Sunday, 20 January 2008
Diver Magazine features Stephen Weir story on ghost diving in Grenada
Diver Magazine has just published my feature article on Ghost Diving in Grenada. Similiar to the story I wrote for the Toronto Sun -- they are both about the same underwater incident -- but this story is aimed at the certified diver. The Toronto Sun is very much a working man's paper and most of the readers probably do not dive, so every effort was made to make it a fun travel piece that was light on dive technical terms.
The Diver story was edited by Peter Golding. Most of the pictures used in the article weren't taken by me and only have fleeting reference to the story - don't know the photographer at all, I gather Peter Golding bought them from a freelancer. If anyone would like a copy of the printed article, let me know, I will mail it to you. My address is on the splash page.
Here is my original version of the Diver Magazine story.
Live aboard stories from the Wind Dancer
A ghost of a chance for unusual underwater sightings in warm Grenadian waters
By Stephen Weir
Underwater ghost sightings are hard to come by, especially when you are diving shallow and don’t have the assistance of nitrogen narcosis. On land, specters rattle chains, throw pottery and hide car keys (gee, mine do), But underwater? Well, at least in Grenadian waters the poltergeists wear scuba tanks.
The venerable Peter Hughes live-aboard dive boat, The Wind Dancer, has recently begun offering six-night scuba trips that take divers from Grenada to the island of Bequia and back again. Many of the dive sites that are explored by the ship’s paying customers have never been visited by anyone – at least living – before.
Diving off the beaten track has an appeal for adventurous souls. Even though not all of the sites are world-class, there aren’t many places left in the Caribbean where you can readily dive on a lush coral reef without seeing the disastrous hand of man (and his anchors, garbage and pollution).
In a part of the world where water temperatures are rising, coral reefs are rapidly dying and fish stocks have all but disappeared, Grenada and sister-island Carriacou stand out for their vibrant underwater life. Undamaged coral reefs, forests of sponges and millions and millions of colourful fish make for the real spice of life in Grenada.
Grenada – the Spice Island – is not on most traveler’s radar screen. For some reason – be it the wonky air links, being on the US “shit list” since its invasion and liberation in 1983 or having an island government that hasn’t embraced the concept of massive construction of beach crowding hotel towers –this idyllic nation has managed to protect its underwater habitat.
Live aboard boats are found worldwide – they sail wherever there are healthy coral reefs and dramatic underwater vistas. Small in size but big on personal service, they take limited numbers of well-heeled divers to hard-to-reach dive sites sometimes kilometres from shore.
This 40 metre long live aboard, stays at sea for six nights at a stretch and moors nightly near the best dive sites available. Most days, passengers make five trips underwater. So obsessed are the guests, that many of them never change out of their bathing suits and ship-supplied bathrobes once on board the steel hulled craft.
The Wind Dancer’s recent arrival in Grenada - a modern island nation in the southeastern Caribbean Sea, north of Trinidad and Tobago, and south of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines - has been an instant hit. The all inclusive boat is attracting experienced divers who enjoy non-stop diving at a variety of scuba sites including deep dives, shipwrecks, coral reefs, walls, underwater volcano vents and, yes, haunted sites.
It was at the beginning of the Wind Diver’s first month in Grenadian waters when Diver Magazine signed on board. The ship was carrying 11 passengers (maximum is 18) and 10-crew members and had set a course from Grenada, to Carriacou to the St Vincent island of Bequia and back. The route was so new that each dive was an adventure for crew and paying customers alike.
The former British colony has a modern dive industry with several dive shops using well-equipped day dive boats. There are good buoyed sites close to shore so the existing land based shops have had no reason to explore out amongst the uninhabited islands that are strung out between Grenada and St Vincent. The Wind Dancer – a member of the island’s dive industry association -- sails every Sunday morning out of the True Blue Bay Dive Resort on Grand Anse Beach minutes from the recently rebuilt international airport.
The Wind Dancer has been around … and around and around again. She started life as the Truk Aggressor in the Pacific Ocean before being picked up by the Hughes organization, retrofitted and moved east. Over the years she has serviced a number of Caribbean dive locations, the latest being Tobago. As of September 2006 she now spends spring, summer and fall in Grenada and offers winter trips from her homeport of Scarborough, Tobago.
Experienced divers are attracted to the Dancer. These are people who tend to bring their own gear and cameras with them and don’t blink at the $2,000+ a week tariff. If one were to lose luggage, or simply choose to travel light (see sidebar story on packing for a live aboard), the ship can outfit you with everything – suit, computer, regulator, masks, fins, nitrox, cameras, and maybe even a lucky charm to keep away the ghosts!
