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Posted on May 28, 2020 | 9 comments

Man-o-Warriors

Man-o-Warriors

Covid-19 is closing borders and businesses, forcing people to find a new way of life within the walls of their home. No matter where you are on the planet, Coronavirus seems to be making all the decisions. For us, living aboard a boat, the ultimate dictator is still weather. In April, an incoming storm with 40k winds drove us to the protected bay of Man-o-War Cay in the northern Abaco region of the Bahamas.

The roots of this island date back to the turn of the 18th century when British Loyalists fled the bloodshed of the U.S. Revolutionary War to the nearest Crown territory. A few years later, Benjamin Albury settled on the island as a farmer and started a long list of descendants who still operate many of the family-owned businesses today. Wood carving and canvas-making eventually replaced farming and Man-o-War Cay established itself as the boat-building capital of The Bahamas. A peaceful and conservative community of just 200 people, the island has two small grocery stores, four churches, and a rainbow of pastel-painted homes lining narrow pedestrian-only streets. It carries the distinction of being the only dry island in The Bahamas. Even with the lack of Caribbean rum, Man-o-War Cay had become a popular destination among vacationing families escaping northern winter climates. In recent years, luxury homes sprouted up in local neighborhoods and foreign-flagged boats dropped anchor next to Albury’s Boat Building. Visitors dined at Tommy Albury’s Dock n’ Dine or Neil Albury’s Hibiscus Café and returned home with a souvenir Albury Sail Makers tote bag.

All that changed on September 1, 2019, when Hurricane Dorian struck this island paradise not just once, but over and over again for several days. Residents who rode out the storm witnessed winds that gusted over 200mph and a series of small tornadoes that sheared off nearly every roof on the island.

Man-o-War Cay was no newcomer to hurricanes and to some extent was the perfect hurricane hole, offering protection from surrounding ocean surge. When Dorian struck, the anchorage was packed with boats tethered to mooring balls, which were tied to the bottom of the sea with 10-foot concrete blocks. Cruisers secured their rigging and then hunkered down onshore with residents, expecting the impending storm to blow off a few window shutters. Instead, when skies cleared, entire buildings had blown away and the island was flattened to a pastel apocalypse.

Winds had picked up 40-foot sailboats from the water and scattered them throughout the island like a handful of plastic toys. Boats lay capsized or completely sunk in the water. One single simple 20-foot sailboat remained upright in the anchorage, unscathed by the fury except for some chipped paint on its mast where flying debris had struck. Amazingly, no lives were lost on the island.

As we entered Man-o-War Cay seven months following Dorian, the island still looked like a war zone. Only a handful of boats floated upright in the anchorage; the majority of vessels were still aground or overturned. Various relief organizations had been working hard to resurrect the island but Covid had driven them all away. Today, the island was quiet—only the sound of a few hammers repairing blue-tarped roofs and the distant hum of generators powering an island still without electricity. We took one of the recently-restored mooring balls and settled in for a two-night stay while the storm passed. Two weeks later, we left.

While weather raged outside, we spent our time reading, writing, and doing laundry. The rain washed off weeks of salt water so we added soap and scrubbed the decks. Covid reports brought different news each day. As chaos unfolded in the U.S., we took comfort in listening to The Bahamian Prime Minister, who spoke compassionately about local cases and then outlined a clear directive prohibiting inter-island travel to reduce the spread. Residents understood the rationale but struggled to imagine daily life in a country where families are spread out across islands and provisions are delivered only once a week. Our plans to go to Nassau to pick up an incoming package and to refuel waned as more Covid cases were reported from there. Among the cruising community, there were still several hundred foreign-flagged boats in The Bahamas, who like us, had decided this might well be the safest place to be during a pandemic. The uncertainty of the viral spread and how it might lead to more restrictions or requirements to leave altogether, however, had an unexpected affect on our sailing community. We heard about cruisers becoming very protective of their anchorages and apprehensive about any new arrivals for fear someone would bring in a case of Covid. One cruiser announced that a ferry was illegally picking up workers at a nearby dock and the cruiser would use his own boat to stop the ferry. Emotions ran high as many cruisers took on a new role of vigilante. We decided to stay put. We hunkered down amidst debris from the last disaster and awaited news from the present disaster.

At first, I hated Man-o-War Cay. No matter how the wind turned us, our view was always wreckage. The boat nearest to us had a piling from a dock sticking through its half-sunk hull.

