Oh yes, the sharks are circling. Can you say ‘Amen’? With an accent hinting of both Popeye the Sailorman and Quint from the movie Jaws, I call to alert my own mateys. It is my best and worst pirate imitation. But, it is appropriate. Aye, it is right as rain.
Piers Van Der Walt and his wife Annette, co-captains for this Turks & Caicos Aggressor II voyage, guaranteed something special would happen this day. They certainly delivered. Within minutes of mooring at the French Cay dive site Rock n’ Roll, dorsal fins began to break the water’s surface.
This mouth-opening, heart-pounding, ego-busting spectacle harkened back to the days of Errol Flynn and his 1935 performance in Captain Blood. If we could turn this modern liveaboard into a pirate ship, find someone to walk the plank (I have a few nominees) and slip into hip Pirates of the Caribbean costumes, the scene would be complete.
Regardless, the sharks were definitely playing ring-around-the-boat and the heroic, swashbuckling Flynn never had the chance to dive with them.
As the initial shock began to dissipate, curiosity conversely started to grow. What prompted these sharks to appear on cue?
Like marooned pirates who are rescued and returned to port, sharks are primarily driven by the need for food and sex. Since I doubt Rock n’ Roll is their sacred breeding ground, food must be the answer.
Perhaps divers were feeding these sharks on a regular basis. If so, this was a staged set, a routine animal act, which certainly tainted the magic of the moment. I wanted to know the facts.
While giving Piers the fifth degree and threatening a walk-the-plank revival, he begs for mercy in his intriguing South African accent and then spilled the beans. His imaginative tale sounded fishy, but not beyond the realm of possibility. The only way to verify or discard his story was to suit up, jump in the water and see for myself.
Standing on the edge of the dive platform, I waited for the next shark to swim clear. Otherwise, I risked the chance of creating a new, underwater, bronco-busting rodeo event that would likely leave yours truly branded. With ground zero vacated, I plunged into THEIR world.
Weilding a camera as a pirate might brandish a sword, I carefully located each of the patrolling residents and then descended 30 feet to begin the investigation. The first pieces of evidence that collaborated Pier’s confession were the relaxed postures of the five Caribbean Reef Sharks. These hearty, six-foot showstoppers were alert, but exhibited no signs of aggression.
The second and more decisive kernels of proof were the large, integrating schools of big-eye jacks, horse-eye jacks and yellow tail snapper congregating directly beneath the boat. Apparently, these fish received the same compelling invitation as their encircling entourage. As the progressive integration caused individual school boundaries to collapse, a dense, living cloud of eyes and fins was born.
During the interrogation, Piers whimpered something about how the continuous vibrations of the ship’s motors attracted schooling fish. It sounded like a scaly version of Woodstock. In addition, the sharks supposedly associated the boat, its rockin’ vibrations and the avid, swarming partygoers with a delectable smorgasbord of naturally served entries. After a preponderance of the evidence, I now concur with the Captain. Call me a believer. I must tell the crew to release Piers, then attempt to make amends. Of course, sincere apologies and groveling could wait until after the dive was over.
Feeling more comfortable in the sharks’ domain, I was hungry to photograph and observe these majestic inhabitants at point blank range. Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, the sharks decided to check out the newcomer. Obviously, neither my bubbles nor substantial Aquatica housing system intimidated these guys. No longer circling the boat and targeting the schooling fish, the sharks were now swimming figure eight’s in front of me. If they were Olympic skaters or synchronized swimmers, I would’ve scored their performance a 10.0. Watching this action through my viewfinder, I composed and shot. Flashing strobes did not phase the sharks, so my compact flash card filled quickly.
Before I had the opportunity to ascend to change housings, Wendy McSwain, founder of Outback Divers in Houston, Texas, USA, crashed the party. Either in reaction to Wendy’s neon, psychedelic suit or the splash of her entry, one of the sharks bolted up straight towards her. Clueless to the presence of her stealthy admirer, Wendy looked in every direction except to her rear. Laughing profusely while trying not to lose my mouthpiece, I gradually ascended, pulled one of her fins and pointed to the drooling homeboy. Her shocked expression brought new tears of laughter as I rose to the surface.
