Dive Key West

July 1998
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I enjoyed the dives I did in Maui...a lot. I decided that doing a dive trip would be a good motivation to get my scuba certification, and so I signed up to to that in July. The open water option for the course was offered in a local quarry that typically features 10 feet of visibility and 70 degree water. I can do better, I thought, and conferred with my sister, who is an experienced diver. "Yes," she agreed, "you can." And she had an idea, which turned into this story.

Newly certified open water diver & instructor>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Tuesday 21 July 98

Uneventful start to the Key West adventure biggest discovery was in checking my travel documents en route to the airport to realize what e-ticket meant. I had read about paperless or "e" tickets, but this was the first time I had had the opportunity to use one. I hadn’t looked at the papers I’d gotten by mail; they seemed to be all the usual stuff invoice, itinerary, receipt...the one thing that was missing, I found, when I pawed through all this stuff in the cab was the actual ticket part. After a brief panic, I concluded that if all the other papers were there, then that was the only part that could possibly be left to be electronic. And so it was. When I checked in, I just showed ID, told them where I was going and they handed me the usual gratuitous ticket folder with a cardboard combination ticket/boarding pass rather than two pieces of paper in it. At the gate, they ran the pass through a reader that both confirmed me as a legitimate passenger and registered my arrival and seat – thus saving gate personnel the handling time of doing that. All in all, marginally less paper to lose, assuming the computers don’t go down and leave one entirely without confirmed existence and little time to spare before boarding.

Intrepid travel companion Glenn Woolley was sitting cheerfully at a sensible rendezvous point, at the base of the commuter hall escalator in the Miami airport when I got there just before 1 pm. We chatted animatedly, just a bit nervous at knowing that we needed to get along to be good companions for travel both above and below the water for the next few days on our own before Karen joined us on Friday.

I had finished – and enjoyed and decided to give to Karen and lend to Glenn – the Sark book, which Glenn was reading on the puddlejumper from Miami into Key West. A thunderstorm, which we flew around, seemed to have blown through Key West just before we landed. The Key West disembarkment area on the ramp looked bedraggled, bepuddled, festooned with faded signs of equally faded commercial aviation establishments and punctuated by a mix of warnings and directions old and new in both Spanish and English...tattered in that genteel way that oceanside places often do, and that I was to find pleasantly characterized many parts of Key West.

Computer outage at Alamo rental cars took a bit longer to find my reservation, but we picked up our little black Cavalier and navigated our tiny way southward (insofar as much navigation was needed) on US1 and right onto White Street and around a couple of times before finding parking and checking into our hotel. The Palms is a charmingly architected place, with light pink walls and white-painted gingerbread and french doors and railings running around the second storey of the interior courtyard. Room 17 opens onto that second storey and overlooks the pool and the Manatee Tiki Bar, which features a weather-worn namesake carved out of an old sea piling and hiding beneath a spindly palm in the corner of the pool deck.

That corner -- specifically, on top of the round table there, is one of several haunts of Anna, the tawny tabby. An old, fragile, drooly grey and white cat that the staff calls Mother, and one of the place’s many black cats with a white chest patch, join Anna as native to the Palms.

And cats! This town is truly run by the cats. They are everywhere, reigning as well-behaved and lazy and left-alone as you please, patrolling and sashaying and perching atop cars and countertops alike. In the evening, on the way back from the harbour, we would often find a row of parked cars, each enthroning its own cat sprawled on the rooftop. There seemed to be eight cats for every dog. The dogs knew far better than to chase the cats, and the cats ignored the dogs with perfect disdain.

It’s hot. Low nineties, anyway, and as humid as a beach community has every reason to be. Glenn and I revel in the coolth of the room – briefly – before heading our for a walk in the mad-dogs-and-Englishmen heat of the afternoon. I’m only vaguely hungry, but in increasingly vain hope of finding a Seven-Eleven to get a slurpee, which often strikes me as the universal specific summer cooler-offer. As it turns out, the idea is the important thing; the lime slushee I finally pick up at Mallory Square hits the spot, and is a for-once welcome illustration of how quickly I become the temperature of whatever I drank last.