Another had scraps of sail that fluttered in the wind, clinging to a sailing legacy now lost. These were not pleasure boats, easily forgotten and replaced by shinier models from insurance or by a new hobby altogether. These were homes. Just like our home on Gémeaux. It was heart-wrenching to face the loss every day. I desperately missed being in the water but thought certainly it was contaminated with fluids leaching from the wreckage. The whole scene was depressing and I couldn’t wait to get back to a secluded anchorage in pristine turquoise waters. Then the turtles came—not one or two but a dozen little heads popping up from the water, so close I could hear the exhale of their breath. From behind our boat, we heard a sudden splash and caught the tail end of an eagle ray jumping from the water. Nothing brings me greater joy than to be among animals. I was overcome with a sense of peace and optimism that the bay was healing. And if the water was good enough for the turtles and the rays, it was good enough for me. I ignored the murky, green color and jumped in. It cooled my body and warmed my soul. It was glorious. Wreckage still remained all around but faded more each day as I spent more time in the water and the critters I love so much stole the foreground.

Then we met the people. Covid put a stop to inviting people onboard so we created friendships from afar. Each time someone went by, we jumped up to wave. Everyone waved back, most slowed down to chat. Allen formed a unique friendship with a fellow cruiser who swam over to chat about the latest weather, Covid cases, and the general status of things here and across the globe…all the while treading water off the stern to maintain social distancing—two words we had never before linked together. We watched a young family who lived aboard their small monohull side-tied to another larger monohull—a Dorian salvage they planned to restore. All day long, their two little girls hopped from one boat to the other in their birthday suits, while their father negotiated his sledge hammer with visions of a new home. A Canadian couple kayaked by and told us they too were waiting for things to settle down before heading home. Covid had turned their one-week vacation with another couple into the ultimate challenge of friendship—four weeks together aboard their small trawler.

We were particularly drawn to the story of a woman who introduced herself one day from her paddle board and prompted by our many questions, unassumingly told the story of how she had survived Dorian. After securing their sailboat in the harbor, she and her husband huddled together with locals in the school basement while the hurricane decimated the island. After the the storm passed, they were relieved to find their boat still mostly intact and still attached to the mooring ball and concrete block—the entire bundle astonishingly picked up out of the water and moved to land. The couple spent months making their boat seaworthy and then hoisted it back into the water. When they weren’t focused on their own repairs, they worked alongside residents in rebuilding their homes and businesses—all of whom had become like one big family, having endured a life-changing event together. Just when this remarkable couple was preparing to depart the harbor, the husband was called back to the U.S. to help his ailing mother. Now, with a new hurricane season fast approaching, Covid-19 has him stuck in the U.S. and his wife living solo on their boat in The Bahamas. She left us standing in awe as she paddled away with a smile that stretched across her face. I hope she tells her story to the world someday—it will be an amazing read.

Buddy managed the moorings. Every few days, he came by in his dinghy to collect a nominal fee for our mooring ball and to share tales of his life in Man-o-War Cay. Saddened by constant reports of divisiveness in the U.S., Buddy’s story of how all the residents joined forces after Dorian to pull out every single Albury tote bag from the bay left us speechless. He told us how he worked to repair each mooring ball in the bay so visitors would return. Now he lives essentially without electricity because the $400/month fuel cost to run his generator is so great.

One day, Buddy brought us a bag of fresh tomatoes from his garden. A little apprehensive, I accepted this act of generosity but wondered if tomatoes could transmit coronavirus. “Be sure to wash them,” Buddy said, as though reading my mind. “You wanna be sure they don’t have any white flies.” Oh, don’t you worry, I thought to myself, these little puppies are going to be scrubbed and sterilized…little white flies are the least of my concern. “Thank you SO much,” I said out loud, astonished to know fresh tomatoes were growing just on the other side of piles of rubble AND that a person who has lost so much just a few months ago, whose life was turned upside down, could demonstrate such heart-felt generosity. Stories like these make you grateful for your life. They teach us lessons we should all take away.

Days ran together in Man-o-War Cay. We had enough internet to stay connected to friends and family through text and even brief phone calls if we stood on top of the boat. I started an afternoon yoga practice on the bow, which became a happy part of my daily routine. Some days, the wind blew so hard, it blew me out of poses. After the wind died down, however, the water would turn to glass and we could finally see the bottom.There was a lot of debris, but also an endless amount of sea grass, which beckoned the turtles. In the midst of this chaotic world, it was beautiful to wake up and see that kind of calm. Just before Easter, the Prime Minister announced a 5-day lockdown that would coincide with the long holiday weekend. We decided to check out the local market on the remote chance we could find some fresh produce. Out of respect for this community and careful to protect ourselves, we covered our faces with masks. Nobody else wore them but everyone was friendly and welcoming. No fresh produce but the captain got ice cream and diet coke, which by itself made the trip worthwhile.

