One of the first lessons you learn in scuba diving is never, ever hold your breath. Pretty hard to remember when you jump into 60 feet of water with massive waves and the first sign of life you see is a shark circling 10 feet below you.
We are aboard the Cat Ppalu, a 60-foot catamaran, in the Exumas east of Nassau in the Bahamas. Pirates ruled the waters around this 100-mile chain of islands some 200 years ago. The city of Nassau is famous as the site where pirates docked their ships to count and spend their treasure on prostitutes, carouse with other pirates and drink barrels and barrels of the finest rum in the Caribbean. Today it is a divers’, snorkellers’ and sunbathers’ paradise. And also the site of the Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey-owned castle where a one-night suite can go for $25,000. Jackson and Winfrey carrying on the greedy pirate tradition in their own unique way. But this wasn’t the time to be thinking such angry thoughts. We were here to dive the miles and miles of coral reefs exploring a world few people get to see.
The first dive is always the hardest even at a mere 25 feet. You’re nervous and your heart beats faster as you struggle to your feet with some 40 pounds of equipment strapped to your back. Moments before you jump in you try to remember what you learned in the pool months ago, do not hold your breath, equalize the air space in your ears, descend slowly, stick with your buddy, again, do not hold your breath, check how much air you have left constantly, relax, breathe slowly, it’ll be okay. And stay away from those fish with the giant gnashing teeth!
Finally, the leap of faith into the waves. Splash. The air in your vest shoots you up as the cool water enters your wet suit. You signal that you’re okay and kick away from the entry point. You slowly let the air out of your vest and you descend. You’re completely weightless, flying and the ocean bottom is clear, calm and filled with life. Silver barracudas float calmly by, curious smaller fish approach within inches of your mask, giant mouthed groupers in small
groups float motionless waiting to pounce on breakfast, a trio of reef sharks circle slowly, sea turtles swim awkwardly and turn sharply to avoid the foreign bubble blowers. Even turtles move faster than humans down here.
Thousands of fish gather and feed around the coral. Wide cracks in coral called swim-thru’s by divers twist and wind their way through deeper water and end abruptly near the wall’s edge. You emerge from a swim thru and look down. The water is cold blue and there is the abyss, 5000 feet deep. You swim along the wall and a giant spotted ray four times your size flies over the edge into the abyss and disappears. You enter another swim thru they call “The Church” and the coral towers over you. At high noon the sun peeks out of the clouds and intensifies the rainbow of colours in “The Church” and it takes your breath away. The most beautiful church in the world pales in comparison. You don’t want to leave but your gauges tell you it’s time to head back.
The sun sets and it’s time to prepare for the night dive. Fluorescent glowsticks are secured to tanks and batteries for flashlights are double-checked. Lobster that wouldn’t fit in your pots at home and black alien-like sea urchins with foot-long spikes for protection come out. Coral that looks ordinary in daytime glows and changes color. Fellow divers who accidentally shine their light in your eyes blind you. Some people prefer night dives.
Most dives are slow affairs with people trying to conserve air. Once in a while though you get a chance to drift with the current for miles. You enter the water at a channel with more weight than normal so you descend faster. The current allows you to literally fly through fields, hills and valleys of grass at depths of 30 to 45 feet. Startled fish and turtles pop out of rocks just feet away from you. The dive master does somersaults while holding on to the safety rope which everyone will grab onto at the end. 20 minutes and a mile later you surface and scream, “Let’s do it again!”