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.