Pipes and the Southern Cross
In 2001, my wife and I went on a Scuba trip to Belize. It was a fantastic trip; being an avid underwater photographer, we elected to stay on a live-aboard called 'The Wave Dancer,' a 120’ vessel that went all over the Belizean coral reef and allowed me to dive and shoot up to six times a day (breathing oxygen enriched EANx Nitrox II). Given that it was in 2001 and in Belize, a country that to this very day has yet to impose any smoking restrictions, smoking abounded on the Wave Dancer. While Cuban cigars were essentially omnipresent, it appeared that I was the lone pipe smoker... or at least I thought I was. One of the hands on the ship was a native Belizean, John, a man of about 55 years who was, without question, the finest natural born diver that I have ever met. When he wasn't tending to the guests, he would strap on a tank (no buoyancy control vest or gauges... just mask, tank and fins), and, if asked, he would enigmatically answer that he needed to "visit his friends."
One time, around an hour from nautical twilight, I was at about 150 feet, getting ready to ascend, and down (way, way down) below me I spotted John. When we got to the surface I asked the Captain "What the hell is John doing down at that depth?!” The Skipper shrugged and replied, "He’s a friend of the sharks, that's where they hang out, and so that's where he hangs out." He also related to me that John had never been bent (that is, stricken with the "bends" or decompression sickness). Being a fairly proficient technical diver, with a solid ability to do on-the-fly gas law/physic calculations, and knowing the rough depth/bottom time involved, as well as having personally observed that John filled his single tank with the same stuff we all were breathing, what "Captain Ron" had just nonchalantly imparted was flat impossible. And yet (yet), I had just observed it.
"Belize Wave Dancer" image courtesy of Bear Graves
On our fourth night, following a dive/shoot of the infamous Blue Hole, and after everyone had gone to their cabins, I was feeling restless. Not wanting to disturb my slumbering mate, I quietly exited our cabin and headed up to the observation deck. All the lights on the ship, but save a couple of small navigation beacons, were out, and the stars burned with a ferocity that I had rarely encountered. I pulled out my old tobacco pouch and pipe, thumb-packed, and fired. A voice came out of the dark (damned near ruined my pants) "Mm - Mm... Smells good, Mon... ya got some extra?" It was John. I gave him my pouch, and he loaded some of my aged bright leaf into a very old, small meerschaum and fired up as well. In reciprocity, John cracked a bottle of Cubano "Gold Label" rum. For about two hours we made small talk. He pointed out the Southern Cross, which, of course, I had seen many times… but never nearly so clear and bright as on that night. We talked about navigation without modern instruments, diving, how to find his "friends." Just two guys with nothing in common but a love of the ocean, diving, Cuban rum, and smoke. In John's words, "Dat' US Virginia is da tits, Mon, I dream of seeing your country someday."
After we were about three-quarters into the bottle, I worked up the nerve to ask about his (literally) supraphysical abilities to shrug off ‘gas laws’. John paused a moment... “It’s a family thing. By the late 40s, both my grandfather and me pop were loaned tanks by ‘de rich folk to survey spots where profitable underwater salvage were likely. Some jobs pushed ‘dem limits right proper, but ‘dey never got ‘de aches. Turns out the same with all the men of my family.” He punctuated this with only a so-it-is shrug. Both of us weaving a bit, we parted with the best salutes we could manage in our states, and I headed back to my berth.
A scant few weeks later, Hurricane Iris (Category 4) made landfall at Monkey Town/Big Creek, Belize, precisely where the Wave Dancer was moored. The 15' storm surge, driven by 230 km/h winds, compressed into a 40' high wall of death as it moved upriver. The Dancer was hit so hard by the channeled wave that it actually flipped end over end. 20 experienced divers from the Richmond Dive Club drowned in 18 feet of water in the wee, small hours of that morning. I'm told that John was one of them.
Pipes, and chance encounters with strangers whom are no longer strangers upon parting, are blessings and can stay with you for a lifetime. If you guys get down south, when ya look at the Southern Cross, smoke or drink one for John (he also loved Belikan beer, by-the-by). I know he would appreciate it.
Bear Graves: Media & Content Specialist