Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Diving Saba

The tiny prop plane rumbled to a stop as I dug my fingernails into the headrest in front of me and looked out the window in absolute shock. We had come to a screeching halt in less than a few seconds on, literally, the shortest runway in aviation history at a mere 440 yards, jutting out over the edge of a cliff. Incredibly, the airport on Saba has a perfect safety record! After dislodging my fingernails from the seat and disembarking from the little puddle jumper, I checked in at the tiny customs desk and jumped into a taxi with six others heading to the Ecolodge Rendezvous on Windwardside, located, of all places, on the windward side of this tiny 5 square mile island. The islands peak is 3000 feet high, so that 5 miles is literally vertical. The taxi made hairpin turn after hairpin turn, climbing ever higher up the mountainside.

The Ecolodge is nestled in the rainforest heading up to Mt. Scenery on the windward side. Made up of a series of distinct little cottages that dot the mountainside, each cottage is made of recycled materials and themed – Tree Frogs, Blue Tang (that would be my lodge!), Bird of Paradise, etc. the cottages are powered by solar panels, the toilets feed into a composting system, water is provided by rain collected in a cistern and warm showers by rainwater that has been warmed by the sun in a black “solar shower” bag and hung up on a hook in the stone floored bathrooms. Amongst the lodges are little outcroppings of basil, scotch bonnet peppers, baby lettuces, berries and tropical fruits and the lodge sports a tiny restaurant offering breakfast, lunch and dinner (by reservation only). A stone path winds from the lodge up to the peak of Mt. Scenery and down to the village of Windwardside. The path is dense with papaya, mango, banana and breadfruit trees pregnant with their tropical bounty; along with elephant ears, palm trees and numerous tropical flowers. Not an hour had passed and Saba was already my favorite island in the Caribbean.

After dropping my bags in my Blue Tang themed lodge, a quick nap, and a chat with a bright yellow lizard sunning himself on my windowsill I headed down the path to the dive shop. A happy fellow by the name of Peddy, of dutch ancestry and sporting a fantastic island accent, picked up a group of divers, myself included, and headed down to Fort Bay to meet the dive boat. The dive boat departed at 1pm and it seamed that no sooner had the boat had left the dock, we’d arrived at the mooring and were tying up; the mooring for the dive spot less than a mile from the dock and only a few hundred yards from the rocky craggily edge of the island. I was swept by a sudden bout of disappointment. How on earth could a dive be any good if it is only a few feet from shore, I thought to myself. I convinced myself that the dive shop knew I was a rooky and sent me on the kiddy dive and my heart sunk. As I slipped on my fins I reluctantly told myself that it was really only my first real dive and perhaps something conservative was a good idea. But so many people had told me how great diving Saba was, would I see the real thing? Noticing my distress, another dive on board said reassuringly, “don’t worry, you’ll like this spot”. The dive master appeared with a dry erase board and in a thick Italian accent she explained the layout of the reef and the dive plan and said that we would be diving to 80 feet. 80 feet! Maybe the dive wouldn’t be so bad after all, but was I ready for it? Before sending us on our way, she said, “an no-a harassing-g the sea life or the instructor. I don-n’t want to see any sea snakes or moon fish!”

I was paired up with Paula, a dive instructor working on the boat. I’d recognize her underwater by her hot pink fins. The other guests had all geared up and jumped in and Paula and I were last. After an equipment check Paula told me to jump in, descend to 10 feet, swim to the line and wait for her. Bubbles popped and whizzed around me from the divers below and I watched mesmerized as everyone slowly descended to the ocean floor. Soon, Paula’s hot pink fins were below me and I followed along as we descended down the line. I felt like I was making a lunar landing as I hovered above the sea bed as barren as the Mojave Desert. Little black eels poked out of the sandy ocean floor looking like plantings in a rice paddy in Vietnam, they retracted quickly disappearing into the sand as we floated above. We swam along and a barracuda observed us from a safe distance. As we approached the reef evidence of the underwater party going on was everywhere. Luminescent jawfish fluttered in the current vertical to the sand, leaping and dancing like flames and the vanishing into their little homes below ground. Deep water sea fans and sea plumes enormous in size and incredibly colored and detailed rustled in the gentle current and I was completely transfixed. I wanted to study one area in detail but the group swam ahead and I didn’t want to fall behind. Feather duster worms reminded me of long, lush false eyelashes. Angel fish in varying colors, butterfly fish, porcupine fish and the hilarious looking trunkfish swam all around me. I was so excited my heart raced but I dare not smile or I’d leak water into my mask. The colors were spectacular; lavender tube sponges and giant barrel sponges teaming with life; streaks of fluorescent green, purple and yellow corals branched across the stony face of the collapsed reef wall.

The group was focused intently in one direction. Paula tapped me and pointed to a crevice of rock and coral and out came the bright green head of a moray eel with electric blue eyes. We stared at each other captivated. I couldn’t look away from the eel, I felt like we were communicating in some sacred language. I was filled with awe. We continued down the reef. I checked my gauge, 2200 p.s.i. My buddy came by to check my gauge as well, I signaled to her – two fingers tapped against my left shoulder. She gave me the ok sign and showed me her gauge; I was doing well on air. We continued along and the terrain changed. Mammoth boulders rose up from below with schools of elegant black durgeon dressed for a ball, and the life of the party, the Sergeant Majors darting about. Our guide swam over to me and showed me her computer, 79 feet! She clapped and gave me a big OK sign. 1500 p.s.i., I signaled to our guide that my tank was half full. I positioned myself upside down and drifted downward exploring the edge of the cliff. Squirrel fish, those antisocial creatures hid from the excitement of the reef party in the crevices below. A motor rumbled in my ears, first I ignored it as ambient sound, like a car going by. Then I looked up and noticed two divers near the surface and my buddy’s hot pink fins racing up to get their attention, a boat buzzed overhead, and later I would learn that the captain was on the radio trying to get the guy out of the area…

We began to work our way back to the mooring. A stingray lay motionless in the sand hoping to avoid being noticed, but then jetted off, hovering at top speed to get away. 800 p.s.i., time to head in. I went to the line and did my 3 minute safety stop, then it was back to the boat. Our guide emerged from the water just after me, exclaiming, “it’s so beautiful, I just love being down there!”. Paula and I talked about everything we’d seen and she and the guide both said that I did a really good job and I’ll make a great diver. Returning to the dive shop, I immediately signed up for two more dives the next day and hoped the hotel and airline would accommodate my extended stay.

Diving Saba was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had, and this was by far one of the best trips I’ve taken. The people of Saba are warm and accommodating, and the island is the pinnacle of unspoiled natural beauty. Given that the island is a mass of volcanic rock shooting straight out of the ocean – there are no beaches, and thus, no resorts, the surrounding waters and much of the rainforest are protected marine and nature preserves. The island has a year round population of about 1200 people and receives around 30,000 visitors a year – a far cry from neighboring St. Barth and St. Martin that see that many visitors in a week! Saba is quiet and unspoiled, the perfect place for the wayward traveler who prefers kicking back in a hammock with a good book, and moving only as their will dictates.

1 comment:

sha said...

hey dive buddy.... hope all is well

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