Befitting a haunted escapade, many of the dive sites visited by the Wind Dancer have spooky names –Face of the Devil, Cathedral, and Devil’s Table. Other sites simply have weird stuff to see – on one reef I photographed clusters of small hard tube sponges that, bunched together, looked like that distorted face in Edvard Munch’s Scream. There is a phantom air-filled cave that could only be reached by swimming through a right-angled underwater tunnel.
At another site, a deepwater wreck lies with its bow deep in the sand. A dozen oversized nurse sharks gather in a pinwheel around the hulk’s nose. As a diver approach the nurse sharks shake themselves awake, disperse and then magically return to the exact same spot in the same once the humans are out of sight.
Then there are the underwater smells of Satan! Even though the active volcano on Montserrat is far to the north, there are stretches of sand near the island of Carriacou where divers can swim through bubbles of hot air rising from the sea floor. When you put your head overtop of a venting vent, you can smell traces of the sulphur infused in the bubbles breaking on your mask.
It was the second dive of our second day on a rather run-of-the-mill spot where “it” happened. The Wind Dancer was anchored at the edge of the National Park of the Tobago Cays (southern end of the St Vincent and the Grenadines). We had already been deep on a wall near an unpopulated island and were going to do a simple shallow (20 metre) drop on the shallow side of the same rock outcrop.
The dives are made from two tenders that race out from the mother ship to the nearby sites. This day one of the pangas carried three Canadian doctors, a retired Hamilton pharmacist and a married couple from the US Midwest. There were five people on the second tender including myself.
Eleven divers, from two boats (separated by a hundred metres) back flipped into the warm soupy Caribbean waters. It was supposed to be yet another dive on another reef that had probably never been visited before.
When a dive ends the two boats would compare notes to see who saw what. Turtles. Mating Eels. Lobster, lobster on lobster on lobster. Interesting, but, quickly becoming standard fare in these waters.
“ Did any of you see the visitor? I saw another diver,” asked one of Canadians.” He was wearing a white T-shirt, and had on a weight belt, scuba tank and mask. He waved at me”
All of the divers were by now on the stern of the Wind Dancer taking turns rinsing off in the communal shower. All passengers were accounted for, none of whom were wearing T-shirts. There were no other boats in sight and the nearby island was devoid of life. No sign of the man or a white shirt was seen.
For the next three days the boat moved slowly southward back to Grenada. Blessed with good visibility, uninhabited islands to dive and calm seas, we saw almost everything there is to see in the lower Caribbean. Big and colourful fish. Squads of eagle rays. Loopy turtles. Fleeting glimpses of reef shark. Yet, on every dive everyone kept an eye out for the man in white. At night, dinner talk was not about politics but about the phantom.
The last night at sea had the Wind Dancer moored near Frigate Island (named after the isles only inhabitants) within sight of the high cloud capped mountains of Grenada. This was to be the final night dive for the group and a chance to lay the scuba spirit to rest.
The four ghost hunters rolled off their tender first. We could see their torches as they descended alongside the steep black rock wall. Our party jumped in, lights out, a few metres ahead. When the first group rounded a large boulder, we turned on our lights on one member of our group who had slipped on a white shirt. He waved and disappeared into the gloom.
It was a sub sea exorcism. The next morning the two groups split up. Those with tight departure times dove shallow or stayed on board and packed. I was one of two who had a late flight and was able to make one last haunted dive.
There was time to do a “right of scuba passage” on the ghost of the hard luck Bianca C. Twice sunk, the remains of the passenger ship are said to be the largest wreck in the Caribbean.
Construction of the ship began in France in 1944. Before she could be completed, the passenger vessel was sunk by a German submarine. Raised, the hull was repaired and the ship was rebuilt. The vessel went through several name and flag changes. In 1961, under Italian ownership, the 200 metre long cruise ship steamed into the St George’s harbour in Grenada. An explosion and subsequent fire killed two and injured eight. Eight hundred people made it off the ship safely before the Bianca C was towed out to sea.
She sank near the Grand Anse Beach, near where the Wind Dancer moors. The wreck lies on its side and is just a hair’s breadth within sport diving limits. The obligatory swim through the ship’s still intact deck pool is at a depth of 42 metres.
The last dive is made on Friday morning, passengers have to be off the Dancer on Saturday. The ship’s purser arranges for transportation and afternoon ground tours, most of the guests head into St. George’s. Although the island was all but leveled by a hurricane three years ago, this historic fort city has been lovingly restored and is a fascinating place to explore. Others opt to see rain forests and mountain spice farms 800 meters above sea level.
The final dinner is served on land, under the stars, at the nearby hotel. With the gear put away and swimsuits hung up to dry, the topic of ghosts is never raised. The only spirit is brought to the table by our engaging waiter.