Two days before the weekend lockdown lifted, we made a decision to leave. The Bahamas had been the best place to wait out a global pandemic and Man-o-War Cay, in particular, had offered an overall tranquility that we desperately needed during these unpredictable times. We had never stayed in one spot for this long and even with the social distancing and lockdowns, maybe because of them, we felt a bond to this little bay. We knew, however, stricter travel restrictions were headed our way. The Prime Minister was working hard to decrease the rate of Covid cases, which were still on the rise in The Bahamas. Weekend lockdowns were becoming the norm and it was just a matter of time before foreign boats wouldn’t be able to move at all or would be sent back to their respective countries. And, of course, we didn’t want to get sick on an island already lacking resources to serve its own community. Tomorrow we would leave this place that had become home.

Without any fanfare or formal farewells, we exited the narrow channel just as quietly as we had entered. The next day, the Prime Minister declared new restrictions that required all cruisers to remain onboard their vessels. You couldn’t move anchorages. You couldn’t go ashore. You had to hire a service to deliver groceries. It was indeed time to leave. We hoped the sense of optimism, resiliency, and kindness that we had learned from this island prepared us for the next unpredictable part of our journey—returning to our own country.

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Posted on March 25, 2020 | 11 comments

Shelter-in-Place at Sea

Shelter-in-Place at Sea

A virus, not weather, drove the decision—certain that this simple, solitary lifestyle was the best place to be; uncertain of how long the government would allow us to stay. Our friends sailed for home in the US, certain that being closer to family and healthcare was the best place to be; uncertain of what home would look like. We bid farewell to Exodus, our sailing buddies for more than a year, as we each decided to navigate this global crisis differently.

We’re in The Bahamas, surrounded by beautiful turquoise water. Sunsets are breathtaking and we find joy and peace under the sea. We rarely go ashore because everything we need is on our boat. We’re fully provisioned, as usual, in case weather dictates a delay or if there are no markets in this remote area. Our water maker converts salt water to fresh so we have drinking water.

Solar panels are charging our batteries. We even have a washing machine. Our plumbing is fragile so we know never to throw Lysol wipes down the toilet. When something breaks, we fix it ourselves…usually:) We forego haircuts and pedicures, movie dates and gyms. This is our normal day-to-day life as live-aboards on a sailboat and essentially it has prepared us for a pandemic.

Outside our 44-foot corner of the world, we know the coronavirus is taking on humanity. Newsfeeds, phone calls from the US, and social media fill us with updates. We wake each morning to heartbreaking reports in China and Italy, and a list of new cases and restrictions being implemented each day. We know lives are being lost and we are deeply saddened. We read about the fear and panic and desperate measures being taken in communities everywhere. We hear about toilet paper hoarding and runs on hand sanitizers. And while in many ways and on many days, we feel completely insulated from the turmoil exploding across the globe, we understand the magnitude of this event. We’re worried too—about our families and friends who are far away and simply how this planet is going to survive. And if this lovely tropical scene has provided any sense of insulation, it all disappeared the day we learned a family member tested positive for Covid-19.

In early March, coronavirus was just trickling into our lives and our sailing community. The biggest decision for us at that time was whether we should cancel two upcoming family trips to visit us. We live for the moments to play host and I was crushed to give up the chance to see my daughter. But the unpredictability of travel and health risks to everyone (including us) were too great. We put selfishness aside and cancelled. Two days later, the US announced travel restrictions, triggering a cascade of change that immediately shrunk our world. Countries started closing their borders to private vessels. Fellow cruisers were no longer allowed into ports and marinas. In some cases, foreign-flagged vessels were asked to leave the country entirely. Where does a US boat go when they’re required to leave the country of Guadaloupe 2,000 miles away? We heard stories of cruisers who just completed a 2-week offshore voyage, only to be denied entry into a country. For many of our friends, their boat is their home—there is no house on land. Even if they could fly to friends or family, there are no available marinas in which to leave their boats. And in three months, hurricane season will be upon us and options will become even more limited. Many of our Canadian and US friends decided to sail back to their respective countries, uncertain of how to provision and fuel en route as each day brings more restrictions. Other friends stayed put—some by choice, some by government lockdown. Our own itinerary landed us in a country with open borders and only a 2-day sail to the US in the event that changed. We decided to stay put.

Then Nassau reported its first case of Covid-19 and the world came tumbling down. We were pulling into a marina to refuel and buy some groceries just as panic began spreading across the islands. The marina staff, all wearing bandanas across their faces, were flustered and trying feverishly to establish a protocol based on the bits of information the Government was releasing. We were allowed off our boat only after our temperatures were taken. We purchased fuel. Groceries, however, were not available to us. It wasn’t clear when the mail boat, which delivers food and provisions each week from Nassau to outlying islands, would come as scheduled. It wasn’t clear, in fact, if the boat would come at all. The Bahamian system of supplying food to its islands is fragile—food was now being rationed for residents and resort guests until further notice.

