Scuba Zen

Underwater Caribbean

Scuba Zen

Underwater Caribbean

Scuba Zen
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
July 11 2007 6:54 AM

Underwater Caribbean

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One night after dinner, we try to explain to one another why we dive. "Neutral buoyancy is the best," says Warren, one half of Blue and Warren, artist and architect respectively. He speaks in that tone the skier reserves for fresh powder, the gastronome for a favorite dish.

He's right. When you first achieve neutral buoyancy, it's like having one of those dreams in which you can will yourself to fly. At neutral buoyancy, you neither sink nor float—you remain at the same depth without so much as a fin twitch. You control your motion by breathing: Fill your lungs and you rise, empty them and you sink. No matter how much you practice breathing in yoga class, this will never happen. This makes diving, in my opinion, a more surefire route to bliss.

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Blue and Warren learned to dive the right way. They did their classroom and pool work at home in Los Angeles. When it came time for check-out dives, though—at which point you get into the ocean and demonstrate skills like removing and replacing your mask—they flew to Bonaire, a reef-fringed island near Venezuela, and never looked back.

My start was much less promising.

I first snorkeled in warm, clear water during the summer I worked in Spain, my first time abroad alone. Looking down through the sea gave me a thrilling touch of vertigo, and I knew immediately that I wanted to swim in three dimensions rather than two.

I had to return to college in dark, damp Seattle, but I was determined to hold on to a summery state of mind. I needed to know that even if I was stuck in one spot, there were new experiences to be had. In the ensuing months, I got a second ear-piercing, moved out of my sorority, and signed up for scuba-diving lessons.

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That soon put me in Puget Sound in midwinter. "The ocean only changes temperature by one or two degrees," the instructors told us, and I repeated this claim to anyone boggled at my strange idea of fun. The truth, though, was that despite encasing myself in 7.5 millimeters of Neoprene, lining it with spandex, and pouring hot water from a thermos into my wet suit before dives, my head felt like a block of ice every time I got into the North Pacific.

Even making it into the water was a struggle. Getting in and out of a thick wet suit is a workout. My hood made me feel like I was choking. All that rubber made me extra buoyant, meaning that I had to wear 10 pounds of metal around my waist. We carried our own tanks to the water's edge. At that point—sweating, choking, and feeling the bruises form under my weight belt—I would sit down in the shallows to struggle with fins that refused to stretch over my booties. The waves knocked me sideways onto the rocky bottom, and frigid water seeped down my spine and up my legs. All this for the privilege of viewing murk. I finished my course unsure if I would ever dive again. Spain seemed a long way away.

But I'd had inklings of neutral buoyancy, conducting surreptitious experiments with somersaults when I thought no one was looking. And I discovered that there were things to see underwater besides murk, even in the Northwest. In the San Juan Islands, I saw lingcod by the dozens, eels and octopuses, and on a bright clear day, looked up through the water at a sun-dappled wall carpeted in feathery white sea anemones.

And finally I discovered warm-water diving, starting in the Red Sea. No hoods, gloves, or thick wet suits. Fewer weights. Visibility, some days, that seemed to stretch forever, and prolific sea life from the moment I plunged in, in patterns and color combinations no artist could have dreamed up.

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I didn't travel to dive, but I dived where I happened to travel, and it added a new dimension to the experience. I went to Malaysia to prove to myself that I could travel alone. In a taxi, I met a German who knew a Swede who had a boat and who was pulling a fast one on the Malaysian government's archaeological authority. He had retrieved a hoard of goodies from a wreck at the bottom of the South China Sea—before getting permission. So the Swedish captain had bundled up his treasures and re-sunk them in shallower waters. I dived with his crew to retrieve the prizes, hanging onto a rope for orientation in high current and muddy water, somewhere near the mouth of a wide river. Back on deck, I hosed off what turned out to be piles and piles of pale green ceramic cups and plates. And I thought that not only can I travel alone—interesting things happen when I do.

I went to eastern Indonesia to visit my parents, but I spent a day (all I could afford) underwater, where I saw my first hammerhead shark. I went to Papua New Guinea, ostensibly to hike the Kokoda Trail, and discovered an underwater world off the northern coast. Diving at night on a shipwreck, in water laden with phosphorescents, I turned off my flashlight and floated upside down in a snowstorm. And I went to Yemen to write about people, but found myself diving off the remote island of Socotra, where, between nights camping on the beach, I watched manta rays sail over my head like prehistoric birds.

St. Vincent marks the first time I've come somewhere expressly to dive—and now my brief glimpses are of topside life. This is a country where the national newspaper prints the names of all 1,800 or so 11-year-olds who pass the annual Common Entrance Exam, kids with last names like Baptiste, DeSouza, McKenzie, and Ramgoolam. This year's highest scorer, featured on the front page, plays pan in the Starlift Steel Orchestra as well as soccer and cricket.

I'm still attracted to the visceral experience of diving—the weightlessness, the vertigo, the distorted perspective. In fact, though I hesitate to admit it to my fellow fish-counters, I may be more committed to chasing these sensations than I am to discovering new species. At certain St. Vincent dive sites, the underwater topography is such that I have a choice: I can go poke around in the sand and muck, where I'm most likely to discover unusual fish. Or I can swim along a wall, where I'll probably see barracudas, schoolmasters, and schools of blackbar soldiers, all commonplace. At these times, I choose the wall. One of my favorite sites is Coral Castle for its flying-buttress arches. Another is Anchor Reef, where, pulled by a current, I put out my arms and fly.

Since I'm no fish connoisseur, I'm probably the wrong sort of diver to come to St. Vincent, a place where the uncommon is commonplace. If I pass a fish-identification test at the end of the week, I'll graduate from being a Level 1 to a Level 2 volunteer. But that requires me to recognize only 25 species, and I'm not confident of passing. On this trip we have Level 3, 4, and 5 volunteers—the last two are considered "expert" and sometimes get invited on subsidized dive trips. I know I don't appreciate as much as they do what Lad means when he calls a red banner blenny sighting "a special treat." The rippling fin of the black brotula is beautiful, but I don't feel the same awe as those who have dived up and down the Caribbean and never seen one.

On the other hand, I still get excited when I see a massive school of brown chromises, a fish so ubiquitous that you can just about check it off as "abundant" before even getting in the water. It's as unsurprising as the water itself, so it would be embarrassing to leap into a post-dive discussion with, "I saw a brown chromis." But they do matter. "To see if an area is changing," Lad says, "the best fish to look at are the most common ones." Schools of fish fill me with awe, for their sheer numbers and the way the light flickers through them. Imagining their absence is more daunting still.