We are not snorkelers or divers, but spent at least two hours underwater examining ghostly reef habitats and their choppy marine life in the waters off Barbados and St. Maarten.
Delicate adventurers that we are, my wife, Dorothy, and I did it with ease. We booked two excursions on an eight day southern Caribbean cruise.
The Explorer, a 70-foot semi-submersible boat, was our means of transportation in Saint-Martin. We joined a few dozen other passengers sitting back to back, screaming and screaming, as a diver swam around the ship, seemingly enveloped in an assortment of quivering fish.
The diver, one of three crew members, used fish and dog food to lure the creatures into an incredible embrace. Another crew member steered the ship and a third, using a microphone, served as a guest speaker, describing what was in sight.
This was part of a 3.5 hour ($ 49 per person) tour of Saint-Martin, the Dutch side of the island, and Saint-Martin, on the French side. “We may have different languages and governments,” the tour bus driver explained, “but we are the same people.”
As it rolled about 10 feet below the surface, a black streak slowly approached the Explorer. “Not very mature,” said the speaker. It looked like a harmless flying kite with a tail. Used as a weapon, however, its bony tail can inflict serious injury.
After dimensioning our vessel, the stingray retreated into deeper water.
“To your left, ten o’clock, see?” A sea turtle, ”enthuses the speaker. “Here it is. “
We barely saw the creature, the size of a beach ball, as it flew away.
“Almost everything you see at the bottom is alive, these floating plants, the orange coral, everything,” she continued. “It’s a protected area. Small fish settle down and hide from predators among the corals. If you are diving, never touch the yellow spot you see on these rocks. It’s acidic and it can be very painful.
The last time we saw colorful Angelfish and Sergeant Majors, they were in an aquarium. Now in their tropical natural habitat, we watched the yellow-tailed angels and whitish-bellied majors with their impressive vertical black stripes feeding for their next meal.
Female angelfish, we have learned, can become males as they grow. After laying their eggs, females usually move away, leaving their stronger male counterparts to fertilize and protect them. It is one of Mother Nature’s few self-preservation methods.
Still curious and perhaps emboldened by the semi-submersible submarine experience, we opted for a 2.5 hour ($ 95 each) tour on a real submarine the day after we arrived in Barbados. It promised sea views up to 150 feet below the surface.
The captain of the tour boat offered this assurance as we approached the submarine a few miles offshore: “I’ve been doing this for 16 years, and we’ve never lost a tourist yet. “
In single file, 48 of us carefully got off the boat onto the Atlantis submarine. Facing aft, we then descended a ladder into its air-conditioned and pressurized interior. As in the semi-submersible submarine, we ended up in back-to-back seats in front of portholes with adjacent swatches of fish species.
This time, however, we were in the hands of a two-man crew – the pilot who faced a large bubble-shaped window in the front and a lecturer in the rear whose accent and microphone at the back. his jerks were of little help. We missed a lot of what was said.
Thousands of bubbles flowed from the submarine as we descended into the depths. Within minutes, we passed a sunken barnacle encrusted ship much larger than our 65-foot submarine.
The year of the ship’s disappearance and the fate of its crew remain a mystery.
At 140 feet, the ocean floor looked like a barren desert. A school of yellowtail snappers passed by at one point, along with a swarm of six-inch blue-tinged fish and other types that we had also seen off St. Martin. Here and there, we spotted a brain coral the size of a basketball, and a two-foot barracuda made a cameo appearance.
Sharks, groupers and other large inhabitants were nowhere to be found, but flora and fauna graced the ocean floor.
The submarine and semi-submersible are owned by the same private Canadian company, Atlantis Submarines International Inc. Founded by a former designer of submarines for North Sea oil rigs, the company builds and operates submarines. -marines. Its fleet of 12 recreational submarines caters to tourists to Hawaii, Grand Cayman, Aruba, Guam, St. Thomas and Cozumel, Mexico.
Upon disembarking in Bridgetown, Barbados, passengers were given diving certificates, designating each of us an “Atlantis Submariner”.
Like those sergeant majors, we felt that we had earned our stripes.
Si Liberman, retired editor of the Asbury Park Sunday Press, lives in Palm Beach.