We bribed the luggage handler and watched the last of our dive gear disappear into the hold. Surely an extra 500 pounds wouldn’t sink the ferry. On deck, I enjoyed the wind and sun as we steamed to the Bahamas from Miami. The pre-dawn butterflies and the little voice in the back of my head that whispers, “If you weren’t such an idiot, you would be asleep now,” gave way to, “This just might work out.”
Having cut my teeth diving in the dark, unfeatured caves of north Florida, I was hungry for new horizons. The Bahamas were the ticket – lots of new caves to explore, lots of beautiful decorations to see. The caves in Florida had always been submerged. The caves in the Bahamas had been dry during the lowered sea levels of the preceding ice ages, during which percolating water formed spectacular formations. During the voyage, my friend and dive partner Cliff waxed poetic about the beauty of the caves and about Ms. Tate’s conch salad, made fresh daily. Tall tales, indeed, I thought.
We disembarked in Freeport and loaded our gear, scuba tanks stacked like cordwood, into the small fishing boat of Clay’s friend. We motored south past several small islands known here as cays, after the Spanish cayo for shoal or reef. Drifting to a stop next to a mound of conch shells, we arrived on tiny Sweeting’s Cay. Ms. Tate, an enterprising fisherman’s wife, had built a few small cabins for the occasional visitors who found their way to this sleepy outpost. With sweat running down my face and back, I peeled off my shirt to let the air conditioned breeze waft over me like an angel’s kiss.
Once showered and refreshed, we organized gear, made plans for the morning, and gathered around the Tate’s table for our first meal of conch salad. The mound of shells dotting the shoreline bespoke the importance of conch harvesting for both food and profit. A telltale pile marked each fisherman’s home, as a mailbox would on the mainland. At day’s end, fisherman would tie up each at their own dock and cut the conchs from their shells, which they then tossed into the water, creating a mound over the years. I wasn’t a big fan of slimy seafood and had told Cliff as much. He assured me the texture was as dry as tuna and I stabbed eagerly at the mixture of conch and cole slaw after Mr. Tate blessed the food in an unrecognizable creole. While a rubber chicken would have been an improvement, I smiled and nodded my approval to surreptitiously expectant eyes. I managed to choke down the small portion without retching and chatted for a time over tea.
Breakfast in the early morning was a delight of scrambled eggs and pork after a deep night’s sleep in the delicious cool of the air conditioner, wrapped in the deep silence of a virtually deserted island. Revitalized, I was eager for our first dive.
We rode a golf cart from Ms. Tate’s to the local schoolhouse down the road. School was out for summer, so we pulled straight into the driveway and walked to the edge of a small lake behind the school. Fringed with reeds and full of black, tannic water, I smirked to myself. This was hardly an improvement over Florida. After gearing up, we followed a narrow trail to a ledge at water’s edge and stepped off, plunging into the warm water. Cliff secured his reel to a tooth of rock and we dropped into a dark crevasse below the ledge. In time the crevasse opened to a cavernous room with clear water and deep silt covering the floor. The fresh water flowing from the cave mixed with the tannic lake water in the crevasse, but further inside the cave was gin clear. He found the main line and tied off. The reel was our safety line in case we became confused, our lights failed, or something stirred up the silt blanketing the floor. With a final check, he led me into the rabbit hole.
Through a narrow restriction in the passage, I entered a different dimension. Stalactites hung from the ceiling like chandeliers, thousands of them, from needle-thin crystals to upside-down trees, some red, some orange, brown, yellow, clear. Stalagmites rose from the undulating floor like a scene from Oz, some wrinkled like knotted tree trunks, some as smooth as mirrors, some banded with different colors. In between floor and ceiling stretched columns, some thicker at the base, others uniform in thickness from top to bottom, some Doric, others only a few inches in diameter, yet ten feet from top to bottom. Patches of crystals grew at wild angles, flowstone emerged from the wall in sheets. I gazed dumbly as we slowly finned, our lights reflected by thousands of facets. Further in, we squeezed around a stout pillar with a surface gnarled like a wrench handle, then through what seemed like a set of teeth. Stalactites hung in a row from the ceiling while stalagmites grew from the floor beneath them. Beyond these we entered an English countryside of rolling hillocks, small trees, a stream, and some clouds, all made from stone and crystal in various forms. In this room Cliff reached his turnaround pressure. We gently turned in place and started finning back out, though I could have gone for days, never tiring of the panoply of odd angles and bizarre situations. This was just like cave diving in Florida – on LSD.
