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Sights below the surface

Snorkeling is a lot more fun that just plain swimming. The minute you put on fins, mask, and snorkel, and look down from where you are ``on the ceiling'' of your watery world, a whole new beautiful world is right there, waiting for you to discover it. It's best to swim slowly, hardly moving at all, causing as little splash disturbance as possible. Then you can creep up on the fishes, shells, and mollusks beneath you, as observer only, not as a threat. Some fish will rapidly swim away. Some will go about their business as usual. And some will stay put, like the living shells.

Reef fish, when observed through a glass mask, are really astounding. Consider their colors and patterns. These may be stripes, like the Hawaiian triggerfish, whose pattern of geometric shapes is outlined in red, blue, and black lines on olive drab.

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The stripes can be vertical or horizontal, running around the whole body of the fish as in some incredibly beautiful little wrasses I find among the eroded coral off Waikiki. Others have colors that blend, as the yellow-finned tang, whose pale lavender bodies go into deeper purple around the edges. I run across adult parrotfish both over the reef and beyond, which are either blue and green, or red and cream.

Some fishes have a bright patch on dark, like the Achilles tang, with their stunning orange patch on gray. These I always find on the outer edge of reefs, where the ocean swells first bang against the coral, the fish exulting in the wild surge.

Some fish can even have all-over polka dots, as on the giddy boxfish.

The fish described above are Pacific reef fish, but many are likewise found throughout the Caribbean, with color variations.

Now as to fishy shapes. Some are like half dollars, and just as thin, like moon damsels. I swim off Waikiki almost every day to a certain outjutting reef, just to observe a family of moon damsels that has taken up residence there. And I don't leave the scene until all seven of them, including the two tiniest, are seen and accounted for.

Some fish are round and elongated, like sections of garden hose. These are the pipefish, or cornetfish. I often come across them, lying as quiet as shadows six inches above the bottom, or swimming leisurely. Their heads are about eight inches long, with big black staring eyes with silver rims. And from the center of their tails, straight out in back so as to make them appear even longer and thinner, is an eight-inch filament, which undulates just enough to show you that it is not rigid.

If you come upon one slowly and stealthily then, when it sees you, it will flash at you: broad bands of black, or a kind of Scots plaid of black bands combined with green horizontal and vertical stripes and bands, truly a stunning display. This lasts a moment, then the pipefish again resumes its usual pale greenish and buff tone to exactly match the bottom sand.

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Once I was in the midst of a school of sardines, which were milling excitedly about me in their millions. I soon saw why. On the bottom were about a dozen cornetfish, perpendicular this time, each one darting at the sardines to try to grab one.

If you are snorkeling off Hawaii, or Florida, or the south Caribbean, and come upon a sea turtle, then you have the pleasure of following it quite a few moments before it loses you in the watery deep. When I swim in front of the Outrigger Canoe Club in Hawaii, I occasionally run across Sinbad, a big turtle that frequents this area. If I lie very still in the water, my arms held close to my sides, so as not to appear aggressive, Sinbad will even start munching seaweed on the bottom, showing complete trust in my good intentions.

Thus many can be the adventures of the serious snorkeler.

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