Diving with Pirates

Portsmouth Travel Blog

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Dominica…not the Dominican Republic.

It was one of those incredibly elusive moments of perfect clarity that come to one so infrequently. One week on and it’s still an ultra vivid scene. I’m floating in the middle of Toucari Bay, it’s about ten-thirty in the evening and the warm sea is lapping round me like silk in a warm wind. All above me, the sky is positively bursting with stars. There are thousands and thousands more than I could ever see on the clearest night back home
in Gloucestershire. My god, Gloucestershire, it feels so very, very long ago.
Over to the northern end of the small bay is a church. It’s packed to the rafters with the women of the village and the lights from the windows dance on the water. A hymn drifts over the waves: it’s “Onward Christian Soldiers. “ The words blend with the sound of the gentle swell lapping on the broken stone wall that keeps the sea off the road. From the southern end of the bay comes a deeper, brassy sound. A bare-chested villager is standing in the back of a battered white pick-up truck both hands cupped round the thin end of a conch shell. As he blows men wander down from the rum shacks and surround the truck. The conch is a signal that the villager has landed a big fish and wants to cash in. His sinewy left arm hacks the large marlin into hunks that he exchanges for Eastern Caribbean dollars.
And then we dive. Holding the release valve to my BCD high in the air, I press the blue button and take a spontaneous gulp of air from my regulator as I sink silently into the dark womb of the bay.
For a fleeting moment I feel uncomfortable as I’m swallowed whole by the paralysing blackness of the water. I fumble for the catch of my torch and flip it on. I relax. I’m flying. I’m an aquanaut in liquid space, soaring over an alien world. The colours are almost unreal. I’m wearing a red filter over my mask that replaces the colours that are lost in normal underwater vision. I’m descending past pinks and reds, deep, deep reds, yellows, purples it’s like swimming in a kaleidoscope. As I reach the base of the patchwork coral wall I spot a six-foot wide area of virgin white sand. I plonk my natty pink fins down and take stock of where I am. The only sound is the yogic breathing of my regulator. I become transfixed by my own rhythms: in…out…in….out….slowly…long breath, I feel like meditating, maybe this is meditation? Oh no, am I becoming a hippy? My friend Kaj lands next to me and gives me the quizzical everything OK sign with his thumb and index finger curled into a ball. I indicate that everything is very much fucking OK. In fact I don’t think that I’ve ever felt more alive. He points to my torch and makes a throat cutting sign. He wants me to turn it off. I’m completely going with the flow by now and I flick the switch. We’re both plunged into darkness and I can feel Kaj’s hand grab mine as he tries to steady us in our current position. As my eyes adjust to the nothingness I’m suddenly aware of being surrounded by thousands and thousands of tiny little points of light. The bioluminescence in the water mirrors the star-packed sky above and I feel like I’m at the very centre of the universe. What the hell am I doing? Sitting on the Caribbean Sea floor, sixty feet down, holding a man’s hand watching a light show put on by a troupe of amateur algae? Let’s rewind.
I’d known Kaj since we were teenagers. We went to pubs together, hung out in the same crowd and became really close friends. Most of us went to university and then did the world travelling thing before starting to settle down and trying to work out just what the hell we were going to do with our lives? Kaj did it all backwards. He didn’t ‘do’ university. He was a computer whiz and went and got a proper, well paid, grown-up job in the city. Then, just as everyone started to settle down and couple up, Kaj left his job and went off round the world. That was about eight years ago. He still hasn’t come back. About a year ago, through the magic of Skype, we got back in regular contact. He was now a scuba diving instructor in the north-west of Dominica. All I knew about the Dominican Republic was that it was a tourist infested…’no, no.’ said Kaj, this was the Commonwealth of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles. Known throughout the Caribbean as “The Nature Isle” it is that very rare thing, an unspoilt Caribbean island: vast swathes of it are covered in ancient rainforest that have changed very little since Columbus first saw and named the island in 1493. Kaj assured me that it was one of the diving world’s best-kept secrets and, as a little bonus, they were currently filming Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3 there so there was more action than usual on his sleepy little island.
I have to admit that I loathe the Caribbean. Posters showing blue skies and azure sea never tell you the truth: that it normally rains for three hours a day, the sea is as warm as a bath and you have to share it with glass bottomed boats full of fat bottomed vomiting tourists. All this to the hideous backbeat of some two-bit steel drum calypso beat. Oh and Michael Winner goes there.
So, a couple of weeks later, after catching a connecting twin-prop from Antigua in which I sat next to John lennon’s son, Sean (as you do) a nervous me found myself in a rented open-top jeep negotiating the precarious road that lead from the airfield to the isolated north of the island. I needn’t have worried. By the time I’d arrived at our destination, Portsmouth, the old capital of the island, I’d seen two European faces and the most staggering scenery I’ve ever seen in the Caribbean. A beautifully rugged coastline and the lack of pristine white sandy beaches have managed to keep the mega-resort hordes away. Not that they haven’t had a go at attracting visitors. There’s a great book called “100 plus things to do in Dominica”. Unfortunately, tip no.88 suggest you “go off island”. This comes straight after no.87 that proposes you ”do nothing.” Maybe they should have stuck to “50 things to do” but it’s that sort of island. One of the reasons for the suggested exile might have been the headline in “the Sun,” the local paper, the day I arrived. It read simply “More gays coming!!!” There was great concern that gay cruise ships were going to dock in Roseau, the island’s capital, offloading their techno-hungry, moustachioed, cargo on a nervous population. I tried to look as hetero as possible in my tight Speedos.
Portsmouth itself is a sweet little ramshackle town with three or four good restaurants and a couple of good seafront bars. Not that you need to eat out. Dominica is a veritable horn of plenty. Everywhere you look trees groan under their loads of Guava, Passion fruit and mangoes. Just negotiating the two hundred metres from bed to beach involved walking on a solid carpet of fallen mangoes worth at least three hundred pounds in Portobello market. No one goes hungry in Dominica.
My first night in town coincided with the wrap party for the current section of filming of the Pirates of the Caribbean. This was definitely a special evening and “le tout” Portsmouth turned out dressed up to the nines. I was possibly still a little jet-lagged and suffering from the effects of a couple of large rum punches. I challenged Johnny Depp to an arm wrestle, bored Orlando Bloom to death about how great it was to get away from Blighty before pitching my new movie idea to uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. It was actually going quite well until I had to go and throw up in a bush. He wasn’t there when I came back. I’ll call him, we’ll do lunch.
I pretty much spent the next five days underwater. I swam with stingrays, frolicked with turtles, followed shoals of multi-coloured fish through magical tunnels and pristine coral arches. It felt like I was living in some perfect aquarium. The moment your body hits the water, topside worries just disappear: bills to pay, lives to lead, things to do. You just want to stay underwater forever, maybe evolve and grow gills.
We all have a friend who opts out of the rat race and does his own thing and everyone kind of tut tuts and mutters about irresponsibility and uncertain futures. I hate to say it, but I think that we just might have it all wrong. Go dive, change your life.
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photo by: hoofinnit