By Ernie Alderete
The U.S. Virgin Islands: St. John. St. Thomas, St. Croix, and new member of the family, Water Island, offer an amazingly wide range of soft adventure water sports, including one of only two commercial submarines in the world.
There is also, of course, the typical glass bottom boat treading along at a snail’s pace. The kind of barnacle encrusted vessel I had innocently enjoyed as a child off the Catalina Island shore. But you really can’t see much out of ancient, scratched and fogged up windows. Even less than at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California.
And I was through playing it safe and dry. I wanted to get more than my feet wet. Roll the dice, feel the adrenaline surging through my veins.
Although I can’t swim, nor even float if my life depended on it, I became determined to claim my place in the sun. Although in this case, it was more like my place in the moonlight.
An unlikely gentleman by the name of Homer Calloway, who looks more like a middle-aged banker, offers the only nighttime snorkeling expeditions in the Virgin Islands, perhaps the entire Caribbean.
Homer explained that just as terrestrial animals live on a diurnal/nocturnal “clock”, so creatures beneath the waves lead complimentary lifecycles. Most divers confine themselves to daylight, completely missing half of the sea’s inhabitants.
I warned Homer right off that I was a confirmed landlubber, but highly motivated to succeed in the sea. Before we reached the beach, I meekly but bluntly confessed my utter un-seaworthiness. “You can’t swim at ALL?” He asked, incredulously. “Not a stroke.” He seemed completely shocked, yet at the same time unflustered. He must have thought it was a lame attempt at humor, but I was as serious as sin.
I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. So concerned was I that he would reject my bid for aquatic immortality. I felt like an immigrant on Ellis Island, eager for my go ahead from the authority at hand. But Homer’s peaceful demeanor soon set me at ease.
He seemed to scope me out from head to foot, then picked out fins and wet suit to fit me, as well as for the four other members of our expedition. My pals were all experienced divers, and of course, strong swimmers. I don’t think a single one of them could hear my virgin heart pounding like a jackhammer as we swam out into the pitch-black Atlantic Ocean off the north coast of St. Thomas. Hurricane Claudette was hurling toward the Gulf Coast mainland, the local waters in her wake were extremely choppy. A hundred miles away, the British Island of Montserrate had just blown its stack once again, leaving cars and homes in the Virgins coated in soot and fine ash.
Homer brought out an inner tube with a rubber bottom in it to hold our submersible flashlights and other gear. He pulled one handle on the tube, while I hung on for dear life on the opposite side, as he dragged me out behind him. We were, perhaps two hundred feet, from shore.
One of the first marine creatures we encountered was a green sea turtle huddled under an ocean shelf. Also, an apparently emotional octopus on the sea floor that changed color three times, from blue to pink to orange, as we watched enthralled. A timid squid seemed to shoot its load prematurely. Almost as soon as my friend Linda Baker aimed her camera at it, the shy creature disappeared within a cloud of black ink.
Homer dove to the bottom, surfacing with a huge sea cucumber that we each handled gently, then posed for pictures taken by Homer and his digital camera. Next, he brought up a spiny purple urchin for delicate inspection. A brilliantly colored Parrot Fish was fast asleep on the ocean floor. The spectacular fish encases itself with a coating of mucus before it calls it a night to mask its scent from predators.
When we were once again ashore, Homer told me that in 22 years of teaching marine activities he had NEVER before taken anyone out who couldn’t swim!
After the dive several young men approached me to say he and his buddies had been watching from their home up the hill. Another young man, perhaps 18, or 19 years-old, his blue eyes beaming with admiration, chimed in that they had been watching me and my mates from a distance, our beacon lights shining brightly.
They had hiked down from their home, and keg party, to see what we were doing. They imagined we were spear fishing shark, moray eel, or some other dangerous denizen of the deep. I no longer felt like a wimp who couldn’t even swim, these boys had spiked my self-esteem. I was a hero to them!
A sparkling memory I will always cherish.
But our evening together wasn’t over. Before we packed into his SUV, Homer showered each of us with a 20-gallon jug of water. To my surprise and delight, he must have heated the water hours before our dive, because it was still deliciously warm.
Free of sand, we headed up to his cliff-side home where his girlfriend had prepared a wonderful three-course dinner. Her unique banana and chicken curry soup hit the spot just right. It was followed by a Caesar salad and our choice of freshly barbequed Mahi-Mahi or beef shish-kebabs.
It was a superb dinner, and a perfect conclusion to an eventful evening.