Waters may be chilly, but the sea life beneath can be awe-inspiring

Snorkel and fins will get you started, but know when to stop

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ted Drozdowski
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2003

Mention snorkeling, and most New Englanders envision vacations in the Florida Keys, Cancun, or Hawaii -- places where the sea is nearly as warm as bath water and colorful tropical fish flirt with swimmers. Not Alan Brickman. Nearly every day the lanky 49-year-old can be found face down in the chilly surf off Rockport's rugged Halibut Point State Park, communing with shy lobsters, sleek striped bass and bluefish, red-backed crabs, camouflaged flounder, lacelike jellyfish, and a seemingly endless rainbow of starfish. He slowly swims back and forth over the breathtaking undersea terrain. The granite floor provides a refuge for marine life and a base for a lush, green carpet of undersea flora. When the sun sends shafts of light through the water, which runs from ankle-high shallows to pitch-black depths, the effect is surreal and mesmerizing.

Snorkeling is like traveling to another world, complete with its own atmosphere and quirky denizens. And all it takes to get there is a mask, a snorkel, some fins, and stubborn Yankee resistance to cool temperatures.

It would be a stretch to call snorkeling in New England's coastal waters a trend. After all, most beachgoers rarely immerse themselves in the typically 55-to-66-degree Atlantic Ocean. But hardy swimmers with a taste for easy adventure consider it one of the region's best summer delights.

"I learned to dive in the Red Sea and I've taken dive vacations to Honduras and a research trip to Belize, but my favorite place for snorkeling and diving is New England," says Jake Levenson, an aquarist who works with the cold-water tanks and tidal pool exhibit at Boston's New England Aquarium. "It's such a nutrient-rich environment that the sea life is amazing."

Some of the region's finest snorkeling is just an hour north of Boston, but Levenson disagrees that Halibut Point is the place to start.

"It's one of the most exposed points in Gloucester, so swimmers have to be extra careful, since the wind and weather and surge can be a lot stronger," he said. "Plus, you practically have to be a mountain goat to get there."

Levenson lives in Gloucester, "because the snorkeling and diving off Cape Ann is so nice," he says. One of his favorite spots is Folly Cove, just northwest of Halibut Point. "That's about as far south as wolf fish tend to come," he says.

"There's just about every type of fish you'd expect, along with sea urchins. Last week, off the Rockport breakwater, I saw a scarlet psolus, which is related to the sea cucumber, but has bright orange arms it lets out as it feeds that look like lava flowing on the sea floor.

"The key is to take your time," Levenson says.

"If you stare at a rock for a while you begin to notice the hermit crabs and then maybe the baby flounder blending in with its surface, or the tiny lobster no bigger than your thumbnail."

David Millhauser, another Gloucester resident and longtime diver, moved from Florida in 1980 and was immediately smitten. "There's more marine life here than in the Caribbean, because the reefs there are like oases in the desert," he says. "There's even a difference between Cape Cod and Cape Ann. Cape Cod is very influenced by the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream, and you have some marine life you don't have between here and Maine. But Cape Cod's waters tend to have a sandy bottom, which is less interesting."

It is the rocky terrain of even the shallowest of northern New England's waters that provides a habitat for immature fish and lobsters, and a hunting ground for their grown-up predators. Rockport's tame Back Beach and Front Beach are perfect examples, accessible to even the youngest snorkelers under adult supervision, yet pleasing enough to lure hordes of divers. Millhauser, who has snorkeled both beaches and several other Cape Ann locations with his young niece and nephew, suggests exploring at low tide, when the sea bottom is closer to the surface.

A recent trip to both beaches, which offer metered on-street parking and restrooms, yielded impressive underwater views. The rock outcropping to the north of Front Beach was bustling with crabs, starfish, small schools of fish, and several large stripers. The southern side of Back Beach was even more generous. A 15-minute swim over the rocky, plant-covered bottom's jungle of flora revealed eight lobsters and an abundance of fish and crabs.

