It’s nighttime. We’re paddling a canoe down the middle of the briskly flowing Macal river in the Belize jungle, somewhere very near the Guatemalan border. The handle of the powerful handheld spotlight I’m gripping is warm. Actually, it’s hot. So hot that I shift it from hand to hand as I point it up onto the riverbank and sweep the overhanging branches of the giant rain forest trees that lean out over the river.
A dense cloud of moths forms a ball around the light, covering my face, my head, flying into my ears and eyes, tumbling down the front and back of my shirt. I reach into my décolletage to dig a few out and my fingers encounter a ball of squirming moths, soaked and likely drowning in a pool of sweat.
Ahhhh- vacation! We’re on yet another adventure in the wilds of Central America. This evening, the last of three we’ll spend in the Cayo district of Belize, has so far featured a hair-raising ride in an old and well-worn pick-up truck with two canoes strapped on top and six humans crammed inside a steamy interior, being tossed about like pebbles as the truck bounces and bangs down a deeply rutted, dangerously steep and potholed track through the jungle night.
Once at the river’s edge, we four guests stand behind the truck out of the way while the guides untie the canoes and place them in the river shallows. We’re told to watch where we put our feet and to use our headlamps to look for snakes. The jungle growth pushes up right next to the jeep and there’s little cleared space for our feet. Robin and I stand quietly and watch the other two gals, a mom and daughter from Maine, as they mince about and scan the ground nervously. Robin’s more concerned about bug bites than stumbling into a snake, but only harmless moths and gnats flit about. In the light of my headlamp I spot a couple of bats swooping overhead.
The crickets and frogs clamor so loudly that it’s hard to hear the guides as they call for us to climb into the canoes. In the canoe, I step gingerly toward the bow seat, maneuvering around a car battery. The guide hands me a large hand-held spotlight and I watch as he hooks up two somewhat shielded wires from the spotlight to the battery terminals. Interesting. Guess I won’t be letting those wires dip into the river.
Robin settles in the middle seat, the guide shoves us off the gravel bottom, hops in and paddles us efficiently into the brisk flow of the river. While I’m digging moth bodies out of my nether regions, I can hear Robin behind me making disgusting noises and muttering “Oh for heaven’s sake!” and “Ick! Yuk!”. Her brisk motions to wave off the clouds threaten our balance. Atypical for me, I’m feeling exposed up here in the bow, probably because I’m top-heavy holding this big spotlight. (Wry humor.) Besides, my position in a canoe has always been at the stern, since I was 10 years old and learned how to paddle. I simply feel more comfortable being in the rear seat, managing the balance and track of the canoe.
I warn Robin to be still and wait, the moth swarm will go away once we get some breeze.
Sure enough, a nice breeze greets us as we move into the center of the river’s width, generally about 200 feet across. Soon the moths thin out and we find ourselves distracted by the strong beam of light, which I aim to light up the massive trees that thickly line the banks of this wild river.
We’re spotting for wildlife that has come out on this starry night to forage for food, mate, meet up with family members, dodge predators, and to pose for us as they’re picked out of the darkness by the unrelenting probing lights from the two canoes.
Our guide uses a powerful green laser pointer to direct my spotlight beam- he knows where to look for critters. As we float along with the current, I spot a brown animal up high on a large limb. “It’s a kinkajou!” the guide exclaims. The boats quietly approach the tree and there it is, about 30 feet above us, stretched out on a limb. We sweep our lights about but the kinkajou won’t budge, so we continue downriver, scanning the river banks and trees.
Soon I spot two orange eyes up on a river bank and as we approach the guide tells us it’s a fox! The eyes scoot along the river bank but the spotlight is relentless and soon picks out the little fox. We watch as it darts behind some shrubbery and then the current moves us past our vantage point.
Next up, around a bend, we spot two kinkajou’s in a tree, darting from limb to limb and making their way quickly away from the river. A few minutes later I spot a Wood Rail sitting quietly on a limb overhead, it’s orange and white beak shining in the spotlight.
As we continue down the river, we can hear rapids ahead– nothing huge but definitely enough force to turn the canoe over if mishandled, so I direct the light to help guide our passage. Once past the rapids, I resume sweeping the light through the trees, marveling at their incredible heights, some with massive buttressed trunks and many festooned with creepers, strangler fig vines, and huge air plants.
We spot a Water Possum on the bank- a brief glimpse before it darts behind a large tree. Then a bit later we come across a beautiful Spectacled Owl, small and as brightly marked as a tropical bird, perched just above our heads on a tree branch. And then we spot four or more kinkajous. These are quite close to us and only 15 feet above the river, on a large tree limb. Three of them take off but the last one remains behind, blinking in the spotlight. It stretches out on the limb and then flips to the underside, then flips back up, then hides its large round eyes behind two little fore paws and cowers. We all say “Awwww” and turn the two spotlights away to let it go on about its business. The guide is tickled pink; he seldom sees a kinkajou that close up, much less one that doesn’t dart immediately away.
At one point we turn off our spotlights and headlamps and soon the stars are right down on our heads! One of the highlights of our trips to little-trammeled places is that we get to see the stars as our ancestors might have seen them. No light pollution, no loom from nearby man-made anything, just stars: the Milky Way scattered across the chunk of sky visible above the river, the Big Dipper over There, every star in it etched against that dense blackness, not at all where we’re used to seeing it the few times we might glimpse it on the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
Nearing the end of our journey we come upon a large bend in the river and before us is a limestone bluff, over 300 feet high and disappearing into the gloom. Massive trees grow out and up from the sheer walls, which are densely covered with thick vines, creepers and vegetation. The scene is starkly lit by our lights, the shadows quivering mysteriously in the breeze.
The jungle night sounds wrap around us and as we slowly slip by this towering wall, I’m so absolutely in the moment, with the smells, the jungle night sounds, the humidity and the breeze on my skin, the little taps of bugs hitting my exposed face, hands and arms as moths and gnats and who-knows-what bugs collide with my body.
For just a moment, I am suspended. I forget about my aching flat butt, heated hands and sore back. I recognize this all-encompassing feeling; it reminds me of SCUBA diving, that moment when you’re past the awkward and jittery phase of transitioning from a large dive boat plunging in ocean waves to the calm depths below the surface. That moment when your equipment is comfortably settled on your body, when your breathing slows and you relax into the sensation of water buoying you, caressing you, moving you perfectly in tandem with the fish that hover over the reef. That moment when you hold your breath for just a few seconds, so you can hear the pops of shrimp, the myriad of unidentified squeaks and grunts, and the crunching of the parrot fish as they bite off chunks of living corals.
It’s the experience of moments like this one that bring me back again and again to nature, the outdoors with few or no people or trashed and trampled environments. Sure the adventures are fun, meeting new people, learning about different cultures, being physically active and challenged by the newness and the unknowns of travel. But for me the magic is truly moments like these. So fleeting, so sublime, so few in a lifetime.
The ATM Cave
The day before our canoe adventure, we headed out in the early morning from the Mariposa Jungle Lodge, our digs for a 3-night “Belize jungle experience” that I’d cobbled together by spending hours on the Internet during months of planning for this vacation.
My usual approach for building a vacation plan had given us a running start. Beginning with a geographic area, I craft an itinerary based on the various things we want to see and do, then I really dig into the details, from finding a place to stay near our planned outdoor excursions and figuring out in-country transport options, to immersive time on TripAdvisor forums.
I keep a running spreadsheet of costs, set up online travel bots, sign up for numerous email and Twitter alerts (airlines/airfares) and correspond with local experts and property owners to glean the “inside” info. Often, I negotiate discounts based on pre-paying and between such negotiations, keeping copious notes, checking costs and adjusting itineraries, we save a LOT of money, avoid not a few unpleasant surprises, and are better prepared for the vagaries of a given locale while leaving a great deal of room for serendipity and last-minute adjustments due to weather, illness or just plain “I don’t wanna do anything today but relax”!
This day, our destination was the ATM cave, short for Actun Tunichil Muknal, located in the Tapir Mountain Reserve, just north of the Maya Mountains. Here we’re reminded no cameras, period. No nothing, really. Your guide will pack in anything you need: lunch, water, your specs etc. NO CAMERAS because some tourist a coupla years ago dropped a camera or accessory on an ancient human skull in the cave and broke the skull so, that’s that.
Thus I’m resorting to open-source pix taken inside the cave before the camera ban.
Check out more trip pix here.
After banging down the painfully rough track from the Mariposa out to the main highway for 40 mins and another 30-min trip off the main road and back into the jungle, we arrived at the parking area for the ATM cave tour. Off we trekked down the path, keeping a wary eye out for snakes sunning themselves in the places where the rapidly heating rays of the tropical sun penetrated the jungle canopy.
We crossed the same river three times (knee-deep, rapidly-running cold, clear water and slippery ankle-turning rounded stones) and kept going, spotting a lovely bright green Vine snake (non-venomous) and swatting at gnat-clouds attracted to our sweating bodies.
After 45 mins or so of hiking up and down trails we arrived at a clearing in the jungle featuring a rough-built palapa, an old wooden picnic table, a felled tree used for seating, and large trees all around for those who wish to relieve themselves. I trotted off down a path and followed my nose to an old privy– a hole in the ground surrounded by a tumbled down wooden structure, fallen tree limbs, dead palm leaves and a cloud of buzzing insects.
