DEPTHS of Splendor

The best way to dive and snorkel in the Leeward and Windward Islands is to charter a sailboat, find the richest reefs and take the plunge
February 12, 1990

The Barracuda was the first thing that caught my attention. It was a four-footer, the shape and color of a knife, and it hung in the blue, just off a mound of coral-covered rock, hardly moving at all; only the slow pulse of its gills and the trembling of its pectoral fins indicated that it was alive. The large eye that faced me looked cold and empty. From six feet, the line of exposed teeth put me in mind, as always, of an alert Doberman.

There was something reassuring about seeing this lethal fish, especially so early in my week-long diving trip in the eastern Caribbean. It is the big predators that give an unfamiliar place its wild character, that make you feel most acutely that you are a feeble visitor getting a glimpse into the oldest truths of all. What wolves are to the tundra, grizzlies to the Rocky Mountain wilderness, the big cats to the African savannah...barracuda and sharks are to the coral reef. Without them, it is still beautiful but a little tame. A diver has no good reason to fear the barracuda—or most sharks, for that matter—but seeing one, being close to one, reminds him emphatically that the world he is visiting is not merely a large, bland aquarium but a separate, alien place.

So, seeing the barracuda in the first five minutes of my first dive, off Guadeloupe, was a good sign. For a minute or two, I watched the motionless pewter-colored killer with something like gratitude. Then, when the barracuda moved effortlessly a few feet from its station, I left to prowl the reef and see what other marvels I could find.

After 40 or 50 minutes, the little bar graphs on my dive computer were touching the line that indicated the limit of my bottom time. No dive ever seems quite long enough, but the computer is undeniable. I surfaced reluctantly and climbed aboard the dinghy. My wife, Marsha, joined me a few minutes later, and then Ollie, the first mate, who uses air more sparingly than seems possible, hoisted himself into the boat. While we shucked our gear, we talked about what we had seen in an enthusiastic, almost giddy kind of patois. Everything was "unbelievable" or "fantastic" or "out of this world." I suspect that divers use this kind of adolescent shorthand in the first moments they are back on the surface because they are not able to talk underwater and feel an urge to describe their dives all at once. This babbling is a kind of release for their contained awe.

Once we had shed our gear and exhausted our MTV adjectives, the sense of urgency receded like a tide, and we brought in the anchor, cranked up the outboard and left the reef. I watched the coral formations passing 50, then 60 and 70 feet under us with my usual feeling, which was...I couldn't wait to do it again.

One of the essential facts about diving is that you cannot stay down as long as you want to or go back as soon as you would like. There are laws about that sort of thing. Laws of biology, from which there are no exemptions or reprieves. Your tank runs out of air or your blood and tissues saturate with nitrogen, and you must come to the surface and stay there, sometimes for hours, before you can go down again. You can ski or fish or do most recreational things just as long as you want: Prudence and your appetite are the only limits, and you can fudge on them. But mess around with diving and you will find yourself in a recompression chamber or a box...if they find your body.

This makes the logistical, above-water components of any diving trip very important. It might seem a fine thing to cross 10 time zones to get to a dazzling unspoiled reef, but you need to consider what you will do during those hours when you are out of your wet suit, waiting until you can go down again.

Marsha and I were sailing. Which made sense, since we were in the Leeward and Windward Islands, a sort of picket line between the Caribbean and the Atlantic, where the pleasure sailing is among the best in the world. Marsha had crewed here and remembered the experience vividly: deep water, reliable trade winds, good anchorages at beautiful islands with various backgrounds and national affiliations. Everyone, it seems, has claimed a piece of the West Indies at one time or another, and the old influences still show.

As for the diving, well.... The reports were sketchy and not consistently enthusiastic. The geology of these islands is volcanic, which is not the case in the Bahamas to the north, where the limestone and coral have been in symbiosis for millions of years and the reefs are endless, and endlessly seductive.

But I had heard good reports about St. Lucia and the Tobago Cays, both in the Windwards. The plan was to charter a boat with its own air compressor in St. Lucia and sail south into the group of Windward Islands known as the Grenadines—Palm, Union, Petit St. Vincent and, finally, the Tobago Cays—to see for ourselves.

Chartering the boat was easy. A woman named Linda Owen, who runs a brokerage called Port O'Call (out of Kansas City, for some reason), had us set up after two or three phone calls. Because of the dates we wanted, however, we would be obliged to meet the boat in Antigua, in the Leeward Islands north of St. Lucia, since every boat available for charter in those parts would be at a show there. We made our reservations and were given the name of the bar in English Harbour, Antigua, where we could meet our captain, Rolf Lehner.

