Sunday, October 22, 2017

Age of Aquarius

"When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will seer the stars
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius"
- "Aquarius" from the musical Hair

"I don't think this is going to happen," my boyfriend judged disappointedly as he pulled off the road. We had just reached our planned dive site, Red Slave, at the very southern tip of Bonaire. Parked on the gravel, we could see over a pile of coral rubble to the sea. The wind was whipping past our truck windows, and there were white caps on the waves. Three surfers paddled toward the oncoming swells, and we watched them ride the cresting waves back to shore.

Rule of thumb: never attempt to go diving where there are people surfing.

There was no way we could make it through the surf safely, so we turned and headed back north. Just north of the Salt Pier, we chose another site called Aquarius. The entry looked easy, and the waves were much smaller. This unplanned detour actually ended up being our best dive yet.

After making our way down the beach, we swam along the reef to the north. It was incredible. For some reason, the Aquarius site had very high coral cover and very high diversity. Maybe my eyes are getting more attuned to noticing corals now, but there were several species at Aquarius I had not seen before. Lettuce coral, Agaricia agaricites, covered many surfaces, with its convoluted brown ridges that are always capped in white. Black sea rod, Plexaura homomalla, stood in clusters along the reef, its black branches spotted with gold. The encrusting gorgonian, Erythropodium caribaeorum, covered rock surfaces like fine white hair. An Atlantic mushroom coral, Scolymia lacera, sat nestled beneath a rocky overhang, a bright disc striped in blue and green.

At one point, I tilted my head to the left. The reef below me stretched down the rocky slope, and at the bottom lay a flat, sandy plain. But in the hazy distance across the sand, I could see another black, rugged slope rising into the water column. Could it be another reef? The further north I swam, the closer the black slope came. Eventually I realized it was another coral reef - the Aquarius site had a double reef!

Of course we couldn't resist exploring the second reef, so we checked our pressure gauges and swam further seaward across the sand. I'm willing to guess not many divers make it to the double reef, because the corals were in pristine condition. Stony corals covered the slope, leaving almost no empty sand or rock in between. Long, fuzzy wire corals stretched up into the water column. A long-spined urchin poked out from behind a ledge. A brittle star curled up just inside the opening of a stovepipe sponge.

To be honest, it was the best dive we had all week, but I stupidly couldn't take any pictures because the underwater camera I had been using flooded on a previous dive. It's really a shame I can't show you this gorgeous site. As we reached our turnaround point, I tilted my fins to spin around, but something striped and spiky caught my eye under a rock. A lionfish. Its zebra stripes made it look like a prisoner on the reef, and its poisonous spikes were splayed out in preemptive defense. Everything about the fish declared: Do not touch!

Lionfish are not native to the Caribbean. They were introduced via the aquarium trade, more specifically by people releasing their pet lionfish into the wild when disassembling saltwater fish tanks. They now constitute a threat to biodiversity because they are voracious competitors and have no natural predators in the Caribbean. There's a burgeoning industry surrounding lionfish in order to motivate people to hunt them. This week, I saw "lionfish hunter" SCUBA courses being advertised and everything from lionfish earrings to lionfish steaks for sale.

We left the double reef behind and made our way back across the sand to the first reef. On the way back south, I barely had to swim because the current carried me along. As we reached the marker we had left in the sand, my boyfriend signaled with his hands: swim around more? No, I shook my head, then gestured toward shore. Let's end on this high note. It's been an awesome week.

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