We plunge underwater to observe habits of juvenile Zalophus californianus. Or, in the words of Ivan, our dive master extraordinaire, to play with youngsters. And play is what we try to do. The result is, to be honest, that we are being played with. Sea lions treat us as clumsy companions who cannot swim fast enough and have to be jolted into action by deftly applied bites. We develop various techniques to keep them from nibbling on our wet-suited bodies. It's a good thing they seem to have preference for yellow, which means that our snorkels, fins and secondary regulators are in greater danger than our fingers.
You don a full body wetsuit, the thickest you can find. A hood, thick neoprene gloves, booties. You go in, shiver for half an hour and come back up to pour hot water into your suit to warm yourself up. If you see more then two body-lengths you consider the visibility outstanding. The unwieldy wetsuit constraints your movements, cold water suddenly and inexplicably finds its way into your booties, air bubbles slowly build up under your hood and then escape with sudden swish triggering your panic response. The Caribbean bliss of the calm underwater world inevitably becomes just a remote dream with preciously few tangible links to frigid reality.
There is a fierce competition to use Florida springs: divers, children, manatees, tourists, alligators. Most springs we visit are part of extensive and well managed Florida state park system. Looks like no income tax policy here does not automatically translate into no public services. The springs are at constant temperature. Usually between 68 to 72 degree Fahrenheit (20 to 22 degrees Celsius). During the hot wet summer it translates to teeth shattering cold. But it must feel warm in winter and this is when manatees visit. Divers don wet suites and proceed to explore underwater caverns trying, in vain, to pinpoint the exact spot that the flow starts. Children simply make tremendous noise as some springs foolishly provide multilevel platform to jump to the frigid water. Surely a swimming pool closer to home would be cheaper option. Tourists board glass bottom boats to peek into the great abyss. Thankfully they quickly proceed downriver to gaze at alligators. Alligators. Swim with caution! is the exact wording of the omnipresent sign that is apparently aimed at those few alligators that can read and are stupid enough to approach the beach full of campers.
It feels good to stay away from the ocean for a brief moment. The comfort of walking straight, of taking shower without being periodically thrown into the stall. Even a small comfort of pissing while standing up. But I know already what I am going to miss starting tomorrow. My inept giant strides into the abyss, coolness of immeasurable waters, an OK from Melanie on the deck responding to my fist on the head salute. I'll miss weightlessness, the calm, the multidimensional space around me. I'll miss hiding from the current behind coral heads and looking at graceful, never ending dance of submerged universe. And the excitement of spotting shark gliding nearby. I'll miss the experience of being juggled in my bunk as the boat makes its way home though choppy seas. It's the sensation not much different from skiing in the fresh powder. Except of course the there are no skis. Or snow.
The trip on M/V Spree starts with captain's briefing with huge helpings of bodily functions humor. I can't deny it is a serious concern with almost 30 people having to relive themselves, not always voluntarily, in cramped quarters. The proper technique of fluffing trash bags, the acceptable length of the toilet paper, the problem of toilet mice (don't ask), the art of pumping and flushing are discussed at length.
We are preparing for boarding M/V Spree to go to the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve. We did couple of multiday sailing trips before, but we haven't done liveaboard yet and have only a faint idea what to expect. I hope that three days of Internet withdrawal will be the greatest challenge. But if you don't hear from us by the end of the month, you can start mounting a rescue expedition. The boat takes 22 passengers, sleeping quarters are arranged in bunks of 4 to a cabin. The crew promises to feed us constantly. Alas, gourmet food is not mentioned: this is definitely not a cruise ship. Not that I would know the specifics of one never setting the foot aboard. The idea of a giant floating hotel is so unappealing that even the allure of tropical destinations pales next to it. Being marooned on a ship with hundreds of other people strikes me as oppressing, not exhilarating. And with 68% Americans overweight and 34% obese 'all you can eat' is plain cruel. Not to mention all those touted attractions: rock climbing, ice skating, tennis, volleyball, etc - one can do all that at home at a fraction of a cost and less crowd to compete with. I am happy to accept that I don't know what I am missing and have little desire to be proven wrong. I'd rather take a road trip and wander aimlessly hoping to experience something unexpected.
I may never have a chance to go to another planet. But going 20 meters under water surface is the next best thing. Too bad it might not last. And I am not worried about myself. There is still enough of sites for me to dive for as long as I want. But we might be the last generation that can enjoy it. Oceans are dying on us. It's not even slow. Reefs are sick. Efforts to replant corals, however successful, have to compete with an ongoing rise in a water temperature (and no matter what you think about the reasons, the oceans are warming up). Fish population are at unsustainable levels. Unless you do go diving it's hard to appreciate what we are all losing.
If wrecks and reefs and fish don't make your diving exciting enough there are always gadgets: knife, torch, safety sausage (really) and the biggest toy of all: underwater scooter. Which of course is not a scooter but a diver propulsion vehicle or, in PADI speak, DPV. By the way, diving argot is full of acronyms. Starting from SCUBA of course, which stands for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, through BCD, BWRAF, CESA, DAN, DIR, PADI and VENTID. Pretty much each and every word is an acronym for something else. No wonder computer geeks were left with GNU.
We are officially contagious. We passed our scuba habit on to our unsuspecting friends. They flew from Boston to Key Largo by way of Miami to meet us last weekend. We promptly signed them up for discover scuba diving class. We had some fun taking compromising pictures (not many people manage to look their best the first time they don mask, BCD, fins, tank and get into a swimming pool), but they still left vowing to take open water certification.There is a lesson here: don't try scuba diving if you don't need a new hobby. Although perhaps it's not a scuba, maybe it's our persuasive personalities. If that's the case you should steer clear of us. Hard to tell.
Night invites storytelling. On the way to the dive site everybody seems to have something scary to share: divers left on the reef for the night by a careless operator, giant shark skulking in the shadows, losing one's bearings simply by swimming upside down (watch the bubbles! says the captain). The stories get taller as the sun sinks closer to the horizon. Night dive turns out to be absolutely magical. We enter water at dusk and it gets progressively darker until one dives in blackness punctuated by torch beams and glowing tank markers.
We all want to be cool. And obviously I am not talking about surviving the scorching weather outside: finally a place where mere walking is a taxing exercise. What I mean here is this wonderful word that one uses to describe people, behaviors and things one envies, admires and ungracefully attempts to imitate. Rarely, beyond high-school, a division between the cool and the uncool crowd is so obvious as when diving. The cool are young, tanned and confident. The uncool are pasty white, old and vying for attention. The cool make their living scuba diving. The uncool are just dabbling. The cool look hot, the uncool - sweaty. The cool are surviving on water, healthy snacks and wind. The uncool are taking their meals in fancy restos that the cool wouldn't be seen in even if they could afford it.
This is what we came to Key Largo to do: scuba diving. Possibly the last chance to do so courtesy of BP. Reefs are shallow and thus accessible here. Water is not as clear as we remember from Curacao or Caymans making dives even more otherworldly: a gigantic eagle ray flows majestically flapping its wings like a giant bird. A turtle slowly swims by to the surface. One nurse shark sleeps under a reef.Another one feeds with its snout under a rock and goes still when we approach. Later we spot a stingray half hidden in sand waiting for prey. Dive guide points out a peacock flounder that we cannot see until it moves.