Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Face to face with a beast of the sea

So while diving last week at Natural, I was photographing this really cool coral. It is truly this bright red even more than 50 down, where there are almost no red wavelengths in the light. (The water absorbs more wavelengths as you go deeper, starting with the shorter reds then orange and yellow 'til all that's left are the long greens and blues.) Every time I see it, I always wonder how red this coral would appear at 10 feet or at the surface if it is this red at depth.

Anyway, I look up from the coral and see a (big gasp of air and "holy s***!) green moray eel. No, not just a green moray, a giant green moray. It was the biggest moray I've ever seen. I got Darryl's attention and spent probably seven or eight minutes photographing it,

It's had to get a sense of just how big this thing is. This photo of Darryl with it may help.

That barrel sponge on the left is about 16 inches across. The eel's head is about six inches in diameter, its body easily double that. From what we could see of it, we guessed it's probably seven or eight feet long.

He knew we were there but he was in no way aggressive. Many people are afraid of morays and I have to admit they are intimidating. They have very sharp teeth which are very visible when their mouths are open. They just kind of lie there with their head sticking out of a hole or a crevice, constantly opening and closing their mouths (and showing those teeth). But what looks like a very aggressive display is really just the eel breathing.

That said, they - like all creatures - are something to be aware of. You don't want to stick you hand into a hole or crack where a moray may be hiding. Like all animals, if they feel threatened they will defend themselves. And it won't be pretty. But if you leave them alone, they will usually let you hang out and watch them for a time. Again like most animals, if they are uncomfortable in your presence, they will try to escape, either by retreating deeper in their holes or by swimming away.

It says a lot about this moray that his presence almost totally eclipsed the fact that the very first thing we saw on this dive as we were descending was a spotted eagle ray.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The hardest goodbye of all

We've written before about comings and goings. It's one of the hardest things about our lives here: We get to know people, get close, get to be friends, and then they leave.

This week we said the hardest goodbye of all: our daughter Amy has lived here on the island very nearby for a little over three years. Sunday she, husband Miguel, and our two grandchildren Kennedy and Kaiden moved back to the States for work.

I cannot begin to tell you how hard this is. Until you have been a grandparent it is impossible to understand what it means. I love our children more than I can tell you (or them!). But the grandparent thing is a totally different experience, better in someways, worse in others, but absolutely amazing. It's like a drug in a way: once you have it, you need more of it and more often. And now we're going cold turkey. 

With tears in our eyes and total love in our hearts, we wish them the absolute best as they start this new adventure. And remember - there is always Puerto Rico Summer Camp.

January's big swell

Wesley Toth enjoys a great ride on a big wave at Wilderness

 The middle of the month brought a big surf swell to our local breaks and surfers took full advantage of it. So did the photographers, including me. You can see the best of the photos on our website, and the Readers Digest version on our Flickr site. Either way check 'em out. There are some great photos (if I do say so myself.)

Sunday, January 27, 2013


It's been a frustrating couple of weeks. First one of our hard drives crashed taking more than two years worth of photos with it.  (Please, don't start preaching to me about backups.) Then our main computer puked and had to be replaced. Then, just as we we're getting all that sorted out, the power went off for 12 hours.

Okay. None of that is really that big a deal. I agree. It's just been frustrating trying to catch up.

For example, today is our annual Chili Fest. We've been trying for a couple of weeks to get everything ready, to get information out, to let people know about it. Our primary communication tool is the computer. All of the documents - posters, flyers, registration forms, etc. - are on computer. Without the computer, we've been kind of hamstrung and are way late in preparations. It's just one example of how dependent we've become on this technology.

But it looks like we're back. For now. Til the next "thing" happens.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

St Maarten

There was one more stop on our cruise - St. Maarten. In some ways this was my least favorite stop. St. Maarten seems to be the most "civilized" of the islands we stopped at, even more so than Barbados. That said, we probably saw less of St. Maarten than any of the other islands. Amy and Miquel wanted to take the kids to a beach where they could play so we took a taxi to some resort that was supposed to have a nice beach and good snorkeling. On this particular day there were "bigger waves" than they usually see.

These knee-high waves were enough to churn up the water so visibility was terrible and enough to make it too rough for the kids to play by the water. Fortunately, the resort had a pool they let us hang by. So we spent the day by a resort pool drinking Carib beer. (Really - how civilized can an island be that doesn't even have its own beer?)

In fairness, we probably should go back some day to check out more of the island, especially the Dutch/French influences. Some sailing friends of ours love St Maarten. But there are several islands - St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Dominica - I'll head for before I go back to St. Maarten.

One other thing about St. Maarten: There was more "Christmas in the Caribbean" on display in St. Maarten than any of the other islands. It's still weird.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Our own "wreck" dive

The huge swell rolled through after Huracan Sandy passed by knocked over one of the remaining mooring platforms at Crashboat Beach. We've wanted to dive on it, thinking it would be like a new wreck. We weren't disappointed.

