I bumped into my friend N at the pools this morning. I was sitting on the one of the benches drinking an unambiguously horrible coffee from the ice-cream stand on the promenade, for some reason the only place open at 7 a.m., and trying to understand an extremely straightforward article about declining levels of herd immunity in Europe, and a measles outbreak in Italy. N was struggling to stuff her hair into her swimming cap and waiting for one of her many pals. We talked a bit about how much we loved Sea Point Pools, the best public pools in Cape Town, easily, and how ideal the whole situation was. This is a compulsory component of any conversation had within a 50 metre radius of Sea Point Pools. There was a tiny lull in the conversation and I thought about maybe launching into a monologue about the terrifying rise of Italy’s anti-vax movement and but realised it was too early and not at all charming. Instead, I mentioned snorkels. Specifically, the person I had seen a few days earlier doing laps in the pool while wearing a snorkel. N lit up immediately, as I knew she would. She said, “I saw your Instagram! I’ve seen that woman too! The snorkel woman! It looked so great – you don’t even have to lift your head up or anything. I saw her and I thought: this babe is onto something.”
N is an incredibly nice person in general, so this should not have surprised me. I should have known that she wouldn’t necessarily be on board with my feeling that snorkels are absurd as a concept and that it is ludicrous to do laps in a public pool while wearing a goddamn snorkel. It was early though, and my defenses were down, and so I was surprised. I wondered if I should raise the matter with her directly and just say, “Listen, you are wrong about snorkels. That babe was definitely not onto something,” but again: too early and not charming. We moved on to talking about wireless headphones and how good it would be to be very physically strong, and then her friend arrived, and we went our separate ways.
I kind of turned the incident over in my mind a bit in the water, thinking the kinds of thoughts that swimming encourages. Stuff like “Hmm. I wonder. Well, snorkeling. Hmm.” I once read that Oliver Sacks wrote the bulk of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat while swimming in this lake he really loved. He’d work out exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it in the water, and then he’d have to clamber up onto the jetty and write it all down. Back into the water for more thoughts, up onto the jetty for transcription. Zadie Smith once asked Philip Roth what he thought about when he was swimming. He said, “I choose a year. Say, 1953. Then I think about what happened in my life or within my little circle in that year. Then I move on to thinking about what happened in Newark, or New York. Then in America. And then if I’m going the distance I might start thinking about Europe, too. And so on.”
As for me, I thought the word “snorkel” to myself, over and over, and undertook a very limited exploration of every opinion I’d ever had on the subject, beginning with the observation that, in fact, the snorkeling person I had put on my Instagram was a man. The snorkeling person N was referring to was a woman – something I had overlooked in the chaos of the moment. This means that in the last few days there have been two entirely separate people who probably don’t even know each other doing laps with a snorkel at Sea Point Pools. Two people. Snorkeling. Well. Two people, though. I mean. And so on. I reached no conclusion other than that it’s interesting that swimming is my favourite thing to do even though I often finish a swim freshly confounded by what a simpleton I am.
I got out the pool and stood on the side and then: a third snorkeler, right in front of me, calmly doing laps. I assumed at first he was the initial snorkeling man, but that man was old and bendy and wearing just a Speedo. This man was young and hale and wearing swimming shorts. So three people, then, for absolute certain. It was a lot to take, especially coming off the revelation that not everyone considers snorkeling an activity only performed on tropical vacations. I’ve been told that it’s “actually not that uncommon”, and that lap swimming with a SNORKEL is “only new in South Africa,” but I actually don’t know if I believe this.
If you haven’t already stopped reading this and gone to look at the Wikipedia article on snorkeling, I suggest that you do so immediately. There is a heading called “Applications of snorkeling”, and underneath it says: “In all cases, the use of a snorkel facilitates breathing while swimming at the surface and observing what is going on under the water.” In ALL cases, thanks. There is nothing of interest to observe underneath the surface of the water in a public pool.
There’s also a heading called “Practice of snorkeling” and underneath a subheading called “snorkeling locations”, the body of which makes no mention of snorkeling in the pool, in Cape Town, taking up a whole lane. No heading called “The consensus on snorkeling,” or like “Reception” or “Public opinion.” The article gives no real sense of what people feel about snorkeling in any location at any time but that is fine, because the rest of the snorkel internet exists, and I read some of it, and I can honestly say that a different woman is writing this than the one who stood at the side of the pool this morning sneering down at the third snorkeler.
There is a page on the Key West Snorkel Adventure website titled “the early history of snorkeling”. I can’t improve on the copy in any way: “As you head out on an exciting Key West snorkel adventure, it’s intriguing to think back to the days when use of a tube to breathe under water was part of ancient life from battle maneuvering to fishing.” It is intriguing. I freely admit that I am intrigued.
Under a subheading called “EARLIEST SNORKELERS”: “The very earliest snorkelers were thought to be sponge farmers on the Grecian island of Crete some 5,000 years ago who used hollow tubes to allow breathing while they kept their faces in the water to free-dive for sponges.” There is something so insane about the way this is written, like specifically created in a lab to make me specifically feel that I am losing my mind. This is a characteristic common to a lot of snorkel writing, as in, for instance, the copy on a webpage called “THE ITALIAN SNORKEL” (on a website called HISTORY OF ITALIAN NAVY SUBMARINES, which describes itself as follows: “Just few informations of the Italian Submarines history, dedicated to the men on “eternal patrol” and to the men who, starting from “nothing” after W.W. II, created the new Italian Subarines Force” [sic].)
Again, I cannot improve on what is written there in any way: “The invention of the snorkel is usually ascribed to the Germans, who first used it in wartime, in 1943. Most informed people attribute its origin to the Dutch, who installed it on the “O”-class boats in the late thirties. Of course, undoubtedly Germans have the “historical” paternity of it, as well as the discovery of America is properly ascribed to Columbus and not to the Vikings, even though they preceded him. But, really, at least chronologically the snorkel is an Italian invention. It was, in fact, the Major (Naval Engineer Corp) Pericle FERRETTI who carried out first studies and experiments, in the early twenties, at the Navy Yard in Taranto, where he was Head of the Submarines Department.”
Happiness, as Montherlant famously said, writes white. He was wrong about women, but he was right about this – it is hard to convey happiness on the page. There is, for instance, absolutely no way for me to communicate my feelings about uptight snorkel historians intent on ensuring that snorkeling is treated with the proper respect. “Overcome with joy and maximum good vibrations” is inadequate. It makes me giddy to think about a person coming over all patriotic and indignant when the subject of snorkels is raised. It makes me feel in love with the human race. We are just so ridiculous, and our passions are inscrutable, and we make these weird little communities, and we contribute to keeping the show on the road, in our own nonsensical ways. Notice that none of the above descriptions make any reference to the fact that snorkeling, as an activity, belongs in the “extreme leisure” category. Instead, they make it seem like a noble and industrious undertaking, like serious business.
What I am saying is: that babe IS onto something. She is clearly part of a vast cohort of people passionate about all things snorkel: the idea of it, the history, the hotly contested origin story. She thinks it is fine to snorkel in the pool, in the morning, because it would never occur to her that anyone would feel anything other than great love and affection for the practice, and treat it with the respect it is due. She has read the mood correctly; she knows what she is about, and feels no need to defend it.