The sun was warm as I finished suiting up, and even though the Caribbean water would be considered warm by nearly any standard, it was refreshingly cool as I stepped over the stern of the boat and splashed into the gentle surface swells. Turning my face downward into the clear water I could easily see the features of the bottom nearly sixty feet below, and for a few moments I had the sensation of hovering over the coral reef like a bird soaring above the earth.
The splash of my dive buddy close by interrupted my reverie, and I saw her flash an okay sign to the boat before she gave the descent signal to me. I tugged on the deflation hose of the buoyancy compensator, and felt the air rushing past my cheek as I began to sink. I cleared my ears, and with a flick of my fins became horizontal in the water, slowly falling toward the coral below.
I glanced back toward my dive buddy, offering the okay signal and was rewarded with a signal in return. I looked up toward the bottom of the boat to orient myself, and at a depth of twenty feet began kicking toward the bow to where the anchor line angled into the depths below. We continued to gently descend as we moved forward, and in only a minute or two we arrived at the anchor pin.
I checked my compass to assure myself of the direction I wanted, and we began moving out toward the wall. The bottom sloped gently downward as we swam, and I lined up on a sand chute running the same direction we were heading. Colorful fish swam among even more vividly colored corals, and I found myself slowing my breathing and my kicking, trying to blend into the gentle environment I was now a part of.
Soft exhalation bubbles whooshed past my cheek as they rose to the surface, every breath relaxed, long and deep. The colors began to fade into the familiar blues and greens of deeper water, the vibrant colors losing their intensity as light failed to penetrate into the depths. A few yards forward of the anchor pin the sand chute narrowed, becoming an impossible swim through, and then opening once more at a much wider and deeper hole in the coral.
I arched my back, gave a gentle kick, and with a deep exhalation slid downward. I glanced back to see my buddy following only a few feet away, then concentrated on easing into the crevice without brushing the tender coral on either side. The sandy bottom brought me to a halt at a depth of eighty feet, and I began to swim forward into a wide corridor of coral.
The swim through was lined on both sides by huge orange elephant ear sponges, wire corals, hard corals and life forms I only knew by sight, not by name. I altered my kick to avoid stirring up the sandy bottom and erasing the visibility of the divers behind me, and swam forward. I noticed a large crab tucked up under a ledge, watching me cautiously as I swam past. I pulled my pocket light from my buoyancy compensator, and used the narrow but bright beam to point it out to my buddy. In the light of the flashlight the vibrant colors returned, and I was amazed by the incredible details of the coral.
My buddy paused to raise her camera, and with an explosive flash captured the crab’s image. I waited a moment to assure that she had the picture she wanted, and on her signal moved forward once more. The sand chute had narrowed from the top, and I found myself carefully brushing the sand along the bottom with my fingers as I inched into the tunnel. In just a moment the coral opened once again, arching upward nearly twenty feet above me.
The silver-side fish schooled in the cathedral like tunnel, and the beams of sunlight that penetrated in among the corals easily showed why the site had been given the name of “The Church.” My exhaust bubbles rushed upward, and the small schools of fish parted around them momentarily, then reformed into a solid group as the air passed. The Church extended several yards before reaching an end, at which a hard turn led out to a small opening. A delicate black coral sat at the edge of the turn, and I was very cautious about not bumping and damaging the fragile piece as I went around.
A couple of kicks and suddenly the tunnel ended, and I found myself shooting out from the coral straight into the indigo blue of the deep abyss. The Church emptied along the side of a sheer wall, the bottom now hundreds or possibly even thousands of feet below. Amazingly, even at the depth of a hundred feet, I could look upward to clearly see the surface and down a hundred feet or more to a ledge on the wall below me. I swam straight out from the coral encrusted wall, clearing the way for the divers following me, and had a momentary feeling again of flying.
I rolled onto my back and kicked hard further out into the abyss, watching the expressions of the divers as they exited one by one from the small opening in the massive wall. By the time the last diver cleared I was easily over a hundred feet away, awed by the sheer grandeur of such an enormous wall and the insignificance of the divers framed by it. My dive buddy had turned to swim along the wall, and her tiny form appeared to be very far away. I became aware that she was motioning for me to return, and I grudgingly swam back.
The wall was covered with red, orange, and yellow sponges, black coral, purple sea fans, and corals of all shapes and sizes. Fish swam among it all, and as I rejoined the group of divers I found myself enthralled by what I was seeing. My buddy signaled to ascend, and I noticed that our maximum agreed-upon depth had been reached. I okayed, then began swimming up along the wall, pointing out fish and coral to others as I passed, rewarded by the flash of their camera strobes as they found things they deemed worthy of being photographed.
A large green moray stuck its head out as we passed, curious as to the noisy bubbling divers that swam past his den. I paused to allow my buddy to get her picture, and out of habit glanced out toward the blue. Amazingly, I caught sight of motion, and quickly identified three spotted eagle rays flapping their massive wings through the water column. I waved furiously to attract my buddy’s attention, and as soon as she looked pointed out to where the rays were swimming close by.
I could hear her “ooohhh” as she immediately attempted to intercept the rays, and I fought the urge to go out with her myself. Too many divers rushing toward the rays would spook them, and I watched with satisfaction as she got close enough to take several pictures. Her excited eyes and smile told me she had some amazing images, and I nodded back to her. We continued our swim back, turning at the top of the wall to make our way back to the boat.
I found my “marker”, a unique piece of coral that told me when to make my turn back toward the shallows, and again checked my air supply. Happily, I had plenty of air left, and knowing my buddy’s ability to conserve air to be even better than my own, I slowed our return to explore the coral fingers that reached out toward the wall. I spotted a southern stingray buried in the sand, and carefully moved down toward it. My buddy shook her head, knowing my plan to pet the gentle creature as I had so many others, and merely swam along the coral to find more interesting picture opportunities.
The gray skinned ray watched me descend to the sand, allowing me to inch close, and even fluttered her mantel as I petted the soft skin of her side. A moment, no more, and then she flapped free of the sand and off into the distance. I found my buddy a little further ahead, and we finished our dive under the shadow of the boat sixty feet above. Forty five minutes after we began the dive it was time to end it, and with a smile and nod, we began our ascent. Smiles and hand signals allowed us to pass our time at the safety stop, and at last we broke the surface behind the boat.
“How was your dive?” asked the divemaster, as we stepped up the ladder.
“It was good,” we both answered. “You just had to be there…”