First day for diving! I met the divemasters who would be with me for the rest of the trip, Allen and Canicio. Allen would be guiding me and a handful of other folks who were there for the “Discover Scuba Diving” course, a way for people to experience scuba diving without having to get certified first.
Refresher dive, Barceló pool
We all headed to the Barceló pool to go over the basics and to provide a refresher for me– mandatory if you take a break from the sport for more than a couple of years, and it had been just about 25 years since my last dive.
We would each practice four skills:
- Take a breath, then take your regulator mouthpiece out of your mouth, then put it back in, blow out air to purge it, then breathe normally.
- Repeat the same circumstance, but to block the regulator airflow valve with your tongue and use the purge valve to clear out the water instead of breathing out.
- Take your regulator mouthpiece out and toss it aside– mimicking what may happen if a fish or diver accidentally knocked it loose from your mouth. To retrieve it, you do a sweeping motion with your arm, starting from your hip, and after recovering it, clear the water out by purging by one of the two previous methods.
- Finally, let water seep into your mask, then clear it by pressing on the top of the mask, looking upward, and exhaling through your nose.
All of these skills came back to me fairly quickly– just like riding a bike, except you’re underwater and there’s no bike involved.
A beginner’s paradise offering a combination of large pieces of wreck spread out between coral formations. You can see sections of cabins, wash basins, lavatories, etc. as well as the pipe line system that goes with this oil tanker, which was torpedoed in 1942 during World War II by a German submarine.
The first real dive of the trip. Headed out on the water on a RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) with divemasters Allen and Canicio. We were humming along the water, catching a bit of air sometimes in between waves. Definitely had to hold on to something! After a few minutes we found the anchored buoy, and pulled up next to it and tied off. After a quick briefing on the plan, we put on weight belts, masks, fins and the completed rig that is the BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) plus an “octopus” (two regulators– one main and one backup, the inflator / deflator trigger, and the depth gauge / air gauge). Once you’re all suited up, you hold your mask with one hand and weight belt with the other, and do a backwards flip off the side of the boat, and crash down into the water.
After letting some air out of the BCD, I reached neutral buoyancy, which means I could then control my descent or ascent by simply taking a breath or letting it out. Pinching your nose and trying to blow air through it equalizes the pressure in your sinus cavities and is a mandatory thing you have to do in order to go deeper– if you didn’t the pain would be super intense and could lead to some pretty significant problems. Once we hit the bottom at around 25 feet, we all got acclimated to the area. The Pedernales is a wreck that has turned into an artificial reef, so there was a lot of really colorful coral and tons of schools of fish everywhere.
Allen coaxed a shy day octopus out of a crevice in a rocky formation– he was a scared little guy at first, shooting black ink around him– but he calmed down, and was passed around from diver to diver. If you’ve never held an octopus, this may be shocking– but the arms are super, super sticky. Like duct tape plus superglue sticky. he rested on my arm, wrapping his arms around mine, and I gave him a little pet on the top of the head. He changed colors briefly, trying to match my skin color. After he was passed to the next diver, he ended up latching on to the guy’s face, which sent the diver into a brief panic. This guy had never been scuba diving before, and you could see the alarm in his eyes. Allen ended up helping him out by gently prying the tentacles from his face. After that we put him back into the same hidey hole where we found him, and continued exploring the area.
As we swam by part of the wreck, a five-foot-long green moray eel gracefully sailed through our party– I don’t think the guy who had the octopus stuck on his face noticed, or he may have called it a day right there and then. After about 40 minutes of bottom time, my air gauge read that I had 500 PSI left (out of a fresh tank’s amount of 3000 PSI) so it was time to surface and head back to shore.
Antilla Wreck (60’)
Locally referred to as the “Ghost Ship”, this German freighter (brand-new at the time) was scuttled on May 10, 1940 when the Germans invaded Holland during World War II. The largest wreck in the Caribbean (400’ long), it is great for penetrations due to the large compartments of this vessel.
Canicio and I headed out to the dive site, just the two of us– it was slightly overcast and we hit a short-lived patch of rain on the way there, but rain isn’t ever really a problem since once you get down a few feet, there’s really no difference in the environment, as far as how the surface precipitation can effect what’s below. We found the buoy, so I used a pole with a hook on it to catch the rope and anchored it to our boat. After we got our gear on, we again backwards rolled off the boat and into the water.
