Grand Turk: The Shark

Read the previous installment here.

Zuiderdam at Grand TurkIt's a funny thing to wake up and see something out your window that wasn't there when you went to bed.  I'm not talking a bird or dog, or even a Ford Econoline Van with blacked out windows.  I mean something like an island.  And a long pier leading from it to you. (click on the photo to the right to see this video on YouTube).

Got on my swimming trunks and tank top.  NAUI card showing my SCUBA certification.  Glasses (no contacts underwater).  ID card to let me back on the ship.  Cell phone.  Camera.  Still early, our breakfast already arrived.  Yogurt and orange juice.  Brush my teeth.  Okay... time to die.

Up the pier to the little courtyard beyond, members of the dive group trickle in, one by one.  One very sporty couple, wearing wetsuits and ball caps (both suitable weathered), and a few middle aged guys.  One heavy-set fellow from Canada named John had an appropriately wry sense of humor, and asks me how long it was since I dove.  "Too long," I say, not wanting to lie, but not wanting to concern him greatly either.  He's looking forward to Grand Turk, one of the top dive spots in the world, as he'd already gone in Mexico and elsewhere.

So our guides arrive and turns out Mr. Sporty knew our Jamaican dive master from yet another island in the  Caribbean.  So all was good -- this guy was not going to take us to certain death (that was entirely up to me).

The dive boat sets off for a brief ride to the dive site #1.  Then we set to work getting suited up and finding our Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.  I must stress again that it has been a decade since I handled dive equipment.  So I pay great attention to John as he get his tank and harness and such together.  But he decides not to go with a wet suit.  I'm on my own.

I slip it on and try to figure out where the zipper is.  Oh, inside.  Which means it is on inside out.  Anyone see this?  Nope.  They are paying attention to details like how to keep breathing underwater. 

Take it off, turn it right side out.  Put it on again.  Pull up the zipper. Wait, what are these things pushing into the back of my shins...?

I'm really stumped on this one... like big, flat pieces of plastic...

 ... look around at everyone else... nope, I'm at the back of the boat, so still no one notices my searching glances... then I notice...

... I can see everyone's zippers on their backs.  Mine is on the front.  I have it on backwards.

Getting ready to head outOkay, take it off AGAIN, still no one noticing, turn it around, put it on, reach around and zip it up, and there you have it.  John looks up. "Can you help me get this on?" he says, motioning to his weight belt.

I oblige, taking note of the number of weights he's carrying.  I decide to go with one less.  He's about half a foot short than me, so I figure that's about right.  Even at my thinnest, I'm naturally buoyant for some reason. This amount of weight feels right.

 Now I'm suited up with everything, and just as he's about to go in, I turn to John and say, "Pardon me for asking, but how much do you weigh?"

"Three hundred," he says, and exits.  At the time, I'm under 200.  And now carrying a shade less than he is.

Everyone else jumps in, one by one.  The divemaster calls to me from the water," Inflate your vest!"

I look down.  Right.  Gotta have some air in there to regulate my buoyancy.  More at the surface when we start.  Then as we descend, let it out.  I can add more from the tank if I want to rise.

But I cannot, for the life of me, recall the procedure to inflate the damn thing.  It is easy.  I know it is.  But what that easy thing is...

"C'mon -- just put some air in the vest!"  the divemaster calls again. I fiddle to look like I am, and then figure that I'm holding everyone up and go in.  Fully aware that I have almost NO air in the vest to keep me afloat, but carrying much, much more weight than I should.  I should sink to the bottom like a stone.  And whether out of pure Yankee cussedness or simple male curiosity that says "Okay, let's see what happens when we do this", I jump into a hundred or more feet of water.

I hit the water and sink.  Not too fast, though, and start pumping my legs to get back up to the surface.  When my face breaks the water, I'm already breathing hard.  I spit in my mask to clean it, rinse it out, put it on and breathe in through my nose just enough to make a seal. Kick, kick, kick.  Then everyone's gone.

I never really knew why nature decided to give me big flat feet.  By any concept of proportionality, I should either be 7 feet tall or have size 11 feet.  Instead, I'm 6'2 and have size 14.  When I was nine years old, I wore size 9 men's shoes.  That and narrow ankles meant I was constantly getting sprains as I was growing up -- and was convinced in an earlier era I would have been culled from the clan by some saber tooth tiger.  But in the case of swim fins, I'm equipped with better leverage than most.

So I don't sink... so quickly.  And when we descend, well, that's not an issue either.  I remember enough of my training to remember to hold my nose and blow to equalize my pressure every few feet.  But when we reach the bottom, I'm working hard not to scrape my face and belly onThe Anchor the reef.