This morning, less than a week later, we woke to news that the Bahamian government had closed its airports and issued a 24-hour curfew, i.e., a very strict shelter-in-place to reduce viral transmission and to thwart any potential violence in these difficult times. Although this mama would have loved to have had her daughter stuck with her indefinitely, clearly it had been a good decision to cancel the family trips. All non-essential business closed. Jobs came to a screeching halt. Ports and marinas closed. Visitors are no longer allowed in. There’s not, however, a mandate to leave the country so we’re still staying put…anchored offshore in isolation.

I’m not sure how to finish this writing. I’ve updated, rewritten and updated it again trying to keep pace with this fast-changing pandemic. We’re sheltering-in-place like many of you—we don’t go ashore, we interact with few people and only from afar. We have everything we need on our floating home—fuel and propane, enough food for a month. And since laughter is good for all of us—we’re used to spending 24/7 with one another in a small space so I’m pretty sure we won’t kill each other. If we run out of tp, we have a very big bidet off the stern of our boat:) But we worry—what if our water maker breaks and we can’t fix it? Will our warming planet send some erratic weather our way? Will The Bahamas force all nonresidents to leave? Will our families be okay? Thankfully, we are healthy. All considered, we think the best place for us right now is to stay put on Gémeaux. That’s our plan today anyway. Hoping you stay safe and find peace as our planet heals.

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Posted on February 25, 2020 | 3 comments

The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled

We could have turned right with everyone else but the other direction just 60 miles from Cuba was described as wild and rugged beauty. No fuel, no hotels, no groceries, and only a handful of residents. There was little protection in shifting weather and the main gateway was a very shallow sandbar impassable by many boats. Perfect—we turned left.

The Jumentos Cays is a 100-mile chain of small undeveloped islands in The Bahamas south of the more popular Great Exuma Island. Salt ponds placed these islands on a map in the 19th century when the population boomed to nearly 500 residents on the southernmost Ragged Island. Since the decline of the salt industry in the 1930s, the census has dropped to around 70 people today. These remote Backwaters of The Bahamas are often forgotten and made only a brief media appearance when Hurricane Irma ravaged the island in 2017.

We began our journey at the southern tip of this crescent-shaped archipelago and immediately faced incoming weather. Southside Bay provided protection from strong north winds, while entertaining us with a couple of nesting osprey. Just above low-lying scrappy brush, we could make out a small plane that an enterprising restauranteur had once placed atop his establishment to increase seating and I guess offer a unique dining experience. Today, the entire island sat in stillness below a huge gray cloud that stretched across the horizon. The stormy weather drove our quiet mood as we sipped hot tea on what felt like the edge of the earth.

Three other boats in the bay was…a little crowded for us so when the winds subsided, we motored around the corner to our own private Coco Bay where a sandy ocean bottom brightened the water color and white limestone formed the perfect perimeter. I swam the 100 yards to shore for some snorkeling and discovered that while the water was that beautiful Caribbean blue, winds had stirred up the bottom masking visibility. My heart raced and I was out of breath—just from that unrelenting fear of not being able to see the bottom. I kept reminding myself—it’s only 10 feet of water…there’s nothing there but sand! As underwater rocks came into view, my breath quieted and I relaxed into my pretend I’m a floating log so the fish aren’t afraid snorkeling mode. I stumbled upon a reef alive with healthy coral and came face-to-face with a gorgeous Queen Triggerfish. It was the first time getting a clear view of this creature’s perfectly-detailed rainbow design, including two blue stripes across its face and around its mouth as if its playful creator hadn’t quite mastered makeup application. I returned to the boat with a much calmer stroke, got into a hot shower, and then dressed in fleece, jeans, and SOCKS. Are we really in The Bahamas? Allen grilled Cornish game hens (such a treat) and we streamed the Super Bowl game—so surreal sitting on Gémeaux all by ourselves in the middle of nowhere watching the most famous football game filled with millions of viewers, crazy ads, and oh so many luxuries. One ad or maybe the cost of one ticket would change the state of this island. The dose of civilization made me grouchy. And the 49ers lost.

Trying to embrace civilization, we made our next stop at Hog Cay—a popular anchorage for the few other cruisers we would meet in this hinterland. A palapa stood on the beach, constructed from palm trees and decorated with colorful floats and buoys. Wooden beams inside were autographed with boat names and the years the boat had visited. A few of the regular cruisers had already made their debut this year, having inscribed 2020 to a string of at least 10 years that followed their boat name. Our guidebook said the palapa was the daily meeting place for a 4pm happy hour. Sure enough, at 3:55 dinghys sprang to life, beers popped open and laughter rang from the palapa. We worked up some social courage and headed to shore, equipped with a can of nuts we hoped would buy our way into the club. “Y’all didn’t read the rules,” proclaimed a bearded man with a thick southern drawl. “You’re not supposed to bring food to the sundowners.” And with that, we introduced ourselves and watched an entire can of cashews disappear in 15 minutes.