He was not there when we arrived, a little before midnight. Nor had any of the only marginally helpful bartenders and waitresses heard of his boat, the Azzo. Would we like a drink or a room? We were carrying a couple of hundred pounds of dive gear and were ready to get aboard. English Harbour was teeming with sailing types wandering the narrow streets carrying half-full glasses in their hands, shouting and waving to each other in five or six languages. I noticed that the men were ordinary looking and most of the women were young and tanned and beautiful. When I mentioned this to my wife, she said, "It's always like that around these boats." Well, sure, I thought, she had crewed on one of them.

"Let's take a look around," she said.

I followed as she walked past three bars crowded with people who could have been our crew. She walked straight into a fourth bar, which was relatively quiet, and asked the bartender. "Do you know the boat Azzo?"

The man next to her turned around and said, "I am from the Azzo. Are you the Normans?"

When I asked Marsha how she did it, she shrugged.

We got the gear in the dinghy and motored out to where the boat was anchored. After we had changed, in the relatively large aft cabins of the 57-foot ketch, we went topside and drank champagne that Owen had provided for us. At that moment, the trip seemed graced.

But there was one, ah, slight deviation from the plan, Rolf told us.

Oh, said I. What was that?

This particular boat did not have a compressor on board.

Rolf and Ollie hastily poured more champagne. It was not a problem, they assured me. They had space aboard for plenty of tanks—"bottles," they called them—and there were dive shops on the beaches all the way down to the Tobago Cays. We could use the shops' compressors and never miss a dive for lack of air.

Things seemed better after the first dive. We were anchored off Guadeloupe, in the lee of a volcano that erupted 13 years ago. The volcano is still so feisty that its cone is constantly obscured by clouds and smoke. But I was eager to move on. We sailed all that night—under the whip of my impatience—and passed in the lee of Dominica, which in the weak light of the moon appeared as a large, mute mountain without a single point of electric light. It gave me a spooky, almost reverent feeling as we sailed past. Dominica is the least populated and most primitive of the major islands in this chain, and the only one, people like to say, that Columbus might still recognize.

The diving off St. Lucia was even better, though by this time I had begun to relax and enjoy the sailing and all its components—the flying fish that flushed like game birds just off our bow and sailed for a hundred yards or more just above the surface; the sunsets, when we would drink the obligatory rum punch and watch futilely for the famous green flash: the silent rhythmic progress we made toward each new island, which began as a smudge or only a layer of clouds on the horizon. You could spend time, I thought, in worse ways.

But when we reached St. Lucia, a high and implausibly green island that invites you to drop just about everything—career included—and stay awhile, I was ready to get back into the water. The first dive, Rolf said, would be over a wreck, and I liked that. Diving a good wreck is like walking through an old New England cemetery and reading the inscriptions carved in the weathered stones.

We found the wreck about 100 yards off a sandy beach, in about 50 or 60 feet of water. It was an old, dead coastal freighter that was losing ground to rust and slowly accumulating coral. I dropped down over the bridge, very slowly, settling amid a school of silversides that parted to let me through.

Marsha and I swam into the empty hold, where a snapper that must have weighed 25 pounds hung close to a rusting bulkhead, moving only enough to keep a baleful eye on us as we passed. The snapper had a face like Lee J. Cobb's and would have looked right smoking a cigar. We moved tentatively into the ship's spaces, penetrating only a few feet, because we weren't familiar with the wreck and weren't carrying any lines to mark our way. There wouldn't be much to see, anyway, since the freighter had been stripped of anything worth salvaging before it was sunk for the convenience of divers. But even though it was an "artificial" wreck, it had about it that solemn quality of disaster.

We went over the side of the freighter and dropped 15 or 20 feet to the sandy bottom. There was some infant coral growth on the flat steel, and a school of yellowtail hung close to the ship, moving away as we passed. For all the life that clustered close to the wreck, 10 feet to either side of it was a desert of sand. The only life was a plot of garden eels, perhaps as many as 100, waving in the current and then pulling their heads into the sand when I came too close.

We surfaced to a squall. Low, dark skies, heavy winds and sheets of warm tropical rain that tasted sweet after the salt and compressed air. Back on deck I stood in the rain, drank a beer and admired the island's heavy growth, which stopped abruptly at the beach. When I turned around to check the weather at sea, I saw what looked like an apparition: an old wood-hulled square-rigger coming out of the mist, like a frigate running dispatches for Nelson.

Rolf explained that it was a tourist boat, which accounted for the gaudy umbrellas on deck.

We were on a roll now. We sailed south along St. Lucia for a few miles and pulled into a little bay beneath a high bluff. There was a hotel on the overlook and several bungalows and other open buildings on the beach. This was the resort of Anse Chastanet, home of what was reputed to be the best diving on the island.