After freeing a justifiably angry Captain Piers and being flogged by Annette and the crew, I painfully slipped beneath the surface to Rock ‘n Roll one more time. Without totally ignoring the sharks, I decided to focus on other aspects of this dynamic site. Along with the mixed school of jacks and yellow tails, which alternately churned like a crowd of punk rockers, then stilled to utter tranquility, numerous stoic barracuda hovered as metallic mid-water sentinels. French, gray and queen angels rushed from one coral formation to another during energetic games of tag.
The surrounding seascape was decorated with delicate strands of Elkhorn coral, towering formations of pillar coral, robust barrel sponges, bright yellow and orange tube sponges, luminescent rope sponges, white anemones and a vast array of gorgonians, such as sea whips, sea rods, sea plumes, sea fans, sea sprays and sea fingers. In tune with the beauty of this glorious terrain, a hawksbill turtle gracefully glided to the surface for air. Many feet below her, a broad southern stingray stirred up sand while feeding. This incredible panoramic view, a result of the 150-foot visibility, was breathtaking.
Suddenly, one of the sharks slowly passed within inches of my facemask. Caught entirely off guard, I was unable to position the camera for a decent shot. Tracking his movements in hopes of another swim-by, my eyes were drawn to a real life Three Stooges—actually Two Stooges— comedy routine in progress.
A couple of overly eager divers, one a seasoned videographer and the other a new photographer, were swimming hell bent on a collision course as they zeroed in on the same shark. I could not help but hold my breath, wince, then enjoy another unquenchable belly laugh as the divers crashed head-on. I was sure I could hear the shark chuckling as it cruised past the stunned stooges.
While off-gassing during a much needed safety stop, I witnessed seven big eye jacks feverishly rubbing against the largest shark’s flanks. Whether utilizing its abrasive skin to remove parasites or relying on gang warfare tactics to drive it away from the school, the interesting behavior added to the dive site’s well-deserved reputation. Without a doubt, Rock ‘n Roll was aptly named... unless, of course, it could be changed to Pirates’ Rock n’ Roll Rendezvous.
Captain Piers and I, now on drinking and speaking terms again, share some after-dinner rum and discuss what areas to explore over the next couple of days. Since no true diving pirate would travel to the Turks & Caicos Islands without visiting West Caicos, we decided to take our diving plunder (wonderful memories and pictures) north. The short 19-mile cruise over calm seas passed quickly.
As I gazed over the limestone cliffs and sand that outline the west coast of West Caicos, I thought about the 17th century pirates that used to ambush and seize unwary vessels in these waters. One could certainly bury hordes of looted treasure on this small island. Sand, scrub brush and more than 100 species of birds dominate the landscape. However, the limited number of landmarks would make mapping and treasure recovery challenging. Perhaps there is still unclaimed booty to be found onshore.
The land may be somewhat nondescript, but the underwater world of West Caicos offers radiant colors, eye-catching formations and non-stop action. At Gulley, named for the deep cut that divides the reef, I am captivated by the plentiful, large barrel sponges that accentuate the area. Their exterior texture is so intricately patterned. If you watch patiently, you will find that these rotund sponges host a wide variety of small, entertaining creatures, such as blennies, gobies, shrimp and crabs.
The next dive is Whiteface, also known as The Anchor. The name Whiteface is derived from the shoreline’s white cliffs, while The Anchor recognizes a legacy from the past. During the time that pirates were setting new records in ship-jackings, a vessel managed to embed an anchor into the side of a crevice at 70-feet. The anchor is still there, though it is easy to overlook as centuries of growth cause it to blend into the surrounding reef.
Not to be outdone by an ancient piece of steel, a living master of disguise hops down from a coral head and lands in the sand before me. I am not used to seeing a scorpionfish advertise its presence, but this ten-inch specimen is not shy. I follow closely behind as it nonchalantly waddles across the sand. It eventually finds a new resting-place atop another outcropping and seemingly disappears.
Though this adventure is at its end, there are still many more tales to be told. In fact, the tantalizing essence of the Turks & Caicos Islands lies in the tales waiting to be born during each and every dive. Be it schooling eagle rays, breaching humpback whales, circling sharks or monolithic pillar corals, the waters surrounding these islands are brimming with imminent encounters. And, while you may not find jewel-encrusted chests overflowing with gold doubloons, the experiences you will share with your own mateys are the real treasures of Turks & Caicos. ■