What do you do all day when you are surrounded by beautiful bluegreen water dotted with small brush filled islands and air that brings 90+ degree temperatures? Well swim, naturally. However this is not so natural to many many people we meet. I’d say about half of all cruisers we’ve met don’t swim regularly and if they do it’s usually no more than a dip to cool off. Interesting Tate and I have always said to ourselves. Truly there is a whole other world under the sea, one we get more familiar with everyday.
The waters of Key West and Cuba in January and February were far to cold to entice a deep and evolving relationship with the sea and it wasn’t until we sailed to Isla Mujeres, Mexico in March this past year that we took our first step into the water. This began a life changing experience that was accelerated in Providencia by the introduction of spearfishing. These days Tate and I freedive together most everyday around noon for 3 hours give or take. There is a seemingly unlimited amount of different seascapes under the ocean’s surface with a variety of sealife. It hasn’t gotten old yet, if anything it gets more interesting all the time.
Oh the mornings are so relaxing. I think I’ll get up and make Tate and I some delicious Colombian coffee and sit in the cockpit to watch the palm trees and the sun rise higher in the sky. Yes that is quite nice. I wonder if it will rain today? Perhaps it will, or maybe not. Are there any new boats in the anchorage? Gosh that one anchored really too close to our neighbor. Oh well, hopefully we won’t have a Chocosana later. Man it’s really getting hot, thank goodness for all this canvas my mom made us. Looks like the Kunas are raking the sand again…we really need to ask them about that.
Oh is it time already? How does noon creep up so quickly everyday? Wow look at the water clarity over the side of the boat. I can see a starfish on the bottom, when did he get there? I bet the snorkeling will be splendid. Ok let’s get ready. I’ve got to put on some facial sunscreen and my still somewhat damp bikini and long sleeved lycra shirt. Next I’ll put my hair up in a tight bun for the swim cap, it’ll never get long with the saltwater damage. Grab our fins, masks, snorkels, weightbelts, knives, light and the gun. Ok Ok Tate I’m coming, just let me dog down a few portlights and close the front hatch in case it rains! Alright into the Porta Bote – let’s shove off. OUCH! damn that black seat is always so frigging hot!
Where should we go today? Perhaps we should go beyond the reef on the north side and look for lobsters under the rocks, or maybe out to the “Dog Pound” (Tate’s favorite) for Dog Snappers and the Groupers that like to live at the bottom of the ledge. To the Dog Pound it is. On our way through the large reef cut we can clearly see the sandy grass swaths that lie 25 feet under the boat. I’m daydreaming of finding large conchs down there. We anchor for a short time to look for conch and examine the steep reef ledge.
Time to jump out of the dinghy. I hope I don’t jump onto a shark, what are the chances of that anyways? Probably slim. Ok into the water, ah it feels good, a perfect temperature. An immediate and quick 360 scan around myself assures me there are no large predators to be concerned with. There never have been but I always check, must have been those Jaws movies when I was a kid. It’s so pretty under here, all the fish just doing their daily routine of swimming from this place to that. Thank goodness for my fins, I don’t know how I’d swim around out here without them.
I take a few deep breaths and dive down about 15 feet to purview the grassy areas for conchs. Ohp, running out of air, time to go back up. Hurray I made it, man air is great! Let’s go a little further. I want to dive right away again but I need to give my body time to recover. Now ready? Down to the bottom to get a closer look! I descend rather quickly with the 6 pounds on my weightbelt but they give me PERFECT buoyancy at the bottom.
I swim parallel to the bottom straining my eyes for anything thing spirally, spiked and covered in grass that could be a conch. Damn, nothing. Holy smokes I need air. Geesh that’s a long way up. It’s ok just relax you’ll be fine. Right, just relax. As I slowly fin my way to the surface a rather large seaturtle with a 3 foot long shell lazily swims along the bottom. OH HOW COOL. Don’t lose sight of it…GASP, Ah, back to the air. But wait where’s the turtle!? Quickly a deep breath and back down to look for him. Gosh it’s a lot harder to make an immediate dive, brain cells regenerate right? Nothing, he is gone. Oh well at least I can breathe again.
