In Which I Am Bilbo Baggins

The sun shone down through an unclouded sky as we motored out from the cay. Mentally I had been through my checklist of necessities a few times, and was certain I had everything I needed. Soon, however, the boat slowed and turned around. Somebody else had forgotten her wet suit. I wasn’t on my usual boat, so I was profoundly relieved that this wasn’t my fault.

Today I had a day trip out with the group from Michigan, diving at the East End of the island. When they invited me, I felt a little bit as though I was cheating on my own boat, but I’ve spent a great deal of time with this group since I arrived, and I knew it would be fun to spend a day with them diving.

There is an even more important factor to consider, however: When I did the math, I noted that they had twelve members in their group, plus the photographer. This meant they had thirteen people. As anyone will tell you, that’s a bad number for an expedition, so basically they needed me to be their fourteenth. How could I refuse?

The diesel engines let out a stream of white smoke as we headed ever further east. Eventually, the island ended, and only small, sandy islets remained. And we continued still a bit further until the dive master announced that we had arrived, but we would not be mooring. We would be drift diving today.

I’ve only truly done one drift dive before, and that was back in Australia, just after obtaining my certification. That was also pretty straightforward – we dropped in on a wall and let the current carry us back to where the platform was moored.

This would be different. We would jump in as a group and the currents would carry us for an hour or so, until we were ready to surface. The dive master would raise a buoy for us, and we would surface as a group. In my Advanced Open Water certification course work I had read about this sort of thing, but hadn’t done it before.

My gear was at the stern, which unofficially meant that I would be one of the first in. This wasn’t my first choice in an unfamiliar group, particularly as I am also probably the least experienced diver among us. I took my time in donning my gear, so N jumped in first and I followed shortly thereafter.

This site, I later learned, was The Elbow. The reefs on this part of the island are different than they are near our resort. Few divers come here, so they are in much better condition.

And because of the strong currents, there seems to be even more filter feeding taking place. The result is an ethereal environment.

It was absolutely fantastic. I saw fish today that I didn’t see near our resort, and corals as well.

Massive barrel sponges were everywhere.

At the conclusion of our dive, as I was slowly rising toward the surface, two shadows passed below me, and I thought “What the heck are those?” It turns out they were Wahoo. And they rocked.

Back aboard the boat, we headed back west a short distance to our next destination. This was at Pigeon Cay Reef.

Again, we hurtled ourselves wantonly off of the back of the boat, letting the whims of the currents take us, like dry leaves in autumn, where they may. We drifted apart and together, sometimes just floating and others fighting the strong current to see some sight or other.

One of the downsides of drift diving is that the current wants to take you away from something you may wish to see. So I have no photos of the toadfish or spotted drum I saw.

But I did get this shy moray that nobody else seemed to notice.

There is a lot of staghorn coral at the sites we visited today. I haven’t seen much of that near us at all.

Near the end of the dive, some of the group suddenly pulled up short looking at something somewhere behind me. I and the others in the lead kicked our fins frantically to see what had stopped the others. As I finally arrived, I saw it, a large nurse shark resting in privacy below a rock ledge. My pictures aren’t the best – I really didn’t want to get too close to it.

We anchored near Pigeon Cay, within sight of a small deserted isle that stood in the distance, looking like a fantastical island paradise, and we had a simple lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, watermelon, and chocolate chip cookies. During the break we talked of easy things like the fish we had seen and the weather. And in due time, we moved on.

The next site was Morat Wall. At least that’s what I think it was – the dive master had to tell us the name 6 times because none of us could understand it.

This was my shallowest dive of the trip – I never went below 10 meters, with a deepest depth of 8.6 meters (27.5 ft). And I never really saw a wall. Instead we rode the strong current floating lazily over the reef as we went, taking in the sights. This reef were remarkable for its monolithic structures.

Like this elkhorn coral.

And this other magnificent coral. I have no idea what it was – sorry. But it was definitely an attention getter underwater.

It was just a lovely relaxing dive during a lovely relaxing afternoon. This group travels and dives together frequently and they are great people. Perhaps I will travel with them too, someday.

We did a dropoff dive on the way in, but other than some lionfish and lobsters, there wasn’t a great deal to see.

Tonight, however, with friends from my boat, I dove my fifth dive of the day. We again swam out to the wreck of the Prince Albert, and started at the bow this time. And for the first time on a night dive, I brought my camera.

There, amongst the crumbling rusty railing, amongst the growths of corals, we again found the turtle and remora, but were in a much better position when he swam away.

And he swam right at me. And it was awesome.

We then went to the stern, to see if the octopus was still present, but he wasn’t to be found. B took the lead then, because we wanted to visit Newman’s Wall. The resort has placed a series of small buoys between the wreck and the wall, but we weren’t following them. At some point, it became apparent that I didn’t truly know where we were, so I checked my compass (see! I did navigation!) only to find we were headed north. This confused me. North would take us back to shore. I took a moment to consider my options, and the decision lasted only long enough to see the buoys for shore. We had swum in a circle.

We turned back for one more loop of the boat, and there at the base of the eroding hull, I saw the octopus, pale green in color, drop to the sandy seabed. I needed to get my buddies’ attention, but flashing my strobe did nothing, so instead I banged my flashlight against my tank and this time they took notice.

The octopus crossed to the shelter of a fallen smokestack, going in one end and out the other. Again, he changed shape and color in remarkable acts of mimicry.

Watching the cycle of disguises was absolutely stunning.

Finally we left the poor creature to its privacy and returned to our rest, euphoric at the things we had seen.

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