I returned to the mustering area, where our guide Gliss was loading new batteries into headlamps and strapping each onto the damp and slightly smelly plastic helmet we each had been given. Gliss explained that this area where we were standing was likely an ancient Maya ball court, due to the obvious work that went into leveling a large area of ground where level is simply not typical. He pointed to a massive limestone face that may have served as one wall of the ball court. The towering wall disappeared into the humid gloom, almost completely hidden by vines, trees and vegetation growing up, out and dangling down the face.
As it turned out, within that towering limestone edifice was the cave system we were about to enter.
Gliss led Robin, myself and another Mariposa guest, a petite and somewhat timid retired lady school teacher, down a short path that followed the curving wall. The sound of a rapidly flowing river became louder, then the forest canopy opened and before us appeared the huge gaping mouth of the cave.
The photos do this place justice– it was every bit as magnificent and intimidating as it appears. I consider myself pretty fearless, in a calculating way, so I was startled to sense my slight apprehension about entering this unknown, sorta spooky, certainly dark, dank and confining cave, with nothing beyond hiking sandals, a helmet and headlamp on my head, a cherry chapstick in one shorts pocket and a pair of old socks in the other.
But, no time to ponder the possibilities as we stepped gingerly down slippery rough-hewn wooden stairs to the water’s edge, slid over slippery rocks into that clear, frigid water up to our waists and next thing you know, we were swimming in 15 foot depths under the cave overhang and beyond, into the gloom of the cavern opening.
The shock of that 70-degree water hitting my tropical-sun-heated body literally took my breath away, but once I got past that I actually enjoyed paddling quietly into the cavern. I noticed swallows darting in the gloom overhead and became aware of every sound that was amplified, reflected off rock walls and the water’s surface. The too-loud splashing and squealing of the larger party ahead of us as they clambered out of the water onto a rocky ledge jarred as we drew closer. I wanted to just be still for a moment and soak up the atmosphere, the silence I knew this place could generate, allowing one to pick out little trickles and drips of water, the ripple of bird and bat wings, the background buzz of the jungle just beyond the cave opening.
But, such moments of solitude and contemplation are anathema to organized “tours”. Rather, we had to hurry up and get going; staying together, carefully in single file as we slapped along in our sandals, careful to watch our step on the uneven and sodden clay of the cave floor, or tromping confidently on gravel through the fast-flowing underground river shallows.
Squeezing through tight spots, we aimed our headlamps to assist with handholds to avoid razor-sharp rock and to aid in penetrating the often shoulder-deep water to help us find ledges or dodge knee-and-shin-knocker boulders. Sometimes we’d be in a skinny crevice that disappeared overhead, our feet feeling along a narrow ledge about 4 feet below the water, sidling sideways as we crept along a wall. More than once I allowed myself to slip off the ledge into the water quietly and swim alongside to encourage the nice schoolteacher lady, who was pretty freaked out by all this, already. And we were only into the first minutes of what would be three hours in that cave.
Can’t remember her name but whatever, she was very nice and I thought very brave in her determination to overcome her fears and to challenge herself to finish this expedition. She was certainly past 60, with a knee that simply would not bend, no upper body strength, and little self-confidence in bouldering and climbing heights in the pitch blackness, swimming in frigid water for unknown distances, balancing on a rusted and creaky 40 foot ladder that led to a slippery 90-degree squeeze around an overhang– yeah, stuff like that.
Clearly the brave lady felt safer right behind Gliss, so I followed and Robin brought up the rear, saying if she fell she would have all us to soften her landing, ha.
Around a bend there appeared a giant sinkhole off to our left in an area that looked like it would take 15 minutes to get to by clambering over boulders, some stacked on one another, all the size of a golf cart. Sunlight speared down into the hole from some 60 feet above us. Vines hung over the crumbled top, trees grew right out of the sides, and more massive trees crowded the margin, as if they too wanted to take the plunge.
That was our last view of sunlight for a couple of hours.
The further we penetrated into the cave, the more dense the humid atmosphere became. Our headlamps illuminated the condensation of our breath, adding to the suspended water molecules hanging in the air around us. We were soaked, cold from water immersion, and sweaty from exertion. The sounds of other groups receded into the vastness around us, and often the noise from the rushing river over shallow gravel beds, and us splashing doggedly against the current, drowned out any other sounds.
By the time we got to the first of many skulls, human bones, large and small smashed pots strewn about on various ledges and natural platforms, my feet were tired, my shoulders and neck sore, my lower back complaining, and my knees were inflamed. So far this had proven to be more Cirque du Soleil than a jaunt into the distant past. Between the climbing, clambering, balancing, tripping, mincing, squeezing, shin-cracking and neck-craning, my poor bod was a bit tired. But, we still had to get to the place where we were to take off our shoes, don socks, and stomp around for an hour or so over rocky, crumbly, slippery, ever more painfully rough cave surfaces, avoiding harming the mud while working our way to the very rear of the cave to see the really cool stuff.
Cool stuff: Amazing crystal formations, much as you will see in many a cave around the world. Lovely but really, how many stupidly named formations can you gawp at? However, there was an awesome and inspiring ceremonial stone plinth way up and over on a wide ledge, supporting two heavy angled stones about 3 feet tall, carved to look like the gaping maw of a crocodile. Well, at least the shadow cast on the massive cavern wall behind it sure looked like a crocodile. The question is- if the ancients didn’t have LED flashlights, would that have cast the same shadow when lit by a torch or a dozen? Good question. Gliss was full of many question like this, which caused us to scratch our chins and ponder. Or at least gave us an excuse to perch on a nearby rock and, for just one second, rest. But then- “Let’s move on!”
On to more slippery cave footing and more climbing to yet more ledges with pots and small fire pits and human bones and a skull or two and then, on our way to the pièce de résistance, we came upon the climbing challenge that I thought was going to cause a mission abort. Our intrepid nice retired school teacher positively balked, and even Robin turned quite pale in the lamplight when faced with this last bit.
First: place your left foot here, about two feet above the cave floor, flat against the wall. Now use your hands, reach across to this edge, get your right foot into place across this gap, over to this little ledge here, just wide enough for your foot. Now lever yourself up, using your thighs and quads and any muscle you may have down there — out and over the gap while reaching up to this handhold, right here, all lit up in the little circle from my headlamp. Then your other hand goes here- nope not there, here!
This was a challenge for folks with little or no climbing skills, but with coaching from Gliss above and myself below, they made it. Thank goodness Gliss had done this many times and had this traverse, and others like it, down pat.
No break in sight, though, as we arrived some 20 feet higher along this crevice. I found myself balanced with one foot on a small rounded, slippery and shiny limestone cap on top of a stalagmite. My other foot dangled in mid-air. I looked down and my headlamp revealed my perch– a large mushroom head, beyond which was a two foot wide chasm that dropped straight down to five foot tall jagged rock teeth below, the teeth seeming to twitch malevolently in the shadows from my light.
No time to study my predicament, as Gliss steadied my elbow and motioned for me to spin in place- yes spin in place, lean forward across that gap and sit right down there on that ledge. Quickly, now. Don’t think, just do it, then scramble away from that gap, stand up and go over there to take off your shoes. Time for the socks drill.
Holy cow. We all made it and, socks donned, we formed up into our single file again. Robin muttered “Did you see that gap? What the hell did we just do?” I replied “Shhhh,” and she understood it wasn’t a good idea to let on to the retired teacher what we had spotted. She had obviously been smart enough to follow Gliss’s instruction to not look down during that passage.
The full skeleton splayed out on the cave floor, carefully roped off with engineer’s tape, was worth the effort to achieve the viewing. Of course Gliss took the opportunity to fill us in on a bit of fact and a lot of educated guesswork about what, who, why this obvious display of a human corpse, way back in the day, way back at the rear of this cave.
The thing sure looked spooky there in the harsh shadows of our lights, the bones (or whatever they had turned into by now from leaching of limestone) appearing as fragile as piles of dust.
As we stood close together, a few feet from the skeleton, my claustrophobia crept in. The still and musty air, the closeness of our bodies squeezed in a narrow opening between walls, the deep pitch around us only barely penetrated by our weakening headlamps, the knowledge that we were heaven-knew-how deep under tons of rock — all combined to make me want to get the heck gone.
I was quiet most of the way back, as we retraced our steps back down the rusty ladder, across the cave floor that further bruised my tender soles. Back to the shoes (ahhh), back across that dang gap passage, down and down and swim and squeeze and swim some more and balance on tired legs, my back telling me it had had it.
Soon enough we were back in the twilight of the cavern entry, lowering ourselves one last time into now bitterly cold water, swimming out of the cave, out from under that huge overhang, slipping on rocks and soggy wooden steps, and back to the ancient ball court area, where a light lunch of fruit, a few strips of cheese and swarms of flies awaited us.
I could have eaten one of those Tapirs. Instead, we guzzled water, gnawed cheese, gulped fruit, swatted at flies, then started our 4 kilometer trek back up and down the jungle trail, re-crossing the river three times in the full heat of the equatorial afternoon. Steam rose from our clothes and heads, my sunglasses fogged, gnats and biting flies swarmed, sweat dripped into my eyes and the fine sand collected between my Teva outdoor sandal straps at every point they touched my skin, raising painful blisters.
Hey, this is what it’s all about. Eco-adventure! Jungle trekking! Caving! Thirst, hunger, full bladder, aching body, and beat up feet combined to make me feel every single year of my, er, age.
