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Catherine Fischer

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Saba: the Rest of the Trip [Jun. 27th, 2004|03:29 pm]
Catherine Fischer
[mood |accomplishedaccomplished]
[music |Many Rivers to Cross, UB40]

Sunday morning! Up early, get ready, out on the balcony waiting for the gang to come out so we can head down to breakfast together (they all envied me my sandwich and my lovely breakfast on Saturday). The morning light is brilliant, clear, illuminating the sheer cliffs of St. John’s with a wash of gold. Cloud shadows pass like phantom ships over the landscape. Mountain warblers sing their simple song from the treetops around the cabins. It is an enchanted moment.

In a helter-skelter tumbling rush of chaos, the gang is here! Looking for gear, hollering to each other, fighting with hairbrushes, toothbrushes, half-dry swimsuits. And despite the group dynamics, we’re down for breakfast in plenty of time, sipping tea, swapping stories in the golden ambience of the café, savoring the delicious food. And then Manny shows up for us, and we’re off! Swing by the dive shop, where I end up buying a watch to replace the one that I’ve thrashed in the last couple of years, plus an extra mask strap (just in case). Down the long winding road to the harbor; through the bright morning onto the dive boat, where Bruno, Lita and Marcel are waiting for us cheerfully, despite having been up LATE at the show. We bumble around, getting our stuff situated, ourselves ready, getting in the way of the crew and each other; the boat launches, and we’re there in 10 minutes!

Tent Wall. Just a little farther offshore from dive number 3 of yesterday, the wall drops vertically down to about 120 feet – underwater volcanism is SPECTACULAR! I am the first person in the water (my gear is set up right at the edge of the boat, so I like to go in to get out of everyone’s way); swim through the bright water to the bow of the boat, and await Brent’s entry. Looking down through the blue world below me, there is the life on the top of the wall, darting and flashing…and the night-blue abyss off the edge. Brent arrives, and down we go! In order to allow neutral buoyancy at the bottom, I have started swimming down, rather than deflating my BC and sinking; it actually works like a charm, and after Brent gets his ears cleared, we wait hovering at the edge for the divemaster (Bruno, this morning) to take us over and down into the depths. Sinking slowly, the wall to our right, the sense of space and distance is powerful; the gothic architecture of rising silver bubble columns only adds to the sense of cyclopean space. The wall is entirely encrusted with marvel after marvel – neon purple-on-peach sponges, electric-bright fishes, wire corals (with the most delicate, tiny shrimp imaginable on them) stretching out into the water column in a green tangle…more tiny exquisite life forms than I can possibly enumerate. And there it is again…the joy, bubbling up inside me at being part of this wonder, the delight at being here. I do a few backwards somersaults, which prove contagious…Brent joins me. Then we both laugh at ourselves, and continue our descent to a perfect coral garden on the bottom: 110 feet. Wow. Have never been this deep before! Swimming over, under, through, around the corals…it’s flawless. Then Brent signals that he’s half out of air, so we begin our ascent (you use more air, the deeper you go). Up from the blue twilight, under the overhanging cornices collecting quicksilver pools of air, entranced with the microcosmos thriving in this world. Up over the edge, up to 15 feet, make our 3-minute safety stop; Terri comes up with the underwater camera, and gets a shot of us holding hands and smiling. And then up into bright sunlight. I have half a tank left, and Brent is entirely out. Climb aboard, talking animatedly – what a thrill! (I’m still dreaming of this dive, a week later…this is what I dreamed of as a child, over and over. Pure magic.) Sinus squeeze, again; I start diving off the boat, trying to force the air in my sinuses to equalize. It works. Actually screw up my courage to do a swan dive off the top deck (about 12 feet up), and don’t do too badly. Wow! Fun! I haven’t done this since high school! So I start diving over and over; pretty soon, others are diving off the top deck, too, while we’re blowing off nitrogen from the depths, scaring the fish and having a riotously fun time.

