Monday, April 28, 2008


Our jeep rattles through the dilapidated centre of a struggling town, and on into similarly struggling suburbia. Our driver stops outside what seems to be a small cafe: outside, old men of un-defined function - not patrons, but not apparently employees either - are talking in the shade. A guide takes us down a leafy path, and into the dark mouth of a large cavern.

The rock around us is weirdly ice-like: I see dozens of formations that look exactly like "beards" of icicles. Here and there, great pillars have come to stand from floor to ceiling. The stone looks motionless - but ever so slowly, millenia on patient millenia, it is reclaiming the void.

At the bottom of the chamber we see the agent of change: a pool running the full width of the chamber. The water is a magical blue, and so clear that the twenty or so feet of its depth does nothing to obscure the bottom. I'm so entranced by the water that I barely spare a glance for the beauty around me before donning mask, snorkel, fins, and giant-striding into the depths.

The pool is lovely, dark and deep

The water is immensely refreshing without being cold, and perfectly still. Below the surface, the sculpture garden continues, and with my torch I begin to probe ledges and hollows around the edge of the pool. Those magically clear depths, however, are what really hold my interest, and soon I swim to the centre of the pool, turn head-down and fin slowly into the depths.

When I feel the time has come to return to the air, I stop my finning, and angle my body towards the silvery sheet high above me, and wait for physics to take over. To my immense surprise, nothing happens - by now, the buoyancy of the air in my lungs should be rushing me to the surface. I understand immediately what is happening: I have swum so deep that the press of the water above me has compressed my chest, and with it my lung volume, until the density of my body matches perfectly with that of the water surrounding it. Now, my body at rest neither floats nor sinks. For long seconds, I hang motionless in that deep and wonderful place, suspended without weight, without effort, in the quiet blue coolness. It is an inexpressibly beautiful moment.

I fin slowly back to the surface, and soon we are back in the sun, rattling onwards; but I think a little piece of that cave came with me.

Monday, April 21, 2008

On the Beach, Part II - The Rescue

After several days in a resort where sailing boats were far too valuable to lent to mere guests, I was champing at the bit. Every day, a perfect breeze blew over the blue, blue waters of the Caribbean, and every day, I was without a boat, while Hobie Cats tacked in and out under my very nose. My wife was under the necessity of keeping me under a very close watch, lest I attempt a "cutting out" expedition. Eventually, a close perusal of the binder describing the hotel's facilities let me to a kind of garage at the back of the water sports centre, where the staff kept a cache of windsurfing gear (something they had omitted to mention during any of my previous visits). As pleased as if I'ld discovered a pirate treasure chest, I picked out a very wide (stable) board and a sail (one size only - small). A few minutes later, I was doing my first independent sailing of the holiday.

The Caribbean swallows another unwary sailor (me)

A day or two later, I was back for another sail. This time, the wind was obliquely offshore, slanting out to sea from my launch point (at the centre of the sandy beach). So... sailing through the open channel and out to sea was easy - but returning was not. Two or three hours of beating to windward ensued; every now and then, I would take advantage of a particularly strong gust, and bear off onto a reach - and even my big fat board got up on a plane, skittering across the swell.

Slowly, hours of hard sailing under an tropical sun began to wear me down. Try as I might, I could make no ground to windward. Eventually, I tried to make progress into the wind by paddling my board and sail. Spray from the swell made seeing my way almost impossibly, as the salt stung my eyes to copious tears, and tired shoulder muscles protested at every stroke. I made ground, but modestly.

A Hobie Cat from our hotel approached and picked me up. However, my rig's windage now made it impossible for the instructor to tack the Hobie in - so back I went, into the sea. A second attempt was made a little late, with two boats - one Hobie for the board, one for the sail. Just then, I spotted a two-man open canoe approaching (this 400M from shore, well outside the shelter of the reef, top and centre of this map). This turned out to be my almost-seven-months-pregnant wife; not by any means a keen sailor, with very limited experience of boats and the sea, and far from comfortable in deep water, she nevertheless took it upon herself to bring me in, and did not turn a hair as she paddled past surf breaking on barely-awash coral and out into the Atlantic swell. She turned her little boat head to wind and waiting calmly as I struggled in over the stern, then handed me a spare paddle; we even beat one Hobie Cat back to the beach.

I should point out to any anxious readers that, even in the absence of outside help, I was not very likely to lose the number of my mess: I could have attempted to cross the westerly reef on which surf is breaking in the above link. Although this would not have done the rig much good, my chances of getting ashore would have been excellent. Alternatively, I could have jettisoned the sail, and paddled back on the board. In the event, I was very pleased to be rescued - and deeply, deeply impressed by the coolness and courage of my very-pregnant wife.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On the Beach, Part 1

Nearly ten hours in the air took me across my local ocean to a middling-large island, and into an entirely different season. A couple of days of excessively easy living later, I stood on coral sands beneath a dark but starry sky and looked out to sea, past the gleam of surf on the reef, to where the stars met the water. Above and to the north, Polaris gleamed low in the sky... back in the tropics at last.

Wading into black waters, I'm soon at swimming depth, finning out towards the reef. My torch sends a thin cone of light down through the water column to search the sea-grass meadow below me. The winds and waves have generated a strong long-shore current, and keeping course is hard work. The first fish I find is hand-sized and very confused by my torch, which I hold at arms-length to my left: the little fish is fascinated by it and does not see the camera in my right hand, which comes too close to focus - within a foot.

That is the last fish I find for some time, though, and I've searched acres of shallow and empty meadow when a huge shape flaps out of the gloom only a few feet away, very nearly causing me to swallow my snorkel. The Ray twists and turns in the torchlight: I don't think it is pleased. Is it better to keep it lit up - but irritated - and know its position, or to let it go? After what feels like an eternity - perhaps 5 seconds - the ray makes my decision for me, and I'm alone again in the darkness. My only other find of the night is a porcupine fish, which appears untroubled by my light, secure within its formidable defenses.