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:: Our First Day of Dives

Once again, today started out with us getting up early so we could go down to the docks at Clifton. This time however, we were going to meet up with a dive master so we could go do some scuba diving. The Clifton dive shop is really the only place to go on Union if you want to do certified dives. Tim says that there's another place where anyone can just rent tanks (that's all some people want, so they can clean the underside of their boats), but we all agreed that you really want to go diving with someone who knows what he or she is doing. That said, the guy that runs the shop is bipolar, in the sense that one minute he's the nicest dive-advocate you've ever met, the next he's a complete a-ho' that yells at his customers. Things at the dive shop started out with the latter personality- he gave Pete a bit of a hard time because it wasn't clear if Pete's certification papers would work out. Pete still needed to do his open water cert dives (which he planned on doing with this guy), but Mr. Bipolar started acting like the cert dives were impossible due to differences in PADI / NAUI paperwork. In the end, Mr. Bipolar finally understood what Pete was saying and gave him the thumbs up for the trip. We packed up all the gear and nervously piled into the rickety speedboat.

The speedboat ride was something else. Engines roaring, we left the Clifton harbor and started to make our way along Union's coast. As we were leaving the harbor, I noticed that the back of the boat was taking on water at (what I thought was) an alarming rate. The boat drive had a solution to this of course- he whipped out an empty milk jug and started bailing as he drove. Every so often he would sharply turn the boat to the right to make it easier to get at the water. I should also point out that while all of this was going on, the boat driver was busy making a call on his cell phone (I have no idea how he could hear anything over the chainsaw-like noises of the boat's motor). Heh heh.. Just like in skydiving, it sometimes helps you overcome the fear of leaving the vehicle when you're already scared to be in the vehicle.

We eventually wound up in a secluded spot on the other side of Union, where we would make our first dive. The dive master barked out some orders to Pete, explaining that Pete would have to get in first and demonstrate some of his mad diving skillz. Once Pete was done, we'd all follow the anchor line to the bottom and begin the dive. This dive was sort of a drift dive- that's where you get in at one point, swim with the current, and get picked up somewhere else (nice because you don't have to swim back to the boat). Our dive master told us to watch out for a guy who was fishing from a boat further up. Our boat driver said the fisher was either deaf or not all together right. Anyways, they said to watch out for his line.

Diving in the Caribbean is quite a contrast to diving at Monterey. You could see very far, there were plenty of fish, and you didn't need a wetsuit because the water was relatively warm. Given my lackluster dives at Monterey, this first dive was really cool for me. We went along a reef that had a nice drop off on one side, that was covered with coral, fish, and plant life. Cambria pointed out a lobster or two hiding in the rocks. Me, I thought I spotted a cool looking fish that was all shiny, but as I swam closer to it, I realized it was just the fisherman's lure. Whoops. There you have it, I'm no smarter than your average fish.

After giving up on the lure, I noticed that our dive master was busily yanking on this white box thing that was attached to a line going to the fishing boat. Turns out, the boater was using an old car battery as an anchor. Hmm.. That can't be good for the environment. In any case, the rest of the dive went smoothly. I saw my first eel, poking his terrifying head out of the rocks (I was psyched because I'd never seen an eel in the wild before. Creepy looking bastards..). The boat met us downstream, where we had a hell of a time getting back into the boat (no ladder and no helpful instructions on how to get back in from the dive master).

The next dive spot was further down the coast. Our dive master said this was a good starting point, because the telephone company had dumped a number of telephone switches down there, which the fish loved. This must have been true, as just as soon as we reached the bottom, Tim spotted a nurse shark sleeping under the rocks. Pretty cool- everyone always talks about nurse sharks, but this was the first one I'd seen. This guy reminded me of how I feel when I sleep on an airplane- he was bent at a right angle in the middle, and angrily trying to sleep (based on the nurse sharks I saw later on in the trip, this seems to be a common theme).

The rest of the second dive was really awesome. Our dive master took us along the coastline, which had a sharp drop off and lots of aquatic life. Amy spotted a couple of eels that were hanging out- one was even out of his hole, zipping about like something awful. The best part was that we went through this deep valley of rocks for a bit. As you passed over the crack, you could look down and see tons of Sergeant Majors (striped fish) swimming along. On the other side of the pass, there was a sea turtle hanging out at the bottom. He eventually got spooked, and gracefully swooped out of there. Cool.