We survived, and it’s in the re-telling that I appreciate fully the effort, commitment, tenacity, determination and sometimes just plain blissful ignorance that drives me to take such a “vacation”. Luckily Robin and I are both adventurous enough to want to experience such things and are physically able to endure them. All in all, a tale worth telling but you know, I’ve done my caving thing now and, like climbing pyramids, I’ll move on to something different for the next adventure.
Coda: the two things our adventures typically have in common is History and Nature. Tubing through a cave or down a river with a bunch of screaming people, or zip-lining, or riding in a 4-wheeler tearing up the landscape or blowing through water hyacinths in an ear-splitting air boat, for instance, simply isn’t it. Just sayin’.
Next Stop: Turneffe Atoll
We spent three nights at our “jungle lodge”, which was situated on a ridge in the piney highlands of the Belize Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. This reserve is located within a large alluvial river valley that serves as the key area of the country for vegetable and fruit farms, cattle ranches and dairy farms, and has been supporting agriculture and human habitation for thousands of years.
All of which meant, if you want to experience anything jungle-like, you need to travel in a vehicle with shot suspension along the washboard, dusty limestone track for almost an hour to get down to one of the many rivers and creeks and that form a network within the Cayo district of Belize. There, you can escape the heavy layer of slash-and-burn smoke and the ubiquitous fine dust from limestone roadways that criss-cross this heavily farmed area of western Belize.
A feature of our getaways is the opportunity to exchange the pollen and other delightful particulate inhalations of Atlanta for the fresh air of the tropics. We deliberately planned our trip to Belize during the dry season, when the winds are calm and the waters warm for snorkeling. Also, travel to the Caribbean at this time of year typically offers off-season rates and fewer visitors, while avoiding the bug swarms and other drawbacks associated by the rainy season.
Not for the first time, we had deplaned in Central America at the Belize airport to a heavy pall of smoke caused by the relentless slash-and-burn agricultural practices that prevail in this area of the developing world. From the time we walked off the aircraft until left the coast in the wake of the dive boat transferring us to Turneffe Atoll, we coughed and choked on the heavy smoke, dust and the fumes of the petroleum-and-water mix infrequently sprayed by trucks over the more heavily traveled limestone tracks.
So, on Saturday we were quite ready to bid Goodbye to the wonderful staff at Mariposa. Safely ensconced in a newish van with AC and shock absorbers, we rode a couple of hours back down the Western Highway to Belize City on the coast. The pall of smoke had been dispersed somewhat by rising winds the past day, which meant we were anticipating a rough 90-minute boat ride out to Blackbird Caye Resort on Turneffe Atoll, some 25 miles or so off the Belize coast.
The resort’s 50-foot dive boat Big Bird handled the big seas just fine as we and the other dozen or so guests aboard jammed ourselves into the driest places we could find, bracing ourselves, our water bottles and any miscellaneous gear into positions that might spare us injury from the heaving of the boat as it crashed headlong into seas that were 5-footers or more.
We enjoyed a short respite from the gyrations as our passage took us through an area of pristine mangroves, where we could easily see the sandy bottom some 15 feet beneath the hull through clear water.
Finally, after what seemed hours of noisy and uncomfortable running, we approached Blackbird Caye and the deep channel that cut through the fringing reef to the protected waters inside, and the resort dock. I could see we were going to turn 90 degrees or more to line up for that channel, so I scooted over to Robin and yelled above the noise of the twin diesels, the wind and the waves slamming the boat to hold on, we were going to virtually come about and we were gonna take those seas full abeam. She nodded and we both found something to grip as, indeed, that big boat gave a mighty heave, crawled up the face of a wave I didn’t even want to look over at, and, with dexterity that told me our skipper was indeed a skilled pilot, we executed that turn and surfed right on through that channel and into the relatively calm waters of the inside of the reef.
Good thing everyone on that boat was an experienced diver and big seas boat passenger. Nobody got tossed, no gear went rolling over the deck, and calm expressions prevailed as we approached the dock and all began to gather their gear.
A significant tailwind gave us a couple of shoves as we stumbled along the dock boards. Once on land, I silently gave thanks to being on solid ground, even if my lower legs were getting sand-blasted.
This was our introduction to a wind-blown week on Blackbird Caye. We were here to snorkel every morning and afternoon, and to experience some of the most pristine coral reefs remaining in the Atlantic Ocean. But these high winds were weird– uncharacteristic for this time of year, these winds were more like what you’d see in the winter months, not in early May. My quick video panorama of conditions here: http://youtu.be/J8wffvrZwGY
Well, we were here, our room beckoned, we had a group orientation to attend in the palapa bar and then dinner, sleep, and we’d see what the morning conditions would be.
No other way to describe it, this was indeed awesome snorkeling, leaving nothing to disappoint.
While the morning seas were choppy inside the protection of the reef, and we had to do some energetic finning ever so often, we still had incredible visibility for most of the week, aided by the bright sunshine that lit up the corals and the amazing variety of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, rays and anything that caught our attention.
Our guide Chris was terrific- he was a patient and relaxed snorkeler, allowing us ample time to hang in spots to simply watch fish doing their thing, or to enjoy the view of soft corals swaying in the surge or a fish cleaning station taking on another customer. His knowledge of this environment was encyclopedic and he would point out critters in places I wouldn’t have known to look. Obviously he was well acquainted with the hidey-holes that certain critters or fish called home. You don’t become that acquainted with the locals without diving those areas a lot, and often.
I was delighted when he dove down to the sandy bottom to show us an electric ray. I have a trained eye to spot fish and critters, especially rays, but these electric rays totally had me baffled!
When Chris would spot an electric ray, he would take off a fin and, slowly sinking down to the bright white sandy bottom, he would gently slip the tip of the fin just under the nose of the ray. The ray then would raise itself from the bottom, none too fast, swim calmly a few feet away and settle down in another patch of sand. Then it would flip its wings a few times to cover itself with sand, and once again it was perfectly hidden in plain sight. Well, in plain sight for Chris, but not for me. I never did learn how to spot them accurately. Too many worm holes in the sand look just like the ray’s slightly oval, dark eyes.
Once, Chris pointed out across the sand and I looked and motioned “what?” and we floated briefly to chat. “Big ray over there,” he said. “Really?” I wondered. “Yes,” I remember him smiling impishly. “Really big ray.”
Oh, so I was looking for a Really big ray, and I sure spotted it. The animal was the biggest southern stingray I have ever seen, including the monsters that used to show up at Stingray City off Grand Cayman back in the early 1990s. Forget spotting the eyes, the bulges below the eyes were poking up at least 4 inches above the sand and the gap between them was easily 16-18 inches. When we approached (her, likely) she raised calmly up and, shedding sand in a big cloud, she moved off and soon swam out of sight. Holy cow, that was one monster stingray, easily the size of a dining room table seating six. I looked around for Robin and she was right there just off my shoulder, nodding emphatically and arching her brows.
Subsequent dives brought new and fabulous sightings and experiences. We spotted clouds of fish of almost every variety common in the Caribbean, including millions of tiny Sharp-nosed Puffer fish, breeding and dying.
Large predatory fish, from groupers to hog snappers, tarpon and barracuda were spotted. Turtles and spotted eagle rays swam in and out of the visibility curtain. Mature soft corals undulated in the currents. Unbleached corals reflected their true, healthy colors. Large hard corals, from brain coral to staghorn to elkhorn, were abundant. We even saw some sharks (although their numbers are very, very depressed.)
And–lobsters! Amazing. When we spotted a clump of five lobsters all crowded into a large hole in the reef, I got kinda teary-eyed because I realized, horrifyingly, that many years ago I had stopped looking for the signature antennae of these crayfish, once so common on the reefs of my native Florida. Heck, in the early 1970s I used to catch my limit of lobsters right off the coast of Dania beach in Ft. Lauderdale, within hearing distance from the tide line! I realized I had simply not seen lobsters anywhere in the Caribbean for many, many years. Not to say they aren’t out there but I had seen damn few, if any, in my travels criss-crossing the Caribbean basin for over a decade.
If I was gratified by this experience, I was equally, and familiarly, dismayed when comparing notes with the highly experienced, knowledgeable and trained fish-spotters we shared the resort with that week.
Reef.org www.reef.org is the web site for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, described as “… a grass-roots organization that seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists.”
Every one of these folks is self-funded, and this group was fully outfitted with underwater still and video cameras and laptops and editing software. Everyone did 2-3 dives a day with their slates, ticking off the fish they spotted. Each day the group would meet in the palapa bar at 5pm to review what they’d seen, count fish, review fish images to freshen memories, and share videos.
What an amazing group of dedicated divers. I was overwhelmed and humble in the face of their knowledge and dedication. I thought I knew my Florida and Caribbean fish species, including juvenile phases of many, but whew, these folks are da bomb! Several are easily classified as true EXPERTS.
It’s so cool that many of these folks have dived together in different seas around Planet Ocean. They give of their time, money, energy and enthusiasm to add to the international database of knowledge which is completely open to the public.
Too, these folks’ personal, hard-won experiences completely validate global climate change– not the cause(s), but most assuredly the impact on reef ecosystems. They remember all manner of locations back in the day and compare conditions, fish life, reef health, etc to today. Not a pretty picture- period.
