Claustrophobia by the Sea

Have you ever fed fish in a pond or a fish tank? Wasn’t it amazing, watching the fish scramble all over each other, trying to get a scrap of food or two? Wasn’t it fascinating? The fish can’t get enough of it, and they will do anything in their physical power to get as much food as possible.

Snorkeling on the small coral island of Xiao Liuchiu is one of the must-do’s, or so I was told. It was fantastic there, they said. Okay, snorkelling we would do. It’s included in every hostel package anyway, so everyone gets a chance to do it.

Sunday morning. At 7.30am we were up and eating breakfast alfresco outside the hostel. Breakfast was a simple ham and egg sandwich with milk tea. Within 20 minutes, the ‘instructor’ from the snorkelling school was there to pick us up and take us snorkelling. My three friends and I climbed onto our scooters and dutifully followed him on the shop. He was terrible at riding at a pace. There were already about a dozen other people milling around, getting tacked up. We had to sign a waiver agreement, and we were told we’d have to wear wetsuits and a life jacket.

The foreigner in me couldn’t help but gripe. I’m not wearing no life jacket to go snorkelling. We weren’t even going out to sea and I can swim, goddammit. No, no, we had to wear the life jacket or we couldn’t go. Shitty customer service 1, Arna 0. I was moody. I was so moody, I didn’t even nicely decline the wetsuit. And when the man handing me a life jacket was looking me up and down to check my size, I just said bluntly, “I have big boobs”. He flashed his beetle nut stained teeth abashedly, but I remained deadpan. He gave me a bigger lifejacket. I sighed as he put it on me. I sighed as we put on our water shoes (No FLIPPERS?!), and sighed as we were handed the snorkelling gear. Off we went, again on our scooters, not before I got my friends and I to take a sad faced selfie.

The beach where the snorkelling took place wasn’t more than a 10 minute drive away (okay… pretty much everything is about a ten minute drive away here), and I felt like I was in some sort of apocopolytic movie. People were suited up everywhere, in their freaking wetsuits and lifejackets. One of the instructors that came with us made us all take a photo, and then we were herded into the shallow sea. The small stretch of beach was covered in coral, as was the water. There was very little sand, everything was littered with coral. There was very little sand that I could see, we were all standing on coral. Two instructors then went on to explain to us a) how to use the snorkelling gear and how to breathe, and b) how to hang on to the life ring and ‘just float’. I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. Each instructor had three life rings tied to each other about a meter apart, and up to three people would have to keep one hand on a life ring at all times while we floated, and the instructor would pull us around the reef.

I know, I know, you’re thinking ‘don’t be shitting me Arna’ but no I’m not. I cackled out loud and was met with another exasperated look from the instructor. Eventually, after some nervous trialling of the snorkel gear from people in my group, we were off… or should I say…off we ‘hung around’. It was really kind of ridiculous. We never really went into any water. We were never more than 10 meters away from shore. The coral was all brown and dead. I think I saw about three fish. We kept going through really shallow waters; I was worried I was going to scrape a knee or something. My friend hanging onto the ring in front of me kept bumping into me because she was too close in front of me, with her legs stiff and nervous. It started getting crowded. In our immediate area we must have been one of about 10 different groups of snorkelers, all snorkelling with their instructors towing them. We slowly started closing in on each other.

