DIVING AT SAN SALVADOR

The island of San Salvador rests at the lower, eastern end of the Bahamas chain. At times of the year, it is noted for the large marine life that swims off its coasts, including schools of hammerhead sharks, manta rays, turtles, and blue marlin. The latter fish is rarely seen by SCUBA divers, of course, but San Salvador is famed for its blue marlin fishing, and more deep-sea fishermen arrive yearly than do divers.

About a thousand residents call San Salvador home, but tourists have only two choices for their stays, a very large, lavish Club Med, and a small, efficient and well-run spot for divers named Riding Rock Inn. Both are located in the center of the western side of the island, protected from the normal trade winds, and close to sheltered dive sites. Peter, Ingrid, Brad and I chose Riding Rock Inn, which is dedicated to diving, and that's what we did three times a day. The schedule called for two dives in the morning and one in the afternoon. One day a week, the afternoon dive is scrubbed and a night dive is held instead. Divers catching a plane out do not dive their final afternoon, so their bodies will have 24 hours to purge any residual pressurized nitrogen before flying at altitude. Anyone making all the listed dives for a week will undertake 17 of them. The diving operation was very well run, and I had fun on all 17.

San Salvador, perhaps 14 miles long by five miles at its greatest width, is really the top of a submerged volcano. About 400-500 yards off the beach lies the coral reef that drops off anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand feet. Most of the drop-off is sheer, and the blue water off the wall can contain anything. The coral and sand meadows on top the reef, from 40 to 50 feet deep, are populated with brightly colored tropical fish, rays, crabs, lobsters, turtles, grouper, barracuda, eels, nurse sharks, and various larger fishes just passing through.

What makes diving interesting on San Salvador is the varied underwater terrain and topography: it is cut up to an unusual degree, full of deep gashes and swimmer pass-through tunnels. They usually run from the crest of the drop-off, just before the cliff's edge, down to openings along the wall. Some of these portals begin in more than 75 feet of water and slope steeply, opening out at depths around 130 feet, which is rather deep to go with standard SCUBA gear. Such depths are safe, but they push the envelope, and most of the divers use computers to determine stay-time at a given depth and any decompression stage requirements. The redline for garden variety, several times a year, sports divers is around 135 feet, and San Salvador takes people near the edge. Long ago, as a navy frogman, we dived to 180 feet simply to get experience at that depth, but we were young and in superb condition. When I see overweight, middle-aged people whose primary exercise is walking around the block, dive daily to 130 feet, I begin to worry. So far, they seem able to do it without observable problems, but it doesn't seem prudent. I exceeded 115 feet on four dives myself, so guess the pot is calling the kettle black.

One morning on our way to the second dive site, someone spotted a whale, and our boat gave chase. We tried to close on the spout, but lost the trail. I donned my snorkel and fins, hoping for the opportunity to jump overboard and swim close to what I was certain would be a huge and gentle mammal. Well, maybe next year!

San Salvador dive sites were blessed with an abundance of friendly groupers, some of whom enjoyed being petted. You could see them warily making up their minds: would this guy be trustworthy or not? Since they are often hunted, I've normally found Caribbean groupers to be extremely wary, streaking away at the barest sight of a diver. These were pets.

As always, life operates in its own random, unfathomable way. In spite of all the time we spent underwater diving, the most thrilling marine experience was had by Brad one morning while snorkeling alone just 300 yards from Riding Rock Inn. He'd rented an underwater camera the day before, and hadn't exposed all the film during our dives. At 6:30am the next day, Brad got up early and told me he was going to snorkel in shallow water and use the rest of the film. Tired, foot-sore from fin burns, and just lazy, I let him go alone. I did walk down to the beach a few minutes later and watched his snorkel. When he returned, I left for breakfast as he showered. Later, at the table, I smiled and said, "Did you use all the film?" To his nod, I asked, "Did you see any big stuff?" It was his turn to smile as he told us he'd run into a lone hammerhead. I thought he was just joking, and asked if he had any proof. Brad said he wasn't sure, but he thought so if the film turned out. He'd caught sight of it moving away while he was snorkeling underwater, kicked hard to close the distance, and then saw the hammerhead, which was about 6 or 7 feet long, quiver, turn 180 degrees, and come toward him. He'd snapped a picture with what he thought was the wrong focus, surfaced to get a needed breath of air, refocused and was able to take several more photos as it came close to look him over. Hammerheads have been known to be man-eaters, and Brad said he figured he'd push the camera into its nose if it got aggressive. He shouldn't have been out there alone, and I was his swim buddy. So much for a lifetime of prudence and sensible swimming habits! The picture on this homepage listed under San Salvador and he followed, is testimony Brad's friend got very close. There are many underwater pictures taken of hammerheads, but most of them are snapped by SCUBA divers wearing tanks. My oldest son took a great one using a snorkel.

Anyone who cares, can see what Sam, Peter, and Brad look like. Our charisma is well hidden, but good humor abounds. We're obviously not trying to impress anyone. Bottoms Up!

7/31/99

Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)