First thing I noticed was there was lots of coral growth and schools of fish. I followed him around the different parts of the wreck, and noticed with mild concern that he was headed directly into an opening of the wreck– not a huge opening, mind you, just big enough to swim through, and what appeared to be darkness. He stopped just before entering and looked back at me, giving me the “Ok” hand signal. I shrugged, and signaled “Ok” back, even though I wasn’t really sure that was actually okay that we proceed that way. He made a hand signal: “straight, then left.” I flashed another “Ok” and followed him into the darkness.
Once I followed him through, I could see rays of light coming through overhead, which gave us enough light to see. More fish swam ahead of me, and I could see his “straight then left” directions made sense now. After a few kicks, there was an opening to the left, through which we exited the wreck. In reality, we were probably only in that confined space for 30 seconds, but it sure felt a hell of a lot longer than that. I tried to not think about my reaction if I surprised a shark or moray eel who was minding his own business before I rudely interrupted whatever he was doing. I digress– no such creatures were in the wreck, so we continued going around the site.
After we surfaced, I told Canicio that I wasn’t quite expecting to go through the wreck, only to go take a look at it.
“That’s the best part!” he said. “You’ve got to go in one if you’re going to do a wreck dive. And did you see the Red Sail instructor (a local dive shop competitor)? She swam around it!” he said, laughing. “I want to make sure you get your money’s worth.”
Star Gerren Wreck (60’)
This Colombian freighter was sunk in front of the high-rise strip by Hadicurari after it was abandoned by its crew in Barcadera Harbour. Corals are starting to grow now and sea bass can be found within the freighter.
The first of a 2-tank dive– one tank at a location, then you surface and head to the next destination, and use a fresh tank there. Canicio’s son Miguel and Allen were the divemasters for the day, and we were joined by a couple from Atlanta, Joe and Heather, and a couple from New Orleans, Andrew and Meghan. The Star Gerren is another huge wreck. Sunk intentionally, this ship has since grown an impressive amount of coral and attracted a ton of aquatic life. We all entered the water and went down to about 65 feet or so, and all started to circle around the wreck. Miguel noticed several stingrays, all covered mostly by sand– I could only notice part of the tail that was exposed, and that was after he discovered a few, so I could tell when he was about to reveal another one. He would go down next to one, and gently touch its back, and the ray would instantly take off, “flying” through the water, its sides rippling, as it escaped this bothersome group of humans.
Tink tink tink– the sound of Allen rapping on his scuba tank traveled far, and we all swiveled our heads to see what he found. He held up a hand with thumb and pinky exposed, more or less a “take it easy” Hawaiian symbol, but in this case, it meant sea turtle. We all followed the giant turtle at a distance, everyone giving an “Ok” sign to show that we saw him, too. Soon, our air was nearing 500 PSI, which meant we needed to start to ascend. Since we were diving at a depth greater than 60 feet, we needed to make a 3 minute safety stop at 15-20 feet below the surface. After being down that deep for a while, nitrogen starts to build up in your blood stream, and the only way to remove it is to let it dissipate. That takes a bit of time at a shallower depth. If you’ve ever heard of “the bends”, that’s what happens if you don’t get the nitogen bubbles out. Decompression sickness is no joke and can kill you– sometimes you need a hyperbaric chamber if it’s bad enough, and that’s one situation I am fine without experiencing.
After our 3 minutes were up, we surfaced and got back on the boat. We untied from the buoy and headed in toward shallow water, where we tied off to a docked catamaran, full of partying tourists who came to snorkel with the fish, again to get some surface time. In between two dives on the same day, you want to re-acclimate to the surface atmosphere so you can “reset” before you go back down– just another safety procedure for avoiding decompression illness. After some drinks and snacks, we headed out to the next dive site.
Arashi Reef / Wreck (35-40’) & Navigation Dive
Parts of a sunken Lockheed Lodestar are scattered at 35 feet of water. Coral formations, parrot and angelfish surround the airplane wreckage and coral heads.
The Arashi reef is where I would do one my advanced course skills– reckoning underwater by compass. After we all entered the water, Miguel and I paired off to do the navigation exercises while everyone else started exploring the area.
