The Passions of Puerto Rico
Sport Diver readers go on assignment and discover the true pulse of this enchanted isle
Story and Photography by Sport Diver Readers
Every now and then, we like to give readers a chance to live the dream to go on an actual assignment with us, to take on the challenge of finding a story, making images, working from dawn till dusk, making adjustments to the schedule on the fly, and generally going nonstop for a week, while searching for the pulse of a destination. Working in the rain. In the sun. On seas that want desperately to toss you overboard. With hands on fire from hydrocorals. While getting noshed on by more bugs than you knew existed. At the end of a trip like this, you arrive at the airport ready to go home and rest. But, you have to go home and sort through your images, pick the best ones and caption them. Then, you sit and stare at that blank computer screen looking for magic, for that first true moment that will launch you into your story. You sift through a pile of notes, and start to put words down. You string words together to bring the experience that we all just had alive for readers. You work hard to evoke a sense of place that engages all the senses. To inspire. To motivate. To involve the reader. To make the reader feel as if he or she has a memory of "The Passions of Puerto Rico" even if they've never been. All owing to the story and images you came home with and put together. This is the dream. This is what we do.
And this time, the participants had piles of great moments, interesting angles and stories. So, the editors plucked a bit from each of the submissions the pieces that together take us on this singular and unique creative journey. The journey bonded us together, so we decided that the story should be a team effort. Enjoy these moments. There's a lot of talent on these pages. Enjoy these passions of Puerto Rico. We certainly did.
Ty Sawyer, Editor, Sport Diver magazine
The Passions of Puerto Rico
By Cheri Stone
The night was electric. Blanketed by a brilliant cosmos, we stood at the ocean's edge as the gentle surf lapped at our toes. The clock had just struck midnight, although time here is normally irrelevant. Silently and reverently, we clasped hands and stepped backward into the sea. In unison, our linked chain fell into the cool, cleansing waters not once, but three times. Emerging from the ocean dripping wet, I exchanged embraces with Sport Diver Editor Ty Sawyer and renowned photographer Amos Nachoum, our Sport Diver on Assignment mentors. Not expressions of affection, although we were here on Mona Island to experience "passion," but life-affirming hugs of camaraderie between divers, who only days ago were strangers. It was June 24, and we had just washed away our sins by celebrating La Noche de San Juan Bautista, a local annual ritual. Inside my tent, soaked and exhausted, sleep came easily that night as the coquí frogs serenaded. It was peaceful knowing that with the morning's light a fresh year would begin, and I could sin anew.
Three days earlier, my heart raced as I entered the Fort Lauderdale Airport to meet up with a group of total strangers who would be 24/7 companions for the next 10 days. I wondered, as I spied on the congregation from the sidelines, if the atmosphere would be congenial or competitive? After all, we were "on assignment" to capture the essence of Puerto Rico, with the best of our stories and photos chosen for publication in Sport Diver. During our adventure, both Ty and Amos would attempt to impart to each of us a lifetime of knowledge and expertise as we explored "The Passions of Puerto Rico" together. A colorful cast of characters had answered the call. We were all as different as the geographical distances that separated us from Canada to Costa Rica, connecting the dots in between. We all have our own stories, but as divers we share a common love of the sport and hefty appetites for exploration.
Day one in Puerto Rico was a wet and wild adventure, and we weren't even diving yet! Our driver Noel Sanchez traversed road passages so narrow that we were only a horn's warning blow away from meeting locals head-on and tumbling down a ravine of green. But every swerve was worth it to reach the interior and sacred area of the Utuado mountains and the Tanamá River. Tanamá means "butterfly" in the native indigenous language of the Taíno Indians. Raymond Sepulveda and Jorge Perez led us as we hiked the karst (limestone) region in the heart of the island, through royal palms and towering tropical ferns with lobes of green radiating like fingers reaching upward to compete for the sun. The rainforest rewarded us with many beautiful flowering and fragrant bromeliads as we hiked up and through the craggy arches of the Tanamá Cave.
