underneath the kelp.