Two of the member ladies were well into their 60s and were diving daily– and remember, the seas were massive, especially where they were diving, out in the open ocean, with no protective barrier reef. And that boat was a dangerous platform to get on or off, with all that gear and weight, even with the superior assist of the dive masters. It’s just plain hazardous to dive in 4-6 foot seas, under any circumstance. I surely enjoyed the confabs with these and others of the group over meals, and was delighted to share in their experiences.
The Great Blue Hole
This trip was simply amazing. A full day and a full contingent of divers aboard Big Bird, all of us off for a 90 minute drive out to the blue hole http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Blue_Hole where divers plumbed the depths and we snorkelers tooled around the reef on top. A highlight was being buzzed by two Cessna planes that would have made an interesting shot from the perspective of a snorkeler, but no camera in hand!
Then it was off to Half Moon Caye for more snorkeling, diving, viewing the Red Footed Booby colony, and of course a yummy BBQ in the shade of a palm tree grove with Frigate birds soaring high overhead.
Back aboard, we headed off to Lighthouse Reef for an amazing dive/snorkel on a world-class, virtually pristine reef.
By the time we got back to the dock, we were all tuckered out. Fish class was held, as usual, and after dinner folks drifted away to their cabanas to rest up for the following day’s dives.
Lionfish and the Green Moray
Many readers may know about the problem that lionfish pose in the Atlantic. The population of these non-indigenous predators have simply exploded across the Atlantic, impacting fish and reef systems in ways we’re only beginning to understand. They have few predators. Divers spear them whenever they can. Lionfish rodeos spring up all over and dive clubs and other groups are pitching in to attempt to undo what aquarists have done, but the genie is out of the bottle and who knows what’s in store for many fish species.
In any event, one day the group came back with an amazing video clip. The dive master had speared a lionfish and tucked the dead fish into a nearby hole in the reef. Along came a large green moray eel, swimming out in the open over the reef- a rare sight. The eel disappeared into a hole in the reef and soon reappeared, the dead lionfish now a large lump in the eel’s throat. The eel writhed and gyrated, using its body muscles much like a snake, to crush the lionfish. Then the eel opened its mouth wide and out floated one, two then more of the venomous lionfish spines. Scratch one lionfish. That was an amazing video.
Our last day the gale-force winds finally subsided, making for calmer conditions and better visibility underwater. Quick video pan: http://youtu.be/morXnFycNR4
A group of us went snorkeling that afternoon on the outside of the nearby reef. Suddenly someone yelled “Shark! Shark!” Rather than heading for the boat in a panic, this wise group all headed as quickly as their legs could propel them toward the person yelling!
I laughed into my snorkel as I joined the clutch of folks and, sure enough, below us in about 25 feet of water, lying quietly on the bottom was a large nurse shark– all 7 feet of it. Nice to see a shark– any kind, these days. The finning of sharks for shark soup and other uses has truly taken a toll in the world’s oceans. It’s quite a statement to have people swim toward a sighting rather than away. That could have been a black tip or a Caribbean reef shark or a bull shark or any shark, but the mere fact of spotting a shark is perhaps becoming a rarity, especially in some oceans. That’s a hell of a situation.
I’ve waxed philosophic and perhaps sophomoric in this posting, but I guess like our trips, my musings must come to a close. I don’t claim to have any real insights, just observations about our travels. More and more, these trips into the Caribbean are becoming bitter sweet, less fun adventure and more frequent and alarming exposure to What Man Hath Wrought.
I can say I’m not at all proud of the legacy my generation and the ones before us have left the planet. I can say that this trip has given me hope– hope that governments like that of Belize, in partnership with NGOs like Reef.org and just plain folks, are trying to save something for the future, even as we all grapple with the consequences of too many people, too little space, greed, overpopulation, environmental degradation, poverty, corruption, greed, ignorance, and more greed.
I reference a heroine of mine, Dr. Sylvia Earle, the famed oceanographer, explorer, environmentalist and National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence. Here’s her famous, award-winning TED talk in which she speaks of what she calls Hope Spots on the planet, marine protected areas critical to the health of the ocean: www.ted.com/talks/sylvia_earle_s_ted_prize_wish_to_protect_our_oceans
I’m certain I got the fishing gene from Mom. She was, like her father and her brother, a fishing fanatic. I recall being a wee thing, maybe in Kindergarten, being hauled off to the Indian River or the Banana River or the Jetties at Port Canaveral to sit in the hot shade and swat at mosquitoes while Mom would stand for hours on the shore or the breakwater or the jetty or the dock and cast and cast or maybe just watch a bobber. Fishing. Blech. Those fish stank, and when Mom would clean them it was icky and I didn’t think fish was very tasty- I much preferred macaroni and cheese or a hot dog. Or better yet, a brownie!
Considering we three kids grew up in and around the Indian River estuarine system on the east coast of Florida, and because we were allowed the full freedom to be outdoors from dawn to dusk (when we weren’t in school or doing chores or practicing for Band), I guess we were destined to become river rats. Although we resided in several homes in the area throughout the 1960s, we lived for the most part within a short bike ride of the western shore of the Indian River in north Cocoa, FL.
While hardly patient enough to spend the hours that Mom would spend stalking her fishy prey, my brothers and I were perfectly delighted to tramp up and down miles of shoreline and docks marked “Private! Stay Out!”, seeking to poke anything that moved in the brackish shallows, using our home-made fish gigs crafted from old broom handles, a couple of nails and some clothesline. To us, fishing with a rod and reel was a boring adult thing (and besides, we didn’t own any rods or reels). However, we did enjoy creeping along the stinky, slimy edges of the river exposed by the low tide, stalking the unwary Stingray or Blow Fish. Now THAT was pure adventure.
When we actually managed to successfully gig a Stingray or a fish that didn’t dart away quickly like say, a Blow Fish, we would stand around the poor creature as it flopped on the ground or the dock, gasping, while we would debate its fate. Now that we got it, what were we gonna do with it? You can’t eat a Blow Fish. And the good eating fish like Red fish and Trout and Red Snapper and Flounder weren’t here in the skinny shallows where we could see and gig them. So what to do? Leave them to die on the shore? That seemed a waste. Well then, throw it back in. So we did that a couple of times, but the critter died anyway.
I can’t claim any realization of Earth First or the onset of incipient enviro-consciousness. I do remember that, not long after we left that poor Blow Fish to desiccate in the sun, all three of us decided to turn our gigs into make-believe “spears”, which we used to terrorize tree trunks and palmetto bushes in the woods that lined the waterfront.
Years went by before I began my serious education in fishing. Mom’s second marriage (to a man who loved the water and saltwater fishing as much as she did) served as the flash point for my almost-ground-zero start in the fine art of in-shore , salt water fishing.
I think I was around 17 years old. I’d become a certified Open Water SCUBA diver that summer of my high school graduation, which only served to whet my appetite for anything having to do with the ocean. Oddly enough, as I learned more about the marine environment and the critters that lived in it, the more I appreciated, um, well, eating them!
Pretty much everything I ate was fresh caught, whether we hauled it in ourselves or purchased it from other fisher-folk. So, the more I ate and delighted in fresh seafood, the better I got at catching the fish. Made sense. However, I never was much for cleaning and filleting, so I was always stuck washing the dirty dishes. I saw it as a small price to pay for consuming such delicious fare!
I guess the point of this ramble is, once I was bit by the fishing bug, I was hooked. <heh>. The period I spent away from Florida and fishing was truly, a string of “dry” years. By the time I was able to move back to my home state and live near the coast again, I was in my 40s and able to indulge my passion. I couldn’t afford a boat with a motor, but I did manage to buy a sweet, super-lightweight fishing canoe, and for several years that canoe trekked the inland waterways, intra-coastal waters, and estuaries of the Florida Gulf Coast from the panhandle to the 10,000 islands. But mostly the eastern side of Tampa Bay, around Ruskin, near my house on Timberlee Rd.
I would have a lot more photos of fishing expeditions but I made up my mind years ago that trying to capture my fishing experiences in photos and a visceral enjoyment of the sport of fishing were incompatible. Mostly I have memories. And a few good stories – only one of which is about “the one that got away”!
Lisa and I were out in the canoe in a no-motor zone in the shallows of the eastern shore of Tampa Bay. It was a hot, late spring day. The bay water temp was chilly but warming up enough that the recent fishing report for the area indicated the trout bite was on, so there we were at mid-day during an incoming tide, paddling north along the mangroves in about 4 feet of clear water. I recall paddling quietly and idly watching how the bright sunlight lit up the eelgrass and the sandy bottom of the bay. I was startled when Lisa suddenly cried out “Ohmygod!” and pointed down at the water to starboard.
“What?” I shouted, snatching my paddle out of the water, expecting an imminent attack by a shark or something equally horrible.
“Money!” she stabbed her finger repeatedly at a spot somewhere further off the starboard side.
I looked, but just then the breeze riffled the water and blocked my view of the bottom. So we started paddling up and across the wind, trying to get back to the approximate spot where, Lisa swore, she’d seen bills, dollar bills and at least a fiver, lying absolutely flat on the sand bottom.
“There!” she yelled and, sure enough, I could see bills- greenbacks!- passing under the boat.