The rain held off just in time for arrival at the home of Jorge and his wife, Denisse, where we were warmly welcomed with a homegrown and home-cooked organic feast. We savored lentil and beet soup, rice and beans, and a plantain dish, all served buffet-style in their self-sustained jungle home. Our dessert of fresh plantation bananas helped fuel us for zip lining through the rainforest of El Batey del Cemí. We dangled from strapped-on harnesses hanging from dual-pulleys a life-support system that kept us from dropping like blind bats to the forest below. Zipping through the canopy of trees and landing on a platform with mattress-lined trunks to "break" your zip (rarely necessary, thanks to Jorge and crew) was a rush of pure excitement.
First Forays & Blue Impressions
By Christy Philips
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.
By Michale Luxton
I am determined not to miss a thing on this expedition. The drive into the majestic jungle can't mask the overwhelming anxiety building in the pit of my stomach. I know what is in store for me (a zip-line tour) and wonder if today will be the day I am brave enough to conquer my fear of heights. I try to focus on anything else the anticipation and banter of my fellow travelers on the bus; the narrow roads becoming narrower as we ascend toward our destination; and the steep cliffs and lack of guardrails along the road. I am curious about how cars pass each other here, only to quickly learn that sheer speed must be the only saving grace to avoiding accidents.
Once we are collected, our two guides from Acampa Tours, Raymond and Jorge, ask each of us to take one set of gear that has been organized in small piles.
It's a surprisingly short walk to the first of three zip lines we will glide along today. This is quite the ride to have in your backyard, I think. My strategy is to be one of the first to go get the torture over with and have fewer witnesses to the horrified look on my face. I can't hear the instructions because of the pounding in my ears; I may as well be a million miles away. The only thing between me and the valley gorge below is a gadget consisting of two clips with rollers, and Raymond is hooking my harness to two thin, wire cables! I think, This can't be good. I must be crazy. All I can remember from the instructions is to pull in the metal clip with my fingers in order to stay facing forward. I can do that. With much trepidation, I leave the launch pad. I glide along the cable in a whir. I don't know if what I feel is the thrill of excitement or the numbness of horror, but I am flying! My feet kiss the treetops and I feel like I'm on top of the jungle, unable to see exactly how far below me the rainforest floor is. Before I can give it too much thought, I am on the landing pad. And, I have miraculously managed to avoid a collision with the tree. As Jorge carefully yanks on my harness to release me from the cables and I slowly make my way down to the trail, I mentally review my body to make sure my parts are still intact. I can feel my body vibrating, and my legs are like Jell-O.
I carefully make my way over to a lookout point. The view is breathtaking. It's as though an artist has used every imaginable green watercolor to paint the landscape.
I'm feeling alive and exhilarated now.
Bring it on!
It's my turn again, and Raymond asks if I will be doing a trick this time, like twirling around, lying backward or spreading my legs.
I quietly reply, "No, I'm afraid of heights."
He looks at me with genuine surprise and says, "You don't look afraid."
What a compliment! I'm a better actress than I thought.
I can hear the force of the rushing river below. Once I'm on the move, all I know is that I'm on the top of the world and I don't want it to end! I fill my lungs to capacity with the clean jungle air and slowly exhale. I've done it. I'm feeling very proud in this moment.
A Treasure Called Mona
By Juan Carlos Chavez
The trip is not easy, but it's worth it when you see the perfect cliffs that protect one side of the island, and on the other side the ocean with its hidden mysteries.
We arrived with our tents and immediately knew the most interesting two days of our lives lay ahead. Some of us had been camping before; for others, it was a first-time experience in communing with nature. We were welcomed to the warmth and silence of the beach by a variety of unique species of birds and iguanas.
Attracted by the call of the sea, we began our first dive. As we dipped under the surface and began our descent, I was delighted by the colors of the reef and the quantity and quality of life. The variety of sea life was such that I felt deep down that I was in one of the greatest theaters of the natural world, and at that moment there was nothing more important than admiring and soaking in all that was around me.