Babylon is the next dive. There are some wonderful basalt formations, encrusted with corals and sponges, anemones and sea fans. One of them, I swear, looks exactly like a heart (although Marcel describes it as a “teardrop”). As the heart is hanging in space, I swim all around it, looking at it from all angles…and run into a 4-foot barracuda on the other side, hiding in the shadows. Wow! Beautiful, slender silver fish, with impressive teeth. He looks dubiously at the crowd of us, and hangs back in the darkness. Brent and I totally miss the nurse sharks, as we’re so engrossed in the tiny little life-forms living EVERYWHERE. *Sigh*. Once a biologist, always a biologist! On the way back up (Brent’s out of air, again, and won’t take some of mine to prolong the dive), one of the divemasters points out a swaying patch of garden eels. Yay! I love the little green fingerlings! I express my enthusiasm with a “Wallace and Grommit” – which cracks Brent up, because he catches the reference. (People laughing through their regulators are HILARIOUS.) And up!

Before our final dive of the day (except, of course, for those of us going on the night dive), we head into the harbor (10 minutes away) to see if Katie is going to join us for diving, and to get more tanks of air…Katie’s not there. I stretch out in the sun on the bow of the boat; Brent heads ashore with a bunch of the others. Then I notice a couple of others in the water…with the tarpon! The tarpon are 6-foot-plus fish that hide in the harbor during the day, hunt the reefs at night. They’re amazing…like that scene from Angel’s Egg. When Veronica jumps in the water, they surround her, which is SCARY and thoroughly impressive. So I follow, to see them, although they mostly scatter after they realize Veronica isn’t food. Good thing! There are lobster traps beneath the boat, filled with the biggest damn lobsters I’ve ever seen, some assorted trash, and not much else…I go back to sunbathing (AKA sunburning). Brent comes back and graciously brings me a Ting, which helps my acid stomach (it really doesn’t like salt water). My sandwich goes down well, after that, and I’m ready for the next dive!

Hot Springs. At the bottom is hot yellow sand – sulfur from underwater volcanism. Fun to bury your hands in, although Marcel was funny when explaining the dive (“and if you stick your hands in it, you’ll be very badly burned”). Several degrees difference in temperature, certainly. Brent and I wander off while Terri’s still playing in the sand, and I start chasing a big snapper of some sort around and around a coral island. Brent watches, amused. Then we spot Terri taking group photos; Brent swims over the top of her head and leans down upside down to make faces. She snaps a shot; I pose with the regulator out of my mouth, making my most awful face. Click! When Terri finally gets the pics up on the website, I’ll forever be remembered as that twit with the awful expression. Just before Brent and I surface (I’ve tried wasting as much air as possible, since I know he’ll still use more air than I will), Lita shows me the local find: a wild pipefish, hanging out on the bottom! (It’s a relative of the seahorse – gorgeous creature, although probably paralyzed with fear from all of us looking at it.) I also get to see perhaps the largest Hawksbill turtle ever, which Veronica is the first to spot.

Up into the warm afternoon light, the breeze as we cruise back to port – the crew is anxious to finish up, as there’s a barbecue and party at Bruno’s house that night (which they’ve kindly invited us to). Some of us plan on coming back for the night dive; run up to the cabins, grab stuff, and head for Tropics café, where a visiting PhD is giving a talk on the changes in the coral reef ecology with global warming. I’m able to hear about half of it, nodding off in my drink; it’s interesting, but nothing I don’t already know. I start experiencing weird optical effects in the late afternoon sunlight, and wonder if I ought to tell someone. Decide against. Then it’s time to head back down!

This is my first night dive; I’m excited, and wondering what sort of creatures I’ll get to see. The whole van bubbles with hushed anticipation; this will be a first for most of us. Halfway down the switchback below The Bottom, Manny stops the van and tells us we’ll have to walk the rest of the way down to the harbor. There’s a silence. And I decide SOMEONE has to be the straight man. “You’re kidding, right?” I ask. Everyone busts up. There’s a car coming up through the infamous “S-curve”, which can accommodate only one car at a time. We continue down, climb aboard the boat, make arrangements to have dinner waiting for us when we return, and take off!