Quite content with our club of two, we left the anchorage the following day to resume our quest for wild, rugged…and deserted. We settled into a routine of traveling only a few miles each day, discovering one secluded anchorage after another. The pace was perfect as the environment really settled into our bones. We slept late and spent our days snorkeling, reading, and writing. I even baked! Occasionally, we went ashore to walk the beach where sand fell from our feet like flour, or we scrambled through thick shrubs to the other side for that really rugged, windward view of crashing waves.

Once we had sundowners on the beach. There was no cell service or any sign of civilization. Just the two of us and a few hermit crabs who crawled around our feet as we sat looking at our boat and watching the sun set.

By this time I was in a full wetsuit so I could spend long visits with my undersea friends. I was so disenchanted to learn that fellow cruisers regularly hunt conch, lobster, and even the gorgeous Queen Triggerfish. I understood conceptually that it allowed them to spend months in an area without grocery services, but my heart always ached when I heard the stories.

I rejoiced when I found live conch and mature Triggerfish and Angelfish and hoped they continued to thrive in these bays that shall remain unnamed to protect the innocent. Sharks became increasingly more common in my snorkeling arena. While I knew in my head that I was not their target food group, their 8-foot size gave me pause. Suddenly, I wasn’t the biggest creature out here. I found myself frequently looking over my shoulder as I snorkeled, certain that I was being followed. Surprisingly in these healthy reefs, we still found trash. Small in-tact plastic bags littered the bottom of the sea. We collected as many as we could carry and later learned that the bags were emergency water sachets—a low-cost way to deliver fresh water to disaster victims but ultimately landing in the sea. There must be a better way.

Stories of a man who survived Hurricane Irma by tying himself naked to a tree drew us to Buena Vista Cay. Edward Lockhart lived here alone and off the grid for most of his life. He left only recently when poor health forced him to relocate to Nassau.

We wandered his former homestead where animal pens, a rusty drill press, and a water cistern gave us a glimpse into how one very resourceful man could survive for decades on a remote island. Rumor has it that chickens, goats, and even peacocks still run free on the island.

One morning, as I had my head stuck in my writing, Allen slowed the engine down. Normally that means we’re coming into anchor, but I knew we were far from shore and we had a long day of sailing as we neared the end of our Jumentos journey. “Here’s the next attraction on our scenic tour,” the Captain announced with a grin, and I ran to the bow of the boat just as any curious tourist would do. I watched coral heads in 20 feet of clear emerald-green water pass below us and then just like that, the water changed abruptly to a deep blue oblivion. There we were—once again, in the middle of a Blue Hole. This unnamed heart-shaped Hole was reportedly 155 feet deep with a tunnel that ran miles to the deep ocean. See Stuck in a Hole for a close-up on Blue Holes.

We could have stayed in the Jumentos forever but it might have required that we start murdering our underwater friends. I felt a pang of sadness as we pulled out of the lovely, quiet Flamingo Bay and headed back to civilization. The water was so clear we could spot not just fish, but the type of fish swimming alongside—Triggerfish, a Nurse Shark, and many many sea stars. Mask and snorkel not required.

About a mile from the famous Hog Cut, the gateway out of this paradise, we cautiously crept forward and watched our depth gauge drop to 3.5 feet—the same as our draft. It was like driving down the freeway with the gas gauge flashing, wondering if Empty really means empty or could there be just a few fumes left. Would we hit the bottom? Or, was there a little wiggle room in our depth gauge or actual draft? We anchored Gémeaux to make a dinghy recce and confirm the depth through the cut. I jumped in (no diving allowed) and stood in the water at the back of the boat. With the palm of my hand on the sand underwater, my elbow just reached the bottom of the keel. Yikes!

We motored around the cut in the dinghy sticking an oar into the sand like a yardstick—we measured a low point of 3 feet. Hmmm, that’s pretty shallow, but the tide was coming in and the Captain decided it was safe to give it a go. We bumped our way through, getting one hull momentarily stuck, and making a lot of ocean lattes by stirring up the sand on the bottom. But, we made it through to the other side. We resumed our northbound journey—now on the road more traveled. Messages pinged as cell service brought us back in touch with family and friends. By evening, we dropped the anchor in a beautiful bay with a white sand beach…and 150 other boats.

Wild and rugged now just memories.

