My throat was burning - with saltiness. My vision was blur. Water entered my nose. I panicked and swallowed mouthfuls of dirty sea water.
Please make it end! Just take my money and let me go!
For the first 10 minutes in the sea, it felt as if I was drowning. But I knew I wasn’t gonna drown. I was in good hands.
Puerto Madryn is the mecca of Argentinian diving activities and only 17 km from Punta Loma, a rookery of Southern Sea Lions. I signed up for snorkelling with Aquatours, after having all my queries answered patiently by Julia, an instructor at the company.
When a company doesn’t push for you to choose the more expensive drysuit option, and doesn’t require you to pay more for photos, you know you chose the right one.
Donning on the wetsuit, I felt like Deadpool. It was tight and uncomfortable but I felt invincible. The neoprene suit we wore provides positive buoyancy and maintains body heat, therefore, it is not a requirement to know how to swim. Unless, like me, you panic easily underwater.
Just behind the store, we boarded the speedboat towards Punta Loma. Although instructions were given in Spanish for the other divers, Julia kindly translated everything for me; how to put on the mask, how to breathe, how to swim etc.
During the 25-minute speedboat ride, the wind blew fierce, the swells rolled high, but the excitement we all had was even more intense. The promotional video did an excellent job selling: snorkel in a small group surrounded by a dozen curious and playful sea lions, who willingly take photos, hug and even smother you with kisses, if you are lucky.
Punta Loma Provincial Reserve is a protected natural area and allows a maximum of three dive groups at a single time. Each group is only allocated 45 minutes per dive, more than enough for me. As we got closer, the barks (what sounds do sea lion make?) got louder. Hundreds, if not thousands, of sea lions dotted the shore. The huge brown males, the slender white females and the cute little pups… what an incredible sight!
We got there early, and didn’t have to wait. We put on the huge flippers, and jumped into the sea. That’s when all the troubles happened for me.
The first 10 minutes were hellish. Having trained to breathe through my nose all my adult life, to suddenly breathe through my mouth isn’t natural for me. It reminded me of my first scuba-diving experience in Pulau Tioman, and it was terrifying. I couldn’t get my buoyancy right, couldn’t see clearly and couldn’t breathe right.
Amidst all the struggling and panic, I remembered the phrase: What you resist, persists.
I immediately relaxed my body, slowed down my breathing and remained calm. True enough, the anxiety and the problems went away. What came close instead, were the cute little pups. They swam towards us in the dozens, like a pack of puppies excited to see their owner return after a long day.
It was such a surreal feeling to be up close with these creatures, touching and playing with them. They swam so gracefully when you look at them underwater. At that instance, all my worries disappeared.
Everywhere I turn, are more sea lion pups. They have become accustomed to divers and don’t even flinch at the sight of an Asian guy with a metallic rod aka my selfie stick. I switched on my Gopro and the little pups came up to the screen and tilted their heads like curious children. What a cute, heart-warming scene!
On the shore, sea lions are territorial, often remaining on the same spot for hours and getting violent when men trespass, yet under water their behaviours change drastically. Inquisitive in nature, they raise their heads, tilt their necks, and constantly swim from side to side, as if looking for the best perspective for observing us. We, the observers, are being observed too.
As I slowly got used to the whole concept of snorkelling and getting better at it, we ran out of time. It’s funny, how at start I wanted it to end ASAP but at that moment, I wished we had more time. These little graceful creatures sure know how to change my mind.
Nevertheless, my throat was burning so intensely I was glad it was over. The crew on board gave us water and I swear it’s the most soothing and tastiest water I ever had.
To be able to have such an intense and close-up encounter, to observe and play with these curious marine mammals is a surreal and cherished experience. Although an expensive activity, it was the highlight of my trip to Puerto Madryn and an unforgettable start to my Patagonia journey.
I went with Aquatours, who patiently brought me through the process from the beginning, when I had tons of questions, to the end. Unlike other companies I read reviews about, Aquatour doesn’t push me to use the more expensive drysuit. Instead, when I asked, they ensured me the wetsuit is sufficient. Furthermore, the price I paid ARS $2000/USD $125 (April 2017) includes the photos and videos of the whole experience. The only negative comment I have is the photo/video quality. They were downright bad. It’s not a big deal for me because I brought along my Gopro. Besides snorkelling, they also provide scuba-diving courses.
Damn, they should sponsor me for writing this.
And now, it's your turn.