In 1992 when my son was 12, he asked to go camping, an experience no one in our family had ever had. My husband did not want to spend the night in a tent, but I told my son I would be glad to accompany him if I could take my snorkel and mask and explore Michigan’s inland lakes. It came as a big surprise in a state called a “water wonderland” that there was no information available from any source on which lakes were best to snorkel. The DNR and Michigan State’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department knew the water chemistry and what fish were there, but from a recreational point of view, there was nothing. It was soon easy to see why---most people snorkeled in the Caribbean, Mexico or Hawaii---there was little or no interest or even any belief that Michigan’s inland lakes had anything to offer.
Initially, I thought this was probably because either the lakes were murky or there was nothing to see in shallow water. Indeed the first few lakes I sampled were total losers, but then I got on a roll, and the next lakes were clear, colorful and full of excitement. When I saw the infinite variety, I realized that a sampling of lakes would not do; I would not be satisfied or have the necessary knowledge until I checked them all. Since I was not allowed to enter private lakes, this immediately eliminated 10,000 lakes from my list. Still I was left with approximately 1000 public access lakes to explore. Snorkeling them all was a daunting task--I was a soggy mess for over 5 years until I finished the project in the fall of 1997, but the discoveries I made have made me a dedicated fresh water snorkeler.
Here are some of the reasons why I love and highly recommend this sport:
FIRST: There is an intimacy found in our inland lakes that is difficult and mostly impossible to find in the ocean. Each lake is individual and unique--no two lakes are alike, and after snorkeling in one, you identify the different areas as you would rooms in a house, so that when you return, you have an idea of the layout and the fish locations before you enter, which breeds a relaxed familiarity which will rarely happen in the ocean. Because fish and turtles live for many years, it is possible to go back every year and recognize your old friends by the locations and markings, which makes the interactions that much more meaningful, as the fish welcome you back and invite you to share their environment. You can watch them eat, fight, mate or just mellow out. There is a new submersible just built for a select few National Geographic biologists, the famed Silvia Earle being the most prominent example. It is a laboratory that allows the occupants to remain underwater in the same location for 7 days, and the purpose and satisfaction the participants report is the ability to really get to know the fish by being in the same environment for so long. Michigan inland lake snorkelers do not have to be among only a few people in the world to experience this, since the intimacy and accessibility of our lakes allows them to repeatedly visit the same lakes and stay as long as they like, due to the unlimited air supply a snorkeler is afforded.
SECOND: Snorkeling allows you to float over the various underwater gardens and immerse yourself in what is a very therapeutic, almost religious experience. It is not for nothing that doctors have all those aquariums in their offices. The fact is that watching fish has an incredibly calming effect.
THIRD: There are almost no physical requirements. If you can breathe you can snorkel, no matter what your age. No swimming is required; in fact to do so would only scare away the fish. You don’t have to be physically fit--fat floats and you simply park your car at the public access, walk to the edge of the water and lie down. Snorkeling is always done along the shore, so you are in shallow water and can frequently stand up if you feel the need. This makes the sport possible for anyone from age 5 to 75 or older.
FOURTH: Is the incredible convenience of in Michigan always being less than an hour’s drive of a great lake to snorkel. This means no planning ahead, no taking days off from work, no saving up big dollars to enjoy the experience. Most lakes have free access and those that are in park areas charge $20 for a one year parking sticker, $5 for seniors. So the thrill of the underwater can be anyone’s for a pittance.