We wander idly between air-conditioned shop doorways, and into a former Customs Hall that now features boutiques (including the ubiquitous vacation fudge shop, in which Glenn indulges my curiosity about Key West Lime Fudge, which turns out to have a fine balance of tart against the usual steep sweet). We consider taking one of the tourist trolley tours – they are getting more attractive by the minute, in the heat – and decide to save this for later, once Karen joins us (and also because it’s now so late in the afternoon that they’ve all stopped running by now) and wander back up Whitehead street, passing the now-closed-for-the-day Hemingway house, which we also save as an attraction for when all three of us are here. Hemingway wrote many of his novels in this largish house and its junglish grounds and its dozens of infamous cats (not all of which either have six toes or are in fact descended from the original such a one which allegedly captured Hemingway’s attention).

We begin and end our first exploratory walk on US1, passing the Deja Vu clothing-optional motel that Doug and Connie Waddell had told us about (and stayed in) during their recent visit to Key West. They weren’t kidding – at least, the place was advertised as described. We also note a sushi bar with promisingly discounted early evening pricing, but decide to save that for later

Many churches. We saw a shrine to our Lady of Lourdes in behind the church and school of Our Lady Star of the Sea with its billboard wishing graduates good luck, up the street from a transit shelter advertising the efficacy of a particular drug cocktail designed to combat HIV. (That’s a level of public advertising I haven’t ever seen before in any city.) There are many rainbows and triangles and other graphic signs of an open gay community that fits – or appears to fit–easily amongst this community of artists and writers and boaters and divers and drifters and sun-weathered ship’s captains and young red-and-gold ship’s mates and hand hauling ropes and gutting fish and making nice with the paying guests in hope of tips, oblivious to the picture their lovely hairless torsos present against the sky and the whitewashed dock railings, flashing brilliant white smiles and extending a hand to help you aboard. Little wonder at how easily this might be a visual paradise for gay men. I’m sure there are plenty of lesbians around; they’re just not as obvious to me...or I am less curious about them. (Idle musing is it because the idea that women might prefer the company of other women over men seems unsurprising in some way?)

Glenn and I no sooner return to the hotel than we head right back downtown again. Instead of taking US1, we zigzag through the smaller streets. The houses have a kind of beachside southern charm, a miniature transplanted graciousness crowded in close by each and the gaps filled in with palms and tropical trees and flowering shrubs of red and pink flowers and some trees topped with bright red-orange clusters of berries. As we walk back down to the waterfront, we see a man standing on the sidewalk at an easel, sketching one of the many white-porched homes in the early evening golden light. I stop a moment to photograph the view he was rendering. As with many ocean towns, one could paint and draw and sketch a lifetime here and never run out of beauty.

We have set out for a sunset dinner (someplace outside; someplace with grilled fish) on a pier off Mallory Square. The tourist hype makes a big deal about the sunset and many tourists happily buy into that, coming down with cameras and for drinks and tropical vacation evening loiterings. It’s a bit crowded, even for a Tuesday night, but the sunset is muted and somehow hazy both before and after sundown.

Sitting on a pier at dinner, I am perfectly relaxed reflecting once again at the wonder of a world that has so many idyllic places that are there – in the same way that Paris struck me last summer – even when I’m not, and a world that offers the technology and many countries the freedom to let people travel to enjoy such places. And, I guess, the tremendous good fortune I have to be able for all those reasons and for the added rather important factor of having a job to be able to afford to travel from time to time. I do so enjoy getting far enough away from the everyday to remember more clearly what a wonderful life not only the away place but also the everyday place is.

Anyway the point was how easily I seem to lose mental track of even the most intense experiences amidst the more mundane. Sitting on the boat heading back from the dive site, or in the car coming home from the airport, already the beauty of the sea or sky, and my feeling of accomplishment and enjoyment at having learned and being able to exercise the skills one needs to move about in an unusual environment begin to fade. I noticed that by the time we would come to the end of an evening, drifting hotly and stickily from one cool shop doorway to the next or standing apart while traveling companions get a tiny bit testy with each other, my memories of the dive ebb and flow like underwater surge or the return of "sea legs" hours after being back on shore.

