A LIFE UNDERWATER CHAPTER 6
A LIFE UNDERWATER CHAPTER 6
As much as I loved Norine Rouse and my work at the Scuba Club of the Palm Beaches, I was getting restless. There was a huge underwater world out there and I needed to taste it! The tropical islands of the Caribbean always had their exotic lure and this was a world I dreamed of visiting and exploring, even as a young boy in Oklahoma. So when I spotted a small three line ad at the back of a Dive Instructor's newsletter asking for someone with my skills to move to the Turks and Caicos Islands to help expand an eco tourism dive business, I responded immediately! I didn't even know where the Turks and Caicos were! I showed the ad to my girlfriend who had just graduated from my alma mater, FIT, with a degree in Aquaculture and Mariculture and she too was intrigued by the position offered. So we arranged an interview in Miami, got the job and two weeks later we were on a plane with our dive gear and suitcases in hand, moving to an island in the middle of nowhere..... sight unseen. It just doesn't get any better than that!
The Turks and Caicos are the last cluster of 40 low lying emerald jewels at the southern end of the long Bahama chain of islands. Lying 650 miles southeast of Miami, its nearest neighbor being Haiti to the southwest and Cuba to the northwest. This group of little known islands was one of the last remaining British Protectorate countries in the Caribbean and is still presided over by a Crown appointed Governor. The population was less than 35,000 people whose main industry is fish, lobster and conch exports and a tourist industry that was still in its infancy. There were no television capabilities in the country and the nearest phone to the one by two mile island we were to live on was 20 miles and three islands away! The only connection to the outside world was one telephone in the BVI grocery store on Providenciales Island (Provo). To order supplies or conduct any business overseas you would have to fly or boat to Provo, wait in the ever present line for use of the phone with other island inhabitants and then frustratingly suffer though a poor quality, static filled shouting match with the phone receiver. The entire experience would take the better part of a day! I finally bought a small Cessna 152 aircraft, learned to fly it from one of the inter island local pilots, soloed in three hours and was turned loose on the sky's over the islands just a few weeks later! I think the logic behind this “wham bam” flight school was based on the fact that there just wasn't much you could hit out in these islands! Learning to fly made my world so much easier and so much more exciting! In retrospect, it was a wonder I didn't kill myself flying! Certainly not from my lack of trying!
Our island was called Pine Cay. It was privately owned by a wealthy American couple who had “dropped” out after the husband had lost his bid for the Vermont governor's office. His wife was the wealthy heiress to the Grumman fortune. The names of the other land owners that lived on the island read like a who's who for a Fortune 500 magazine and were all personal friends of the owners. There was a quaint hotel on a picturesque flawless white sand beach where turquoise water perpetually lapped at its shore. The island ran a generator from 6:00 AM and shut it off at 10:00 PM. When the lights went off we would scramble to light candles and kerosene lanterns. It was necessary to sleep under mosquito netting unless you were willing to give a pint of blood each night to the voracious creatures! Our quaint cottage was perched on a rocky rise overlooking a narrow swift flowing cut between our island and the next. Our catchment collected rain water which was heated by solar energy and was pumped to our cottage by wind energy thanks to the perpetual 15 knot trade winds.
We worked for a conservation organization housed in a geodesic domed headquarters building on the island and who called themselves the PRIDE Foundation. PRIDE stood for Protecting Reefs and Islands from Degradation and Exploitation, a rather ostentatious sounding name, they were supported by the wealth of the various land owners on Pine Cay. We would travel from island to island by boat or puddle jumper airline, showing films and giving talks to the local schools on conservation initiatives as well as meeting with the local government officials.
I remember one school we visited on North Caicos that had 45 children of all ages. All were taught simultaneously in the same classroom. I was astounded to find that none of them, teachers included, had ever seen a television much less a film before! We had to run several hundred feet of extension cords from a local private generator to bring power to my projector which was set up in the one room classroom. When the film began, all the children crowded so close to the screen that the picture size was reduced to the shape of a basketball. We had to stop the film twice to encourage them to scoot back from the screen just so the film could be viewed! To them it was like magic! One year later a ship load of televisions and satellite TV dishes hit these islands like a hurricane and this quiet peaceful paradise and its simple view on life was forever skewed. There was no gradual exposure or break in to the “joys” of television commercials, soap operas, championship wrestling and the desire for the latest gimic or electronic gadgetry. These were the “benefits” of our modern world that were suddenly inflicted upon these gentle people who suddenly found themselves thrust, ready or not, into the late 20th century.
