First Forays & Blue Impressions
With a little more than 20 dives tucked under my weight belt, I'm anxious to get back in the water, and Taino Divers and Desecheo Island will be my initiation to underwater Puerto Rico.
Taino Divers is nestled on the shore of Rincón Bay. Owners Greg Carson and Jari Steinborn, along with divemasters Frank Lazu and Tim Brennan, will be our guides for the next several days. After a quick fireman's chain to load gear in our dive boats (the Taino and Katmandu), we are on our way to Desecheo, a 40-minute boat ride.
Desecheo is a unique place used in World War II as a bombing test site. Today divers bear witness to nature's remarkable ability to rejuvenate, while moray eels, flounder, rockfish, stingrays and others congregate around the unexploded ordnance still found in these waters. The island itself is off-limits to land tourism, while the diving, more adventurous souls are cautioned to tap on discovered bombs only after they hear the boat engines fade into the distance.
Mona Island is a rugged place 41 miles west of Puerto Rico in the Mona Passage (one of the roughest passages in the world) with B.Y.O.T.P. (bring your own toilet paper) camping from May to November. It is also one of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources' most closely guarded nature preserves. Resident biologists study more than 100 endangered species, including hawksbill turtles and the Mona iguana, found nowhere else on Earth.
We leave Rincón Bay early on Katmandu and head out to the open ocean with 2- to 3-foot seas (a welcome relief after the expected 10-foot swells). As we go, the sun dries the surf from my cheeks. Then, I let myself be lulled by the waves, napping in the bow, shielding my face from the sun. As I slowly wake, I see a white, chalky line on the horizon, my first introduction to Mona. Excitement builds as I wait for the horizon to grow into a larger reality. Finally, we are here.
My first impression of Mona is that of a fortress. Sheer rock walls climb 100 to 200 feet into the clear-blue sky. There is a sense of stark isolation as birds swoop down to our boat, investigating what kind of fish we could be and wondering if we bring with us the prospect of an easy meal.
Like everything at Mona, the diving doesn't disappoint. Our dive at Grouper City is a pleasant introduction. We dive to a depth of 50 feet, passing wonderful rock formations and watchful barracuda.
Morning comes and I wake to the ocean; all else is quiet. Camp slowly stirs, and after a light breakfast, we head out for diving at The Cathedral, a 10-minute boat ride from our campsite. Greg from Taino Divers leads us over rock outcroppings and through winding fissures, timing our swim with the surge to reach our final destination: a rock formation that is nature's cathedral. I feel as if I'm traveling into a sacred place the mood changes from light and airy to a hushed serenity, as if the Earth is holding its breath while we uncover one of its secret places. We explore the dark crevasses of The Cathedral, suspended in space, and then rise to the surface to admire the way the rock rises through the air, forming a spire as light trickles in from above. We slowly depart out of the recesses of the Earth and into our second element again, searching for marine treasures and stumbling across the largest lobster I've ever seen. That night we dine like royalty under the most-amazing star-studded night sky one of the best views on Mona without man-made lights to hinder nature's brilliance.
Our first days here have passed quickly, and I find myself unconsciously transitioning from "mainlander" to "islander," stress rolling off me like the waves breaking beneath our boat. I breathe easier and realize that after a few days of diving and reconnecting with nature, my soul remembers its center, my body its function, and my fear and self-doubt fade to oblivion.
When the time comes, I'm not ready to leave; it is a magical place, and I feel blessed to be able to experience it.
When I get back, folks ask me about Mona. I reflect no doubt with a far-off dreamy look in my eyes. I think of all I experienced and am overwhelmed with emotion. All I can say is, "Well, Mona is Mona." And somehow that is enough.
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