This story was originally published in September 2019.
Lobsters, giant fish, snapping turtles and sunken ships. Maine’s underwater world is filled with wonders, according to those who snorkel.
A niche activity in the Northeast, snorkeling is fairly easy to learn. The equipment required — a mask, snorkel and fins — is inexpensive and low tech. And given the region’s numerous lakes, rivers and ocean coves, there are many places to explore.
“It’s like going through the looking glass into a totally different world,” said Justus Magee, 42, of Glenburn. “It’s absolutely fascinating.”
Searching for lake monsters
Maine is home to thousands of lakes and ponds, many of which are great for snorkeling. These bodies of water vary dramatically in their geological features, as well as what plants and aquatic animals they contain.
“Every time I go to a lake, even if with friends, I always bring my swim fins and mask,” Magee said. “I get made fun of a bit.”
Snorkeling is an activity in which you swim on the surface of the water, breathing through a tube called a snorkel. One end of the tube is placed in your mouth, while the other end is at the back of your head, above the surface of the water. This allows you to breathe while swimming face down.
Wearing fins on your feet allows you to swim faster, and wearing a mask over your eyes and nose allows you to see clearly. It also prevents you from getting water up your nose.
“It’s like a meditation because a snorkel forces you to be aware of your breath, “ Magee said.
While snorkeling in Maine lakes, Magee has swum beside a large bass. He’s found a Coca-Cola bottle from 1962. And he often explores interesting rock formations, which are only visible underwater.
“I think one of the most interesting parts of snorkeling Maine lakes is you get to see all the geological differences,” Magee said. “Schoodic [Lake] is absolutely gorgeous, the geology of it. You can actually see all sorts of different types of petrified silt patterns.”
[Filmmaker dives to sunken steamboats in Moosehead Lake]
Nuggett Wagner, 64, of Ellsworth, also enjoys snorkeling Maine lakes, especially the crystal clear bodies of water near her home. She was first introduced to the activity when she was a kid growing up in Winterport, but didn’t pursue the hobby in earnest until about 8 years ago. Since then, she’s been snorkeling fairly regularly, starting in June and continuing into early fall.
“I just like to look around,” Wagner said. “I like to do some photography on land, to see what’s underneath my feet. So why not under the water?”
Using a waterproof GoPro camera, Wagner takes photos of fish, turtles, lily pads and other delicate aquatic plants. She also shoots underwater videos to share with her family and friends.
“I’m not really up on [my] fish, but in Branch Pond, I saw a catfish one day,” she said. “And toward fall I was in Craig Pond and there were all kinds of big lazy-looking fish just kind of circling in a big school. Somebody told me they were probably suckers.”
Though the water near her home is relatively clean, she occasionally finds trash resting on lake bottoms.
“I’ve found stuff that obviously was from ice fisherman like frying pans and knives and things they were cooking with on the ice,” she said. “And you know what? I find a lot of golf balls.”
Braving the current
Maine is home to some of the wildest whitewater in the Northeast, including a series of turbulent rapids on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. This is where Jay Robinson, 64, of Woodville goes snorkeling.
More specifically, Robinson snorkels in a backwater channel of Pockwockamus Falls, where the current is mild and fish are plentiful. He began swimming there back in the ‘80s, when his father purchased a camp about a mile up river.
“There are all kinds of interesting things to see, especially the further up you swim into the current,” Robinson said. “There are a couple of nice pools, not too deep, where you can hold onto the rocks and lay on the bottom and see fish and other things.”
A snorkel only provides air at the surface of the water, yet many snorkelers dive down to get closer to underwater features. While doing this, they need to hold their breath. In addition, they may need to equalize their ears, releasing pressure by pinching their nose and gently blowing out. And when they surface, they often need to blow water out of their snorkel before using it breathe once more.
On one particularly hot summer day a few years ago, Robinson went down to “The Ol’ Swimmin’ Hole” and noticed a bunch of broken turtle eggs along the shore. Thinking nothing of it, he dove down and noticed what looked like a beautiful, moss-covered rock on the bottom. When he was about a foot from the “rock,” he realized it was a large snapping turtle.
“I made out its tail slowly waving in the current,” Robinson said. ”Never did one person exit the water faster than me.”
Over the years while snorkeling the Penobscot, Robinson has seen crayfish and freshwater clams, sunken logs from the log driving days, and colorful rocks worn smooth by the rushing current. And every once in a while, he spies what fly fishermen on the river are hoping to catch.
“I found [that] if I stood in one place, in deep water, especially in the evening just before dark, I’d see some good-sized trout and salmon,” Robinson said.
Exploring Maine’s ocean
When people think of snorkeling in the ocean, they usually think of tropical locations that have colorful fish and coral reefs. But Maine’s coastal waters are teeming with interesting creatures and aquatic plants that can easily be observed while snorkeling. It’s also home to a number of sunken ships.
“If you’re in a nice site with great visibility you can see crabs, lobster, different types of fish, hermit crabs, [and] different types of seaweed,” said Jim Dock, lead instructor at Aqua Diving Academy in Portland. “You never know what you’re going to get from day to day.”
Snorkeling is often a gateway activity into scuba diving, which is a much more complex sport that requires special training and equipment, Dock said. Scuba diving allows people to dive deeper and stay underwater for longer because it includes the use of an oxygen tank. Both activities are often lifelong sports.
“A lot of people get familiar with snorkeling first,” Dock said. “Kids learn it at summer camp or their family camp, then kind of go from there. That’s how I got into scuba myself.”
Dock typically snorkels in shallow, protected coves where exposure to wind and current is limited. These locations are safer for swimming, but they also tend to have clearer water than areas where wind and waves whip up sediment from the bottom.
Regardless of where you choose to snorkel of Maine’s coast, it will be cold. The water temperature hits its peak in September at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. To stay warm, Dock advises wearing a wetsuit.
“Learning to relax is essential,” Dock said. “Once you settle down and relax and roll with it, it’s very peaceful. One of the things I enjoy most about snorkeling and diving is it’s quiet and allows you go get outside your normal world and focus on something different.”