Back into the cold wetsuit skin; Brent and I help each other with our gear while Lita briefs us on the dive (tent reef, which we’ve done before, familiarity being the idea). And in! The last of the light is running down; a thumbnail moon is setting in the west, leaving a golden path across the broken surface of the sea. The water is warmer than being above, in the clammy suit. I descend the anchor line at the bow, and wait, next to Lita, watching the dive lights slicing through the twilight like searchlights as each new person enters the water. I see Brent heading for me; I hold out my hand. One of the things Lita stressed at the beginning: don’t lose track of your buddy!

The water is full of pale green stars; Brent and I hold our lights against our chests to make darkness, and revel in playing with the bioluminescent plankton. Grinning, we indulge in a “Wallace & Grommit”, realizing that not everyone would be as thrilled by something so seemingly simple. (Ah, but once you’ve looked at the molecular biology of bioluminescence, you’ve looked at one of the wonders of the world…) The night feeders are out. Snappers cling to us, hoping we’ll illuminate sleeping fish for them to snatch up…which happens a couple of times, to my dismay. Horse-eye Jacks chase down the snapper that grabs an unfortunate blue tang from under my light. The lobsters, slipper lobsters, and brilliant red shrimp are out; Lita is thrilled to find an orange ball corallimorph, feeding (she points it out to me while I’m telling her Brent’s at half a tank. She later found another one, having never actually spotted them before). The corallimorph is a tube-dwelling anemone, and it’s active, interesting. Then someone kicks me in the head while we’re all crammed in there too tightly; I take Brent’s hand again, and we wriggle out of the pack for more open spaces. On the other side of a ridge from the group, the searchlight effect is pronounced, and sends shivers up my spine. I spot an octopus hiding in a crevice, and flash my light to get Brent’s attention…then notice he’s not there. Fighting down panic, I swim toward the open spaces – total darkness. Look back over my shoulder, and there he is, right where I had been! (I still don’t know how we missed each other, but I was awfully glad to see him.) I have used a bunch of air in the short period of time we were separated, and now I’m COLD. Fortunately, Brent’s running low on air, so it’s time to head up. Trying to hold at 15 feet for the safety stop is hard, as there’s some surge; Brent and I go up and down like carousel horses. Finally, up into the air. Watching all of the lights cueing for the ladder is a neat effect; Steve (who had been running Tropics café when I was last on Saba, and is now a dive boat captain again for Sea Saba) takes my light and fins, and hands us all up neatly. I’m shivering, and slip and fall on deck feeling the sinus squeeze full force. Brent puts his arm around me to keep me warmer, and I decide I’ll ride out the trip back to harbor where I am. The stars are out in force; through chattering teeth, I point out all of the constellations I can recognize, and Brent does the same. I’m the last off the boat, staggering and stumbling and dizzy.

Up to the cabins, where I gratefully change into warm dry clothes, and catch a ride from Manny back to Windwardside, where dinner is supposed to be waiting for me at Tropics café; Brent and most of the rest of the group head for The Swinging Door for a steak dinner. Tropics is closed! So Megan and I – who had planned to eat at Tropics – ride back up with Manny to the barbecue, where Manny tells us he’ll feed us (he’s the barbecue chef, and a genius, as it turns out…some of the best shish-kebab I’ve ever eaten). Warm, belly full, surrounded by interesting people, I start falling asleep, and can’t keep my eyelids up; then the cigarette smoke starts bothering me (there’s a lot of it). I walk back up to the cabins (after assuring Nicole that Saba is entirely safe, and that there’s nothing for a woman walking alone at night to fear). Steep climb, and I reach the cabin gratefully. Sit on the couch to talk to Katie, who is virtuously studying. Terminator 3 is on – it’s execrable. I fall asleep on the couch, sitting upright, with my mouth open, clutching the remote. Katie wakes me, and I go to bed, sleep like the dead.