Floating contentedly on the surface after our safety stop, I smiled like a drunkard. I was ruined. In a single warmup dive I had seen more features than in all my previous dives combined. Granted it was only a warmup, we were here to explore, but already the bar had been raised. Not to mention sink-to-drink convenience, though rolling down the street in full cave gear on a golf cart brought some strange looks.
Claiming mild stomach mistreatment during the night, I managed a fish salad for dinner. Having refilled the tanks and lined up a boat for the morning (with the aid of a bottle of rum), we collapsed in sleep.
Riding high after the warmup dive, the first exploration attempt came as an utter failure, beginning with a drunk skipper (never give out the rum before the trip). His son Nelson stood in and took us to an area that Cliff had heard about from other fishermen. Finding nothing but mangrove and muck, we never even got into the water.
Nelson knew of another area, a deep fissure where his friends would go freediving for lobster. The next morning brought us to an inviting basin of clear water and clean sand with a fissure running down and away to one side. Sweat rolled off us in our black wetsuits until we dropped in under a roasting sun. Cliff tied off and we descended slowly, looking for any side passages. The fissure went deep, but then narrowed beyond what we could safely negotiate, so Cliff turned the dive. Our ascent was tranquil and we marveled at an enormous stingray sitting motionless in the sand as we completed our safety stop. He fluttered his wings and levitated into the blue after a few minutes.
“Did you see it?” asked Nelson, agitated as he quickly pulled us into the boat.
“Yes, it was beautiful,” I replied as I flopped in. “That stingray was about as big as me.”
“No,” he answered darkly as Cliff heaved over. “The shark.”
Cliff and I looked at each other, then at Nelson. “Tiger shark. As big as the boat. Circled me for 10 minutes. I kept this close in case he tried to tip the boat,” he said, touching the knife in his waistbelt. Our timing was good.
We searched the following day, our last, without success. They brought us to areas they thought would have springs, but after poling through mangroves and trudging through swamps, splashing water onto the tanks to keep them cool, we were empty handed. We had found a few holes, but they quickly pinched too narrow to keep going. My first taste of exploration diving was little better than the conch, but I knew disappointment came with the territory.
We returned to the main island the following day and refilled at UNEXO for some fun dives the following day, our last in the Bahamas. In the morning we went to Mermaid’s Lair, a tiny pool of black water surrounded by close bushes beside a small ledge invisible unless you were within five feet of it. A less probable location was hard to imagine. I followed Cliff into the puddle amidst the bushes and roots, prepared to dig my way under the ledge, holding the line carefully in the darkness. After a few feet the murk of the swamp gave way to clear fresh water in a massive domed chamber, an underwater Pantheon. Cliff went through the shadowy traces of the halocline, the water shimmering like oil. After he tied to the permanent line, we set off amidst stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone. We enjoyed pleasant passage through nicely decorated areas, a classic cave dive. We turned a little before thirds and casually returned to the cavern for our safety stop. While cruising lazily around the cavern circuit, Cliff went through the halocline again. A small boulder dislodged and clanged onto my tank as I followed, then slid off me to the floor, a cloud of silt billowing upwards. With tendrils of electric fear still shooting through me, I felt along until I emerged from the silty halocline, caught up to Cliff, and finished the dive without further landscaping. With another set of tanks and plenty of daylight, we went to Owl Hole for a second dive.
A steel ladder led 30 feet down to the top of the debris pile at the center of the basin. Steep rock walls fell down and away in a picturesque grotto of hanging ferns and tall trees. Cliff and I descended the ladder and scrubbed around looking for the main line. Eventually we found it and tied in, then set off for another cruise. The passage was less decorated, but had a clean, Zenlike feel to it. Sharp, angular fractures contrasted with the smooth rock, the shades muted and dark. Cliff soon turned, his thoughts more on his girlfriend than on diving, and we exited without event. Resting before the climb out, I considered going back in, but decided to call it a day since the sun was in the west and we had done two pleasant dives. Our ferry left the following afternoon, so this was our last dive. While waiting for sleep to come that night I was haunted by the beauty of Owl Hole and the beckoning passage. It seemed to beckon like a koan, and I wanted to do one more dive there in the morning.