I was appalled at the lack of text books in the schools I visited. The teaching was conducted via the memories of the instructors as they disgorged knowledge onto a tiny chalk board. The next time I made it home to the USA I looked up a group of school teacher friends who got me access to the school book depository for the Palm Beach County school board. There they showed me a warehouse stacked floor to ceiling with every conceivable text book for all grade levels. Some were brand new and all were slated to be burned! Apparently, as I was to learn, if the publishers change a few sentences in a text book then the school board must use only the latest edition by law. The school board could not sell the now obsolete books so ultimately the books are burned rather than stored, sold or given away! What a tragic waste! The workers in the book depository were so delighted to help us abscond with the books for a good cause that they loaded pallet after pallet of books into my rented trucks. I chartered two huge DC 3 aircraft for the flight to the Turks and Caicos and spent the next two weeks distributing text books of every conceivable subject to a dozen schools throughout the islands. This spontaneous act of organized donation subsequently endeared me to many of the top politicians in the capitol of Grand Turk and I became a regular welcomed visitor to the Prime Minister's office. How many countries exist in our world where a “dive jock” like me could walk in unannounced and flop down in the President of a country’s office for a good yak session with the man himself! The unique innocence of the Turks and Caicos Islands was weaving itself into a fabric of a dream come true for me!
I found a forty five foot sail boat that had been abandoned after being damaged in a hurricane and dragged it up on to the shore near my cottage. I cut the keel off, stood it upright, gutted the interior, poured a concrete floor in it, cut a doorway into the side and had a pretty cool dive shop! I installed an air compressor whose clean air intake I ran up to the top of the mast on my land bound sail boat and finally equipped the shop with the latest in scuba gear. I then purchased a tri-hulled, flat decked dive boat powered by twin 75 HP outboard engines along with three other runabouts of various sizes. I was now in business!
I began mapping and exploring the surrounding reefs and drop offs in search of the most dramatic dive sites. My girlfriend would tow me behind the boat while I would carefully study the underwater terrain. On many occasions this “trolling” of my body would attract the attention of a passing shark or barracuda and as the creatures would rise up to inspect me from the blue depths, I would frantically wave at my girlfriend to cut the engines quickly! But if she wasn't paying attention I would have to let go of the tow rope and free dive down to meet the curious shark or barracuda head on. I quickly learned that once these predators saw what you really were they always veered off and would return back to their world of perpetual hunting. This was a valuable lesson in shark behavior that I would use effectively throughout my career!
The reefs were breathtaking and the coral canyons, drop offs and walls were some of the richest virgin reef I have ever encountered in my life. The deeper reefs had never had a man lay eyes on them until I entered their silent world. The marine creatures had never seen a diver and were more curious than afraid and most were very approachable. I felt like an ancient explorer opening up never before seen territories in the New World and the thrill of discovery was an experience I absorbed in a constant daily dose!
I would give names to the reefs and dive sites I had discovered and would even name the regular inhabitants that one would repeatedly encounter on these specific sites. I learned a funny thing about human behavior by giving cute names to certain local predators which I have continued to use throughout my entire dive career. If I failed to mention in my pre-dive briefing to my guests, that they may see a shark or barracuda during their in-water experience, the guests would invariably “walk on water” back to the boat in full fear and panic if either one showed up! On the other hand, if I told them Beauregard the Shark or Snaggle Tooth the Baracuda may make an appearance today if they were lucky, then they would be charmed, curious, fearless and accepting of the animal's presence when the predators did show up! “Perception is nine tenths of reality,” Norine Rouse used to tell me. It was all in the packaging and presentation!
Back in the early 1980's, drug smuggling was a wide open, fully functioning lucrative enterprise throughout the islands of the Caribbean. On an ocean crossing to the Bahamas once I pulled up to a marijuana laddened mother ship sitting offshore of the United States and asked for compass headings to a particular island from the captain. At the same time his nervous crew were aiming their automatic rifles at me, the captain in broken English gave me detailed directions. Their cargo would be shuttled in to Florida bays and harbors under the cover of darkness by high speed outboard boats. When living in the islands it was not uncommon to have an air drop of bales of pot fall around your boat while you were out diving with your guests! One time I had a drop of bales fall around me while jogging with my wife one evening on the island runway. Suddenly a dozen natives rose up out of the bushes to gather up the cargo while smiling and waving at the two of us. Smuggling has always been a way of life in these islands whose history also included Union blockade running, the smuggling of arms, liquor and of late, human cargo.