The crowd thins as the subtle colours fade from the sky and a bit of breeze brings welcome cool. The band, one of a standard-looking quartet of permanent beach fixtures in their early 50's costumed in old cut-off shorts, grimy bandannas and clothing scraps, puts its James-Taylorish musical talents to good effect while presenting a relaxing string of harmonies that I happily sing along with. I discover -- or, okay, remember -- that I don’t like Margaritas or the taste of tequila much. This has the handy effect of making my drink last a very long time. We stay at our pierside perch until long after dark, long after the band has (for no reason we can fathom) played "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (which we nonetheless applaud loudly, despite their use of far more discernable consonants than Gordon Lightfoot does), and apologized for a management policy that forbids them to play Jimmy Buffett’s "Margaritaville" on the grounds that to do so would be to advertise a namesake competing establishment of which I would have been unaware were it not for that announcement.

Already it seems like I’ve been here a long time as we walk down to the end of the pier and see three- to four-foot tarpon (a longish, mean-looking fighting fish favoured by sportsmen) circling the pilings in the lights underwater along the pier. There are big fish, I think to myself, and they look fierce, and I will be in the water with them and who knows what else tomorrow.

We walk back. The cool breeze disappears in the streets, and it’s a hot, quiet, sticky walk back, in and out of the glow of streetlamps that somehow give an old-fashioned feel, skirting the edge of the chain link fence that surrounds a cemetery that’s a block from the hotel.

The air conditioning in the Palms is splendidly welcoming. The tink-tink-tink of the pull chain against the light fixture of the also-needed ceiling fax takes a couple nights to get used to, keeps me thinking that it’s really maybe raining outside, and probably doesn’t make much difference given that I’m just plain excited about diving tomorrow.

Wednesday 22 July – the first of two qualifying dive days.

I’m glad we’re staying in Key West, rather than further north at Key Largo of at the Looe Key Dive "Resort", which is primarily a dive centre grown out of a canalside motel. The advantage to having the ability to "board boat from your motel door", touted on the place’s web site, is heavily outweighed by its location, (a half-hour drive north of Key West and close to almost nothing to do), and a collection of rooms that I can only imagine combine the standard features I like least about motel room permanent smoky smell, overly-cold, damp mildew-smelling air conditioning, and the perpetual worn-ness that being right next to a saltwater canal with grimy boaters and divers coming and going only accelerates. (Now, as I didn’t actually see inside the rooms, perhaps that’s not very fair...let’s compromise and say that while I had considered the potential benefits of staying where we were diving, even learning of the 20% discount on dives & equipment for motel guests, that was more than offset by being close to as much and more than we wanted to do after the day’s diving once we returned to Key West. Besides, we did so many dives there – 10 in all – that we got the same discount anyway. The Palms gave us a great rate for the combination of staying a week and coming on a personal referral, and the pick-up breakfast there was more than convenient!

So, that was how Glenn & I began our day with fruit and coffee at the poolside bar, grazing the local newspapers. Around 930, we left the hotel -- me with far more things than I need because I don’t know WHAT I’ll need for our dives -- for the drive north to the dive centre. On the way , we looked to see if someplace was open for Glenn to get a new bathing suit, but it was too early for that. We easily navigated our way north on US1 towards Ramrod Key. The part of the highway just before it left-doglegs northwards runs along the ocean, and reminds me just a bit of Maui roads along a different ocean...a good sign...

We aren’t due to dive until 1230, but we want to check out the place and make sure we find it. It’s easy to find, and Glenn shops for a mask and snorkel. Even so, we had time to stop at a tourist information booth, where we learned that there’s a small wildlife refuge called Blue Hole on nearby Big Pine Key that will leave us just enough time to visit and get back to the dive shop, so off we go.

The leading resident of Blue Hole was supposed to be an alligator, who clearly had better sense than to be in the heat than did the human visitors. There was an observation platform at one point, which jutted out a bit into the pond. There, the most prominent inhabitants were a family of long-necked turtles that had green mossy necks when they stuck their heads far out. On in particular chased others out of what must have been a favorite sunning spot in shallow water close to the platform by nipping at the smaller turtles’ tails. This must have been an old drill, for the smaller ones moved quickly out of the way. Upon closer observation, it appeared that either the smaller turtle had learned to behave at the behest of the bigger ones – evidenced by a misshapen, partly-missing right rear top shell – or perhaps had narrowly escaped becoming alligator pie.

