Diving for Goats

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St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
By Bill Toth

“That goat is getting strung up,” she said.

We were driving on a winding road on the side of a mountain on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. We had come from the cruise ship docks through the town of Charlotte Amalie. Because this is part of the United States Virgin Islands, there was, of course, a McDonald’s in town. But because this is still the Caribbean, there was also a Rastafarian with braided hair in the parking lot of the McDonald’s, waving to us.

At the Cruise Docks
At the Cruise Docks
The view back towards the harbor, on the other hand, had been spectacular and a post card reality: beautiful flowers, gorgeous blue-green water, green mountains and huge, classy, colorful cruise ships docked in the harbor. From the sea, St. Thomas is one of the most beautiful islands in the eastern Caribbean. It looks like the mental vision one has of the volcanic islands of the South Pacific: very green, jagged teeth-like mountaintops. Exotic, romantic.

It was when we topped the mountain and started our descent towards Coki Beach that we saw the goats. They were in a fenced in area near a tree. Out of the corner of my eye, it just looked like a goat with its front paws up on top of the fence. But my wife insisted that the goat was strung up by a rope, ready for slaughter. But we had no time to be sure about it; the bus sped forward around a curve towards our own uneasiness: our first time scuba diving.

We had no certificate and had never even been close to an air tank. It had seemed a great idea, a new adventure. And for me, it was the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy. But one stupid mistake, and you could be seriously injured or even killed.

“There you are, enjoying your life and the next thing you know, it’s over,” she said, shaking her head. Was she talking about us, I wondered, or the goat?

The view around us now turned into what might be called “local”, the behind the scenes reality. We were out of the United States so we didn’t expect to see an American standard of living (and certainly the United States has its slums). But the amount of loose garbage in people’s yards was appalling, to say nothing of the derelict cars. And we had the island of St. Maartens (both the French side and the Dutch side) to compare it to. This was bad. The good news, on reading some recent articles in the St. Thomas newspaper, is that the local government has voted money for increased sanitation and has begun a campaign against abandoned cars. A favorite sport in St. Thomas is to drive (or push, pull) an unwanted car into town, park it, lock it, and leave it.

Then we gradually came down again to where the sea meets the land. To the right of the road was a misty bay with a finger of mountains jutting out and a series of small islands with miniature volcanic mountains. As we came to sea level itself, Coki Beach was to the left. And there, with a white sign printed in red and blue, was the Coki Beach Dive Club. Part of the sign was missing, but in red and white it announced, “No experience needed.”

The romance of scuba diving, for some, has its source in the old Lloyd Bridge’s TV program Sea Hunt. But for me, the draw is not from that black and white world of tossed weapons and submerged cars, but from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea, the world of Disney cinematic color, the world of Ned and his harpoon and the mysterious island home of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. Throw in the documentaries of scuba innovator Jacques Costeau and childhood days in my small, local library paging through the magazine Skin Diver, and you can understand my attraction.

We were met by the staff of the dive club. They quickly gathered us on a small, concrete patio lined with metal folding chairs and began to educate us using flip charts on an easel. All of the instructors had that slightly wild look to them, the look of people who dance to their own, eccentric beat. And it was obvious that they all loved what they were doing? They were pretending that they were fish. The lessons themselves had several messages: this is fun; this is dangerous; some of you will make it; some of you will not.

Our final instructor – unbeknownst to us at the time – would also be our guide in the water. He was young, with long blond hair. He might have been a good-looking California surfer, but he had a slightly seedy look. Surprisingly, he was effective as a teacher. He was charming and witty.

How, I wondered, did all of these Americans and Europeans end up living and working on this island in the Caribbean? Some people run away from home to join the circus. Others, no doubt, prefer the sun, the sea and the good rum. Still, most of us lead a very patterned, very social life. And thank heaven. The world needs its patterns, its ways of assuring existence, sustenance and growth. But God bless the free spirits, as well.

Even though we were only diving to forty feet (the maximum without your certificate), the effects of pressure were still the most critical problems. Our blond haired instructor emphasized this: “If you have bad sinuses, you should not be doing this. You will be in excruciating pain and will likely rupture your eardrums.” I have bad sinuses. I have the worst sinuses in the world. I have the worst sinuses in the universe.

My wife looked at me with one with one eyebrow arched and sighed. She knew that even if my eyeballs dropped out like gumballs from a machine, I was still going to do this.

They split us into small groups; not everyone could safely dive at the same time. Those not in the initial dive – including us – were given free use of snorkel equipment and dog biscuits.

The fish off Coki Beach have to be the fattest fish in the world. We put on our snorkel equipment and leisurely floated out, carrying our dog biscuits. “They’ll flock to you when they notice the dog biscuits,” they told us. And I’m sure they explained how to properly hold the biscuits – but I seem to have missed that point.

