To the Tobago Cays by Catamaran...
This was maybe week four. We loaded up the catamarans Blauwbaard and the Scharlaken Rackhem with camping equipment and scuba gear, and set sail for Union Island. Blubard and Scharlaken Rackhem are the Dutch (Flemish) names for the pirates Bluebeard and Redbeard. Usually we departed from Tyrell bay but I recall this morning our skippers, Frank and David, had risen early and moored in Manchineel bay, just below Camp Carriacou. Once aboard, we headed west, then turned north to pass Petite Martinique, and very soon we were docking at Union Island, where David ran in to take care of customs. We had now left the territorial waters of Grenada and had entered those of St. Vincent. I remember the dark green wall of a mountain face lifting up steeply from the sea. We saw no people and it struck me as a rather dreary place, and I couldn’t imagine how people here might make a living. David returned, and in quick order we hoisted the flag of St. Vincent and carried on. It was a short cruise to the Tabago Cays, but at the age of twelve time passes differently. Our headlong charge across the waves in the Blauwbaard and the Scharlaken Rackhem, which in proper conditions could make an astonishing 12 knots, exercised our expectations for the journey ahead—all very typical and very appropriate to the heroic spirit of us rugged Carriacou campers.
We moored just south of the central islands in the Cays, which on the map are called Petit Rameau and Petit Bateau. The former is to the north, the latter to the south, and our bivouac was to be on this southern island. There was room for the two cats to anchor between the islands but perhaps it would have been a difficult place to maneuver from when we left. The distance between the two islands was less than a hundred yards. It was a unique situation. The channel between the two tiny islands was 30-40 feet deep, and this underwater grotto between them, enhanced by the proximity of the islands, struck us as a unique place for a dive. As I said, we chose the south island for our camping, and we used the inflatable Avons with their 6 hp outboards to shuffle our gear off the cats. For some of us, however, the first order of business was to run into the trees and look at the place. The island was typically dry with lots of grass, brush, gnarled trees, and palms. We noted a number of holes in the ground—the island was evidently a land-crab metropolis, and this would become the focus of our activity after sunset, as explained below. Responding to the calls of the staff, we returned to set up a sort of base at the northeast corner of the island, facing the channel that separated us from the northern island. I cannot recall precisely who was there. Present were several of the campers and probably all of the marine biology students, and most of the staff relevant to our purposes: the two skippers, the SCUBA instructors, the two marine biology instructors, maybe one or two others. I don’t recall Tuna, a popular staff member, being there. Also, I don’t remember any women being with us: no female staff, marine biology students, or campers. That’s odd—we were always together—but I think that on this occasion our being without women was actually the case. Very unusual. Do I vaguely recall that the women had gone off together elsewhere on another adventure, sans men?
A few people donned snorkeling equipment and explored the narrow channel between the two islands. I think we were munching on sandwiches as they emerged from the water—and they were bearing conch shells, or "abalone" as people were calling it. This was going to be on the menu for supper. A few of the abalones were the helmet variety, and those in-the-know were full of praise for our good luck, and we were promised that we were in for a rare treat as we got the fire going.
Otherwise, we were under the typical Caribbean spell that characterized our mental state; and, on reflection, this accounts for the staccato character of my memories of the trip—everything is either starkly, indeed photographically vivid, or completely unmemorable. That is certainly something to ponder over.
We returned to exploring the island, and a small group of us Cabin One pirates began tearing down palm fronds and constructing a shack. Others were setting up tents, but for the two or three nights we were to be there, my group from Cabin One would sleep in this hut.
The sun began going down and someone called us back to the base for dinner. I think we had a table set up, and a number of chairs. Actually, I can vaguely picture that Frank had dragged a work bench ashore. We definitely could carry a lot of equipment on those cats…
The abalone was cooked in a stew with vegetables and other meat—pork I imagine—in a big pot. Did we pick food out of the pot with our fingers or did we have bowls? I think the latter. Anyway, we began eating and everybody was remarking positively about the abalone, and then someone in-the-know announced that he had just found a piece of helmet conch, and in the next few minutes people were discovering bits of helmet abalone in their own bowls, and remarking how good it was. I was excited to experience this, and I think Frank fished a piece of helmet conch out of the pot and gave it to me, and yes indeed it was amazingly good. There were lots of happy campers around that fire!
Next order of business was to explore the island in the dark. Why not? Nothing else to do. A pair of the staff, perhaps our marine biology instructors, went for a night dive. Probably snorkeling at this point. As I think about it, I am quite sure they went for a dive with tanks and lights the following night.
