Someone asked me recently if I had an absolute favorite outdoor sport, and it proved a tough question.
As readers know, I love hunting and fishing of any kind, but when I thought a little more I had to say that skin diving (snorkeling) ranked extremely high. It's a wonderful sport, one that lets you see just what's going on under that mysterious surface of lapping waves, and puts you into a totally different environment, a new place with new rules.
I fell into snorkeling almost by accident. During three summers spent at OSU's Stone Lab field station on South Bass Island, my professors quickly discovered that I knew something about the outdoors and could swim. So, I was soon being given jobs like "Martin, go get me a couple of dozen clams for tomorrow's dissection," and being handed a face mask and snorkel. Another professor often needed a partner to help him seek channel cat nests in caves under the island, so we'd use his tank and "buddy breathe" while we searched out nests at night with flashlights.
Lake Erie was a little murky then, but on a good day often had six to eight feet visibility, and I still remember fishing for smallmouths along Peach Point in the Put-in-Bay harbor, catching nothing, and deciding to put on a mask to go down and see if there were any fish there. I saw dozens! Some of them were big, bronzed and red-eyed lunkers of four pounds or more, that came up and goggled right into my face plate. I swam back up to the boat, climbed in and fished some more. And caught nothing.
But it wasn't until I tried salt water snorkeling that I really began to love the sport. My first little adventure was a mile or so off Ft. Lauderdale where two friends and I used Hawaiian slings to spear enough fish for a dinner. The water was so amazingly clear that I could see brightly colored little fish 20 or 30 feet down, along with moray eels and small sharks. It was wonderful. The water was so absolutely silent that I could hear my heart beating and blood rushing through my arteries, and the reef fish ignored me almost completely, going about their business of probing through the coral for morsels. Another world.
Hawaii was even better. I did a guided boat trip there (lots of these) and they took a dozen of us to a quiet bay with a sunken boat on bottom. Myriads of bright fish, but my real memory maker was three squid swimming in perfect formation below that turned sideways in unison, eyed me carefully, then hurried on their way. What were they thinking? Where were they going? I'll never know.
Perhaps my greatest experience came several years ago when I left a cruise ship for a day trip to the island of Bonaire, which many call one of the 10 finest scuba and snorkeling spots in the world. It was amazing. In 90 feet of water I could see fishes just inches long on the bottom. There were angel fish, black parrot fish, wrasse, groupers, yellow tails, and more, an occasional sea turtle, and once a six foot barracuda that took up residence right under our boat. A place of wonder.
My most recent snorkeling experience was at Half Moon Key in the Carribean where I saw my first cleaning wrasse working on a two-pound sea bass, and had a fair sized grouper grab my heel and pull in his efforts to chase me away from his little cave. Lots of memories, and all good. You can find a rather surprising number of clubs and organizations around the state dedicated to scuba and skin diving. Google "Ohio scuba divers" and you'll find enthusiasts from the Columbus Sea Nags and the Ohio Council of Skin & Scuba Divers to the Toledo Submariners and Lakewood Aquamasters.
You'll also find shops and groups that will teach you either sport, sell or rent equipment and make field trips for hands-on learning. I think you'll like this sport once you slip beneath the waves for the first time, and come back to it again and again. Definitely addicting.
Dick Martin is a free-lance writer from Shelby. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ohio boat owners with registrations set to expire March 1 are encouraged to visit ohiodnr.com to conveniently renew their registration well in advance of the Ohio boating season. Last year, more than 10,000 watercraft registrations were renewed through the online system, which can be accessed 24 hours a day through Sept. 30. Watercraft registrations in Ohio are valid for a period of three years.
An array of dark colored wildlife species and creatures that operate primarily at night will be center stage for the 2008 Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference, scheduled for March 12 at the Aladdin Shrine Center in Columbus. The conference, "Back in Black" is sponsored by the Division of Wildlife and open to the public. For more information or to register, call (800) WILDLIFE. Registration fee is $20.
Hunters remain a powerful force in American society, as evidenced by the presidential candidates who routinely pay them homage, but their ranks are shrinking dramatically and wildlife agencies worry increasingly about the loss of sorely needed license fee revenue. New figures from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service show that the number of hunters 16 and older declined by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006, from 14 million to about 12.5 million. The drop was most acute in New England, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific states.