So where is Tate anyways? I scan the horizon for his tell tale safety orange snorkel tip or bright blue fin sticking straight up in the beginning of a descent. The surface is pretty flat so I easily spot him and with no conchs I swim to him and relay my grand sea turtle adventure. He hasn’t had any luck either so we swim back to the dinghy and move onto the Dog Pound. I really wish we had an easier way to get into the dinghy but clambering over the side will have to do for now. We get the motor started first then try to raise the anchor, it’s stuck. Shoot.
Everyone whose not the Captain back into the water to dislodge it, that’s me. Right back in the water and down to the anch…Geesh I can hardly swim 2 feet under the surface without my fins and weight belt. One more try pulling myself down along the anchor rode and I reach it and set us free. Back into the dinghy and we are off. Using eyeball navigation and the location of an island and some sailboat wreckage I throw the anchor back overboard. Hope there’s no sharks…remember Dani statistics are your friend. I jump in and survive another day.
Tate goes to the reef area and I go the opposite direction to the ledge. We’re still in snorkel/fin sight distance in calm seas. The current is a bit stronger out here but I’m in need of some good exercise anyways. I slowly make my way to the ledge and spot a Black Grouper 25 feet down on the sandy bottom. Hmm, look how he just floats there, swaying with the current. He’s thinking “nothing to see here I’m just some seagrass on the bottom”. I watch him amazed for a few minutes and he seems unthreatened by my presence. I want to yell to Tate but he’s much too far away by now. I can’t waste opportunity though so I go slowly down filming and taking pictures of Mr. Grouper until I’m 10 feet from him at which time my threat status was elevated and he fled.
Definitely at the end of my air now, time to ascend. Why or why can’t we breathe under water like we can on the surface? I spend so much time underwater I have to remind myself that it’s a particularly dangerous place for someone without gills, I almost forget that we are just guests under there. Back to the surface and I continue my inspection of the ledge and find a large stingray at the bottom. I move into shallower waters where I search under every rock for lobsters to no avail.
I scan the reef line every few minutes to locate Tate. Sometimes I see him sometimes not. I know he’s over there somewhere but there’s nothing I can do from over here in any event. I swim a bit closer to the reef to try and sight him but along the way I’m romanced by a multitude of colorful little fish congregating around a coral head. I dive shallow for a closer look. Aren’t they all just so neat? They have their own little environment here in the ocean. A little neighborhood. Bigger fish swim by all the time, busy to get where they are going.
Hey look it’s a shark! Oh it’s just a nurse shark, pretty harmless but he’s about 7 feet. I watch intently and swim closer to observe him. How come I never see them eat any fish? Hunting out here must be hard work, no wonder they are so skinny looking. He swims away.
I swim along the reef casually looking for Tate while watching the world play out underneath me. Oh there he is…WAY over there. Ok well at least he’s alive. I’m sure he’ll be fine, he wants to live just like I do. I spend another hour or so watching large Triggerfish and Permit swim by every so often.
The sun is starting to go down and the surface of the water gets a little choppier. Eventually I head back to where I think Tate might be. I tread water as high as I can looking for him. It’s hard because he can stay underwater for so long but after 5 or so attempts I spot him. I take my time swimming to his roundabout location wondering if he’s had any luck catching dinner…
Two minutes without a breath. It’s a long time. Back in my lubberly days I would have thought it was impossible. So much can happen in those 120 seconds. The human mind has the odd ability to seemingly accelerate the speed of thought at times. When I take that last big gulp of air in preparation for the coming apnea, time both slows down and speeds up. My mind races but the world goes into slow motion around me.
I’ve been scouting out the area. Short little dives to around 15ft. They’re quick and easy and really just to give me a look at the bottom way “down there”. I don’t like to spend a long time on the scouting dives because I want to be able to “breath up” and head down on a long dive when the time is right. And the time is just about right.