After the dive, we went back to the dive shop and swapped fish stories over lunch. Lunch moved over to the neighboring bar, where we went through a round or two of girlie drinks (I might add, that we were relieved to find out that Pete had secretly arranged to pay for the bill, and was not in fact just winking and nodding at the waitress to get her attention). Yep.. anyways, the diving was well worth it. Hopefully, we'll have as much luck with the dives we're doing tomorrow.

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:: Our Second Day of Dives

Today, we did another pair of dives with the same dive outfit that we went with yesterday. This time, we had one more diver on the trip- a lady from San Francisco who was visiting the Caribbean for some medical/doctor exchange program (she was an anesthetist). Sigh.. Must be nice being in a profession where island countries will ask you to visit and pay for your stay. Ain't nobody asking a computer engineer to come to their island to fix a timing problem in their cluster computer's message layer. And if such a situation existed, I'm not sure I'd want to volunteer to help fix the problem.


It's always good to see that Amy's still breathing

In any case, we all wound up sitting at a cafe for a while before going out, because the weather didn't look so good. Amy and I griped a good bit to the anesthetist about rotten housing prices in the bay area, and the pains of living in the suburbs. We finally got word that it was safe to take the boat out, so we hopped in and zipped over to a reef in the Tobago Cays. The rough winds made it difficult to stay dry on the ride over, and we were glad to finally get our gear on and get into the water. Unlike yesterday, we put into the water a good ways away from land. The water was choppy on the surface, and I took on a mouthful or two of sea water before getting everything ready for the dive. Fortunately, we found that the water was nice and smooth once we got a few feet down.


Fishtropolis

Being so far away from land made it feel like there was a lot more room to maneuver about. We followed the dive master along the reef for some time, gradually moving deeper and deeper. The diving was pretty good- we saw a couple of nurse sharks (sleeping on the job, as usual), and some pretty big schools of fish. I like the big schools, it makes you feel like you've gotten far enough away that they're not used to seeing people all that much. Anyways, it was some pretty cool diving. It made me wish I had brought the underwater camera along.


Blue guy, moving fast

Just as I was thinking we had seen just about all we were going to see on the first dive, our dive master started waving his hands and pointing off in the distance. We all sprinted over to where he was, just in time to see four large, spotted eagle rays that were starting to gallop away. These guys were huge (maybe about 6 feet wide?), and they really glided along pretty fast. I was only able to keep up with them for a little while (we were at 70 feet, and I was burning up air faster than I wanted). Amy chased them longer, and was rewarded when she peeled off pursuit- she caught a glimpse of a decent sized blacktip shark, swimming nearby. The shark got spooked though, before the rest of us caught up with her. Wow..

Back in the boat, there were some mixed reactions to the eagle rays. Our gang was really psyched about seeing them (our dive master said it was rare to see so many together). Unfortunately, the lady that came with us didn't see them because she was in the back of the group with her head down. What's even more unfortunate was that our dive master's sunny personality came out, and he started to angrily lecture her about how everyone needs to keep an eye on their dive master at all times. What a jerk. It's bad enough to miss something big, it's ten times worse when someone keeps giving you a hard time about it. Especially when you're the one paying for the dive.


It's easier to just take pictures of the divers

Next, we motored on over to the "pirates of the Caribbean" island we visited on Monday to do some diving along the nearby reefs. We did our mandatory surface interval time (to prevent the bends), while snacking and watching two guys that were being pulled around on modified surf boards by small parachute/kite things. The skies were a little cloudy, but the water was still good for diving. On this dive, I brought the camera along and shot a few pictures of things along the way. I found an underwater sea snake (it's a kind of eel), which was pretty cool. We had to double back on this dive, but there was plenty of vertical space on the reef to check out, since it dropped off a good bit into the water.