I quickly and gently dropped our little mushroom anchor overboard, letting the wind blow us back down a bit, just enough to put a bit of scope on the line but not enough to come off our spot. We waited for the cloud of sand the anchor kicked up to disperse and then, ever so gently, paddled the boat so that we pivoted on the anchor. Amazing! There, in about 4-5 feet of slightly greenish bay water, were a handful of greenbacks of different denominations scattered over the bottom. Some floated a couple of inches above the sand, entangled in the eelgrass, and some bills appeared as if they had been laid out on the hard sand bottom of the bay.
By now we were determined to grab those greenbacks, but how to manage that without stirring up the bottom and possibly losing them in the now-rising tidal current? We had to work fast.
Wouldn’t you know it, we didn’t have a fish net aboard, as we’d stopped carrying one because using them for catch-and-release often harmed fish. We discussed one of us going overboard in our fishing clothes (typically quick-dry shorts and a shirt anyway). Having volunteered to take the dip, Lisa slid overboard down current from the center of the area where the greenbacks were waiting. As she floated on the surface, careful to swim just enough to move slowly up-current but not disturb the sand, I paddled ahead of her, directing her to where I could see the bills.
Soon, she was dropping perfectly intact, if soaked, one and five dollar bills into the middle of the canoe. A handful! She hung onto the side of the canoe, keeping her feet still and floating above the bottom, while I paddled to keep us roughly in place. The technique worked, but before long she was cold and blue-lipped, so she clambered aboard and as she dried herself with the small hand-towels we kept in the tackle box, I scoured the bottom for more signs of greenbacks, but didn’t see any.
We rinsed the mud and sand off the bills and squeezed them out against the canoe bottom. Our haul was $42.00. Not bad for a morning’s fishing expedition, but I admit we were disappointed. We both had visions of a drug-runner’s stash of at least a thousand dollars being blown overboard and into our eager hands, but apparently someone had merely lost their wallet.
At any rate, our little adventure more than paid for the truck gas we’d used driving to the boat ramp, and also made for a lively phone discussion with Lisa’s parents, rabid salt-water fisher-folk, that evening.
“Went fishing today, out in the bay…”
“Yeah! Caught some greenbacks”.
A moment of silence on the other end. Then Lisa’s dad, in his Wise Old Fisherman Dad voice, offered the observation that one doesn’t CATCH greenbacks, ones uses greenbacks for BAIT.
“No Dad, I mean we got greenbacks. Money. Like forty-two dollars!”
Definitely a story that got passed around that fishing family for years.
Someone Else’s Fish
On another occasion, we were back-country canoe fishing among the mangroves on the east side of Tampa Bay and spotted a red and white bobber some 100 feet or so in front of the canoe. Ever mindful of the environment (and picking up free fishing tackle), we headed to the bobber to fetch it.
We approached the bobber and as Lisa stretched her hand out to lift it off the surface of the water, it suddenly darted away! We sat flabbergasted for a second, and then both laughed at the same time, when we figured out the dang thing must be attached to some poor fish.
The bobber came to a stop and floated quietly a few canoe lengths away. We decided to try a slow and cautious paddle through the shallow, clear water so as to avoid spooking the fish.
Once again, we approached the bobber, and once again as Lisa reached out, the thing darted away, coming to a stop 50 feet away. This time we scratched our heads, trying to figure out how we could be smarter than a fish and manage to sneak up on the thing so we could set it free! Obviously it was tired or it would take off and keep going. Ergo, we figured we could just try to run it down, and either it or we would tire first. We figured it was 2 to 1 so the fish should give up before we did.
Determined, we paddled around that little lagoon tucked between clumps of mangrove islets until we were sweating and cursing. Lisa finally snagged the line attached to the bobber with her paddle. As she drew the line toward her hand, the tension on the line was just enough to snap the line below the bobber. The fish swam away and she was left with the bobber and a foot or so of old fishing line in her hand.
“What was it? Did you see what kind of fish that was” I asked hopefully.
“Nope. It took off too quick.”
That was the one that got away, even if neither of us actually caught it in the first place!
This story may rightfully be deemed a SCUBA tale but I think it’s a much better fish story.
I was diving on a reef off of Harbor Island, in the Bahamas. It was a lovely morning, the bright sunshine spearing down through more than 30 feet of water to light up the colorful and fishy reef below. I had a cheap plastic underwater camera and was floating upright just off the sandy bottom, positioned to record the dive master hand feeding a few of the “tame” Nassau groupers. A small cluster of divers hovered nearby, eagerly watching the dive master as she pulled some goody from the front pocket of her BC (buoyancy compensator) and approached the reef.
Pretty soon, three or four large groupers swam out of their holes in the reef and slowly, almost hesitatingly, approached the dive master. I took a quick “establishing” shot, careful to capture the dive master, most of the fish and the group of tourists. I tried to crank the roll of film manually to the next frame, but the gloves I had on to protect from sharp coral (I stopped wearing gloves the same year, for all you SCUBA purists) made operating the film advance wheel quite impossible.
I used both hands to part the tough-to-rip-open Velcro pocket on the front of my BC, and removing my gloves, tucked them safely into the pocket. I remember pausing long enough to look toward the reef to check on the action and plan my next shot. While my eyes scanned the reef, my right hand fumbled to secure the Velcro pocket, while my left hand floated freely away from my body, buoyed by the light camera.
Suddenly my left hand felt like it was hit by a pile driver. In reaction to the shock, my whole body jerked convulsively. That is, all but my left hand, which strangely seemed to be locked in place, floating just above my left shoulder.
My peripheral view was blocked by the opaque skirt of my mask, so I had to pivot my head to see what the hell was causing that pain in my left hand. It took me a second to process what I was seeing: a big-ass Nassau grouper, its head mere inches from my face, a (really large) fish mouth partially open and completely engulfing my entire left hand- camera and all.
I think I just floated there, frozen, while I tried to figure out what the hell had happened and what I was gonna do about this situation. My first instinct was to grab the fish or otherwise use my right hand, but some instinct told me to just be still and think. So I did, and apparently so did the fish. It just hung there, impaled.
While one part of my brain prepared to crank up the panic, another part was amazed that I could see straight through the fish’s wide-open gills to my hand, which was formed in a fist, clutching the camera body. I could see the bright yellow of the plastic camera case, the black lanyard around my wrist and some, oh yeah, little drops of blood seeping out of the critter’s gills and floating lazily toward the surface.
My blood? Fish blood? Is fish blood red underwater?
I tried not to think about sharks. Instead, I tried waving my arm gently; to see if the fish would just spit me out. But no, all I did was drag the fish through a short arc. The grouper gave a twitch, and appeared to try to open its mouth. I waited. Nothing. It just hung there.
By now I had remembered all those marine biology books I’d read, and how those fish with teeth (especially predators) typically have teeth that angle into their mouth, to keep prey from easily swimming back out. So I tried hard to not pull back against this big guy (or gal’s) grip.
I tried a quick flick, to see if she (not sure when I decided this was a She) would take the hint and just let go. Her eyes rolled and suddenly her mouth gaped wide open and her gills seemed to strain to their furthest point, and just like that, she spat my hand out.
I quickly brought my hand close to my face, to assess what damage I could see through my fogged mask. My knuckles, all five of them, were cut, rather deep, and more cuts decorated the back of my hand. Fingers were intact, probably because I had instinctively formed a fist when the hand was swallowed.
Droplets of blood were floating toward the surface, and even as I watched, the droplets were starting to run together into a stream. Back to the Velcro pocket I went, fishing for my left glove. As I was trying to get the angle to see into my pocket, the grouper swam into my field of vision, right next to my pocket! She obviously wanted food and thought I had some in there. Didn’t she learn her lesson a minute before?
While I fished for my left glove and struggled to pull it over my torn hand, I kicked at the dang pest, which only served to send me into a half flip but which didn’t dissuade her in the least. She nosed into the pocket. I flicked her nose with my right hand. Go away!
More worried about blood trails than the grouper, I thought to use the camera lanyard to twist the glove closed around my wrist so that I might continue the dive. I looked at the camera. The body was cracked, all photos ruined. Damn! Fleetingly I hoped the fish had taken a picture of the inside of her mouth, but I could see water in the viewfinder. That camera was toast.
By now I had drifted some distance away from the reef, lost my neutral buoyancy and floated toward the surface. I was torn between swimming back down to the reef and joining the group for the rest of the dive, but the grouper was hovering just below my feet, and as I dithered, too distracted to correct my buoyancy, I continued to float upward.
Oh hell. My knuckles were starting to throb and blood was seeping from the glove. I decided to just go back to the boat, doctor the knuckles and get ready for the second dive of the day- on a different reef, hopefully away from any activity that featured “tame” fish or anything else that could swallow a body part with one gulp.
Nobody on the dive had witnessed my incident with the confused grouper, but when I showed my (more severely lacerated than I first thought) left hand, eyebrows went up. Followed by tittering, then outright laughter. Oh yeah. Ha-ha.
The dive master interrupted the hilarity, suggesting that people might want to buy cheap cameras that were a different color than yellow and showed us why, by reaching into her BC pocket and producing the enticing goodie that the local fish had been trained to love- a bright YELLOW can of Cheez Whiz!
PS: For the uninitiated, “grouper fingers” are thin strips of filleted grouper, battered and fried. The lightest batter, the freshest oil and of course the freshest fish make for a lip-smacking treat- without the need for Cheez Whiz.