Unfortunately, the dive had to end, but the day full of nature's wonders was not over. After a scrumptious dinner cooked by our hosts at Acampa Nature Adventure Tours, the island treated us to a sunset that rivaled the dive, full of color and the promise of what tomorrow would bring. The evening held more in store as one from our group, Colleen Udell, performed a fire dance, reminding us that fire was worshipped by our primitive ancestors.
Night crept up on us, and in our tents we listened to the sounds of the island and the surf. I finally gave in to sleep, not wanting the day to end.
I woke up to the first rays of the sun, with the anticipation of a great day of diving. The spectacular reefs of Mona and the dazzling show of dancing fish dominated today's dives. We attempted to create photographs that would show the world the beauty we were not only seeing but feeling as we experienced this wonderland.
I have had the opportunity to dive some of the most-beautiful spots in the world, and, in my opinion, Mona Island is among them. If it can be protected by us, from us and for us, Mona will become a special reserve for the peace it radiates and the beauty it holds, and for our children and their children to enjoy.
Leaving a place like this is always difficult, but Mona was so intensely beautiful that when I shut my eyes, I can still feel the sand between my toes, sense the proximity of the imposing jungle and feel the ocean so full of life and surprises.
Mona Island in Puerto Rico will remain in my memories every day and in my heart forever, because in and out of the sea, it represents a place where I found peace in my life for the present and hope for my future.
La Parguera: The Endless Wall
By Colleen Udell
At Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa in Guánica, we were greeted by Pedro Rodriguez from PADI Five-Star IDC Sea Ventures Dive Center. It was another early morning and the sea was calm. Our first dive was at Fallen Rock, part of the 22-mile-long La Parguera Wall. I went to 108 feet, my deepest descent ever.
The next two dives were reef dives. Eliel "Bam Bam" Ramos, the divemaster, ended up being my dive buddy. This first dive was Andrea's Reef, which was discovered by Bam Bam and named after his daughter. At this circular reef, I spotted a moray eel, Atlantic stingray, lobster, crab hiding under a ledge and many varieties of fish. The second dive was The Pozas, where I enjoyed the swarms of yellowfish hiding under the ledges. The fish appeared motionless while I snapped photos of them.
The last dive was at a site called Justin's Fault. It was fascinating, despite the strong surge at 50 feet. I saw my first nurse shark, barracuda, pufferfish, pargo and juvenile drumfish. The dive was worth the lack of sleep.
By Juan Carlos Esquival
For our last day, we headed to Old San Juan, bringing a great opportunity for a totally new adventure and a different type of pictures. We were done with mountains, caverns and diving, and now it was time for night pictures, ancient buildings, fountains and culture. We stayed at the Hotel El Convento, in the center of Old San Juan, very close to La Fortaleza, where the governor lives. Within walking distance are restaurants, huge ancient walls with beautiful views of the bay, and old homes with picturesque balconies that are illuminated at night and look like a scene from an old movie.
That night, we enjoyed dinner at the Parrot Club with our wonderful hosts, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, who made us feel at home. Once dinner was over, we headed to the streets of Old San Juan. It was alive at night; it was very difficult to stop taking pictures and trying to capture those great moments. Amos was teaching us about aperture and exposure and why the speed is so important to be able to catch the shadows of the night.
Every single day was different and interesting, but this last night was wonderful. It was hard to walk for a single block without wanting to stop and take more pictures. We enjoyed the bricks in the roads, the doors of the old homes, the iron used for the balconies and lamps, the size of the walls, the internal patios that all of the places have and the many more details we kept in the back of our mind.
For me, my original goal was complete. I had the great opportunity to meet these new friends, dive with the best from Sport Diver magazine and walk in the mountains of Puerto Rico. And above all, I discovered the vibrant world of colors that exists underwater, for above the surface, the spectrum of colors appears limited to my color-blind eyes (for green and brown). Now that I am back at home, I can surely say that we set our own limits, and limits are only in our imaginations. It doesn't matter where you live or what you do for a living, there is always an opportunity, and it is up to you to catch the ride and enjoy, or stay in the same place for the rest of your life. Sport Diver magazine gave me an opportunity that I decided to take, and I will never regret it. If you believe you can do something, then do it tomorrow could be too late.
