Last summer, I was fortunate enough to get to go on an amazing trip to San Salvador in the Bahamas to take a marine biology course and to become a better SCUBA diver. Although known primarily for being the first landing spot of Christopher Columbus, San Salvador is also a diving hotspot, its waters absolutely teeming with life. While I was there, the 15 other teenagers traveling with me, our instructors, and I stayed at the wonderful Gerace Research Center. Gerace was also home to many graduate students studying marine biology or geology.
To get to our dive sites, we boarded the back of a Gerace truck with all of our gear and drove down the scenic San Salvador roads. Often, we would traverse the entire island to get to a site, that’s how small San Sal is. I know I speak for everyone when I say that the island, and its waters, are stunningly beautiful.
The trip sounds like a vacation, and it was in a way, but it was also hard work. In addition to nightly essays on our readings and class sessions, we had two group projects. For our project on mollusks and annelids, we took a short trip across Gerace to get some specimens from the repository. Among other gems, we grabbed a dried up Octopus vulgaris in a bag from 1996.
For our other big project, my group got to pick our topic first. We chose to work on Damselfish territoriality and got to work straightaway. The research dives were great, I thoroughly enjoyed collecting data on the colorful fish. These dives reaffirmed my thoughts that I want a career as a scientist.
The first time I saw a shark in open water is something I will never forget. Sharks are sleek and powerful, but seeing them here was comforting rather than terrifying. Their presence was a reminder of the amazing life in our oceans.
On our deep dive, some kids in my group got nitrogen narcosis, a (funny) effect on the brain from diving at depth that can be likened to alcohol intoxication. Luckily, narcosis is temporary and the cure is simple: ascend to a shallower depth. Our instructor had told us before we descended that once we reached 100 feet, we would do a narcosis test. She was going to hold up a certain number of fingers on each and we would have to add them and respond by holding up our own fingers. Sure enough, two kids just couldn’t complete the task.
It was after this dive that we met a celebrity. Paul Humann, the writer of Reef Fish Identification (one of the books we were using in our course), happened to not only be diving in San Salvador, but to be on our dive boat at Riding Rock that day. We were all starstruck and one of our dive instructors got his signature. He signed “Always enjoy the reefs, best fishes, Paul.” Pretty good advice, if you ask me.
By far the best part of the trip, and probably the best thing I’ve ever done, was the night dive. After an early dinner we left for the site known as the Witches’ Cauldron (foreboding, I know). We got in the water just as the sun was setting. Our headlamps streaked through the darkness, revealing a world completely unlike anything we’d seen underwater during the day. Corals and sleepy fish trapped in the beam of our flashlights seemed more vibrant than ever. We even spotted a shark at the end of the dive, its glimmering tale cutting away through the blackness. Back on the boat that night, we all lay on the deck, gazing at the millions of stars in the sky. San Salvador has to have the best sky in the world.
At the end of the trip, we all came away with our advanced open water certifications. But the trip also meant much more. I realized a new passion and have several fantastic experiences under my belt.