With the compass attached to my right wrist, I brought my right hand up to my straightened left arm’s elbow, making an extended pointer of sorts, so I could see the compass reading. The first exercise was to navigate a triangle shape– although there is a bit of math involved, it’s not too bad. The three sides of a triangle add up in degrees to come out to 120 degrees per side. To complete a triangle shape, you start off on one heading, say 120 degrees, then do a certain amount of kick cycles in order to maintain the same distance between each leg of the three sides. After reaching the end of the first side, you add 120 to your previous number– in this case, 240 degrees. After reaching the end of that one, you go to 0, which would be the equivalent of 360 degrees.
Once the triangle was done, we did a square pattern in the same way, substituting four 90 degree turns in lieu of three 120 degree turns. Once those exercises were out of the way, Miguel and I joined the rest of the group. One major thing that was different at this site was the current was much more noticeable. We started off swimming against the current, so when our dive was ending, it would be much easier to make it back to the boat, instead of having to fight upstream, potentially when we were more tired and running low on air.
We immediately noticed a few sea turtles swimming nearby, so we tagged along with them for a little bit. Tink tink tink– I looked up, and Miguel was handing something to me– a delicate little spider crab, who walked around on my palm before the current brushed him away. Andrew had a GoPro video camera attached to a stick that he was using to film creatures in crevices where you wouldn’t want to normally stick your hands. I noticed he was adamant about trying to get one particular shot from a coral reef, and saw a significantly big lobster come charging out of his home, annoyed at this sudden intrusion of papparazi.
We started the swim back to the boat, which was almost effortless, since the current was now taking us back to where we needed to go. I saw some sea worms waving about like grass in a windstorm, sticking up from the bottom of the ocean floor. I descended to get close to them, and one by one, as I approached– ZIP ZIP ZIP they disapeared immediately back down into the ground.
Right before we got back to the site, I noticed another sea turtle that no one had spotted yet. The running joke among the divemasters was that if one of them failed to spot something cool that another guide found, then a beer was owed, preferably a local brand, Balashi. I didn’t have anything metal on me to rap against my tank, so I swam over to Allen and lightly bopped him on the head. He looked up, and I pointed toward the turtle and made the hand signal for “turtle”– he looked over and gave me an “Ok” sign, to which I pointed to him and then signaled back the universal sign for “drinking a beer”, which made him laugh underwater.
After making it back to the boat, we saw a few barracuda drifting by, just checking us out, then we headed back onboard and returned to shore.
Blue Reef & Debbie II (70’)
Paths of wildly spread leaf and brain corals await you at this bottom-reef. This reef is known for its huge lobsters and stingrays taking their daily “siesta” waiting to be photographed. Giant barrel sponges in purple, orange and green are found everywhere. In 1992, a 120’ fuel barge was sunk as an additional attraction. The wreck attracts schooling fish and barracudas.
Continuing on with a 2-tank dive day, we headed out to the Blue Reef site, about 70 feet deep at its maximum depth. Joe and Heather from Atlanta were replaced with a couple from Los Angeles– Jordan and Jade. Allen was again our divemaster as well as my scuba buddy, and we each paired off into twos for safety. We all rolled backwards overboard, and using the dropped buoy as a visual indicator, began our descent.
Huge schools of fish zipped this way and that, moving together as one functional unit. A few brightly-colored parrotfish swam up to investigate, then continued on their way. As we approached the wreck of the Debbie II, Heather caught my attention, waving her hands wildly, pointing at a crevice in the bow of the ship, and flashed the hand signal for “eel”, a mimicked biting motion with the hand. As she was pointing it out, I noticed a stingray swim directly behind her, just passing through. I pointed back in her direction, flapping my arms to the side, the signal for “(sting)/(manta) ray”. I swam over to where she was and hung upside down, poking my head down, to be welcomed by a huge green moray eel, just chilling out. They rest with their mouths open, so you can see their sharp teeth. I made sure to give him plenty of room and continued along the top of the ship.
Once we finished exploring the wreck, Meghan got my attention again, then flashed a “take a picture” hand signal. I remembered that she and Andrew had talked about taking a Christmas picture underwater with Santa hats on.
“We wanted an original holiday card for this year, and we figured nobody else will have one like this,” she had mentioned earlier that day.