“There should be enough time,” Cliff said as morning light streamed in the window. “Let’s finish breakfast and roll out. I don’t think I’ll dive today, but I’ll back you up.”
Waving to Cliff and Susan, I went straight to the permanent line and slowly finned into the darkness. A few fish and isopods lingered near the entrance, but soon the sparse beauty of the cave returned. A few side passages branched from the main, but I wanted to keep the dive simple so I stayed on the main line until it ended at a restriction. I looked for a jump around the restriction. None. The line simply ended. I surveyed the restriction carefully, finding the widest part. I would have to think skinny, but it looked like it would go. With my pulse pounding, I tied to the main line, checked my gases and gear, and gingerly approached the restriction as if it would sprout fangs. Eyeing the fractures in the ceiling, I slowly eased forward, my chest rubbing along the stone floor as my tanks scraped the ceiling. I stopped and backed out, nearly trembling with the thrill of exploration and the potential danger, memories of the falling boulder in Mermaid’s still circulating. Cliff wouldn’t look for me for at least another hour. I had plenty of gas to breathe, but it would do no good if I was crushed under a collapsed ceiling. But then, neither would having Cliff there. I weighed the factors and, knowing this was my last shot, moved in once again, a little to the left. I tested the ceiling rock, pulling to see if it would crumble. A chunk of rock broke loose in my hand, but the rest remained intact. Heart and mind raced each other. Heart won. With chest and belly sliding along the floor, my tanks slid along the ceiling. Only a few feet from beautiful, expansive, virgin passage, my tanks caught on something. I inched back a little, but was caught on something else. Heart pounding at the thought of being trapped, I fought for control. “You wiggled in. You can wiggle out.” Breathing and focusing, I angled to the right and went forward, reborn into clear, open passage. I tied off to a nubbin and cruised forward into electric blue water along the crest of a small ridge, the cave arcing overhead like the nave of a cathedral. Crystals glittered as I swept the light slowly from side to side, adrenalin and endorphins surging through me. Soon the passage ended in a small chamber of flowstone and stalactites. With the line tied off to a stalagmite, I followed it back out to the restriction, heart pounding with fear and excitement. Slithering in as carefully as I could, the tank once again caught on the ceiling and my heart went into my throat. There was no other way out, and I had a little over an hour to figure it out. I backed up and tried again, twisting and rotating to get the tanks to fit. I pushed and pulled and shimmied to get them through, but it didn’t work. I backed up but felt the tank catch again. Fighting for control, I concentrated on breathing, which was now little better than a pant in the jaw of the restriction, my chest and abdomen pressed into the floor. Fighting the lightning flashes of panic, I squirmed to the left, twisting to the side to make way. Exhaling completely, I stretched forward and curled my fingers into a crack in the floor. Muscle memory from years of rock climbing awoke and I pulled/finned/scratched through, tanks grinding on something as I erupted into the main passage, a cloud of silt billowing around me. Grasping the main line like a grail as I calmed down, I noticed an edge of rock that had shifted in the ceiling and hooking my tanks like a fang. By pulling hard I broke off enough of it to get through. With needles of adrenalin still shooting into my fingers and fireworks through my mind, I slowly finned out. Resting at the safety stop, I realized that in my excitement I had forgotten the reel, leaving it dangling from a stalagmite where I had tied off the line. I spent the rest of the safety stop planning a return trip and giving thanks.
We loaded our gear onto the ferry without need for a bribe and enjoyed a magnificent sunset cruise back to Miami. To step into the unknown, to see something no human had ever seen, was strong drink. Though we didn’t find as much as we’d hoped, I was addicted. My skills and judgement continue to improve, and I am careful to avoid damaging caves, but the unknown still pulls me like a tide.