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Forests and mountains feel like home to me, but the ocean has always been a deep, dark and scary territory. As a result, I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in the water, much less felt comfortable on the rare occasion that I do jump in. However, my fascination with marine life has given my fear some stiff competition, and earlier this month I had the trip of a lifetime with UnCruise Adventures in Mexico’s Sea of Cortes.

Before boarding the Safari Endeavor, I carefully studied the itinerary and Googled some of the locations. Snorkeling with sea lions in Los Islotes, kayaking next to the Roca Solitaria sea stack and guided hikes were the activities that piqued my interest, but I was a bit nervous about the snorkeling. Oh, let’s be honest: I was terrified. In the last five years, I’ve only been snorkeling twice, and neither of those were particularly positive experiences. One anxiety-inducing event had me getting pulled out by a deceptively strong current, and after that, I went on a group snorkel tour in Hawaii and felt completely rushed. I like having a few extra minutes to take in my surroundings, and there is also something to be said for getting comfortable when you’re breathing through a tube. I was intimidated about the offshore snorkel with sea lions, but I was also determined to do it.

On our first day off the coast of Baja California Sur, there was a “Snorkel 101” activity led by one of our guides, which proved to be the perfect way to reacquaint myself with the ocean. Jeremy went over the basics with us, and easing myself into the clear, shallow waters next to a quiet beach allowed me to move at my own pace. The following day I went kayaking with my friend, and on the third day I signed up for an offshore snorkel. If I didn’t like it, I could just hop back on the zodiac, right? Despite needing a bit of extra time with my mask, I didn’t feel like I was holding anyone in the group behind, and both our guide, Stephanie, and our skiff driver, Lindsay, were incredibly patient — and encouraging. It was yet another great confidence booster, and two days later, I went on a long solo run during one of the many open snorkel sessions that was offered. Not only was I getting more reps, but it hit me: I was really starting to like it.

When the last day rolled around, I was beyond excited to be snorkeling next to a pair of rocky islands that were home to a colony of sea lions. There was no beach, the water was deep, and these were wild animals, so I also had a few twinges of anxiety as our skiff pulled up next to the cliffs. Still, I knew I was ready, and after a 3…2…1 count, I was in the water.

Almost immediately, we were greeted by a few curious young sea lions, and as if that wasn’t thrilling enough, the clarity of the water in the early morning light was incredible. Snapper and sergeant major fish darted around us, and every few minutes a new pair of juvenile sea lions came to check out our group. They danced with us, seemingly wanting to show off their moves, and a few times the inquisitive creatures poked their noses at our cameras and nibbled on our flippers. I never once felt threatened, but I did get goosed by one particularly swift sea lion, which had me laughing and yelling through my snorkel.

I’ve had some pretty incredible encounters with wildlife all over the world, but this was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Some adventures offer stunning scenery and others teach you powerful lessons, but every once in a while you get the best of both worlds. And it is then that I find myself having a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the earth — and realize how lucky I am to see these magnificent landscapes and creatures with my own eyes.

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