Meanwhile, some of the Cabin One lads and I were shuffling through the brush with our trusty flashlights. Out beyond the perimeter of illumination we heard some shuffling. Small little legs by the sound of it. The rustling was vaguely suggestive of mischief. What we heard of course was the sound of land crabs. The sun being down, it was time for the crabs to wake up and begin their rounds. They were hard to spot because whenever our flashlight beams fell upon the crabs, they scurried down the nearest hole.
We cut our lights. The land crabs, emboldened by the darkness, crawled back out and once more all around us we heard the scurrying of multi-legged creatures. A small branch was snapped off—someone had a capture tool—and then a light flashed on, singling out a crab, who raised his claws as the stick came down and pinned him to the ground.
“I wonder how many crabs live here?” someone asked.
Perhaps these words were enunciated innocently, but it was not a hypothetical question. We were scientists. We didn’t just ask questions in the spirit of poetic wonder. We asked questions… and we answered them!
There were very few words. Our methodology emerged telepathically, and in an instant someone (me, in fact!) was running back to the base camp for magic markers. Other campers, too, caught on to our plan, and the next thing you know fifteen or twenty of us were walking around in the dark, clicking on flashlights when we heard scurrying sounds, trapping crabs under sticks, and bending down to write numbers upon their backs. “One,” was the initial cry. Then fifty feet away someone else flashed on his light, pinned down a crab, wrote the number on its back, and cried out, “Two!” And so on all across the island voices were calling out numbers. “Three!… Four! Five! … Ten! Eleven! … Fifteen! … Twenty! … Forty! … Seventy! Seventy-one! ...” and so on. I think in less than five minutes we were in the 90s. The process began to slow then, but we were well into the upper-one-hundreds before we were at last unable to find a crab that hadn’t already been numbered. The excitement and spontaneity of our organized communication was nothing short of amazing, and I felt disappointed—very disappointed, in fact—that the process of catching crabs and calling out numbers to each other didn’t go on longer into the night.
I suppose we must have all met by the camp to report our success to the staff, who, sitting around the fire and listening to us—I can only imagine—must have been very pleased. Really, were they even there? I seem to recall a number of them had returned to sleep on the cats. The other campers of course went to their tents, but my companions and I slept that night, and the next, in our palm leaf shelter.
The next morning the camp had visitors. Two natives in a marvelously crafted open boat, painted almost luxuriantly in black, had arrived sometime in the early dawn. Later, Frank, the skipper of the Slackham Rackham (who was one of the builders of the cats, and no mean shipwright himself) was pointing out the fine construction work the men had done on their boat. In particular, Frank admired the fit of the keel and the gunnels around the stern. These members were not only very precisely cut and neatly fitted, but were cleanly carved so as to fasten together absolutely seamlessly, flowing in the most admirable lines you care to picture; albeit said there was nothing ornamental about it. The design was pure modernist, the aesthetic being the craftsmanship itself. Frank said this was the old way of building, and you didn’t see much of it anymore.
I should remark that when we discovered this boat its owners were not to be seen. And on the ground not far away, lying on their backs with their flippers pierced, evidently with a punch, and wired together—it was two sea turtles. Our new visitors were poachers, serving the black market for the turtle shell used to fashion trinkets for tourists. Altogether, these facts produced some long faces, especially when several of the staff exchanged knowing glances and told us to keep quiet about it. It was quickly explained that we should be wise to stay on good terms with the two men. The situation didn’t sit well with any of us, but we did as we were told.
This was my first encounter with sea turtles. They were beautiful creatures, and my goodness what hard hearts we must have had to be able to gaze down and admire them. Forty-three years later, their features are as clear to me as if I was viewing them right here before me. One was dark brown with a light grey belly, and about three feet long. The other, about two feet long, was a bright yellow emerald and marvelously spotted like a leopard frog… They suffered passively with the wires looping through the tiny holes in their flippers. Both had faces as endearing as babies.
Later that day we took one of the Avons and drove west about a half mile to the edge of the reef to dive along the drop off. The water above the sand was typically warm, but as we kicked closer to the reef and the breakers, the water became cool, and there was a strong current. As usual, Frank’s muscular form was gliding nearby, and he held his long shark pike that was equipped with a CO2 cartridge. One sharp jab with the tip of that fearsome lance, a yank on the chain, and the shark would inflate and float off harmlessly—at least that was the theory. I never saw it in action. The rest of us carried shark bills, which were yard-long sticks of pine, perhaps two inches square, at one end rounded, and drilled and fitted with a loop of clothes line through which we passed our wrists.