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Posted on February 21, 2020 | 11 comments

Stuck in a Hole

Stuck in a Hole

Giant marine sinkholes—what are they? What’s inside of them? How did we get Gémeaux in the middle? And, how the heck did we get that picture? So many of you have asked, so here you go…

Blue Holes are named for the dramatic contrast between the deep dark blue water and the shallow lighter blue coral reef around their perimeter. The maze of underwater tunnels and caves with stalactites is evidence the Holes were formed above sea level when oceans were far lower. Over several glacial periods, rising water levels filled these limestone caverns, eventually causing them to collapse in on themselves, becoming the vertical crevasses they are today.

Everything from fossils to dead bodies! have been found inside Blue Holes. Grouper and Caribbean reef sharks live in the Holes, as well as unusual marine species like the Midnight Parrotfish. Water circulation, however, is poor and in the very deepest Blue Holes, oxygen disappears altogether and only a toxic layer of hydrogen sulfide exists. Except some kinds of bacteria, most sea life cannot survive in these anoxic conditions. The lack of oxygen, ironically, also acts as a preservative, leaving its graveyard in tact. Of course, evil plastic requires no oxygen for its eternal life and sadly, has polluted these natural wonders.

The Great Blue Hole of Belize is located 40 miles from the eastern coast of Central America. It forms a perfect circle in the middle of Lighthouse Reef and is part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the world’s second largest coral reef system after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It measures more than 1,000 feet across and 400 feet deep, making it the world’s largest blue hole (based on combined depth and width). The famed Jacques Cousteau proclaimed The Great Blue Hole as one of the top dive sites in the world and it remains on the bucket list for many divers. By now, you know that I have a fear of deep water so I wasn’t the least bit interested in diving down this abyss. And frankly, is there really that much to see in this colorless void? Still, both Allen and I wanted to see this amazing phenomenon and determine if we could get Gémeaux into its center.

Most people visiting The Great Blue Hole fly first to Cancun, then take a flight to Belize City, followed by another short flight to Ambergris Caye, where they spend the night at a small resort. They finally reach their ultimate destination by speedboat the following morning, where they share the experience with dive boats, day tours, and a couple of helicopters and small planes. With the exception of a small plane that circled above for a few minutes, on the day we visited The Great Blue Hole, we had the place to ourselves.

We had just completed the Suzie Too Western Caribbean Rally (see Rally Reflections) and were making our way north through the Belize archipalego, headed to the U.S. East Coast. Anchored at nearby Long Cay, it was about 10 miles to The Great Blue Hole. Because the Holes are surrounded by a shallow coral reef, the biggest obstacle was navigating through coral heads without scraping the bottom of our keels. Using charts that display ocean depths, the Captain carefully motored for the next 3 hours with a constant eye on our depth finder to make sure we cleared our 3.5 foot draft. Our friend, Ronna, and I sat on the bow as spotters, pointing out coral heads to avoid.

We picked one of the two 12-foot deep entrances from the charts and slowly motored into The Great Blue Hole. We held our breath, not for fear of hitting the bottom but from sheer wonderment as the crystal clear water changed immediately to a majestic sapphire. We were inside The Great Blue Hole…and it was awesome. We maintained our position perfectly in the center of the Hole while I climbed to the top of our 70-foot mast to take some photos. Haha—not really…those amazing photos were taken by drone, Allen’s favorite toy. We completed the photo session and then attached Gémeaux to one of the mooring balls still inside the hole but fixed to a concrete block in shallow water. While diving wasn’t on my bucket list, snorkeling the full perimeter of The Great Blue Hole definitely was. Ronna and I jumped in the water and eagerly set out to explore our backyard. The contrast was remarkable—over our right shoulder, a sea of plain sand sloped into an eerie, colorless void; on the other side, a dense underwater garden boasted vibrant corals and sealife. It was a day I’ll never forget.

A year later in The Bahamas, we found a lesser-known heart-shaped Blue Hole near Water Cay in the western chain of the Jumentos. There are several Blue Holes in The Bahamas, including Dean’s Blue Hole on Long Island, recorded as the world’s 2nd deepest Hole at 600 feet. Situated on the island (not in the sea), Dean’s Blue Hole was popular among free divers, until Dean ate one of the divers. The 155-foot deep Blue Hole we explored in the Jumentos Cays has no name, nor has it claimed any divers. It reportedly has a tunnel that runs miles to the deep ocean—too far for a diver to fact-check.

As we continue to wander the planet, I suppose we’ll continue our search for Blue Holes. The cool factor is just too great. And now you know…the rest of the story.

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Posted on February 1, 2020 | 2 comments

The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus

The noise got louder and the pounding intensified. I tried to remain calm as breathing became more difficult and I realized I couldn’t keep my snorkel clear of water. I kicked harder, fighting to escape the deafening sound that seemed to be chasing me. I knew I had swum too close to the craggy shoreline and I was certain the next wave would hurl me into rocks. Nervously, I shifted my downward gaze and raised my head slightly to take one final look. It wasn’t crashing waves I heard. I wasn’t on the brink of slamming into the cliff. I was caught in a rainstorm.

