Part of me lies at 40 feet where moments of awe and joy are with me still even after returning home late Sunday. I’ve got a raging head cold which fortunately began on the day of our return –literally mid-air–from our “low-country” island paradise. No worries though; honestly, my pounding head has not dampened my spirits one bit.
So….we are back from six days of scuba diving in the Caribbean; the lovely island of Bonaire to be specific. The last time I visited this pearl was seventeen years ago. Discovered around 1499, this tiny gem lies 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is neighbor to nearby Aruba and Curacao (together, the three of them form what are called the ABC Islands which are the western Lesser Antilles). Boniare is roughly 24 miles long and between three and seven miles wide. It is said that the name Bonaire is derived from the Caquetio word Bonay, which means low country. The Caquetio, a branch of now extinct Arawak natives (indigenous peoples of South America and the Caribbean) who lived in northwestern Venezuela along the shores of Lake Maracaibo are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Bonaire (as well as Aruba and Curacao), arriving in dug-out canoes around 1000 A.D. Archeological evidence of the Caquetio culture has been found in Kralendijk (Bonaire’s capital) and near the shallow, glass-like Lac Bay. Alas, we were too consumed with scuba diving to visit the caves where rock paintings and petroglyphs from this ancient civilization are still evident. Perhaps a third visit?
The diving, though not without challenges (namely equipment failures), was simply amazing. However, I’ll have to admit to an irritation that nearly made me come un-done. I completely bombed on my first day the one skill that I thought I had mastered during my pool refresher class.
Yep. I could not clear my mask!
And yes…full disclosure….I had a panic attack.
I didn’t see that coming…..
Fortunately for me (or rather, my ego) no one witnessed the frantic, flailing red-head just of off the pier in scarcely twelve feet of water. I couldn’t see a blasted thing through my flooded mask, so I panicked because not only is mask-clearing a necessary skill, it was one that I had thought I had pretty much mastered. Now, moments before we are set to embark on our first boat dive to about 60-70 feet, I clearly was not prepared.
My mind was clear enough in my panic to inflate my BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device) full throttle (filling it with air) so that I could float on my back and chill myself out. It took a moment or two of floating in the turquoise blue water before I got my head back on straight and tried again….and again, and again. It wasn’t until day three of our trip that I found out my mask was–in a word–defective: Rocket-man, a skilled mask clearer, could never get it to de-fog (clear) either! Turns out it was a brand that made the company that developed it to go belly up some seventeen years ago because, well, the mask didn’t work for folks! How I was discovering the problem now after using it all those years ago perplexes me to no end.
The issue was finally remedied by Marcos, one of the dive guides. Heavily inked and with zero body fat, this quiet soul left his home in Venezuela some twenty years ago to live in Bonaire. “Hugo Chavez ruined my country,” he said. He would be correct as it certainly paved the way for the state of affairs in Venezuela today. Marcos aches for what is happening in his home country but acknowledges that life has been infinitely better for him since leaving it. Anyhow, he heard me complaining to Rocket-man and came to my rescue (as it pertains to me, it would be the first of two damsel-in-distress moments, but that’s for another time). He kindly let me use another mask for the rest of the week without charging me a rental fee. We certainly appreciated the small break as we had already racked up rental fees since we had to ditch some of our own gear which, for the record, had been serviced just before our trip and worked in the pool session but strangely malfunctioned on day one of our scuba adventure. Go figure!
Anyhow, I practically did somersaults of joy at sixty feet as I was finally able to see clearly all the spectacular underwater sights. For instance, there was the vibrant orange seahorse like this fellow:
….and, there were Moray eels and Flamingo Tongues (brightly colored sea snails). There were also pretty Parrot Fish, schools of Sergeant Majors, and beautiful Butterfly Fish as well as Angel Fish, menacing-looking Barracuda, Flounder, enormous Tarpons, Trumpet fish, and even a turtle sighting. And that’s just fish. The dizzying variety of underwater landscape from different types of coral to sea fans, etc. …In all, simply too many spectacular beauties to recount.
For all the sea life to love there is one fish however, that while strikingly cool in appearance, is cause for a certain loathing. It’s a fish that is causing a great deal of harm to the reef system –not to mention the pain that can be inflicted from their venomous spines. That would be Lionfish. These fish are not native to the lovely Caribbean waters. They are threatening the ecosystem in the Caribbean as well as the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast coast of the U.S. Unfortunately, we saw lots of these fish which are actually natives of the Indo-Pacific. In fact, every time we saw a Lionfish, fellow diver, Karen–who was positively amazing at maintaining neutral buoyancy I might add–would flip the bird at it. I’ll confess to laughing in my mask the first time she did it because… well…it’s not everyday you see someone flipping the bird underwater.
Certainly striking in appearance, Lionfish have no natural enemies. One of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet they are carnivores, feeding on small crustaceans and fish, including red snapper and grouper which obviously affects commercial fishing. While it’s not entirely known how these fish wound up so far from their natural habitat it is speculated that people have been dumping these fish from home aquariums. Now there is sanctioned hunting of Lionfish (permit required) and in 2010 the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) even initiated a campaign, “The Lionfish as Food,” to get people to eat the fish. Apparently, though the fish as some eighteen venomous spines when properly filleted, the naturally venomous fish is safe to eat.
I’ll stick to Salmon, Tuna, and snapper thank you very much.
My words in this blog-space simply cannot capture the magnificence of what I saw….what I felt. But when I close my eyes I can still see in surprising vividness, the sun subtly filtering through the water some forty feet above me… and there I am in a moment of quiet stillness, not affected one bit by sensory overload of a million things to see, but rather taken completely out of my head, stripped of past and future…in the now… and my soul is bursting with bliss and wonder as my body is surrounded by a school of stunningly brilliant Blue Tang (image from: By Tewy – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1382534).
There’s more to recount of my island week to be sure. In fact, I’m holding tight to every experience, even those moments of high anxiety. As I sit here at my desk staring out the window bracing for another cold-front set to come our way, I’m certain dear reader that you’ll understand…. I’m in no hurry whatsoever to let go of my low-country high.