TEN SECONDS UNDERWATER TELLS ME EVERYTHING I WANT TO KNOW ABOUT A PLACE.
Is it clean, colorful and alive, or icky and depressing? Are the fish at ease in their own spot of ocean, or are they weirdly scarce and afraid? Are there any vital species missing from the mix?
Just off the tiny emerald island of Montserrat, I can see the ocean is pure and alive and I sigh through my snorkel with relief.
Too often, sparkling ads show enthusiastic snorkelers hovering over some stock-photo Caribbean reef, while failing to tell the truth: that coral bleaching, overfishing, pollution and overdevelopment have hastened the destruction of the coral reefs in said destination. The all-inclusive resort will gladly rent you snorkeling gear, but they won’t tell you how they killed the best reefs with all that untreated hotel sewage or by dredging sand to build the unnatural beach on which you sunbathe.
Too few travelers recognize a bad reef, because too few ever know the true glory of a living, breathing, virgin reef, undisturbed by human hands, spinning with fish of very shape, color and size, and soft and hard corals glistening in the water like a mountain range of glittery gemstones. Down here, you experience the brilliant theater of animal drama, with split-second plot lines and a lazy ocean mood. This is my heaven, and I am happy to find it on Montserrat.
Dipping my mask underwater, I smile over my snorkel. All my favorite characters are down here: Blue tangs and yellow tangs with puckered lips, ready to kiss; big-eyed squirrelfish hiding under the darkened ledges, parrotfish with overbites, scraping away on clumps of coral, extraordinary damselfish and their iridescent blue babies, shaking their tails and screaming, “Look at me! I’m so pretty!”
I bend my waist and kick my fins, free diving down five, ten, fifteen feet. This is my freedom—to fly underwater, to move like a slow dancer over the ancient ocean floor where micro grains of white sand tumble back and forth with the silent rhythm of the waves. I could almost fall asleep, but my mammal body wants to breathe, and so I surface.
But I dive down again and again, trying to pull every square inch of this reef into my brain. If life is a mere gathering of memories, I want my pre-frontal cortex to hold at least a terabyte of solid underwater footage. Modern life splatters our retinas with so much visual crap, diving on coral reefs offers a blessed reprieve—it is Mother Earth, stating clearly (with bubbles coming out of her mouth), “Watch this. See here—see how life is always moving, and how your two mediocre human eyes cannot even capture a fraction of all that is happening around you in this moment. Behold and enjoy all of this, and know that under the great blanket of blue that covers this world, the ocean is more alive than you.”
I’m not sure why diving makes me so happy—it just does, like some common drug with instant effect. I feel calm in the water, at home, surrounded by something so simple and wet—also, I think, my body makes more sense in water than on land. And so after a morning free diving, I return in the afternoon with a tank of air.
I started diving when I was just 12 years old. My passion began with a book from the school library, Skin Diver (by Zachary Bell), a sixties pulp fiction tale about a bunch of guys in high-waisted speedos who spent their days chilling underwater with giant grouper and sharp-toothed barracuda. That one book led to a bigger stack of books, and then every Jacques Cousteau movie I could find on VHS. I spent summers at the deep end of our neighborhood pool, free diving to the bottom and holding my breath for one, two, and even three minutes. My brothers and I tested homemade diving bells crafted from old trashcans and attempted breathing through lengths of cut-up garden hoses.
When I was old enough, my father enrolled me in a PADI class with a hard-talking, chain-smoking ex-Navy Seal instructor who transformed a fun-loving resort course into a live-or-die-trying underwater boot camp. A few months later, I passed my certification test in a cold Ohio quarry the color of day-old dishwater. The flooded quarry was so foggy and miserable I could barely see my instructor’s hands as he signaled his commands at me, and when I finally surfaced, I felt like I was reaching to the sun from the depths of some horrible frozen black hole.
But how glad I am for that first crappy dive! How grateful I am to have begun my underwater life in such a dark abyss, because every dive since my Midwestern youth has been remarkably better—better visibility, better water temperature, and far more exciting. How grateful I am for my hard-ass instructor back in Ohio, who would be fairly upset with me now, as I struggle to set up my own dive gear: Which side do I place the regulator before screwing it into my tank valve? How many psi in a bar? Yes, I have logged a hundred dives, no five hundred, no more, probably—I stopped counting because, why count? Oh, I am a lazy diver, too, coddled by years of resort dives with ready gear, though today my dive buddy is patient and show me my errors while fixing them, clipping and unclipping, unscrewing and retightening. Then she motions for me to leap off the pier.
This is the magic of Montserrat—that you can leap from the island’s largest pier and splash down into a world of soft crystalline blue. Descending, I watch the pier’s rough stone wall come alive with starfish, sea urchins and moss. A few wandering yellowtails guide me away from the manmade structure and into the immediate watery wilderness.
Twenty years have passed since the eruption of Soufrière Hills, the still-smoking volcano that buried the former capital and left two-thirds of Montserrat a no-go zone. No doubt, the death and destruction was catastrophic, but now there is so much life underwater. Right here, below the rippled turquoise and anchored boats, the coral is beautiful and alive. The fish are unbothered, lazy in the afternoon, showing no fear of my looming shadow as I approach. There are octopus and sharp-nosed moray eels—there are huge stingrays and fat conch, busy hermit crabs and . . . grouper! Tons of grouper—dozens of good-sized rock hind—the sure sign of a healthy reef. Nobody’s fishing this reef to fill restaurant plates.
As I glide down to a depth of 30 feet, I float past giant columns of pink and yellow pipe organ sponges that stand taller than me. Rare and endangered barrel sponges sit with mouths agape, a testament of nature growing silently. All around, purple sea fans and neon brain coral have taken root, ready to spread across the ashy seafloor and fill the grey with color.
This is what nature does when left alone to flourish. This is twenty years without cruise ships or high-rise hotels or mass tourism, twenty years with just a tenth of the previous population, twenty years without significant pollution, and twenty years of recovery. Over the past twenty years, I have watched the fish and coral disappear from other Caribbean hotspots, islands that were loved too much by those who were too unaware to notice.
But here, amidst the staggering blue of Montserrat, the reef is exploding with life, recovering fast from the old volcano and urging me onward to explore deeper and look closely at every squirmy, punk rock nudibranch or the creepy sea spider slinking away from me. And so I glide on, content to spend this hour down on this cheery patch of reef until it is time to return to my world on the surface.
Unlike most of my dives, in Montserrat I merely climb a ladder up from the bay and onto the pier. Slowly I roll out of my equipment and peel away my wetsuit. I let the saltwater drip from my hair and nostrils—the afternoon sun dries my skin.
“That was a great dive,” I say out loud, to nobody in particular. It was a great dive, and frankly, it’s been awhile. Frankly, it’s been too long since I’ve seen life like that down here in the Caribbean.
An hour underwater has shown me the truth about what I saw this morning—that the island is alive and well, that Montserrat has something special on its shore. I want to shout it to the world, and yet I don’t want to tell a soul. I want Montserrat to remain a well-kept secret from anything or anyone who might take from the good of this island. I want Montserrat to stay tranquil and clean and teeming with sea life. Most of all, I want the reef to survive, and I pray that it will.