The water was ten to fifteen feet deep, and perhaps most striking of all were the formations of brain coral five and eight feet in diameter. But the teaming varieties of other coral were equally fantastic in all their explosive forms and diverse colors. There were a number of trigger fish, often startled and racing ahead of us. Then suspended in the water around us were a host of small jelly fish—not any variety with pumping bells or any sort of tentacles or medusa-like appendages. These were oval-shaped transparencies, small—five or six inches in diameter—and strangley lovely for their delicacy and stoical apathy. It was somewhat mysterious to conceive that these were life forms, but they were, and even now as I think on them I am moved to strange mediations and almost somnolent feelings of astonishment, like shamanic insights into other worlds and new forms of consciousness. They were nearly invisible, mere transparent envelopes containing a few small filaments connecting orange and purple organelles than glowed with an almost sullen brightness; these miraculous spots of light were not much larger than a grain of sand or a pebble. The creatures hung in the space around us. Despite the gushing sea, the moment was truly timeless. As for the nature of the “contact” we made with these creatures, who is to say for sure?
As we kicked ahead towards the drop off, the current became quite strong. Jeff, a world-class bicycle racer from Ontario, and three others dared to plunge down over the edge of the drop off. Their actions were very sudden. It was thrilling for me, a twelve-year-old, to exercise an almost propriety satisfaction in their heroic forms pitching down headfirst into the abyss. One might reflect here that in order to produce men, young men need good models from which to conceive what will one day be the images of their selves.
The bright light which filled the water behind us contrasted strongly with the dark blue of the rock and the coral before and beneath us, and gazing over the edge I was made to feel somewhat circumspect about our situation, influenced no doubt by the cold water, the almost wind-like current seeking to push us back, and the darkness below.
Jeff and the others emerged from the void, and my dive buddy and I exchanged a few hand signals with the others. OK signs, and the “thumbs up.” We turned then and swam back into the warm light, negotiated the garden of coral, found the Avon, and climbed out of the water.
Later that day, or maybe it was the next, we had another dive, this time exploring the little submarine gully between the two islands. Notwithstanding the adventure out in the reef and along the drop off, here also there was much to see. Although the bottom was very sandy, we were surrounded by many varieties of fish, and here and there were coral formations that caught our attention and provided us with matter for examination. We certainly looked for abalone, but found none. Evidently we had eaten the local population the night before. Meanwhile, the marine biology students were collecting various specimens.
I noticed my dive buddy had become concerned. He was signaling to me with no little animation. Then, and it seemed miraculous to me, he ascended several feet amongst a swirl of exhaled bubbles, and then descended once more to join me at my level. What did this mean? I shrugged, oblivious. Then he produced his dive slate and with a grease pencil wrote down something. The combination of shifting sea light and the reflective nature of the slate rendered the marks of the grease pencil indecipherable. I shrugged and shook my head. He nodded and pointed forward, and we swam together along the bottom, following the course of the slope until we were in five feet of water, where we amused ourselves for several minutes with a small octopus. Growing tired of us, and after changing his color and patterns several times, he was off in a cloud of ink, and last we saw he was jetting down the slope when he suddenly stopped, spread his arms to embrace the sand, and then changed patterns and color to vanish against the bottom. A few moments later my dive buddy and I were emerging at the edge of the island, sitting together in one or two feet of water, and removing our masks. I causally asked why he had become so animated below, and I wondered, too, about the word that he had scribbled on the slate.
“Embolism,” he said, and he went on to explain that when we were in the depths between the two islands I was not exhaling properly when I ascended. Air embolism is familiar enough to divers. It is a dangerous condition produced when a diver ascends without exhaling. The air in a diver’s lungs is compressed by the pressure of the sea at depth, and if it is not properly exhaled during ascent this compressed air will expand and tear the tissues of the lungs as well as invade the arterial system. I certainly knew what an embolism was, and the revelation of the meaning of my friend’s strange behavior raced through me like an electric shock. While I merely thought we were enjoying a swim together, all the while he had been guiding me up the sloping bottom, slowing me as we ascended because he had noticed that I wasn’t being careful to exhale properly at those times during the dive when I had been ascending. I took his brotherly admonishment very seriously, and I think I was harder on myself than he was as I contemplated my error. I never made it again. And, in what I take to be a very grown-up resolution about SCUBA that is as strong to me now as it was when I was twelve, I will never cease to be vigilant with myself about diving safety. As for my watchful friend, whose name is now long forgotten, what can I feel but endless gratitude and a special sense of camaraderie that time and distance can never efface.
Photos by Bob Reid, via Bill Cameron. Source.