Andrew handed me the GoPro, and they both donned their holiday hats, emblazoned with “Happy Holidays” across the front. I had never used a GoPro, and there was no visual screen on the back, and two buttons. I hit one, and the red light flashed a few times. I looked up at Andrew, and he mimicked pushing the button on the front of the camera, so I hit that button as well. After a few clicks, they gave me the “Ok” sign and after handing the camera back, we explored the area a bit more.
Since we were mostly down beyond 60 feet for the duration of the dive, we made a three minute safety stop at 20 feet, then ascended and got back in the boat.
Once we were back in the boat, I mentioned that I hope I took a decent picture, but couldn’t really tell if I had captured it or not.
“Oh yeah,” said Andrew. “The first time you hit the top button, you put it into burst mode, so I think you took like 30 pictures of us.”
Oops. Better too many than too few!
Pedernales, Part Dos
We returned to the Pedernales to do a little more advanced exploring after some surface time– the first trip to this site was spent mostly exploring the coral reef and appreciating the wreck from a distance. Now that everyone in the water was a certified diver with at least a dozen dives under our belts, we explored more of the actual wreck.
I followed Allen down to the wreck, which was in shallow water– only about 25 feet or so. We started at the bow of the ship, looking in nooks and crannies for any eels or octopi that might be hanging out. We found a shrimp scuttling around in a tight spot, and tried to get him to come out, but he wasn’t in the mood. We continued along the starboard side, checking out a huge pipeline that was encrusted with coral.
Jade waved her hands, pointing to a spotted eel that was resting inside part of the ship. Allen and I swam over it, then I followed him down into one of the cavernous openings near the aft of the ship. As we swam down, I noticed several old parts of the ship’s original equipment, such as wash basins, hatches, and pipes laying about. We continued swimming down into a room and I followed behind, scaring up a few schools of fish. After making a few more turns, we exited near the midships area.
Allen made a clenching hand signal: “lionfish”. Lionfish are considered invasive species in Aruba– they eat the fish that are considered “coral cleaners”, which leads to the coral suffocating and dying. Lionfish hunting is an officially approved sport that Aruba encourages everyone to do, since the less lionfish in the area, the healthier the ecosystem is. Allen had a small 3-pronged spear with him for just this case, and after a minute, he raised the spear triumphantly, with an impaled lionfish on the tip. Bringing out a pair of shears, he clipped off the top poisonous spines so he wouldn’t get stuck (he mentioned later that he had been stung a few times, and while the poison isn’t lethal, it’s extremely painful, and the tips of the spines have backwards-facing barbs, making removal painful as well).
It was time to surface soon afterward, so we made our way back up to the surface, and headed back to the shore.
Unnamed Location; I Just Knew That It Was Deep
Allen and Canicio took three of us out on the water– the new divers were Roy from Houston and Ernesto from Panama. Ernesto only spoke Spanish, so we only communicated through pointing and cavemen-like grunts and gestures. This only made me more convinced I have to learn Spanish, especially if I want to return to the Caribbean.
The first dive was for Canicio and I; it was only going to be a total of eight minutes at the bottom, since we were going to go down to 100 feet, to qualify my last requirement for the advanced course, the deep dive. Once we were down that far, we really had to pay attention to our dive computers to make sure we didn’t extend our stay and violate no-decompression limits. While we were down there, I was to do some skills such as tying a bowline and some simple math to prove I was still cognizant and not succumbing to any effects of nitrogen narcosis.
Nitrogen narcosis can sneak up on someone and make them feel drunk, in a sense– people are more susceptible to it when they are down in deep waters, and it makes them feel like they’re drunk. I’ve heard stories of people doing ridiculous things, like taking their regulator out of their mouth and trying to hand it to a fish, or taking their mask off because they think they will be able to see better.
We traveled downward, breaking through several thermaclines, where the water noticeably got colder, and as we descended, the light spectrum began to filter out the warmer colors (remember ROYGBIV from school? Each successive color is filtered out as you go deeper). We no longer saw reds, oranges, or yellows. As we hit 100 feet, Canicio wrote something on an underwater slate and handed it to me:
I'm going to have you do calculations as you follow me, okay?