When I was around 12, I made up my mind I was going to learn to SCUBA dive. Watching the old Sea Hunt episodes on TV served as the initial inspiration and a steady dose of Jacques Cousteau TV specials in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s served to cement my fascination with the sport. Being raised virtually surrounded by water on the east coast of Florida, I spent a great deal of time outdoors, swimming in pools, the ocean, the rivers and even abandoned limestone quarries that had filled with seepage from the fresh water aquifer that underpins much of the state. By the time I came to live in Ocala, in the north central part of the state, I added fresh water springs to my list of underwater places I simply had to explore.
I was 17 and my younger brother John was 15 when we managed to convince Mom to put us through the basic open water diver’s certification course. We knew SCUBA would come naturally to us. After all, we kids swam and snorkeled like fish; water skied in lakes, paddled canoes and kayaks with aplomb, and operated small gas engine boats with skill and caution. We had little fear of diving from a high fork of a water oak or swinging on dangerously slippery ropes into fast-running currents of the many rivers in central Florida. We were respectful, but not fearful of the alligators, snakes, snapping turtles and people floating in inner tubes that often thickly populated the many bodies of water we explored.
We believed that adding SCUBA diving to our outdoor skills was a given, and were egged on by visits to nearby Silver Springs, where we swam in the crystal clear waters of the main spring. Back in the early 1970s, locals could get onto the grounds of the attraction on a cheap “day swim” ticket. This gave us access to the breezeways between the ice cream shop and the souvenir shops, where framed publicity photos festooned the walls.
We learned that many of the Sea Hunt episodes had been filmed at Silver Springs, as well as Tarzan movies and titles ranging from “The Yearling” to “Rebel Without A Cause”. Over the years the list has grown, from underwater sequences of James Bond films and National Geographic specials, sequences featured in Crocodile Hunter and Discovery Channel and too many commercials and documentaries to count. We just knew it would be SO cool to stay underwater and explore wrecks and caves and dodge sharks.
I gained my basic underwater certification in 1972, from the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools, now defunct. John couldn’t hack the math and never managed to pass the final written exam. No problem, we figured I could always rent gear for him on my card and we could still dive together, which we did on numerous occasions in the 1970s.
I did my open water checkout dive on Molasses Reef off Key Largo in the northern Florida Keys. Then, the reef was wonderfully alive, full of fish and massive brain coral, stag horn and elk horn corals. Captivated by the sensation of floating along, listening to the snaps and crackles of fish and shrimp, I had to constantly remind myself to check my bottom time, air and depth gauges to ensure I didn’t overstay my time or use too much air before returning to the boat.
The basic skills of SCUBA came as natural to me as breathing, and I quickly learned to fine-tune buoyancy by inhaling and exhaling while naturally orienting my body to the current and surge. I felt just like the fish, free in this watery world. I still remember floating just off the sandy bottom between reef heads, gazing upward at the shafts of light arrowing through the shallows, where soft corals waved back and forth in the surge. I had spent weeks studying books on marine species and silently named everything I could see, from southern sting rays and moray eels to Nassau groupers, yellow snappers, soft and hard corals. I learned to look in tiny crevices for snapping shrimp and kept my eye out for nudibranchs, as well as fish-cleaning stations – just like the ones I’d seen on one of those Jacques Cousteau specials!
Captivated, I continued my diving education in the cold springs and rivers in central Florida. Wearing a wet suit and diving in the 72 degree water of the springs wasn’t quite the thrill of diving on a fishy reef, but I learned to appreciate the unique aquatic environments that were close to home, and managed to get myself into a couple of close calls underwater that taught me valuable lessons about just how dangerous diving can be if you don’t keep your eyes peeled and pay close attention to where you are and what’s going on around you.
I found a diving buddy in my best friend’s husband. S was a good teacher, with almost a decade of diving under his belt. I felt safe in his company, even if I doubted my ability to successfully pull his 6 foot 4 inch frame out of a scrape. Thankfully I never had to save his bacon, but he had to come to my rescue on two occasions that still give me the willies today, remembering them.
S introduced me to diving in the rapid current of spring fed rivers. My first experience was on the Silver River, which flows from the headwaters at Silver Springs, running clear and cold until a few winding miles downriver, where it flows into the Ocklawaha River, which is a black water river, stained opaque by the tannin from the trees that line this natural waterway.
We entered the Silver River from a short canal dredged from a public boat ramp. Locals know it as the Boat Basin. We hauled our gear along a muddy, root-filled path beside the canal to where it met the Silver River proper. S warned me that I would sink into the soft bottom at the edge of the river bank, so I carried my flippers and stepped into the water with my mask and regulator firmly in place. Good thing, because I sank up to my butt in that muck, weighed down as I was by the tank and weight belt. I wasn’t strong enough to pull myself out as S had, so he yanked me loose, and I tumbled into the current of the river, rolling on my back to quickly don my flippers, peering through the cloud made by the current washing the mud off my legs. I rolled back over and quickly finned toward the bottom to avoid the prop of any boat that might buzz by.
Technically, we were, um, breaking the law diving this section of the Silver River. S said it was dangerous, the narrow river flowing swiftly and boats zipping overhead. The river wasn’t very deep, maybe 40 feet in spots, but the branches from fallen trees could snare the unwary, and many lures, with rusty, nasty hooks hung down from these obstructions, some strung tightly enough to garrote a diver, some swinging in the current waiting to snatch a body part or equipment. So, yeah I guess this was a crazy idea but we figured if we stayed in the middle of the river, went with the flow, listened for boats and hugged the bottom when they came overhead, we should be fine. The visibility was astounding. I could see across to the either riverbank underwater. Or what I believed to be the banks. It was hard to tell through the forest of tree limbs and branches.
Believe me, the last thing on my mind was fear of ‘gators or snakes. I had my hands full, following the mass of bubbles created by the movement of S’s flippers, keeping my body oriented downstream to a current that kept trying to flip me ass over teakettle, watching for obstructions, and maintaining height over the bottom to avoid the deep eel grass that lay almost flat from the pressure of the current.
The eel grass fascinated me. I knew that large catfish, which the locals called “sucker fish” hung out in the grass. I had seen some as large as 4 feet in length swimming in the head water of Silver Springs. I’m not sure why, but for some reason they creeped me out, far more than the thought of bumping into a ‘gator.
I must have been daydreaming about sucker fish, because the next thing I knew I felt something grabbing the base of my neck, which rapidly stopped my forward motion. The current immediately grabbed my lower body, levering my feet toward the surface from the force of the water. I couldn’t swim up, dive down or, worse, twist around to see what I was hung up on. As I fought off the panic and tried to feel between my shoulders I felt S push my butt toward the bottom and pat me on the shoulder. I was pretty freaked, but knowing he was there helped me to calm down. He jerked at stuff at the base of my neck, while masterfully keeping us together in the pull of the current. I could feel him tugging on the hose of my regulator and felt my hair being pulled out by the roots, which didn’t help the panic. I envisioned being tangled on a tree branch or limbs, and he must have pulled my hair, which was long and tied into a ponytail, out of a snarl.
As I recall, S pulled me gently up-current a few feet to clear what I could now see was the fork of two tree limbs festooned with densely packed branches. A clod of sand and mud kicked up from the bottom mostly obscured the scene, and we didn’t hang around to study the area. Holding my hand, S quickly tugged me along toward the center of the river. My brain was settling down from the panic, and I mulled over how stupid I was, thinking about those damned sucker fish, allowing myself to drift toward the river bank. I remember resolving to pay attention from now on. I had just had a personal lesson on just how hazardous this sport could be.
In the middle of the river S motioned for me to follow him to the surface. I lifted up my mask and removed my regulator to ask what the hell had happened, and he quickly told me to keep my mask on and regulator in my mouth and listen. He was holding onto me while we drifted down-current. No boats were in the area and we were well clear of the riverbanks.
S spoke fast, telling me I’d gotten hung up in a tree and he’d had to cut my hair where it had gotten entangled with branches that had caught the first stage of the regulator. Thank goodness he had a dive knife strapped to his leg. He apologized for chopping my hair, but went on to say we had to get down to the bottom before a boat came by and that he’d stay right beside me and let me know when we were close to the place where we were to get out.
Memory is a funny thing. I can recall a lot of that dive in great detail. I remember shaking from the cold and fear but feeling steadied by S’s calm, reassuring manner. I had no idea where I was, or where we were to get out to walk back to the car. I was completely dependent on S, which was a scary thing, if I think about it.
I remember just wanting the dive to end, and spent the next unrecalled period of time concentrating on staying right next to S, not floating higher, not sinking deeper. I kept sweeping my head left and right to try to see the river banks, but the river was getting wider, which meant the current was slowing down. There were fewer bends in the river now, but the water was also not a clear as earlier, and visibility was dropping rapidly. I guessed we were getting near the spot where the Silver River let into the Ocklawaha River, where S had said we would end the dive.
S motioned me to follow him to the surface. He broke the surface before me and, quickly ducking down again, he pushed my shoulder so I stopped rising. Then he turned his face mask directly to mine and I could see him grin around his regulator mouthpiece and wiggle his eyebrows, almost concealed beneath his wetsuit hood. He had some mischief in mind. I was in no mood for games but gave him the OK sign when he motioned for me to wait a second. I floated almost vertical about 4 feet from the surface and watched as he very slowly eased his head out of the water.