That spotted looking thing is a sea snake

The rest of the day was.. pretty odd. Our dive master said that he had a resort dive class that he was doing on a private island called Petite St. Vincent (PSV), and that we were welcome to come hang out there for the rest of the afternoon. Given that boat rides can be pretty expensive, we all took him up on the offer. Ms. Anesthesia, Cambria, Amy, and I hopped off on the private island, while Tim and Pete went with the other manly men to scrounge for food on a different island. PSV was pretty bizarre- it was well maintained, like some gigantic golf course with secluded little huts. A guy in a golf cart came by and kindly gave us a lift to a bar that was on top of a hill. We ordered some tasty sissy drinks and proceeded to wait. Unfortunately, my drink was really strong, and after the day's activities, I was pretty hammered half-way through it. Tim and Pete eventually showed up with lunch (various roti sandwiches), and we waited the day out swapping fish stories until our dive master returned to pick us up. Definitely, not a bad day.

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:: Moving Over to Big Sands

When we woke up this morning, we didn't have too much planned for the day. The main thing was that Mr. Bipolar wanted Pete to come down to the dive shop to do a few cert dives. The rest of us were happy to take it easy for the day, since the last few days had been pretty action packed.


Pete crams by reading Tim's diving magazines


"NO! I say pink form goes LAST"

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Amy and I reserved a room at the Big Sands hotel for the last two days of our stay. It's not that Tim and Cambria's place wasn't great, we just wanted to check out the hotel to see if it was as cool as it looked. Plus, the thought of taking a hot shower the morning before our long flight home made it tough to pass up. Anyways, the five of us caught a van over to the hotel this morning. We figured that we might as well make the most of the hotel's amenities today. We pretty much spent most of the morning lounging about on the porch, watching the island birds choke down the leftover table scraps we fed them.


Each room has its own patio


Nice couches, too


And friendly neighbors..

When it was mid-afternoon, Pete headed back over to the dive shop so he could complete his SCUBA certification lessons. When we met up with him later, he told us that the lessons seemed to be stuff the dive master was making up on the spot. Sure he did the normal things they ask you to do (i.e., clear your mask, practice your emergency ascent), but then there were a few odd things. Like "ok, swim as far as you can underwater, holding your breath, and I'll tell you if it's far enough". The best was that the guy told Pete with a straight face, "ok, I want you to swim over to that guy's boat over there, unscrew his propeller, and bring it back to me." Pete wanted to know what his cut of the action would be.

Since the previous dives had gone pretty well, our gang tossed around the idea of trying out a night dive. The concept of diving at night is pretty scary- in addition to worrying about all the normal problems (like breathing underwater), you have the added problem of not being able to easily see what's around you. Sure you bring a light along with you, but the light only goes in the direction you point it. Plus what about all those creepy things that live in the water and only come out at night?

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:: A Night Dive

So, to continue where I left off in the last post, tonight we did a night dive. I think all of us were at least somewhat nervous when we showed up at the dock at dusk. I think Amy had the worst case of the nerves. That's always a bad sign, because she is a very logical person by nature, and is almost always right about these kinds of things (don't tell her I said that, though). Anyways, she decided to go through with it, partly for the sake of trying it out, and partly to humor me (which I feel bad about). We loaded our gear into the deluxe speedboat, which happened to have a real ladder on this side of it, and racks to hold the diving tanks. The stars were just starting to come out as we left the safety of Clifton's harbor, and headed out to the dive spot, which was a good ways away from land. It would have been something cool in itself, if it hadn't churned up my stomach, which was already upset from the worrying.

When we arrived at the dive spot, it was dark except for the thousands of stars that were in the Caribbean sky, and the distant lights of the island homes. As soon as we stopped, we all went through the panic of getting our gear assembled so we can drop in. The darkness made it hard to work in, especially since some of the dive crew people would occasionally flash a dive flashlight in your face accidentally, while you were getting ready. Our bipolar dive master barked out orders, few of which made all that much sense to me. One by one, we plopped into the water, and followed a slimey buoy line down.

What it looks like underwater at night without your light

Wait, that sounds way too organized. For me, there was a lot more fumbling around ("is this thing really on?", "this flashlight's switch does NOT operate like that, and won't turn on"). I plunked into the water, hit my head on the boat a few times, stabilized myself, and checked to see if my equipment was really working. I realized at this point that it's hard to know things like whether your mask is fogged up when it's too dark to see anything. I got my act together, and was able to get far enough away underwater to safely watch Cambria jump in. Someone had told us to watch the other divers jump in, because the motion stirs up the phosphorescence in the water. I saw it when Cambria got in, which partly helped take my mind off the things that were making me nervous. Following the buoy line down was rotten. It was nasty, but if you let go of it, it was hard to tell just how fast you were falling. The last thing I wanted was to come crashing down on the sea floor. This became even more important the deeper I went, because I realized that everyone in my group was congregating around the anchor point at the bottom. It was a bit of a pile-up, and being the third to last diver to get there, it felt crowded.