Now, I should take a moment and say the scenery was amazing.  I was toward the end of the group, with John, and one of divemasters keeping track of us.  After about 5 or ten minutes, our divemaster swam up beside me and pointed down.  Then he pointed again.  Down.  I thought he was signalling me that I should go lower -- and then I saw in a little hollow in the reef below us the unmistakable head of a shark.  He wasn't big -- maybe the size of a large Dachsund or beagle -- and apparently quite shy.  Then he disappeared back into his cave. (photo credit:  Oasis Divers).

Not being able to ascend, I believed this was just the sort of shark I wanted to meet down here.  Small and meek.

At last, our divemaster came over to me, probably noticing I was paying far too close attention to the bottom of the ocean, and pushed a little blue button on my vest.  It inflated a little.  He did it again, and gave me the OK sign.  Yes, yes, that was it!  Right, now I remember.  OK, I signed back to him.  And I was off to the races.

Up, down, all around.  I could see how this is a favorite spot for divers.  It wasn't the sheer 400' walls of Indonesia, but it a close second.  And takes less time to get to.

As a diver, I always had a terrible time gulping down all my air, and thus shortening my time underwater considerably.  This time, however, I was cool  and ended up back at the surface about the same time as everyone else.

We took a small rest, then strapped on our second tanks in another location.  Now not in fear for my pathetic neck, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the experience.  Another tap on my Flying Fishshoulder from another diver revealed two dophins swimming by not 30 feet away -- a real treat. 

But when we finished up before noon, I was exhausted.  Happy, refreshed, relieved and gratified that I could now say that my last dive was in March 2007 and not ten years prior, it was definitely worth it.

And then the flying fish came on board.  Not just one.  Several.  One landed right on the seat.

Before throwing it back, I managed to snap a shot.  Hadn't been able to take my camera underwater, but when sea life comes to you, it is not something to ignore.

At long last, the dive boat headed back to the pier.  I want to take this moment to say that the crew was entirely professional, and by keeping an eye on me provided the assistance needed to make it an enjoyable experience.  A less conscientious outfit could have led to a very different outcome for yours truly.  Holland American certainly picked a good company to partner with.

The Dive Boat & Zuiderdam

Returning back to the Zuiderdam, I changed and returned to shore where I caught up to Chandra much later than we anticipated.  While the undersea part of her helmet dive went very well, it was very late taking off and there were all sorts of problems with boats breaking down and such.  Still, she was psyched having never done anything like that before, and was thinking about doing snuba (think cross between scuba and snorkling) in when we came to St. Thomas. 

So we're sitting at our table on the Lido Deck, having lunch or dinner or a snack or something, waiting for the ship to cast off,  and looking over the list of songs for Zuiderdam Superstar that night.  What should Chandra pick?  If you want to know the general nature of the selection, think:  Michael Bolton sings Kelly Clarkson.  Heavy on the soft rock and recent country.  Finally, she was able to pick out a few she was happy with, but then the announcment came over the PA:Helmet Diving

"WILL MR. ANDREW BARKLEY PLEASE USE THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE TO CALL THE FRONT DESK."

!?

"IF MR. ANDREW BARKLEY IS ON BOARD, PLEASE CALL THE FRONT DESK BY USING THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE."

Now, I was not going to quibble over the name.  I was pretty sure that it was me they meant.  But with Sofie visiting her grandparents in Austria...

... or maybe it had to do with the ship's staff finally verifying my press credentials...

...?

So I called.  They apologized for the mispronunciation.  Turns out that when I came back on board with Chandra, they had not swiped my ID card, and thought I was still on board.  Nope, I was here.  No problem, they said, thank you.

 Back at the table, we're back looking at the songs, trying to pick out one that would be cool for her to sing.  She wants Duran Duran's Hungry Like the Wolf.  I'm not much help, asking if they have Union of the Snake, too.  "NO," she says.

 "Lady Marmalade?"

"You wish."

 "On my birthday?"

 "Mmm-maybe."

"In public?"

"What?"

"WILL MR. ANDREW BARKLEY PLEASE USE THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE TO CALL THE FRONT DESK."

Oh, for Christ's sake...

"IF MR. ANDREW BARKLEY IS ON BOARD, PLEASE CALL THE FRONT DESK BY USING THE WHITE COURTESY PHONE."

 "Hello, this is Andrew Buckley.  I called before and I'm still on board."

"Thank you!"

If you ever hear that they won't hold a ship for one person, think again.

Next installment:  San Juan Socks

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