That’s when the panic happened. I felt the commotion: water was sloshing, my friends were thrashing helplessly… what the hell? I pulled my head out of the water and about 5 meters in front of me, instructors were all pointing to the water and shouting to look at the turtle. I was upset up until this point, and now I wanted to cry. “來來,有看到了嗎?烏龜就在這裡!” People started crowding and standing up in excitement to try and get a better look (what the fuck dude get your head in the water that’s how you see with your bloody goggles). I started yelping helplessly, “Get down, get your legs out of the water!” Then, an instructor, maybe in excitement of seeing a turtle or I don’t know what, started saying “Shall I pick him up for you? I’ll pick him up for you.” That’s when I went into full panic mode. Tears filled my eyes and I could hardly get the words out, “Don’t pick him up! Don’t pick him up!” I had just finished saying this when my instructor came over to me and my friend and asked if we’d seen it. I complained that everyone was standing and I could only see legs. I wanted to go home. People were everywhere. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain under my knee and I gasped. Someone had pushed their way over me, crushing my leg onto the coral reef. I don’t actually remember much of this. I didn’t see the turtle, I refused. The instructor kept asking if I’d seen the turtle, his voice strained and loud. I took a deep breath and shouted, “I DON’T WANT TO SEE THE POOR TURTLE”. With that he turned his heel and continued pulling our group of 8, this time away from the madness of people.

The poor turtle. Our instructor took this snap with his waterproof.

My saving grace was when my friend Erin said she desperately needed to pee and couldn’t do it among all these people. She shouted up to the instructor that she was going to go back to the beach, and without saying anything, I followed her. I did not want to take part in this gross violation of nature. The poor turtle.

I’ve always understood theoretically that humans destroy nature with our nasty chemicals and our nasty habits. But to see it play out right in front of my eyes? To know that I took part in it? I wish I could say that I at least refused, but didn’t I play along too? I was, and am still, crushed. I’m crushed by the barbarity of humanity. I’ll never forget the legs all stepping all over the dead coral and people panicking from forgetting to breathe through their mouth.

Back on the beach, my friend had finally peed (you can imagine where). We were both complaining about the horrendous experience, both of us rather shell shocked. I didn’t know what to do, so I scanned the beach, and noticed a lot of rubbish. We started picking up bits of rubbish, knowing that the snorkelling wasn’t going to take much longer anyway. Besides, we had to wait for our group. We managed to find two plastic bags and filled them both with plastic, glass, and styrofoam. Two typhoons had ravaged this island in the two weeks preceding our visit, so the beach was horrifically dirty.


The poor turtle. Our instructor took this snap with his waterproof.

When members of our group started coming to shore, I worked up the courage to go speak to an instructor. With all the control I could muster, I asked some questions, and told him that I disliked the experience because of how intrusive it felt to nature. There were too many people, I complained. The instructor was very nice (I could tell he had his customer service face on– first one I’d seen today so I appreciated it). He said that the snorkelling schools agreed to use this as the snorkelling reef so the others could stay protected and untouched. This reef also had a ‘regeneration period’ between December and March every year, so it had some respite. I told him about how some other instructor had said he was going to pick up the turtle and he said, ‘well he must have been joking’. When I told him I was probably the funniest person on the island right now and I didn’t find it funny, he didn’t laugh. I guess islander sense of humour is a lot different to mine.

With that awkward conversation, we left. We drove back to the shop and gave back our snorkelling gear. They gave us a CD with some photos on there, and that was that. We played our part in the destruction of nature, and we get a CD momento to take home with us to prove it. Later my friend told me that the instructor that I’d been speaking to told her that it was a total waste of time to try and pick up trash from the beach, because ‘there will be more tomorrow’. I don’t have the mental capacity to process that, so I won’t comment on it.

The only thing I can think is, what a wasted opportunity to teach others about reef conservation or why we were seeing so little fish, and why there were so many people crowding on this once beach. What a wasted opportunity to not bite that jack-ass kid’s head off for touching the turtle. The entire experience was a wasted opportunity.

Fish fighting for their food, I can understand- even appreciate. They are trying to survive and to live to see tomorrow. But humans getting in a tizzy over a bloody sea animal?  How useless was that? How absolutely pointless is our presence, really? What is the point of our existence is we are not only harming, but intentionally harming without giving the wellbeing of this other animal a fleeting thought?

Multiply the number of people you see here by about 5/6 and that’s the number of people on this beach, at 8.15am, ‘snorkelling’. I tried getting a pano but my phone didn’t like being stuck in the waterproof case so wasn’t playing ball.

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