When the visibility is good you can drop a razor in it and watch it sink a hundred feet, flashing a Morse invitation to you all the way to the bottom. I don’t think that there is anything, anything at all, that excites me more that motoring out to a dive spot on one of those mornings. I feel this overwhelming elation, excitement, joy, a sense of presence and contact with some supreme being.
I am talking about the Bahamian waters I grew up in. This is my turf. The animals I see are the friends of my youth, the ones who will never let me down or cease to cheer me up. I have been a DM for about 20 years, but since I started freediving my SCUBA gear is only for work.
Freediving is my passion.
I have noticed that I always get a Pavlovian reaction to freediving, my mouth starts to water, it’s completely unconscious, it’s spittle to defog my mask. I put my gear on with record speed and slip into the water tying to make as little of a splash as possible. As the bubbles clear I am already morphing into to another creature, stealthier, more confident, monitoring less faculties perhaps but more positively in charge of the ones at hand. I can practically feel myself change, my breath becomes my all, each one is logged, each one a whole unit, birth and death, a microcosm of life.
My thoughts fall away and I am there in the present listening to stronger, less insecure, instincts. Chances are that I will know every creature I see today. I will know them like neighbors I have lived next to. Will know whether they are shy and reclusive, paranoid and skittish, inquisitive and not too bright, hungry and unpredictable, oblivious and self absorbed. If I am hunting, I know how to stalk my prey; I know where to find them and how they will act when I approach them.
The Bahamas is a strange place. The islands are flat, scrubby and quite dull. There are few native land animals; a diminutive boa with an unpleasant disposition, a hamster like rodent called a “Hutia”, very reclusive but of interest to rodentists I suppose, the occasional parrot, the token iguana, a dozen flamingos.
Culturally the Bahamas is wanting. Not much music, art or literature dribbles out of here. The islands first successful colonies were loyalists and their slaves who fled America after the war of independence and eked out a living from fishing and subsistence farming. The Bahamas took their independence from Britain in 1973 and now relies on tourism and fishing to sustain their economy. The redeeming point of interest here is the sea, which is spectacular.
You can’t bring spearguns into the Bahamas; you have to use a pole spear or Hawaiian sling if you want to spearfish. This means that there are some fish that you will rarely, if ever, manage to shoot. The big Cubera snappers, for example, will always stay a safe distance away from even the stealthiest hunter. If you can somehow hit one and get it to hole up you might be able to land it otherwise it’s not on the menu. Hog fish are marvelously self sacrificing as is the doe eyed Nassau grouper. It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to actually shoot Nassaus, sometimes I cant, they remind me of my dog and I can’t bring myself to do it.
Spanish Mackerel will often come up to you if you are ten feet below the surface, if it’s a big one you better kill it or you will be swimming around for the next fifteen minutes trying to recover your spear. Big Jacks will often give you one shot before they disappear from your sphere of influence forever. Again, you had better be able to brain it because it is very powerful animal and you will lose your spear if you don’t. I get what I want for food and then I spend the rest of the day just freediving and letting go.
I first came here as a sickly skinny kid fighting a primary tuberculosis infection. I was on a course of drugs that made me piss and sweat orange. I had been taken out of my English boarding school because I was infectious and nasty looking. I was fourteen. It was recommended that I should be taken someplace warm and sunny to convalesce. My father mentioned a place he had visited in the 1950s called Cherokee Sound on the Bahamian island of Abaco. He remembered it having a Rockwellian charm, white picket fences, straw-hatted fishermen, chicken prints in the concrete sidewalks. My mother was skeptical, she was convinced that it must have changed by now, this was 1980, Rockwell had been dead a long time and the place probably sported a hotel/casino.
I think they were both surprised that it hadn’t changed very much at all. People used outboards instead of sails and a lot of the houses had electricity supplied by a generator, many still used kerosene lights though. It was an eddy of a past lifestyle. It was from this place and time that I started my reverse evolution back into the sea.
A year ago I bought a 44 foot sailboat which I outfitted with what I considered necessities and comforts which included a dive compressor. I am now charter out to parties who wish to SCUBA dive or freedive and spearfish or anything else they find relaxing. I can accommodate four to five people comfortably. Eventually I want to be able to travel anywhere in the world and pick up charters along the way, ideally repeat customers who will become friends on many different adventures. Having been a working dive master for a couple of years I know that visiting the same dive spots can become tiring, I would like to discover new places with people who have a thirst for the extraordinary. But there are plenty of extraordinary things to see right here in the Bahamas. There are spots I know of which are seldom if ever dived on, far from the cattle boats, away from the regular haunts of the local lobster fishermen. Seamounts teeming with wildlife, dizzying coral walls dropping from a few feet into a cobalt abyss, remote reefs accessible only in the fairest weather. Indeed in this vast archipelago of over 700 islands there must be still hundreds of places which have never been dived upon. How exciting is that! I feel fortunate that I have been born with the incapacity to accomplish any form of business which would root me to the soil, more fortunate still to be able to share some of this beauty with my guests.
I am waiting out the rest of Hurricane season in Abaco after which, hopefully, I will sail down towards Belize, who knows I might even get there without getting distracted along the way by some new, blue, reason to change my plans.
Written by Raif Pomeroy