"When you go there at night it's even more spectacular," Levenson says. "You need a good flashlight. Nighttime is when the lobsters come out. If you get there around dusk, it sometimes looks like the sandy bottom area is moving because there are so many baby flounder. If you turn off your flashlight and wave your arms around in the water, the bioluminescent plankton will light up."

Another excellent spot for families is Reid State Park, west of Bath, Maine, at the end of a series of bridges that leads to Georgetown Island. During low tide a pool of water trapped between the ocean and the park's lagoon bears an impressive array of creatures at depths ranging from inches to roughly 10 feet. Small lobsters hide in rock walls and under broad-leafed seaweed. Crabs skitter everywhere. Stripers, small schools of fish, and the occasional large eel become trapped until the sea flows back in. The scrubbing action of the tide sometimes lays clam beds bare. Park rules do not permit breathing tubes; however, the only thing needed to enjoy the wildlife is a facemask. And Reid packs all the natural beauty of coastal Maine into one small, manageable package.

It's easy to outfit yourself for snorkeling. The cost of a tight-fitting mask and plastic breathing tube should run from $30 to $50 at most sports gear stores or dive shops. ("You should be able to inhale through your nose and not draw any air in around the seams," Levenson advises.) Fancier tubes that prevent water from rushing in during the brief dives necessary to get a closer look at critters and plants can cost up to $100, but they're the Lexus of snorkels. Levenson says fins are a must for safety and speed ("snorkeling or diving without fins is like driving without a gas pedal"), and he and Millhauser also suggest buying or renting a wet suit that's five-to-seven-millimeters thick. Lighter suits provide more mobility, while thicker ones save body heat more effectively. But Brickman is proof that a wet suit is not a requirement for short jaunts. He tackles the cool environs off Halibut Point with only a mask, a snorkel, and a Speedo. "You just have to know enough to get out of the water when you're cold," he says.

That's good advice. Although the risk of hypothermia from snorkeling isn't as high as it is with diving, because temperatures plunge as water deepens, some cautions must be observed.

"If you're in the water for an hour, you're going to get hypothermia," says Dr. James Stephen, an assistant professor on the clinical faculty of the Tufts University School of Medicine. "If you're immersed in water you lose body heat 300 times faster than normal."

Stephen warns that snorkeling after drinking alcohol or taking drugs is dangerous. The numbing and warming effects of drugs and liquor mask hypothermia's warning signs. "Smokers are also more susceptible to hypothermia, because smoking makes your small blood vessels clamp down, which makes you more at risk of coldness in your hands and feet," he says.

The warning signs are obvious: coldness and shivering. "So get out of the water when you're cold or shivering, and you should be fine," Stephen advises. "If you feel you've become so cold you've gotten hypothermia, drinking warm fluids helps. So does getting into a warm environment. Strip down and get into nice warm clothes. If you're profoundly hypothermic, you lose the capacity to think clearly. You won't act like you're drunk. It's more as if you're really sleepy, and if you get in that condition you won't be thinking clearly, so a friend or bystander will have to take you to the hospital."

For most, the chill of New England's sea makes snorkeling a summer affair. But Brickman has taken the 10-minute stroll from the parking lot to the rocky coast of Halibut Point and leapt into its waters as early as April 26 and as late as Oct. 23.

"It's fairly rugged, so 90 percent of the people who go there don't even think of swimming," he says. "I like colder waters. On a hot summer day they feel more refreshing to me. So when I first brought my mask and snorkel here in '94 or '95, there was no turning back." When Brickman, a self-employed consultant for nonprofit agencies, decided to buy his first house in 2000, he found a modest place a short drive from Halibut Point.

"I think about snorkeling here the same way I think about walking through the woods looking for deer and rabbits," Brickman says.

"It's like taking a stroll, but I'm looking for fish and lobsters. It gives you a view into the world of the fish -- what goes on down there that you don't normally get to see. Last year I saw a dead seal on the bottom. Starfish had just begun to attach themselves to it. An hour or two later I swam by, and they had all but devoured it."

Ted Drozdowski is a freelance writer who lives in East Boston.

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