Today Dani said she wanted a snapper. Dani has some type of cosmic link to the fish kingdom. It is like the girl has a direct line to God. “Yes Mrs. Dani, the red line for you.” “Oh hello again Neptune, how are you? Yes, what’s that? Snapper today? Of course, I’ll inform Tate immediately.” And so it goes. Today she said she wanted snapper, must be a good day for snapper.
Despite all her connection with the under water world she still has an odd trepidation about it. We were getting ready to head out and I’m all set in the dink warming up “crappy”, our 3.5hp Tohatsu. I look back up at the boat and Dani hardly has her bathing suit on. She has to go through a big long ritual before getting into the water. I can hear her up there saying something about the vital requirement of putting conditioner in her hair lest the salt water wash it right off her scalp and leave her bald. But eventually she makes it into the dink and we head off to the “pound” where there are usually snappers and finally we set the anchor.
I’m in the water in a flash. Right before I start to dive I can hear Dani muttering something about deadly sharks under the dink. I think that is why she always lets me get in the water first.
Anyway, all these memories are spilling through my head as I take my time getting ready for a real dive. I’m gulping huge lung fulls of air and then exhaling them very slowly over about 10 seconds. I do this five times. Then I exhale very deeply with my hand on my stomach to compress my diaphragm all the way and finally I take a huge finally breath before leaning over forward and tucking one leg up under my body. As I go head down I kick that leg one time and it starts my descent. I usually just let my weights take me down from there. No sense kicking and burning oxygen when gravity will do the work for me.
At first it’s a huge haze of bubbles from the splash but soon the vision in front of me clears and I’m heading down the ledge. I pinch my nose and pop my ears after about a body length down. I can hear my heartbeat in my newly cleared ears. My eyes roam over the hole I’ve been scouting out.
The reef is paved with highways. Cuts between the reefs which fish seem to like to swim along. I think of them as fish highways. This one has a hole or tunnel at its end and I suspect a snapper is inside of it. I saw him swimming there. A big dog snapper. I’m letting myself glide slowly in between the reef into the highway before I angle my body to skim along the bottom. It takes me about 20 seconds to get down there and orient myself. I’m very calm, almost still in the water. There is still plenty of time.
I pop my ears again. Sometimes I try what is called the “Frenzel” ear clearing technique but its hard to do and I’m no pro. Today I just pinch my nose again and blow to pop my ears. This causes my lungs to tighten for the pressure required to pop, but it has the side effect of pressing up against your heart as you do it. I’m thinking about how they actually can test a lot of heart functions just by doing an EKG while you pop your ears. I’m wondering if the fish hear it. Sometimes it also makes me want to go up for air. I have a diaphragm contraction but I calm myself and make sure I’m not biting my snorkel. Biting down uses oxygen and I’ll need all of it.
So I give a few leisurely kicks and I’m off on the fish highway. I’m approaching the hole and gliding along the bottom which is strewn with rocks. My spear gun is pointing out in front of me and I’m wondering if a fish is home. Its been around forty seconds since I’ve taken a breath. I’m twenty feet below the surface and I’m wondering if Dani will let me cook the snapper in the asian style I’m so found of or if she’ll demand sushi. Damn, maybe I’ve counted my fish before they were hooked. Oh well, no wood to knock on down here.
On I go. The hole is right in front of me now. It is a black maw into which I cannot actually see. The light difference between in the hole and out of the hole is too extreme. I put my hand into the cave and grab a hand hold to remain perfectly still and then carefully move my mask into the shadows and wait for my vision to clear. I’m cursing the fact that my spear gun has no light mounted on it that would give me illumination in this darkness and wondering how all these snappers hang out in darkness, but it isn’t surprising since they have giant eyes. I’m relaxed. My heart is thudding slowly. I feel good, calm and easy. I’m very lightly holding myself in place with my left hand, not squeezing my hand hold because squeezing burns oxygen. I wait. Its been over a minute since I’ve taken a breath.