S motioned for me to surface and as I popped up next to him, he took the old-fashioned, single-stage regulator mouthpiece from his mouth and let it fall into the water, where it dangled around his neck, bubbles seeping up to the surface. He grinned and said “See down there?” He motioned with his head to the left bank of the river, which was about 80 feet away. Downriver, on a flat section of the bank, a woman was sitting on a bucket, cane-pole fishing. A small boy played in the shallows next to her. Neither of them had seen us yet. S said “Let’s have some fun. Stay next to me, float as low in the water as you can. Keep an eye on them and don’t be surprised when I push you back down fast. OK?”
I was puzzled but nodded. I let air out of my buoyancy compensator to lower myself so that my mouthpiece and chin were underwater and paddled to keep myself vertical, watching the boy and the woman. We quietly drifted downstream to almost directly across from them, but still neither had spotted us, probably because we were so low in the water, with a dark riverbank of trees behind us. Also, it had become cloudy and the wind was ruffling the surface of the river. S had on a black wetsuit hood and my dark hair probably didn’t stand out.
Suddenly, S took the mouthpiece out of his mouth and raised it above his head. The regulator let out a loud and sustained HISSSSS, which startled me as it echoed off the trees lining the river. I got a glimpse of the boy’s face as he lifted it, jumped straight up from a crouch and screamed at the top of his lungs “Mommy! Mommy!” while pointing frantically in our direction. The woman was twisted away from us on her bucket, fiddling with fish on a stringer. I saw her start and lift her head, and then the next thing I saw was a froth of bubbles as S shoved me, hard, below the surface. He was looking into my mask. His mouthpiece was back in place and he was laughing so hard that bubbles were pouring out all around his lips. I whooped into my regulator and almost lost my own mouthpiece. What a hoot!
Some minutes later I was still chuckling to myself, even as I was shivering from the cold, when S grabbed my hand, motioned “up” and led us to a broad section of the river bank under the old barge canal bridge that spans the Ocklawaha. I remember us clambering out of the river, laughing our asses off. My teeth were chattering, I was so cold, but I managed to get my flippers, tank and weight belt off. S was howling with glee. “Did you see that? Man, that kid is NEVER gonna be able to convince his momma that he saw a sea serpent or whatever the hell we looked like to him. You just KNOW she didn’t even see us. And that regulator hissing? That was brilliant! Too damn funny!” And so on.
I was freezing and drained from too many adrenaline rushes that day for it all to sink in. The story was much funnier in the retelling to his wife, which we did when we got to their house, toweled off, changed clothes and got some hot coffee in us.
As funny as that part was, the scary getting-stuck-on-a-tree thing gave me pause. Not to mention my mangled pony tail. I remember my mother being horrified when I walked into the house that evening. The first thing out of her mouth was “What happened to your HAIR?” I got into a bit of trouble for diving in the Silver River, which my step-father knew was a seething mass of obstructions. “Hell, I won’t even run my little boat that far down the river to avoid damaging the prop,” he admonished me. So I had to promise to never dive in the Silver River again or any other body of water where it was illegal to dive. I kept that promise. Well, more or less…
My SCUBA log book was starting to get pretty full, mostly with entries of dives in the fresh water springs and rivers around my home of Ocala, in north central Florida. Then, in the early 1970s, you could readily access spring heads for diving and snorkeling. Today, some of the places I dived are either on private property or are managed by the State of Florida and closed to diving. Then, the boat traffic was virtually non-existent except on holidays or summer weekends, compared to the rafts of boats crowding every navigable waterway and spring head in the state today. What used to be quiet, pristine and out-of-the-way spots have turned into a seething mass of humanity, with all the attendant dangers to manatees and pollution of the environment. And noise. But I won’t get on my soapbox about that at this juncture.
The moral to this little tale of lost-woman-in-an-underwater-cave-at-night is: oh gee, pick one. Don’t cave dive if you aren’t a certified cave diver? Or how about: familiarize yourself with the intended night dive location during the day before you embark on your FIRST ever night dive? Or: bring your very OWN waterproof flashlight?
Well, I was actually quite familiar, I thought, with the main spring at Crystal River. This has hosted likely thousands of neophyte SCUBA divers through the years as a popular spot for “open water” checkout dives, mostly for those who can’t afford the time or expense of a trip to a tropical marine environment to complete their basic certification. What, me worry?
My mom and step-father had a little condo with a boat slip on King’s Bay, an offshoot of Crystal River located just a couple of minutes by boat from the main spring. They had both a small boat (either a 16 foot Jon boat or a 16 Boston Whaler, depending on the year) as well as a larger boat that they took down river into the Gulf of Mexico. We kids would spend weekends with our folks, typically out on the big boat, fishing in the Gulf. Over several years we became quite familiar with Crystal River and its byways, creeks and spring heads. Plus, our step-father had been boating out of Crystal River for over many years, and knew this section of the coast intimately from Yankeetown to Homosassa.
I had dived the main spring at Crystal River several times, always during the day. Technically, it is considered a cavern, not a cave, in that there is no truly enclosed cave portion. But that doesn’t mean a diver can’t get disoriented (like, um, at night, with no flashlight?) and manage to (stupidly) swim up into a chimney-like formation, get jammed, be unable to reach down to the knife strapped to the inside of her leg and bang on her tank to call for help.
I was stuck up in that chimney like a sausage. Couldn’t go up. Couldn’t go down. (Which was up anyway?) I could twist at little, but kept banging my head and tank on rock. Wondered at what point my still-youthful life was going to go flashing by my mind’s eye. Tried to figure out how I’d gotten in here in the first damn place. Tried not to breathe so damn fast- couldn’t afford to hyper-ventilate at this point.
I remembered some story about how people lost in a (dry) cave, without flashlights, had managed to get out by keeping one hand on a side wall and just kept walking. I was reaching out to try to figure out which part of my prison was a side when I felt a hand clamp on my calf. My dive buddy, S, to the rescue. Of course it was him. After all, we were the only two humans in the spring head that weekday night in the month of November. The only two people who had anchored the Jon boat at the grassy edge of the spring, about 9:00 pm: who had flipped overboard backwards from opposite sides of the boat and finned over the eel grass to the black edge of the gaping spring, demarked by the force of the water from below pushing against our facemasks and regulator mouthpieces.
I forgot the shock of the first rush of cold water pouring into my wetsuit as we floated about 20 feet below the surface of the spring. S had turned off the only underwater flashlight we had between us, letting our eyes become accustomed to the starlight which, in the gin-clear water, illuminated the limestone walls of the spring for 20 or more feet down. We floated for a few more minutes and I remember being awed by the sensation of being suspended between the water and the stars. When I rolled on my back, held my breath and gazed upward, there was absolutely no indication of where the surface of the water ended and the air began. It was a feeling somewhere between falling and rising, but I wasn’t disoriented or dizzy. Just amazed.
S turned on his flashlight and we floated down some 45 feet to the sand and began to slowly swim around the walls of the spring, ducking in and around broken columns of limestone, always ending back in the center of the spring, floating. We had all the bottom time in the world, as we wouldn’t even reach 60 feet of depth on this dive, so we turned somersaults in mid-water and played with the glow sticks that S had brought along.
We surfaced to decide if we were ready to leave or stay a bit longer, and noticed it had started to sprinkle rain. I asked if we could do one more circle of the spring and S agreed. His flashlight provided ample illumination for me to clearly see S’s shape just ahead of me, and because we hadn’t kicked up sand from the spring bottom, the water was still very clear. I must have been lulled into a false sense of security or else the cold was seeping into my brain, because I deliberately hung back from S as he swam from behind a limestone column. I recall turning left, going up and following what I thought was a slightly different route to go around the same column. Next thing I knew I was in the dark, alone, banging my head and tank and in a jam. Literally.
I was sure my heart was going to quit working, it was thumping so hard. It didn’t slow down a bit when S patted my calf with what I interpreted as a “relax, I’m here” gesture. I remember feeling the water move around me and then, of all things, there was his face mask glinting a few inches from mine. He shined his flashlight under his mask to light his face and gave me the OK sign, which I returned quickly, banging my elbow painfully on rock. He craned his neck forward and peered into my face, cocked his head sideways and I saw his other hand come up in a “so-so” gesture. Leave it to S to tease me at a moment like this. I just hung there in the water, giving him an emphatic OK sign. I wanted to scream at him to quit messing around to get me the hell out of here. Which he promptly did, by placing a hand on each of my shoulders and shoving me straight down – apparently with enough force that I missed the walls and came squirting backwards out into the open spring, easily clearing the side wall of limestone. I let my body complete the somersault motion, and I remember floating there, limp, trying to get my heart rate down.
S finned up to me and, shining the flashlight between us so that neither of us was blinded, he looked into my mask again, as if to say “Well, are you OK or what?” I gave the OK sign and shakily rubbed the top of his wetsuit hood as if to say “Good Boy”.
We ended the dive by breaking open a couple of glow sticks, watching the little green firefly-like lights spread out in a random pattern between us and the stars and the surface of the water, which I could clearly discern because of the pattern that the rain was making on the water’s surface.
After that experience, I decided that I would limit my night diving to open water. No caves, no caverns, no wrecks, no swim-throughs. Nothing overhead! But of course I couldn’t have known then that I might, just, be tempted to ratchet up my now well-developed and hard-won claustrophobia with a daring night dive. But that was a few years in the offing. First, I had to experience a few more heart-racing moments underwater, like a case of the bends and life-threatening panic at 75 feet in a roaring current.
