“Hello young lady, I thought you were going to call me?” Ian asked in his proper Jamaican accent. “ I’ve been trying to reach you. I’m on my way. Get your suit, I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” he hung up the phone before I could say a word.
Being Jamaican, he arrived forty-five minutes later.
Ian was a friend I met when I first moved to Jamaica. A typical island driver, he drove fast which means he stopped fast. I never got use to Jamaican drivers, or driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, why I never drove myself. Most rides were spent pressing the invisible brakes on my side of the car. Today was no exception. He asked all the right questions about my day however, he was mysteriously preoccupied; he seemed too focused on the traffic. When I questioned why he wanted to take me diving, his only answer was “You’ll see.”
Within an hour, I could taste the salt on my lips; the water splashed my face as the waves bucked the boat. We were going north, out into the vast blueness of the Caribbean. I grabbed the railing to keep my balance with the rhythm of the boat as it pitched forward in the water. I remember taking a long deep breath of sea air and exhaling slowly. Letting some of the crap inside my head escape felt tremendous, it felt good… life was good!
We were on the boat ‘Katherine’, named for Ian’s wife; Charlie was the Captain. Ian and I prepared the vests, tanks, and weights. We were headed towards Devil’s Reef one of the most popular diving spots on the North Coast. The wall at the reef was a three hundred foot drop. It was dangerous; many experienced divers died when they gambled and thought they could outsmart the devil. Although, we were not planning a wall dive, Ian told me what he wanted to show me was at the top of the wall along the reef.
Over the sound of the engine noise, he shouted, “When was the last time you were diving?”
“It’s been awhile. Why, don’t you think I’ll remember everything I’ve been taught?”
He yelled back and for the first time grinned, “I hope so!” Then more seriously, “I also want you to remember the first time you ever saw a coral reef.”
I thought back about the first time I was at a reef years ago on my first trip to Jamaica. The first memory that came to me was the fish. I always repeated the story how fish would surround me; follow me, dart in and around my waving long hair. They made me feel like a mermaid, at one with the sea. The shore side of the reef was one of the most diverse in the area. Every place I explored there was an abundance of life. The variety of fish, coral and sponge were beyond measure; I recalled the colors and textures as being some of God’s greatest handiwork only a few were fortunate enough to observe.
The wall at Devil’s Reef frightened me; I had known one of the guys who died while diving it. He was much more experienced than I was, and I knew I had no business trying it. Although, I had heard stories about it being more spectacular than the reef itself.
Charlie hoisted the red and white dive flag to indicate there were divers in the area. All suited, the weight of the tank and fins made it almost impossible for me to move to the side of the boat. Sitting next to Ian, we leaned back together and rolled into the water. Adjusting our masks, checking tanks, he signaled to begin, I gave the okay sign, and we slowly began the descent. We would need to go down forty feet to be able to get a panoramic view of the reef. The warm water felt comforting, the sensation of weightlessness felt like freedom.
Immediately, I became aware of the murky water. The sea was calm and the sun was bright. It should have been clear enough to see an outline of the reef. We continued, gently dropping further down, slowly the reef came in view.
I was horrified. I was looking at a graveyard. I saw dead lifeless sponges, broken pieces of Staghorn coral littered haphazardly, brain coral covered with anchor gouges and eerie white patches that covered the rest of the coral I knew were not normal. There were few fish; I could count them on one hand. I made my way closer to Ian. He saw the shocked look on my face through my mask. He just nodded his head and signaled for me to follow.
We glided closer to the reef, I was confused, I could not understand what I was seeing. Ian pointed and motioned for me to follow; he headed towards the wall side of the reef. He sensed my hesitation, gave me the okay sign, and again motioned for me to follow him. We slowly drifted out not down. He had me turn and look back at the wall. As far down the wall I could see, it was the same devastation. After a few minutes, he guided me back to the reef and toward the area where we had descended. He pointed at his watch and indicated it was time to head to the surface. Gradually, we made our ascent. I looked up and could see the blurry outline of the bottom of the ‘Katherine’ above come into view.
We popped to the surface; I spit out the regulator, pushed up my mask, and yelled, “What the hell is going on?”
“Get in, we’ll talk.” He grabbed my vest and pushed me over to the steps where Charlie was waiting to help. As gravity resumed its hold, Charlie grabbed my vest as Ian shoved my bottom and ungracefully I was back on board.
I had a towel and was drying off, still trying to process the devastation I just witnessed. Ian sat down next to me as Charlie turned the boat and headed towards shore. We sat in silence neither of us spoke. Finally, he asked, “What are you thinking?”
“What is going on? The reef is dying, it’s almost dead! When did this happen… how did it happen?” I started firing questions at him.
“That’s what I needed to show you,” Ian began to explain why he wanted to see me. “We’re killing the reefs all along the coast. I wanted to bring you here because this is what we advertise as one of the premier diving spots for tourist, and this is what we bring them to, we are killing our golden goose. You know it wasn’t that many years ago this area was pristine, some of the best diving in the Caribbean, but not anymore.”
“What do tourists say?” I asked.
“Most of them don’t know the difference, they’re amateurs, they’ve never been diving before and they’re just here for a good time, rum punch and ganja. They could care less. Any serious diver goes on one dive, and doesn’t waste his time to go for a second, and will never come back to Jamaica.”
I was still bewildered from what I had just seen; again I questioned, “How did it happen?”
“It’s not just one problem, it’s everything that’s been going on for years, and it’s reached the critical breaking point. The sea can no longer cover the mistakes we’re making on land”, he said, “we’re killing the reefs”.
“Where are the fish?”
“They’re gone, over-fished, the estuaries are being destroyed, runoff from the hills, improper garbage and sewage disposal, overbuilding, squatting, it’s a multitude of reasons,” he answered. “People don’t want to understand what they’re doing is destroying something which took hundreds if not thousands of years to grow”.
We were pulling up to the dock, he got up to help Charlie tie the boat.
“So why doesn’t somebody do something?” I said while collecting my bag preparing to disembark.
He took my hand and helped me step up on the dock. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
“Me, what are you talking about? What can I do?”
We headed back to the car. “Listen Barbara, there is a group of us getting together tomorrow night. I want you to come and meet some people.”
“Getting together for what?”
“To do something” there was a seriousness in his voice I had never heard before. “Just come and listen, tell us what you think, you might have some ideas of what we can do, I want you to help us.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I did agree I would go and listen.
~ taken from “Looking Back”
So, this girl from the corn fields of Illinois went and listened. I got involved in trying to ‘do something’. I eventually became the executive director of the group FRIENDS OF THE SEA. Someday I will share more stories… there were many adventures!