It was almost as good as anything I have found in the Bahamas. If the diving could be downgraded for any reason, it would be for water clarity, which was still fine, with at least 60 feet of visibility. There is always some turbidity in these waters, it seems, because the freshwater rivers flowing into the sea keep things slightly roiled.

We swam off a rocky point and then made our descent in about 25 feet of water. I passed a small school of squid, which are among the most improbable-looking things underwater—or anywhere else. Their tentacles were tucked into a streamlined cone behind them, and their big black eyes looked curious and stupid at the same time. They moved off with surprising speed whenever we came near.

The reef fell slowly at first and then dropped abruptly; not quite a wall by the standards of the Caymans, but dramatic just the same. I let off some air and went out over the edge of the reef, falling like something on the wind and feeling a sweet vertigo as I went past 80 and then 100 feet in depth.

The sea fans grew out of the face of the wall like tough, stunted mountain shrubs, and the scalloped coral looked like the kind of fungus that grows on dead tree trunks. The water was clear down to 160 feet, which was as deep as I wanted to go, though the drop went farther. The coral was sparse here, and there were not many fish, though I did see one grouper that might have weighed 10 pounds or so.

I stayed until the computer told me I was saturated with nitrogen and ought to get on back up. I looked to the surface through tons of blue water. More than 100 feet above me, a school of silversides circled like birds in a shaft of light.

When I reached shallower water, I took time to admire a goatfish. On every dive trip, I find a new fish to consider remarkable, and this time it was the subdued little goatfish, with barbels on its chin that made it look eerily like an old Chinese man, Charlie Chan of the reef.

Finally I surfaced and swam back to the boat. On the way I spotted a Porsche in about 45 feet of water, which seemed an unusual place for it to be parked. I dived to it and admired the job the saltwater had done on the sheet steel. I never did find out what the car was doing there. One of those mysteries of the islands.

The reef off Anse Chastanet was as good as a reef needs to be, and if we had not made Tobago Cays the point of our quest, we might have stayed on St. Lucia. The food on shore was good, and the coastline was lush, forbidding and magnificent, especially the Pitons, twin spires created by volcanic activity, which rise over the coast like watchtowers for some pagan god. On the beach there is a small farm, where the chief attraction is an elephant called Bupa who will wade in the surf for the amusement of visitors but otherwise spends her time idly eating trees.

You could easily spend a week diving this area—the water clarity is excellent, and the reef is in good health, constantly monitored by a marine biologist and the couple that runs the Anse Chastanet dive facility. But we—or rather, I—had developed something of an obsession with the Tobago Cays.

We could get there in an easy night of sailing. Sailing from dive site to dive site gives you a taste of the kind of life that all of us imagine on days when tedium and routine begin to feel like bars on a cell. This was the short course in another way of living. Life the way Rolf and Ollie live it: pulling into a new harbor, haggling with customs and immigration, then going to the grocery for supplies, a bar where you might run into someone you know from another boat and then, after a few hours, getting back aboard and sailing off without asking anyone's permission. It has a way of making everything seem less urgent.

We made it, finally, to the Grenadines and the Tobago Cays and anchored off a small, uninhabited island. We suited up and went over the side, using the current to carry us down to the reef. The water was clear and the sun was out. I dropped down over a field of coral, feeling as if I were wearing a parachute.

It was beautiful, undeniably so. More soft corals than I had seen anywhere—fans, plumes, whips, feathers. All the shapes that say so much about the ordering principles of biology, even amid a variety bordering on chaos. The soft corals moved with the current in a soft, undulating rhythm.

I too moved with the current, picking out fish and naming them. I suppose you reach a point in diving where you no longer compulsively identify everything, but I have a long way to go. Parrot fish devoured coral. Grunts schooled and dispersed. Squirrel fish hid in the crevices of hard coral. Trumpet fish moved about, looking like blunt-nosed snakes. A small moray gulped, three or four inches of its head emerging from a break in the coral. Vast schools of blue chromis were here, as on earlier dives, and seemed by now as reliable as crows over a cornfield.

This was not knock-you-over-the-head diving—no sharks, turtles or big rays; merely coral and reef fish—but it was almost everything a diver could ask for. There was something gentle and hospitable about diving these islands. It was December, and I had not worn a wet suit. And the time between dives, aboard the boat, had been a perfect complement to the time underwater. The charter had been unquestionably the way to go, and was time to leave. I looked around for one last striking image to carry with me and got lucky. From 10 feet away, a small barracuda, just a couple of feet long, gave me the old malevolent grin.