I flashed the “Ok” sign, and he passed me another pre-filled slate with some questions. As I followed him, I was also checking my depth gauge, my air limit, and my dive computer, as I answered some of these questions. I had to spell my name backwards, do some short descriptions of the color and depth changes, and some basic addition and subtraction. The last math question I came across had me slightly stumped:
which I figured was good enough. He laughed underwater and flashed the “Ok” sign, then handed me a small piece of rope, which I tied into a bowline. Once my skills were done, we started the swim back, only for him to pause, as he attached the 3-pronged tip to his fishing spear. I saw what he was about to catch for dinner— a humongous lobster that was easily double the size of what I thought was a big lobster from the other day. With one quick strike, he speared it, and brought it in to him, pinning down his claws and he quickly finished him off. We slowly made our way up, pausing for several minutes at safety stops on the way up.
Once we got on the boat, I chided him about the last math question.
“Canicio, I can’t do that math problem in my head on land, let alone 100 feet underwater!”
He laughed and said, “It’s okay— the point is just that you read it and wrote something. Last week I took a girl down to 100 feet and asked her the same thing, and she wrote ‘How the fuck am I supposed to know that?!’”
We got some surface time and headed back into shallower waters, where I would have two dives left.
Antilla Wreck, Revisited
Once we arrived back at the Antilla, Canicio said, “Well, congrats. You’re now an advanced diver. You can do all the penetration dives on the wrecks now.” I thought that I had done that initially, but it turns out there were some more areas to explore on the Antilla that I either previously missed or discounted because they didn’t look like some place where someone could swim in to.
Canicio stayed on the boat, and the rest of us got suited up, and flipped backward into the water. We dropped down to the wreck, and glided down near the front of the hull. I saw a few stingrays gliding off in the distance, and Allen pointed to one that was still buried in the sand. We all swam up very slowly to it, and released air from our BCDs so we could lay on the ground next to it. Roy had a GoPro as well (have to get one of those for the next trip!) and handed it to Allen, who was closest to the ray. He was able to get the camera extremely close to the ray without upsetting it, so after a minute or so we all backed away and swam off, leaving him nestled in the sand.
We followed in a single-file line through the wreck, going through several cavernous rooms, exploring each one. As we came out of one of the rooms, it was slightly disorienting because of the way the ship had pitched over on its side, so to swim out, I ended up turning upside down to get a better perspective. Buoyancy control is really key here— too much and you’ll rise like a cork, potentially bumping into a ceiling or piece of coral. Too little, and you sink like a rock. We were also pretty close to one another, so minimal movement is essential, so we didn’t stir up silt, wrecking our visibility, or worse yet, accidentally kicking someone’s regulator out of their mouth with your fin. I relied on my breathing to pitch me up or down, taking deep breaths and exhaling slowly when I wanted to go up, and taking shallower breaths and exhaling more deeply to go back down.
After exploring the area a bit more, it was time to go up, and travel to my final dive.
Blue Reef & Debbie II, Electric Boogaloo
Back to the Blue Reef area, and much like the Antilla revisited, this time I had a better chance to see more of the inside of the wreck, and we also explored a different section of the Blue Reef. All of us dove this time, splashing over the side and using the buoy guideline as a visual indicator for our descent. We were again going deeper than 60 feet, so 3 minute safety stops at the end of the dive were essential.
Lots of schools of fish, vividly-colored parrotfish and some moray eels glided around the reef. I saw several fish I didn’t recognize and hadn’t seen before— they were resting on the bottom of the ocean floor, propped up by their pectoral fins, just waiting for some food to come by. There were sea bass and flounders, and Allen found a creature that looked similar to the spider crab from the other day.
At one point, Allen stopped and wriggled his finger. Inchworm? I thought. He picked up what looked like a rock with alfalfa sprouts attached to the bottom. Handing it over to me, I let it rest on my hand for a minute. Ernesto next to me held his hand out, too, so as I passed it over to him, I noted several of those “alfalfa sprouts” stuck to my hand. Interesting. I quickly brushed them off, then noticed I hadn’t brushed anything off. They were still there, stuck to my hand like glue. I had to pick each individual strand off, and I wondered what the hell these things were. Back on the surface, he explained later that it was a sea slug, and the sticky bits were highly poisonous tips with extremely dangerous venom. I looked at him deadpan, and he laughed and said, “No, just joking. No venom, it’s just legs. They regrow instantly, but they sure are sticky, right?”
After spending a week here, the diving was great. The weather was unbelievable, and the water so warm I never wore a wetsuit. The dive sites were great for beginners and advanced alike, which isn’t always the case. Like most anything, spending time with people who are easy to get along with and fun to be with made all the difference.