The sensation was startling as large raindrops pelted my head. An angry sky darkened and gray sheets of rain melded with the sea, erasing any sense of horizon and clouding my visibility. But the sea state was fine—I wasn’t in any danger and I was already wet—I might as well stay. I returned my gaze to the sea and as my head submerged, I noticed something interesting. It was silent below. Serene. Peaceful. Fish swam effortlessly, oblivious to the chaos above. Sea Plume swayed gently. I lifted my head and pandemonium returned instantly. Head down, tranquility. Well how about that? I think I’ll spend more time out here.

Sailing in the Caribbean has given me the good fortune of snorkeling nearly every day, sometimes several times a day. There’s no place I’d rather be. I do my best writing when I’m snorkeling. My mind quiets and I have fabulous ideas—it’s just really hard to write them down:) No matter how often I seen the same yellow and black-striped Sargent Majors or the schools of Blue Tangs, the sea is always a delight to explore. And often, I do find something new and race back to my books to learn its name and how it lives.

Did you know that Angelfish are monogamous? If one of them wanders off for a period of time, the pair will swim around each other in close circles when they reunite, strengthening their bond. It reminds me of our beloved golden retriever, Mia, who always gave me an exuberant greeting after I stepped out for only 2 minutes to get the mail. Mia always made me smile, as do the French Angelfish today.

The turtles started it. Spotting a turtle automatically raises the snorkeling grade to an A+. At the Tobago Cays in The Grenadines, there’s a turtle sanctuary where you can observe dozens of these reptiles so closely you can see their jaws move as they rip grass from the sea bottom and chew endlessly like cows of the underworld. In that very spot amidst grazing turtles, I noticed a beautiful sea star (not a starfish since it’s not a fish), perfectly displayed on the white sand below…and then there were two, three, and soon an entire field of red and yellow legs scattered like easter eggs and a few curled in balls around rocks.

As I dove down for a closer look at how a sea star clings to a rock, I discovered a lobster hiding under a ledge, wagging his long antennae forbidding me to come any closer. My peripheral vision caught movement and I turned to see a Caribbean Whiptail Stingray stirring up a meal of small fish in the sand, while bigger fish hovered, scavenging the crumbs. Sometimes, it’s only the eyes I see on these amazing creatures while the rest of their 6-foot body hides in sand waiting to ambush its prey.

The magnificent grace of a Spotted Eagle Ray always takes my breath away. Its large spotted body with a tail nearly 10 feet long glides by flapping its wings. I’m close enough to make eye contact and my heart sings. In Turks and Caicos, we had the pleasure of snorkeling in the midst of eight! of these rays, as though we were part of their synchronized swimming team. Those are the times when you forget to breathe and your heart fills with gratitude to be a witness to nature.

I finally decided to refresh my scuba skills. We were sailing the Western Caribbean and the diving was first-rate in Bonaire and the Honduran Bay Islands, with their steep walls and protected status. Many divers like the wrecks but watching Poseidon Adventure too many times has left a deep-rooted fear of something (or someone!) popping out of a dark cavernous hole. I stick to the corals and fish found only in deep water. Sixty feet below the surface on a reef wall that plunges to infinity, corals are healthy and vibrant and the fish, well, they’re bigger.

I gasped the first time an 8-foot reef shark swam by, but then calmed, remembering that I’m not really one of their food groups; they’re just curious like I am about them. The more dives I made, the more I overcame my fear of deep water. My confidence grew about equipment and monitoring my depth and ascent. I began to relax and enjoy the ultimate serenity of our planet, far below the mayhem humankind has created on the surface. I will forever treasure hearing humpback whales sing to one another as they migrated past Salt Cay.

Shallow water snorkeling remains my favorite. It doesn’t cost anything, I never run out of air, there’s often more to see, and life begins right in our backyard. The first critter I often see just below the boat is a remora or sharksucker, who actually looks like a shark. It races over like the Welcome Wagon when we anchor and promptly begins cleaning the bottom of our boat. Better than coupons, don’t you think? He’s like having a pet and we like seeing him hang around into the night when our underwater lights come on. We had these lights installed when we first purchased Gémeaux so we could enjoy nighttime swims. The irony, however, is that now we can actually see the 5-feet Tarpon that are attracted to the lights and nobody wants to get in the water. I can never resist a party of Stingrays, however, and I often put on a mask and snorkel to watch the bunch of them busily stir up dinner just below me. I don’t stray far from the stern of the boat, however, and I’ve never tried night diving because, well…I’m still afraid of the dark.

