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What is Snuba Diving, Exactly?

The greatest mash-up since peanut butter and chocolate is happening just offshore, as long as you know how to breathe.

Molokini Crater, the grinning lip of a sunken volcano a mile off the coast of Maui, often makes the list of the top 10 dive sites in the world because of what you can see and how well you can see it. The sloping wall of the crater is a carpet of anemones and beyond it, the vodka-clear water teems with angelfish and pilot fish and reef sharks and, of course, humuhumunukunukuapuaa. That last one, I’d had to reassure my young daughter, Madeline, would not be on the spelling test of this vacation.

It was her amazing fortune to be able to experience all of this from right in the middle of it. While snorkellers on the surface battled the chop of the waves and dodged the anchor chain of the dive boat, Pride of Maui, Mad hung below, in silence but for the Darth Vader-ish sound of her own breathing through a scuba regulator. But we weren’t scuba diving. We were snuba diving, a kind of hybrid of scuba and snorkelling that creams off the funnest parts of each.

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Is snuba diving okay for kids?

At age nine, Madeline was too young to do full-on open-water scuba diving. But snuba skirts the age requirements because it moots a lot of the safety issues. It’s like being allowed  to drive in Grade 3 because your car is specially designed not to go off the road or crash into anything. With snuba, your oxygen tanks float on the surface in a little raft. A super-long regulator hose pays out as you descend five, ten, fifteen feet. Swim laterally, and all you feel is a gentle tug from above as the raft follows you around.

Madeline seemed a bit stunned by the full-on sensory onslaught—“rapture of the shallows,” let’s call it. She spoke not a word to the divemaster, a cute young guy named Reed Egge. He had to meet her at the tank raft for a powwow. “You’re doing great, but you don’t have to keep yo-yo-ing up to the surface,” he said. “You think you do, but you don’t. There’s nothing at the surface you need. Go down and keep your dad company—he looks lonely.”

Taking a breath under water requires a leap of faith. You’re up against some serious survival instincts. Madeline put her regulator in her mouth on the surface, then slowly submerged her whole head. When the air miraculously kept coming, she relaxed into the slow descent. She replayed Reed’s words in her head: “Rule number one is breathe. If I don’t see bubbles, I’ll know you’re holding your breath.”

People think you have to go deep to get a big payoff from scuba, but you don’t. Indeed, most sea life tends to be near the surface, where the sunshine penetrates. And snuba divers avoid the other issues that deeper diving is heir to: the sinus pressure, the buildup of nitrogen in the bloodstream, the likelihood of running into Patrick Duffy.

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Can you see wildlife while you snuba?

Madeline spotted an octopus settling onto the reef. She waved me over, but by the time I got there it had camouflaged itself. I stared and stared. We were looking at the same thing, but she saw a wonder of nature and I saw a rock. Such is the parent/child gulf.

A couple of zaftig women in alarmingly skimpy bikinis were now doing loop-the-loops in the water . The videographer seemed, strangely, more drawn to them than the weedy bald guy and his daughter, so we hardly showed up on the finished movie that was thoughtfully available for purchase at the end of the excursion.

No matter. We had our memories. Because the crater is a marine sanctuary, memories are about the only things you’re permitted to leave with. But later, as we climbed into the car in Lahaina, Madeline shook her pocket and a tiny bit of contraband fell out: a cowrie shell Reed had found for her down there. Cowrie shells were among humankind’s earliest currency, and they’re still carried for protection by superstitious ocean-goers. This one, a gift from the cute guy who’d given Madeline breathing lessons, was priceless.

Of course, by the time we’d returned home to Vancouver, she’d lost it. 

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