February 5th, 2014 by Sally Robinson
Summer Flashback by Sally Robinson, February 5th, 2014
I had the most incredible dive several summers ago. Visibility: 75 feet, the ocean so crystalline blue it almost hurt the eyes. And warm: an 80 degree delightful bath. The dive boat rocked along gently upon a flat sea, with sunlight glinting off the bow and railings. Definitely dive heaven and that was just at the surface. Tom Robinson, captain of the boat Trinity, told us there had been numerous sightings of loggerhead turtles, sharks and mantas in the area, but that anything could show up at any time of the day. Dreams of large pelagics drifted through my head as I climbed up the ladder from a quick pre-dive dip. The other divers were getting their gear in order, fumbling a little in hurried anticipation. Occasionally, a diver would pause for a moment to scan the ocean for a hint of what might lie below.
Our divemaster had gone down ten minutes earlier to set the anchor into the wreck and now popped up at the bow. We all leaned over the railings, questioning him in one big rush. ‘What’s the viz?” “Any sharks?” “Big fish?” Pulling up on the swim platform, he looked us straight in the eyes and said, “You’re not going to believe what’s down there.” (A big pause.) “Five big sand tigers, a large loggerhead and a manta ray.” We were all dumbstruck. He was just kidding, right? It’s not possible to have ALL those creatures on one little 200-foot wreck site. No one moved for a moment as the intelligence actually sank in, then en masse, we were all scrambling for our gear. Buddy teams checked each other, air hissed and straps snapped into place as each diver lumbered to the back of the boat. Tom checked me out before I splashed into the current; green bubbles obscuring my vision. A quick swim to the anchor line, a final check with my buddy and we were heading down. Would it all still be there? I could hear my heart speed up over the sound of my breathing and I had to remind myself to relax, slow down, breathe deep.
We burst through a cloud of baitfish onto the wreck. How could something discarded and near-forgotten be so beautiful? For a second, I felt a flash if sympathy for those non-divers who would only see such sights second-hand via a TV screen. Blue-green light shimmered on a myriad of fish swimming all over the site; tropical colors somehow blending with the neutral tone of the wreck’s structure. I looked up to see the pattern of waves on the surface and then peered the length of the ship’s broken remains. Our divemaster had underestimated the visibility! With a glance toward my buddy, I started against the current, kicking along the starboard side toward the bow. We moved in single file, pointing out fish and colorful sponges or corals. The possibility of sharks was practically forgotten as we enjoyed the diversity of small creatures going about their business.
Before reaching the bow, I turned to confer with my buddy. The look on his face – controlled terror mixed with incredulous delight – flipped me back around. Ten or fifteen feet away were five sand tigers, floating against the current and paying us no attention whatsoever. The largest was nine feet long and 400 pounds. Sand tigers, with snaggled teeth and bulky bodies, look a whole lot meaner than they act. Evidently, these were stopping by this particular area for a rest and a fishy snack before taking off for deeper waters.
We floated along with the sharks for a bit and then, utilizing the flow of the current, kicked over to the port side of the wreck. A large rock drifted up toward us, transforming into a loggerhead turtle as it approached. A big male gazed curiously at us before blinking gently and veering off across the sand. My buddy was writing furiously on his slate, taking down all that he had seen so far. I was making mental notes, thinking this was already an incredible dive when the manta ray swam by. I knew I wasn’t hallucinating from nitrogen narcosis at 50 feet. It was small by manta standards, just nine feet or so across, with beautiful black and white markings and a large remora escort. It ( he, she?) twirled and dipped, gracefully mocking our relatively cumbersome movements, before pirouetting around for a closer look. It felt strange to be the focus of another life form’s curiosity. – one gets a feeling for what zoo animals go through. We marveled back at the manta and thanked the god’s-that-be for arranging such a chance encounter.
A quick, wordless conference over pressure gauge readings determined it was time for us to return to the surface. I took a final look at the wreck, trying hard to burn it’s crisp images into memory before ascending to the surface. Back on top, the dive boat was abuzz with noisy excitement – divers comparing notes, all beginning with, “Did you see…?”. I secured my gear and settled in for the ride home, dreaming of the stunning innerspace hiding just beneath the waves.
Where was I diving, you ask? Right off Charleston, of course!