Twisted ripped metal greeted my friend and frequent dive buddy John D. and I as we dropped on the remains of the platform. The huge slab itself sits at an angle on top of the wreckage.

The good news is fish have already discovered the shelter under the slab and have taken up residence.

One of the ironies of the collapse of this particular platform is this is the one that held some of the local tsunami detection and warning gear. The gear is still attached to the platform. There is a kind of surreal quality about it.

 Our new "wreck" is only in about 22-25 feet of water. It should make a great addition to all those beginner "discover scuba" dives that happen at Crashboat. And it will be cool for the rest of us to watch and document the changes as we dive the wreckage through the coming years. For all the damage Sandy did elsewhere, we're kinda happy about this.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

On Scuba diving

On our cruise, we finally got to scuba dive somewhere other than Puerto Rico. Not that there is anything wrong with diving here. In fact, we are very VERY lucky here. But it is always good to try something/someplace different, to see "how it's done" in other places, and just to see different "stuff." That said, "seeing different stuff" always invites comparisons.

So, with my extremely limited experience diving elsewhere, here goes.

Our two dives in St. Kitts were beautiful. The sea was calm, getting on and off the boat was easy. The boat dives we do here, especially the ones to The Wall, can be a little dicey. The boat dives out to Desecheo Island are usually a little easier than The Wall because the anchorages are in the lee of the island rather than in open ocean. .

Of the islands we visited, St. Lucia and St. Kitts are the two I'd most like to go back and dive. However it appears all the dives in St. Kitts and most of the dives in St. Lucia are boat dives, although St. Lucia does have a few shore dives.

That is one place we are truly spoiled. Except for The Wall (LaParguera/Guanica) and Desecheo (Rincon), all of our dives are shore dives. There are eight different shore dive sites and nine different dives within 20 minutes of Ola Lola's and our house.

Logistically shore dives can't be beat. No driving to a boat, fitting out a boat, no making sure there's fuel, no prep time. We've been known to call one another and say, "Hey, it looks great. Let's go!" We just grab our dive gear and a tank of air and go. We can even fill a tank on the way if need be.

Granted not everyone likes shore dives. There is always a walk from the car park to the water and then a swim out to the "drop" zone. Waves and changing shoreline conditions can make entrances and exits adventures unto themselves. But for me, those are generally small inconveniences for having so much so close.

We are also lucky in what we see on our dives. We regularly see the common reef fish. Some are more abundant at one site than others. For example, we almost always see black durgon at Shacks but rarely see them at Natural. We regularly see green and hawksbill turtles on most of our dives. At one site we often nurse sharks but we don't see them at other sites. For some reason, spotted eagle ray sightings are becoming more common at a couple of sites but again, not at others. At one site, if you know where to look, there are sea horses and baby octopus. We don't see those at any other site.

The underwater terrain is different at each site. One site is mostly hard coral that forms canyons and little tunnels to swim through. Other sites have lots of sponges and soft corals like sea fans.

I'm not saying other places, other islands, don't have the same kinds of great diving. The research I've done says of course they do. That's why I/we want to dive other islands, to see their version. I just think we are remarkably lucky to live here with so much so close.

For those who don't know, I have quite a number of underwater photos on our Flickr page. You can check them out there.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

On to St. Kitts

Our dive day! We wanted to go diving on one of the islands and we finally chose St. Kitts.

It was a day of firsts:

-- First time diving somewhere other than Puerto Rico (both loved it);

-- First time diving in a wetsuit (I hate it; Elaine didn't mind it);

-- First time diving on a wreck (both enjoyed it even though she's a bit claustrophobic);

-- Elaine's first boat dive (she loved it).

We had a terrific dive master/outfitter - Austin from Pro Divers, and a large group who also went on the dive excursion. Included in the group were some very experienced divers, with Elaine being the rookie of the group (it was her 13th and 14th dives). Wet suits were recommended and provided (water temperature was about 78 degrees) and appreciated for the extra warmth.

Travel to the dive sites was by boat over beautiful smooth ocean water - less than 20 minutes or so to the first site which was a shallower wreck dive (sunken boat, tractor and bulldozer). The wrecks were really interesting and fairly open so that even Elaine was willing to go in and through the sunken boat. As we were coming out of the boat wreck, Austin, who was leading stopped and motioned to me behind him, pointing to my camera. He pointed for me to go ahead of him and looking out I saw what he pointed to, a large barracuda swimming just outside and framed by the wreck - an awesome site and a great photo opportunity!

When we got back on the boat Austin said to Elaine that he had noticed her having trouble with her mask (it had been leaking and she had to clear it every 30 seconds or so). He then offered for her to try one of the masks his crew had brought. She settled on Austin's father's mask which she used on the second dive with no problems at all (and thereby using much less air on the second dive)! It's very rare for someone to let another person use their personal mask or snorkel, especially from a dive shop so that was really appreciated.