I see something in the hole flick. It is a fish. My heart rate increases and I curse myself for the petty excitement that is costing me oxygen. But still I wait. I can just make out a tail fin, that means the fish is headed away from me. But soon it turns towards me. I stay perfectly still. Fish are stupid. If you lay on the bottom and remain still they eventually get curious about what you are and head your way. It is a waiting game. A deadly waiting game. If you wait too long, you die. If they don’t wait long enough, they die. I’ve been laying on the bottom for 20 seconds. Its been 80 seconds since I’ve had a breath.
Our friend the hole fish is stupid. He approaches. He is about six feet back in his cave. The cave is all rock with sandy bottom and straight. There is nothing for my spear to snag in so I mentally decide to take the shot if he comes another foot closer. Then the fish really takes off, he is heading right at me at high speed. I don’t want to shoot at his face so I flick my gun and he sees this then turns to run. It was a fatal mistake. When he turns his side to me I squeeze the trigger as softly as I can. I try to let the gun shooting be a “surprise”. The spear releases and flashes into the darkness and I immediately duck my head out from under the cave and look up to make sure the way is clear to the surface. I’m still holding my gun but I didn’t even check to see if I hit the fish.
I don’t have to wait long to know I’ve connected. The tell tale rattle of the fish struggling with the spear jingles like music in my ears. I start to haul in the shooting line as I let go of my hand hold and start to float off the bottom. Arm over arm I’m pulling in the line, finally the slack is gone and its me vs the 15lb dog snapper at the other end of the line. He is hopelessly overmatched but the shooting line is still in the hole and as I float up some the line angles on the cave’s entrance giving the fish some help. I pull harder and can feel the fish and spear banging into stuff below. This is burning up a lot of oxygen but at this point its not in my thoughts. I’m in a zen like place where all that really matters is getting this fish out of his hole. I’m pulling like crazy.
The fish is at the entrance but the spear snags. Damn it! I have to kick downwards to get into the cave again where I can grab the spear itself. I pull it out and the fish with it. He doesn’t have much fight left in him. He got beat up pretty bad on the cave walls and scales are everywhere. I’ve been underwater 110 seconds now. My body is starting to let me know. My stomach is having contractions and I’m actively suppressing my need to gulp in oxygen. Even so I take the time to look around myself and make sure the shooting line is clear. It would never do to head upwards only to get tangled up. I’m clear. I push off the bottom with my free hand. I’ve let my gun go by this point since it floats and when I get to the surface I’ll retrieve it. The push gets me going and then it is only a few kicks to the top.
I use all the air in my lungs to blast the water out of my snorkel and take a big breath. My body is screaming for air and it is like Christmas when I get it. My adrenaline is going now. I’ve got the fish! I’ve got the fish. I grab him by the gills and get my dive knife out to brain him on the way back to the dinghy. Dani is off in the distance, probably looking for lobsters she can never seem to find. I start kicking.
The fish is in the dink and Dani has spotted me now. She is heading back, curious as a cat to find out why I’m in the dink after only about an hour in the water when I usually swim for much longer. Her face lights up at the sight of the big dog snapper I hold up proudly to show her. Her smile is so radiant. I’d fish just to see that girl smile. I tell myself I’m okay if she just wants sushi. But then her vision clouds with worry and she ducks her head back into the water. Shark watch, you know?
After clearing a fouled anchor we’re on the way back to Sundowner. Our hair is drying in the wind and sun. I note that Dani’s hair is still on her head, which is probably due to the “conditioner” she puts in it before every outing. I guess if I go bald I can just say it isn’t male pattern baldness but not using salt water conditioner. Dani catches my eye and knows I’m about to tease her. Instead I just hold up the fish again. And there is that smile. 120 seconds without a breath and a 1 second breathtaking smile. Who knew they were linked?