Keep your eyes open for new opportunities, new friends and new places. Never think that because you can't see what others can, that you are less than they are. Remember, we are different, and that is exactly why this is a beautiful world that we all have to protect. Let's enjoy trips like this; let's dive together more; let's talk to others who don't dive about the beauty of underwater life and its colors; let's share more time with friends and family and live this beautiful life. Remember, united we can make a difference.
Special thanks to: Acampa Nature Adventure Tours (acampapr.com), Copamarina (copamarina.com), Rincón of the Seas (rinconoftheseas.com) Sea Ventures (divepuertorico.com) and Taino Divers (Tainodivers.com).
"Passion, has the meaning of: having a strong emotion that has an overpowering effect on an object or feeling. It is a force that leads one into pursuit of something or to adventure into an event. We all have this force prying on us at times and should take it on. A good defense against the stress of life is to add good stress and one way of doing this is to indulge a passion." Clifford Cope
The Guide to Puerto Rico
By Colleen Udell
At the airport, I settled down to reflect on the trip and what it is really like to go on assignment with Sport Diver. It takes energy. You have to have the fortitude to carry on, despite any difficulties that might arise. You have to remember that the show must go on, because if it doesn't, the story doesn't happen. Getting the story is what going on assignment is all about.
Average water temperature: 75-82°F
What to wear: shorty in summer, 3 mm jumpsuit in winter
Average visibility: 80-150 feet
When to go: year-round.
Take a day and explore the Tanamá Cave in the Utuado mountains with Acampa Nature Adventure Tours. After a delicious homemade lunch with Jorge and Denisse, test out your nerves and take a ride on the zip lines.
Mujeres Wall (Mona): Keep an eye on your gauges as you descend down this wall. With great visibility, you can see the sandy bottom located at a depth of 350 feet.
The Cathedral (Mona): Riding a surge into this cave can be tricky. Be sure to surface and take a look at the light coming through the island.
Justin's Fault (Guánica): A beautiful reef with swarms of fascinating fish. Look for nurse sharks, pargo, moray eels, barracuda, pufferfish, juvenile spotted drums and more.
Las Cuevas (Desecheo): This dive is full of caves, arches and swim-through tunnels. Look in the shadows for overgrown lobsters and other wildlife.
Little Desecheo (Rincón): This wall dive is full of colorful coral and tons of fish. This spot is rumored to be even more spectacular at night.
Rent a car and take a trip around the island. Visit the Arecibo Observatory, home to the world's largest radio telescope. Next, see the Guánica Dry Forest Reserve and hike the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Get in touch with the roots of Puerto Rico by visiting the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center in Ponce. Finally, head to Old San Juan and have dinner at the Parrot Club. After dinner, go salsa dancing and then rest your head at the Hotel El Convento. In the morning, grab an authentic Puerto Rican coffee and flan at Karamelos Coffee and Gallery. Pay your respects to Juan Ponce de León at the San Juan Bautista Cathedral. Head to the city gates and stroll along the outside of the walled city.
Rigged & Ready
Derelict Junction: Want to know what it's really like to go ex-pat in Rincón? Get the scoop with this insider's view, by Tim Brennan.derelictjunction.net
Keen Newport Footwear: Perfect for hiking, these waterproof leather shoes provide excellent traction along with a mesh lining, fit strap and toe protection. keenfootwear.com
Puerto Rico Listings
Acampa Nature Adventure Tours
Puerto Rico Tourism
Tropical Trail Rides
Aquatica Dive & Bike Underwater Adventures
Black Beard Sports
Caribbean School of Aquatics
Caribe Aquatic Adventures
Island Venture Water Excursions
La Casa del Buzo
Puerto Rico Technical Diving Center
Sea Ventures Dive Centers
Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa
Rincón of the Seas/Grand Caribbean Hotel