Author and Wife with the Fish at Forty Feet
Author and Wife with the Fish at Forty Feet
Beautiful fish – it seemed like hundreds of them, like a big flock of underwater seagulls – blue stripes on yellow. I held a biscuit out like you would for a dog and within a split second, it was all gone, including all of the skin from the end of my finger. They sucked it right off. Biscuit, finger – it was all the same to them.

It was time, I decided, to float back to the beach. We sat down next to a lawyer from Orlando who had been in the first group. She hadn’t made it; too much pain in her ears. She told us about the land speculation going on in the Orlando area and how property prices were becoming impossible. Then, like a Marine shot at water’s edge during an amphibious assault, a slightly overweight gentleman stumbled out of the sea and dropped to his knees, gasping and holding his chest. His air tanks nearly pulled him backwards. We went over to help.

“I’m ok, I’m ok,” he said. “I just panicked.”

Now we had a foursome. “It was while we were practicing emergency procedures in the shallow water,” he said. But we never got to hear all of the details. Our group was up next.

Here was a scene with faint echoes of Jules Verne. Like the diving suits hanging from the walls of the Nautilus, our equipment was lined up on a rectangular wall. We backed into our equipment; it was placed on us by the employees and adjusted. The walk across the beach and into the water was awkward, to say the least. Movement, of course, is easier underwater, but it can be strenuous even there. Experts say that scuba diving burns 574 calories per hour – more than whitewater kayaking, more than surfing and only slightly less than mountain biking.

We walked into the sea until the water was up to our chest. Now it began. We submerged.

It seemed such a simple thing beforehand – how could breathing through a mouthpiece be difficult? But we had been warned that most people would suck air like it was the last breath of life. It is – to put it mildly – unnatural to take a breath underwater. Logic is overtaken by instinct, which screams loudly: “This is a shortcut to the worm farm.”

We stayed in the shallows, practicing various skills: recognizing hand signals, recovering a lost air hose, clearing our masks of water. Then our guide signaled to follow and we began the swim into deeper water.

We were told to relieve the pressure in our ears every 10 or so feet of descent (I don’t remember the exact distance) by pinching our nose and blowing through it – just as you do in an airplane. I was religious about it, and everything seemed to be going well. My wife, as I would find out later, was having more trouble than I was and nearly quit, but at the last moment, equalized the pressure and reduced the pain.

At first, the bottom was just sand, nothing spectacular except for the dappled lights shining on the sandy bottom. I focused on our guide, who had a line running out from a yellow spool on his hip. The line went to the surface, no doubt to a buoy or marker keeping track of our position. We would find out later that they also had a diver floating on the surface watching over us. Safety was a prime concern.

There was that sound – familiar from the movies – of underwater breathing and bubbles rising to the surface. But otherwise, silence. This was truly a “blue world”, a whole new dimension. But I can’t say that everything was comfortable at first. I’m not sure that the weights given me were correct; it was often hard work just keeping at a level depth and it took some effort to descend. My wife had an exceptionally hard time; she kept bobbing toward the surface, but our guide was able to adjust her weights.

We made our way to a small reef that had a pole going to the surface – likely a navigational beacon warning boats where the reef was.

Coki Beach Dive Club
Coki Beach Dive Club
The reef itself, though not huge, was more like my Jules Verne expectations. There were plenty of fish and some unusual (for us) sea life. Our guide pointed them out, handing some to us to hold, including one that seemed to me to be a dinosaur-sized daddy long legs. We saw no sharks, nor even barracudas (as we once had while snorkeling in Key West). By now, my breathing was normal and I was very comfortable except for a very dry mouth – no doubt from sucking huge quantities of oxygen early on.

We probably spent about 45 minutes diving. The swim back to the shore was uneventful, but getting out was just as awkward as walking in.

We hung around the beach and soaked up the sun sitting on the warm sand while the other groups finished. Coki Beach, though small, is beautiful. This day it was packed with noisy families having a great time. Back on the bus, our friend who had panicked was all smiles: he had gone again with another group and this time he made it.

Our dining theme for lunch back on the ship was “island foods”. We sat in the buffet area, next to a window that showed us the beautiful bay and mountains surrounding Charlotte Amalie and talked about what we had accomplished. All the while, we made runs up to the serving area, sampling the local fare.

Just before it was time for our next excursion, my wife came back to the table carrying a bowl of steaming food. She was absolutely expressionless as her fork dove into the food. “It’s goat stew,” she said, looking not at me but at the pieces of meat floating in the gravy. “Excellent,” she said.

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