There are some smaller red-striped-head coming and going, and a pair of perhaps 12-to-18-inch blue-green-gold fish with a big blue-green dot on the tail.

"Those are South American Peacock fish!" exclaimed a man with a camera lens about the diameter of a softball, clicking madly away. "How did they get here?"

"Oh, sometimes people just come down here and empty their aquariums, when they get tired of them," explained another visitor nonchalantly.

After walking as much more of the Blue Hole’s 1/8 mile circumference as was possible – and not one alligator for the better – we returned to the car and welcome air conditioning, and drove slowly to the road’s end on Pine Key. Close to the turnaround, we saw one of the tiny Key deer that this sanctuary was created to protect. About 3 - 4 feet tall, to the top of its enormous ears, all by itself near an abandoned building, wandering first in the sun and then walking over to graze parched grass in the shade.

We drove a bit further north toward Marathon, and then turned around in order to get back to the dive centre in time for the pre-dive briefing. When we arrive, the staff is all excited; they didn’t realize when we were in earlier that we were their afternoon students and they’d wanted us here earlier, but the instructor isn’t there yet, so no matter. We’d paid for the dives in advance, so that was all taken care of.

I was at my attentive-student best as Alex, the Master Dive Instructor Trainer, reviewed his idea of the most basic stay-out-of-trouble pre-dive checks and underwater procedures. He also went through the dive tables with Glenn -- who was doing a refresher checkout dive with me.

I learned a new way to thread the curvy lead weights onto the weight belt, by putting a twist in the middle of each pair of threading, and a couple of ways to make the strap tighter on the tank, and a better way to let the pressure out of the system after pressure testing (by using the low-pressure inflator rather than the regulator, to keep water out of the system.

Once he went through the things we’d be doing in the water, it seemed like a lot to remember; even though they were all things I had done before the giant stride entry, switching from snorkel to regulator, the free descent, a brief swim to a sandy channel where we could practice regulator recovery and alternate air breathing and buddy breathing and mask-clearing, and to finish the dive with a controlled emergency swimming ascent, after a swim following Alex.

Each time, the boat had between 28 - 39 people aboard, with anywhere from 5 - 12 divers. The captain – one of a type I’d call Captain Happy – was one of your deeply tanned, wiry, indeterminate late 40's+ skippers who recited his passenger briefing with all the evident sea-weariness of someone to whom the law of averages has long ago demonstrated that a proportion of the guests, especially divers, is highly likely to do something stupid or unsafe or regrettable, most of which, in his view, could easily be avoided if only they had listened to the instructions he provides.

When he hollers, "Snorkellers! You are just as important as the divers," it’s pretty easy to hear him thinking, "...and just as likely to do something stupid..."

The air and the water are both touted to be 85 degrees. While this is the temperature at which I was wearing a 7mm wetsuit in the pool at the Y, and only slightly warmer than the water I recall in Fort Lauderdale, in which I was wearing the full farmer-john two-piece suit PLUS skins, Alex – and Glenn – both assure me that the skin will be quite enough, and I’ll easily be warm enough.

And they’re right. After all, I was in the pool for 3 hours at the Y – little wonder it was possible to get cold there. Here, even at depth (only 30 feet), it was still 85 degrees and we were never down for as much as an hour at a stretch. Here, many thanks to Karen, who had lent me a fine collection of equipment (including mask, fins, snorkel, skins, slate, and other assorted important stuff) that did a fine job for me, and left me well-outfitted.

Looe Key is named after a famous British naval vessel, and, frankly, that’s all I can remember from having heard the tape-recorded briefing ten times on the boat while we waited at the dock to depart. Obviously it wasn’t as captivatingly delivered as the personal ones by Captain Happy. (For alert readers who want to know, the Conch Zine, internet magazine of the Conch Republic, reports that in 1744, February 5, the British manofwar HMS Looe, of 44 guns, Captain Uting, along with a Spanish ship she had just captured, wrecked on "la Pareda", now named Looe Key in the Lower Keys. All hands were saved, from both vessels.) Looe Key itself is a National Marine Sanctuary, also referred to as a "no-touch, no-take" zone, where even diving gloves are forbidden.