In full daylight, patient and still as a floating log, I uncover entire miniature civilizations. I can see eyelashes on Redlip Blennies and the brilliant architecture of a juvenile Queenfish. Social Feather Dusters and Christmas Tree Worms pop in and out of Brain Coral. I’m close enough to touch them, though I never do. Instead, I watch them open up their fan-like arms once they’ve established I’m not an enemy. Occasionally, my vision is obscured by too many fish. Blizzards of tiny Silversides form fish balls according to size and disperse only to clear a path for me or when a pelican dives in for a meal.

Determined to find more critters in this little paradise, I notice a Chain Moray eel poke only its head out, opening and closing its jaws like it might bite, but in fact is only bringing water down to its gills. Conventions of small Bluestriped Grunts cluster together until they’re big enough to join their older friends in the deeper reefs.

A speck of sand moves and I discover a Peacock Flounder or a Lizardfish, showing off their camouflaging skills. Not everyone protects themselves with camouflage. The small shell-like Flamingo Tongue, usually attached to the purple Common Sea Fan, has bright orange spots outlined in black to warn predators that they are toxic.  

At Sandy Isle in The Grenadines, I stumbled upon a pair of Flying Gunards, the larger male, exquisitely decorated with blue tips on its back fins. It was fascinating watching them eat—crawling on the bottom, using their front fins like hands to flip over rocks, quickly seizing the startled mollusk or snail as its home is turned upside down. Yellowhead Jawfish with light blue flowy tails are only 4-5 inches long so they’re hard to spot, but so interesting to watch catch a meal. They hover vertically above their sand dwellings snatching bits of floating plankton and then plunging tail first back in their hole at the first threat of danger.

The iconic Parrotfish in all their variations deserves the community service award for maintaining health reef ecosystems by scraping away meals of algae. Then, they create our beaches by expelling what becomes fine sand…did you know that’s what you’re sitting on?! If you listen closely, you can actually hear the crunch crunch sound of these fish biting into the coral with their front teeth. Harems of these colorful fish (yes, most are female) are dominated by a single dominant male (boo). If the male dies, the strongest female can become a male (wow!) and takes over the harem. Now there’s food for thought.

Every creature has a personality. The red Squirrel Fish with its giant, black eyes, is shy. I keep my distance, knowing my presence makes them nervous.

Scrawled Filefish almost always travel in pairs so if I see one, I search for the other and find it eating Fire Coral, toxic to the human touch. I discover that many fish remain in the same area. If I return the next day, I find the same Porcupinefish hiding under the ledge where I saw it yesterday. And yes, there’s nap time in the underworld. Schools of fish sitting, er…standing, er…swimming what’s the word?…in place. One fish was completely vertical with its mouth agape as if it was snoring and lost in some faraway dream.

And then there’s the Octopus, who has the largest brain of all invertebrates; has the uncanny ability to change color, size, shape, and texture; and, with three hearts, simply must have the biggest personality. Octopuses (you can’t put a Latin ending on a Greek word so never octopi) are hard to find until you find one. I searched endlessly for this fascinating creature, until one day I noticed a pile of freshly-cleaned empty shells standing out against a landscape of brown rocks. I knew instantly a well-fed octopus lived just behind its decorated front door. Now, I see octopuses nearly every time I snorkel—I just look for the collection of polished shells and quietly peek in every nook and cranny until I find two big sleepy eyes or a huge beak sucking in yet another meal.

Sometimes, when a small fish swims by, an arm flails out of the hole as if swatting away an annoying fly. By far, the most memorable experience was in Sand Hole near Grand Turk, where a Caribbean Reef Octopus, dressed in green that day, allowed us to watch it eat an enormous Conch lunch. If you’re still ordering Octopus in a restaurant, I invite you to read Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, an illuminating and compassionate tale of these enchanting creatures that will give you pause next time you find it on the menu.

There are things we find that we don’t want to find in the sea. Jellyfish. Not really, the turtles would be unhappy if their food source disappeared. The Lionfish, stunning as it is, are an invasive species, not native to the Caribbean. They have no natural predators and satisfy their voracious appetites by eating their way through entire ecosystems.

No matter how faraway the place, we always seem to find trash. The winds and the currents bring in pounds of junk each day from distant places like Africa. Environmental education hasn’t reached some of these destinations. Even in the pristine water of the San Blas Islands of Panama, trash collects at the shoreline because a better disposal system is simply out-of-reach.

Just this week in The Bahamas’ remote Jumento Cays, I kept finding small plastic bags while snorkeling, some of them seemingly unopened but now filled with sand and shells. What could these be? I then learned that they are emergency water, provided in disaster-relief situations. Sadly, they end up in the sea creating a new disaster. There must be a better way.

Nature calls…time to discover some more amazing critters. Join me in spreading the word about the magical life underwater. I know you’ll do your part in picking up any evil plastic you find on your own snorkeling adventures.

 

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