The second dive was actually two beautiful reefs running perpendicular to each other, each one teaming with fish and beautiful corals. We saw many fish we were familiar with and a few that were uncommon to us - in particular, a few species of wrasses. You can see more pictures from the dives on St. Kitts on our Flickr page.

 St. Kitts is another island I would definitely go back to to dive even though it's not a major dive destination (although that's partly because it's never really been promoted as one). There seems to be a lot of interesting diving, including several very accessible wrecks. It appears their dives are pretty much all boat dives but all relatively near to shore. Nearly all the sites are on the western (Caribbean) side of the island. St. Kitts nearby neighbor Nevis also has several named boat-dive sites.

So we now have St. Lucia, Bonaire, St. Kitts and Dominica. That's a lot of diving! Better get started.

I've got some more thoughts on diving. They will be in the next post, before we finish the cruise on St. Maarten.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

St. Lucia part 2

Our boat tour stopped in Soufriere where we changed to a taxi. Whoa! For those of you who have been to Puerto Rico, driving here on our island is a piece of flan compared to St. Lucia. That was crazy!

 But our driver was great. He got us "there" in one slightly shaky piece.

"There" was the caldera of semi-active volcano. Steam from deep underground constantly escapes through cracks and fissures in the rock that caps the volcano. There is a pervasive smell of sulfur from the sulfur dioxide dissolved in the steam. Our guide told us as long as we can smell the sulfur the concentrations are relatively low and not harmful over a short run. She said if you see steam but don't smell sulfur, then the concentrations are toxic and lethal. That's also one indicator the volcano is getting ready to blow. The last time this volcano erupted was over two hundred years ago. Some think it's about due to erupt again.

Then back in the taxi for quick ride from the volcano to a rain-forest waterfall.

The forest lived up to it's name; it started raining just as it was about time to leave. Back in Soufriere (safely) we got back on our tour boat for a pounding 10-minute ride in the rain. But....

Literally just as we reached our next stop, a small sandy cove where we stopped to snorkel, the rain stopped.

Most of the cove was sand bottom so not much interesting to see (the cool stuff is at the edges). The rocks at one end looked much more promising.


Sure enough - 

This area is a marine preserve. Apparently there are a number of them around the island. They don't make a big deal out of it. There are no big signs, just one old rusted sign on shore that tells you you are leaving the preserve area. For the Lucians it appears to be enough just to say "this is a protected area." It that way they are light-years ahead of us. 

St. Lucia is my/our next go-back-to island. I really want to explore much more of it. And I want to dive there. Not to get too far ahead of the story, but a couple we dove with in St. Kitts told us the best dive they've ever done was in St. Lucia. This couple has been diving all over, including more than one trip to Bonaire, the dive mecca. And the Pitons in St. Lucia was their best dive ever? Definitely gotta go back there!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

St. Lucia, part 1

(For everyone tuning in today for my essay on diving, oops! I got a little ahead of myself. St. Kitts and diving is tomorrow. Sorry about that. For today enjoy St. Lucia.)

The Pitons, one of the iconic features of  St Lucia

A long time ago, somewhere between Moses and the pyramids, when I was a kid, my uncle used to go away for three or four months every winter to either Trinidad or St Lucia. He was a snowbird before that was a recognizable term. He wasn't rich; he didn't stay in hotels or resorts. He rented a room from a local family. I've always wanted to visit those places he went and this cruise gave me a small opportunity. Now that I've been there, I - we! - definitely want to go back.

Of course it's not the same island it was nearly 50 years ago. Back then there were no Sandals resorts; they are now building the third on the island. Then the economy was driven mostly by sugar cane. Now it's driven by tourists. 

Obviously on a cruise you get a few hours on any given island. We used our limited time to take a boat/taxi tour around a bit of the western edge of the island from the capitol at Castries where the cruise ships dock south to Soufriere. (I have no reason to think this - other than a gut feeling - but I think Soufriere was where my uncle used to stay.)

St. Lucia is a volcanic island. On the west (the Caribbean side) at least cliffs like works of abstract art fall straight into the sea

The beaches tend to be nestled in coves.


We didn't get around on the north side but I understand the mountains flatten out somewhat and the beaches are wider. Definitely something to explore on another trip. 

Our boat tour stopped in Soufriere where we changed to a taxi. We'll continue the trip from there in part 2.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year, everyone!

There is an unintentional interruption in the cruise posts. The St. Lucia and the diving post are taking longer than I expected to write. (Yes, I'm a writer who occasionally misses deadlines.) but I promise, they are coming.

Right now, New Year's Day, there is big surf coming and I gotta go check it out.

Thanks for reading and thanks for your patience! Back soon.