In SCUBA class, we had to study all sorts of esoteric stuff designed to help us grasp that our human bodies are A) not designed with gills, and thus B) our bodies are subject to, well, all sorts of esoteric stuff when we SCUBA. Like Henry’s Law. I got that one on the test, no problem: If inert gas is forced to come out of solution too quickly, bubbles form inside the body and are unable to leave through the lungs causing the signs and symptoms of the “bends” which can be itching skin and rashes, joint pain, and sensory system failure.
Some people struck by the bends can be partially paralyzed. Some people have been completely paralyzed. Some have died. And some, like me, got really, really lucky.
I was 25, in great shape and an experienced (I thought!) diver, and decided to visit Palm Beach in Florida for some wreck diving. Near the end of a fairly stressful dive in barely manageable current to 80 feet on an old freighter, I found myself abandoned by my buddy-of-the-moment. Most of our little group had already headed for the surface, so I made my way alone to the anchor line and began to gently move hand over hand along the line, maintaining my 1 foot per second rate of ascent, like a good girl. Rising at this rate is designed to allow those nasty gasses to stay where they are and not form a bubble in an inconvenient place, like at a joint, or along the spine. Of course, it didn’t help that the current was trying to pry me off a line that would go from almost slack to a snapping tautness as the boat, far above, rode 5 foot waves.
I was kinda freaked in the turbid water. I couldn’t see the surface, I couldn’t see the bottom and so at one point I cupped the line in one hand and the next thing I know I was snatched up along the line like a leaf blowing in the wind.
When I saw the bottom of the dive boat crashing into the waves above me, I braked on the line and thought “Hmm, I wonder if I’ve come up too fast?” No time to dither, I needed to get aboard, someone was hanging onto the tag line off the stern of the boat waving at me to hurry up.
The group enjoyed a short surface interval (well within the safe limits, for all you divers out there), then popped overboard for a short dive on a shallow reef. An hour or so later, I was back in the NoTell Motel room, sitting down for a sandwich, when I was suddenly struck with nausea, dizziness, slurred speech and a narrowing of my peripheral vision. When I registered numbness in my fingers and toes, I suspected I might have a problem.
Luckily I had a (non-diving) friend with me, and I managed to mumble instructions to call the nearest recompression chamber, which I knew was just a few miles up the road. We were told to get there fast, to be met by a dive physician and a recompression team. What an ordeal! I was immediately given oxygen to breathe (in-between bouts of tossing my cookies into a convenient bucket) and given some sort of blood thinner shot while the physician carefully questioned me about my dive profile. How deep? How long? Did I come up too quickly? (uh, well, I think so, yessss…) Another dive? How deep? How long?
The oxygen helped clear my head but let me tell you that shot did some weird things to, um, all of my mucus membranes. They were- all of them mind you – stinging like a hoard of bees, which was another unwelcome distraction.
I was muzzy-headed as the team worked out a re-compression profile and popped me into the chamber, which I idly observed looked just like they do in the movies and on TV. Big. Tubular steel. Cold. Daunting.
A diver attendant was locked in with me and the pressure was on. Literally. I was told to lie down on a cot squeezed into that tiny space and the attendant gave me a heavy telephone handset which I barely managed to keep to my ear. All I wanted to do was sleep but the weirdly echoing voice in the headset kept hectoring me to stay awake and answer questions ranging from what my name was to who the president of the U.S. was at the moment. I remember looking through a small, thick glass porthole at a blurry face and thinking “What the hell is this, civics class?”
Meanwhile, my poor re-compression buddy was in a great deal of pain- he had a head cold and was having a real struggle to equalize his ears. After a few minutes the pressure was raised, he was locked out and I was left alone to go back to listening to the banging and hissing of the chamber being pressurized to different depths. I breathed oxygen, yakked on the phone and fought off sleep with silly answers to questions.
My apparent sense of humor was reassuring to the team, so after an hour or so when I complained of being hungry, they raised the pressure, brought in a tray of something yummy that I don’t recall, then it was back to the depths. Somehow I managed to eat, take tokes from an oxygen mask, yak on the phone, and keep my face near the porthole so they could see me if I passed out or worse.
Four hours later, when I was finishing up the paperwork for services rendered, I listened closely as the dive physician explained that although I was well within the safe limits for depth, time and so forth, my little ride up the anchor line had likely caused a bubble to emerge somewhere near the base of my neck. Wow. Close call. That could have meant paralysis from the neck down. But, I was lucky enough to be re-compressed quickly and to receive what I fully appreciated was the very best medical care. I was pronounced hale and hearty and sent on my way, to fall exhausted into a 12 hour sleep.
The best advice I got that evening was to limit myself to dives to 60 feet or less. After all, a diver can travel the world and see many things within the sport diver limit of 60 feet. I was reminded that the dive tables were developed for Navy SEALs, strapping big guys, and not for people of my smaller frame (I was 5’5”, 120 lbs at the time), and I would be safer to just avoid such depths- and perhaps to avoid diving in high currents. Sound advice, which I have striven to follow ever since.
It was a hot August Sunday. Mom and Harry were out on the Gulf of Mexico, grouper fishing in their new Bayliner. Brother John was off with friends in the nearby Ocala National Forest, water skiing on one of the larger lakes in the area. I was slated to SCUBA dive the Silver River with S____, my dive buddy and best friend’s hubby.
Fast-forward to early evening, everyone’s arriving at the house simultaneously. Mom and Harry are acting strange. The station wagon doors and rear gate are propped open, a carload of fishing and boating gear abandoned. I enter the kitchen and there they are chattering loudly and a bit frantically as they mix cocktails with shaking hands.
I tried to get a word in edgewise to tell them of my near-death SCUBA experience (see earlier blog entry) and I’m floored into silence as I catch something to the effect of a Great White shark menacing the Bayliner. “What?” Amazed, I stood transfixed, my chopped off hair standing almost straight out, as I listened to their tale.
There they were, 20 or so miles out in the Gulf, a glassy, hot day and no fish biting when Mom idly glanced over the side and spotted what she thought was a whale shark swimming slowly alongside the boat.
Harry had just set the anchor and settled down to fish from the bow when Mom said something to him about a whale shark sniffing around, and he laughingly asked her how many gill slits it had. The water was clear and she had no problem counting five, and reported the same. “Right number of gills, does it have spots?” Harry asked, still concentrating on his fishing.
“Honey, um, I don’t see any spots and this thing is really big”, Mom reported. Harry said he could tell she was no longer fascinated. In fact, she was nervous.
“You need to come back here and see this thing,” she called out and as Harry made his way aft he spotted the dorsal and upper caudal and tail fins of what he immediately recognized as a shark– a really big shark.
Turns out the dang critter was indeed a Great White, painstakingly identified by both fisher folk, as they had plenty of time to study the fish while it described figure eights just off the transom.
“It’s the live well,” Harry said. “It smells the bait.” No reply from Mom. She watched, transfixed, as the fish swam close by the side of the boat. Mom reported that when it rolled slightly and “glared” at her through that black eye, her bones went cold. When she computed that the shark was a bit longer than their 24 foot boat, that’s when she hit the panic button.
The finer points of their stories diverged at that point, but they agreed that a sudden urge to leave the area hit them both simultaneously. They burst into action, Mom taking the helm while Harry scrambled onto the bow to fetch the anchor. The damned engine refused to turn over and Harry decided to snatch the anchor line aboard rather than drive up to it, the more reasonable and efficient approach.
Mom said Harry must have snatched a good 50 or more feet of line aboard in one pull. Then he cussed a blue streak at the engine refusing to turn over, while Mom stood exactly amidships, behind her co-pilot’s seat, keeping as much distance between her and the shark as possible.
When the engine caught, Mom said Harry snatched the thing into forward and she fell backward, luckily into the rear bench seat rather than overboard. They both said they didn’t slow down until they hit the mouth of Crystal River, over 20 miles to the east.
I was still trying to take it all in when Mom cried “What happened to your HAIR?” I launched into a soft-pedaled version of my getting-stuck-in-a-tree-underwater story when my brother John tumbled through the garage door and said “Holy Cow, wait until I tell you what happened to me today!”
Another round of babble ensued as we all talked at once, until Mom held up her hands and said something like “Let’s take turns so we can all hear”. We laughed and in the lull, John told a brief but harrowing tale of getting caught in a waterspout on the lake in the Ocala National Forest.
Now, my brother has been given to slight exaggeration in his story-telling but I was immediately convinced of his veracity by the lacerations on his face, neck and the exposed skin of his chest, back, arms, legs and feet. He’d been wearing only a pair of shorts while skiing and you could clearly see the line at the shorts where the sand-scrubbing left off and protected skin began. He was still digging sand out of his eyes, nose and ears and, apparently, other orifices we didn’t press him about.
Turns out that twister rammed the boat into the dock, destroying the dock and totaling the boat. Only the engine was salvageable. Apparently, the boys and their parents watched from the screen porch as John disappeared behind a “brown, muddy” wall of water before the family ran inside the house. Several huge old water oaks on the property were toppled by the water spout, leaving deep holes and massive root systems exposed.
At some point we all calmed down, unpacked the car, took our showers, shared a meal and decided that nobody’s story was the “best”. It was another One Of Those Days, with a weird kind of synergistic coincidence, resulting in tales too strange to concoct!