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DEPTHS of Splendor
Geoffrey Norman
February 12, 1990
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
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February 12, 1990

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

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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.

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