My eyelids fly open at 6; I’m done sleeping! The morning is quietly, gloriously unfolding again; I go out on the deck to watch it in my (probably inappropriate) nightie. Shower, get ready for brekkie; try to wake people, to see if they want to join me, before Tropics café closes (at 10). People are half-dead, and crack bloodshot eyes at me; I decide perhaps I’d better leave them alone. Walk down to brekkie alone. End up talking with Winn, the proprietor for a while. Hike back up; folks are stirring. Terri’s running around in her pajamas. Decide we’re going for a tour, some light hiking, looking around Windwardside shops and JoBean’s glass shop, which is one of the wonders of the Caribbean. Take off for Windwardside, dropping Katie and Tina off at the head of a longer trail than I want to tackle; rather than getting out at Sea Saba, I decide I’ll tag along while the rest of the crew finds brekkie in The Bottom. Manny points out some of the sights on the way down, including the head of a nice trail (the Crespin trail) up past the Ecolodge, ending in Windwardside; I decide this is just my speed. A bunch of us express interest on the way down. Sit and talk over tea, then tour an old church with a vivid mural by a local artist in the nave. Old mahogany tree used as a signpost a century ago; old colonial architecture, quiet morning gardens in the brilliant light of a flawless day. We drive past Saba’s one and only beach – little more than a strip of grey sand, but astonishing blue water. The Sea Saba dive boat (The Giant Stride) is anchored in the cove, and happy snorkelers are splashing in the water, swimming into the tunnel through the rock (a natural formation, which Kevin and I snorkeled on our last trip to Saba). We’re all green with envy, wanting back in that water…

Back up the hill, at the head of the trail, Manny lets us out; despite the earlier interest, it ends up being just Brent and I. We take the climb easy, with many stops to discuss the rainforest flora and fauna, try to snap a shot of those amazing zebra-striped butterflies that never hold still. Brent gets a fairly decent shot of me, though, despite my having a water bottle jammed in my pocket like a goober! Up at the Ecolodge, we get the tour – the cabins are gorgeous! What a romantic little hideaway! Maybe I can come back, someday…Brent’s charmed, too, and tells me that he and some of the others were talking about going in on a house together, to trade off veterinary duties and diving (Saba doesn’t have a vet). I love their restaurant, too, although the kitchen is closed today. Katie and Tina catch up with us while we’re there; we send them up to look at the new sweat-lodge, make of overlapping hide “scales” and fashioned to look like a turtle. Then we set out for Maskehorne Hill, with its astounding view of Windwardside…it’s a gorgeous day, and the blue bowl of sky below us looks like heaven.

Finally back to Windwardside, and lunch at YIIK grill, one of my favorite restaurants from my first visit. Running out of time, we hike up to Booby Hill and run through JoBean’s glass shop. I cannot resist a gorgeous pink and silver glass heart pendant, and pendant opalescent silver star earrings; I get Brent a “slave bead” (a recreation of the beads the slaves of Statia used to wear, which can still be found in the water around the island. I have one from my first visit – a little bit of history). Down to the wire! The bus to the airport will be leaving in half an hour; we hike up the steep hill to The Level, where Garvis overtakes us. Pack in 5 minutes, and head down. The weekend is already over, alas!

After a short wait in the world’s most adorable airport, we load up the featherweight plane, and prepare for an exciting takeoff: the pilots back the plane up as far as they can (the tail is hanging over the edge), rev the engine, and pop it into gear; we’re off like we’re flung from a slingshot, and accelerating just as hard as we can. The edge looms closer, and closer…the wheels lift JUST as we run out of runway, and we all go wild! Up into the clouds; we’re all sleepy and replete from our weekend, sad it’s over. Talk is subdued, and the trip takes no time at all. Immediately on arrival, a bustling self-important Kittitian airport official yells at us for grabbing our bags to carry in – welcome back to St. Kitts! I catch a ride back with Veronica and Brian’s neighbor; end up in West Farm, as her Rossmobile overheats. From there, Veronica takes me home, where I arrive just in time to pick up the phone – it’s Dana. We have a dinner date to rehash the weekend, and have a terrific time, dawdling over wine and a lovely meal at OTI. I go to bed, dreaming of blue spaces, without even unpacking.