Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Underwater Caribbean

There is a very interesting article in Slate at:
Underwater Caribbean, from: Elisabeth Eaves

It has some excellent underwater pictures. The following are some extracts from the text:

I've joined the fish watchers, and hope to learn from them, on a scuba-diving trip to the island of St. Vincent organized by REEF, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. A few years back, the Key Largo, Fla.-based conservation group, inspired by the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, got the idea of using enthusiastic amateurs to gather scientific data. For the purposes of this trip, that means identifying different species and counting them. Some call this sort of project "citizen science." Blue and Warren, a Los Angeles couple on the trip, call it "fish-nerd camp." Blue sometimes pumps her fist in the air and shouts, "Yiii-ess!" when she has confirmed a new sighting.......

St. Vincent, fortunately, provides lots to absorb my attention. The swimming pool is a few paces from our room, and just beyond it is the sea. A scattering of masts bobs on the bay. Lillian gets up every morning at 6:30 for a swim in the sea, while I—not accustomed to two hour-long dives a day—sleep as late as I can. Breakfast is on the restaurant patio, then we walk five minutes along the waterfront to Bill's dock. This daily routine reminds me of paths considered but not chosen—perhaps unwisely, since they included more beaches and boats than my current city life.
Bill Tewes has cut an original path. If Lad is our general this week, making sure everyone is supplied with pencils and survey forms, Bill is our guru. He's unrivalled at finding and identifying some of the most unusual fish in the Caribbean. Diving these waters for more than two decades, he's helped put St. Vincent on the map for turning up marine life still undocumented by science. The tiny bluebar jawfish, for instance, was first spotted here.
A native Texan, Bill worked in the oil industry in the United States, then as a dive master on a cruise ship, and at some point in Australia. He ran a dive shop in Papua New Guinea for two and a half years, near the town of Madang, where the deep, clear water of the Bismarck Sea hosts copious marine life and scattered testaments to human folly. I dove there once (while considering one of those other paths) on the wreck of a B-25 bomber.* Corals and fish had made their home on the World War II airplane, and the roof of the cockpit had long ago disappeared. The seats inside, though, were so well-preserved that it was tempting to slip into one, look up at the dancing surface, and contemplate the life of a draftee.
Rising crime drove Bill away from New Guinea, and in 1984 he opened his dive shop on St. Vincent, where he gradually became an institution. He has appeared on a St. Vincent postage stamp. He also had the privilege of naming many of the local dive sites, one of which he called New Guinea Reef.
My first day on his boat, I've barely clambered aboard before he barks at me for not washing my feet. "Look at all this sand!" he says. Before I can protest, he commands, "Get it later!" to someone rummaging near her tank. Once his six divers are assembled, he announces strict rules: No going behind the imaginary line dividing fore from aft, unless you're putting on your tank. No more than two divers at the back of the boat at any given time, one to a side. If you ignore protocol on deck, he'll admonish you. If you misbehave underwater—for instance, by kicking up sand, which lowers visibility and distresses small critters—you're likely to feel his sudden sharp grip on your heel. God help you if you steal a shell with a living creature inside............

I've just surfaced from a dive at Orca Point, where two rock spires at the mouth of a bay frame the lush onshore greenery beyond. Just 10 yards from our boat are two more vessels, one a rowboat, the other slightly larger with an outboard motor. There are four men standing in the boats, three of them shirtless, all in shorts or rolled-up pants. A fifth man is in the water with a mask and snorkel. Together, the team is looping a long net into a cylinder. Red and orange floats bob on the surface as the men draw the net tighter.
After pulling their net onboard, they smile and wave at us. One holds up a long silver fish for our inspection—a ballahoo. "They gotta feed their families," says Captain Bill. "You should check out the fish market. You'll see turtles, pilot whales. They'll fish anything they can eat." Unemployment here, I later learn, is 22 percent; St. Vincent and the Grenadines is literally a banana republic, the fruit being its traditional top export, and the banana market is not what it used to be. The island of St. Vincent—including this very location, the mouth of Orca Bay, favored by shirtless subsistence fishermen—enjoyed a brief stint of Hollywood stardom in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, during the filming of which every hotel and spare bedroom on the island was occupied. These days, at the site of an elaborate set left behind on a pretty bay, a man sells bracelets made of shells and plastic beads for a few East Caribbean dollars. The government speaks of building a new airport, but Bill reckons it will never happen, and he thinks that's a good thing: At 133 square miles, St. Vincent is little more than the tip of a volcano; above or below water, it can handle only so much.......

Topside, I visit the Kingstown fish market one day with Lad and Mike, the mustachioed retired government worker whom we have put in charge of our species-count betting pool. To get into town from Villa, where the upscale hotels are ghettoized, it costs 30 cents for the 30-minute ride on a packed minibus. Since St. Vincent and the Grenadines is the poorest country in the Eastern Caribbean, I expect the fish market to be open-air and chaotic. Instead, it's housed in a pristinely sterile building on the waterfront, with glass front doors and white-tiled walls. A stainless-steel plaque dated 2005 is embedded in the outer wall, imprinted with a Japanese flag and an inscription: "The project of re-modeling the new Kingstown Fish Market … as a token of friendship and cooperation between Japan and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines."
Lad says he's seen similar gifts from Japan all over the Caribbean. They're Japan's way of thanking these small nations for supportive votes on the International Whaling Commission, the organization that attempts to regulate the rate at which humans may kill whales, and which has objected to catches taken by Japan since a 1985 ban.
Inside the market, splayed out on the ice, are some of the fish I've been seeing all week and a few I haven't spotted: The blackbar soldierfish, red with a black stripe, was one of the first species I learned to identify. I see the sherbet colors of several male parrotfish; a fishmonger proudly holds one up for my perusal. And I see red hinds, a speckled grouper that I've been looking for underwater. Two buyers haggle with a white-aproned seller, who picks up a coney and flops it into her scale.
After the market, we walk down the street to a restaurant called Vee Jay's, where we sit on a veranda overlooking the Bayview Parking Lot. I order my favorite local dish, a fish roti, which consists of a chickpea-flour tortilla stuffed with potatoes, spices, and a hodgepodge of the daily catch.......

The next evening, the last for most of us on St. Vincent, Bill takes us all out for drinks on Young Island, the luxury resort we've been gazing at all week, just across a shallow channel from our own hotel and Dive St. Vincent. After a two-minute ride by shuttle boat, we're all sitting on a new veranda, sipping sweet fruity cocktails and looking back at where we've been. And talking about slender filefish.
We finally say goodbye to Bill, the men with handshakes and the women with hugs, cheek pressed to scratchy cheek. As I turn to go, Bill reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small, hard, smooth-as-glass object, which he hands to me. It's the shell of a flamingo tongue, white on top and pale orange, as though stained, where its mantle used to sit. It may not be 1-in-10,000, but it's coming from him, so I slip it into my pocket like a piece of deep-sea treasure.