Now the thing that I haven't told you about this night dive is that was also a wreck dive. The wreck was some old WWII ship that went too shallow and sank without killing anyone. However, it was a big old pile of rusted metal, with sharp edges and occasional mast poles that pointed in random directions. Oh, and our dive master warned us that there was a current. Argh. I'm told that usually, you go to one of these sites during the day before you do a night dive there, due to all the hazards. This would have been a good idea for safety sake, if not to just cut down on the creepy factor.

When everyone was down at the meeting point, we started to move up along one side of the wreck. For me, this was a mess because everyone was staying together in a pack and I was at the back of the group. So in addition to having to watch out for random wreck edges, I had to keep an eye out for other people's flippers. I started to feel a bit closterphobic in the pack so I dropped back some, but as soon as I did that, I started to feel really isolated, as if I was leaving the safety of community light. Amy was feeling the same way and moved away from the wreck with me, which made me feel a whole lot better. We gave up trying to stay at the front of the pack, where they seemed to be discovering all the cool things that were darting away.

The wreck really was a hot spot of activity. The first thing I saw were some lobster eyes (they reflect light like a dog's eyes do). The cool thing about the lobsters was that they were out walking around (in the day they just hang out under rocks). The most active things though were the sting rays. During the dive we saw about 10 of them moving about around the wreck. They were incredibly cool, and didn't seem to mind us too much. Heh heh.. I watched Pete move in to pet one. He mis-estimated the distance, and from my point of view, it looked like he landed a solid punch in on the ray's back. The ray didn't look like he enjoyed this, and for a moment I thought the ray was going to whip his tail around and show Pete why they call them sting rays. Fortunately, the ray just swam off, leaving Pete with this expression on his face of "oh, hey sorry man". Later on, we found a pair of giant puffer fish (maybe about four feet long?). I think Pete tried punching one of these guys as well, to see if he'd puff up. Aye. That's my buddy Pete, the fish puncher.

It was hard to get over the creepy factor for the dive. You could only see in the direction that your flashlight was pointing. This was a problem on the wreck because you'd be watching something, and then all the sudden realize that you were drifting to this rusty pole that was only a few feet away from your face. Probably the worst scene was when our dive master herded us together to look at the phosphorescence. He had us cover up our lights and flail our arms so that we'd stir up the stuff. It was creepy to be in almost complete darkness, but cool to see the creatures light up at the same time. However, when we turned our lights back on, we saw that Cambria was in a panic, because her mask had been knocked off. Amazingly, she was able to catch it before it got away from her. I would have freaked out and surfaced, myself.

When we finally did start to ascend, it was a huge mess. The rope was still slimey, and had sharp fibers in it. The dive people had told us not to bump into it, because the rough spots on the rope have a tendency to scrape you up. The whole way up, I thought about getting an infected cut from the rope, especially since the current kept knocking me into the rope. Ugh. Things got worse when we got to our decompression stop, because everyone piled up around the rope. The wait brought back my claustrophobic feelings. I was relieved when we finally got the ok to surface.

Getting back into the boat was a nightmare in itself. The boat guys wanted us to take off just about all of our gear in the water, which again was hard because it was dark and we were tired. Bi-polar dive guy yelled at me a bit because I brute-forced my way onto the boat (ie, I left some of my gear on). His comments annoyed me, but I was thinking more about my banged-up shins to really say anything back to him. When Amy got out, he started bitching at her for something else as well, which is completely the wrong thing to do to someone who's just finished a nerve-racking dive. She said some things back to him to let him know that she was dealing with other problems at the moment, to get him off her back. Being an ahole, the bi-polar dive master barked out some more crap to make Amy feel worse. All of this turned Amy's dive from a nerve-racking experience to a bad experience. What a jackass.

Anyways, the dive was interesting, although I think I would have preferred diving at night under less risky circumstances, and with a dive master who wasn't a jerk. We caught a ride back to Big Sands, where we all took quick hot showers and had big dinners. Amy and I should have slept like caterpillars, but the remains of the night's tension and the light from a lamp outside kept us up for most of the night.

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