There was an uninhabited island named West Caicos about a twenty five minute flight from Pine Cay in my little plane. In flying over the island I had noted two interesting conditions that caught my eye. First, there appeared to be a drug landing strip hacked out of the bush which belted the mid section of the island. It was less than 2000 feet long and ended with a 20 foot cliff overlooking the ocean on either end. Not a lot of room for error! Second, there was an indication of a dramatic deep ocean wall starting less than 40 feet from the end of the airstrip and the top of the drop off appeared to lie in less than 30 feet of water! This was diving “cat nip” for me and I began planning an exploratory dive expedition to West Caicos!
The day I picked to explore West Caicos, dawned with the egg shell blue and cloudless sky of a perfect day in a tropical paradise. The wind was nonexistent so the flight was calm, without the usual bumps from hot air thermals rising from where the heated land would meet the cooler ocean waters. I had loaded my tanks and dive gear into the back of the plane and as the aircraft circled the tiny island, I studied the makeshift landing strip from the air. Immediately, I spotted two tarp covered humps on either end of the runway which initially I had no explanation for. I lined up on approach and made a bumpy landing, while frantically working the rudder pedals in an effort to avoid any rocks or land crab holes that could cripple my landing gear. As I bumped along taxing slowly past one of the humps, I saw that there was a mean looking Latin gentleman sitting on the top of the tarp covered pile while holding an automatic rifle in his hands. He stared at me with expressionless eyes and I gave a slight nervous nod of acknowledgment as the plane rolled past his position. As I approached the other end of the crude runway closest to the deep drop off which I hoped to explore, I spotted the second covered hump. It too was guarded by a lean mean Latin character also holding an automatic rifle. I realized these were two separate marijuana and cocaine drug drops, each waiting for their plane connection to ferry the “product” on to the next illegal leg of its journey. I was wise enough to not say a word to either Colombian and instead busied myself with chocking my plane's wheels with rocks to stop it from accidentally rolling over the cliff.
I carefully unloaded my dive equipment from the aircraft, all while under the intense scrutiny of the two “banditos”. I can only imagine their thoughts as they watched this apparently “mad gringo” sorting through a pile of diving equipment on their drug airstrip! I geared up and slipped over the edge of the cliff, clutching my dive mask and fins to my chest. Carefully finding foot and handholds while balancing a full scuba tank on my back, I finally worked my way down the cliff face to the water’s edge. Carefully slipping into the gin clear ocean, I began swimming out to the drop off that I had spotted from the air.
It was everything I had anticipated it to be! As I gently descended, escorted only by the sound of my exhaust bubbles, huge bushes of precious rare black coral materialized out of the blue. Normally found at depths of over 150 feet, these magnificent coral specimens were waving in the gentle current at the edge of the wall in only 40 feet of water! Massive curious groupers were everywhere and more were coming up the wall to check out this alien creature who was visiting their reefs. The abundance of fish life, sponges, hard and soft corals was mind boggling and I knew immediately that I had stumbled on to a truly virgin reef wall.
Silently rising up out of the blue depths, a black tip reef shark cruised by slowly looking over this new visitor to its realm. I was enthralled by his majestic beauty while watching the sunlight dance off his sleek muscled back. The shark then turned and came back faster, taking a closer look at me. Suddenly and without warning it accelerated to an incredible speed and slammed its closed mouthed head and body into the outside of my right thigh! It felt like I had been hit by an NFL linebacker and that my leg had just been broken! The abrasiveness of the shark's hide had knocked the skin off my leg in a large patch and it was beginning to ooze blood. After the blow to my leg the shark departed quickly. I have no idea what that encounter was all about although I know sharks tend to bump and butt objects with their heads to determine what they are. But this was no bump! This was a body slam! This hurt! I ended my dive and returned slowly to the cliff face of the island while affecting a one legged fin kick since the injured leg did not want to respond properly.
Getting out of the water and negotiating my way up that cliff face with all my wet dive gear took forever but finally I was hobbling up to my little plane, still waiting patiently for me in the bushes to the side of the drug strip runway. My two “compadres” had apparently not moved and were both still patiently sitting on their drug piles, staring stoically at the crazy “gringo”! As I taxied my little plane to the cliff’s edge to maximize every inch of runway for my take off, I was still in awe of the perfection of the untouched reef I had just left. As I accelerated down that bumpy runway, I couldn't help but wave an impulsive goodbye to my two impassive friends. I wondered if their life could be anywhere near as exciting as mine was. I returned many times in the months to come to explore this wall further, once encountering a massive 40 foot whale shark that was kind enough to allow me to hitch a ride! On another visit, my girlfriend was assaulted” by a very amorous and large male nurse shark that needed some behavior modification to dissuade him from his intent! Each visit to West Caicos never failed to produce another adventure of discovery!