The dive boat departs the dock and glides slowly through a narrow, L-shaped channel lined on both sides by the backside slips of boat-based residences. Once we clear the latter, shorter, part of the L, we are out in between a set of channel markers a bit faster, and then headed out at full speed (oh now, don’t ask how fast that was; probably not more than 20 knots), bounding along in sun, wind, and three-to-four foot seas aboard the Kokomo Cat. (While I know it’s named that way because it’s a catamaran, when I read that that was the name of the boat, I knew that we had the right place to dive! As it turned out, the name of the second boat we dived from was equally a propos.

I reveled in the bounce along the waves. Unfortunately, several people on every trip did not – most of them women or children (which generally seemed to account for about 2/3 of the snorkeling population). Women constituted 1/4 to 1/3 of the divers. Several of the divers, who had a much better idea of how they expected to handle rough seas, came aboard sporting scopolamine patches.

Captain Happy’s briefing, provided live and in person when we arrived at the dive site about 45 minutes later, was much more memorable than the official taped one

"Welcome to Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary! Divers! Listen up! This is your dive briefing. We are now tied off to a mooring buoy a the (east/west/middle) of the reef. Off the port side of the boat, you will see waves breaking over the crest of the reef. Divers, that is fire coral. You don’t want to go near that, especially when we’re in 3-4 foot seas like we’ve got today.

"The reef is shaped like my hand, with the crest of the reef like my knuckles, running east and west, and the spurs of the spur and groove coral running north and south, north and south, from the crest of the reef. As you go south, it gets deeper and you run out of things to see, you’ll want to work your way north again around the spurs.

"There’s a wind and a current today out of the east, so I suggest you begin working your way east so you have a nice easy trip back to the boat. Divers! This is not drift diving. If you go off to the west, then the current is going to take you somewhere off Cozumel. Don’t do that. We expect you back on the boat in one hour of with a minimum of 500 pounds of air in your tanks. It is now [time]; you are due back on the boat at {T+1hour]. We’ll put you in the water as soon as you’re ready."

Being with Alex the instructor, our tanks were snapped into the racks closest to the ladder on one side, so we always got to go in first. Teetering on the top of the ladder, one hand on the regulator and holding tight the mask, breathing off the tank; the other hand on the weight belt, the boat’s mate steadying me by the tank from behind til I’m ready to leap. On the first jump in, I was a bit nervous, and had pretty much closed up my giant stride before I hit the water. Nothing catastrophic; it just meant I sunk further than I needed to before bobbing back up again. I hadn’t entered the water from a height that oscillated between 18 inches and three feet, either, before. The practice pool tends to be a bit more stable than that. But, I managed, and that part just kept improving throughout the trip. 

So much of life, and great performance, and everything, is all about one’s ability to just relax and concentrate, no matter what is going on around one. 

After the three of us – Alex, Glenn and I – were in the water, we switch from regulator to snorkel, swim to the front of the boat and the mooring line, and get ready to descend to the ocean floor, which is 30 feet at most. (I realized afterwards that I’d become very comfortable with what had seemed like a most unpleasant prospect getting seawater in the snorkel while using it to breathe. You just blast it out again, and set up your breathing to guard against complete inhalation of seawater.) We let the air out of the inflatable jackets that keep us bobbing on the surface, and down we go into the ocean world at last.

It takes me a while to get comfortable with buoyancy control and to figure out how to stay on the bottom but avoid moving too fast and bumping into things. The tricks ultimately seem to be to make a basic buoyancy adjustment when at the depth you want to be, and to combine that with thinking about 3-4 seconds ahead of where you are and time your inhalations and their related lagged effect to raise or lower you to where you want to be when you get there.

Hands are surprisingly useless for locomotion and take up a lot of energy to use that way, as does all fast movement. It’s easy to see how one could tire quickly. On each dive, I become more relaxed and comfortable in the underwater environment, and as all the techniques come together, I’m able to get quite good at buoyancy control. In the early dives, I only needed to look up and vaguely contemplate the sun, and I would pop up like a cork. All the theory proves true the air in the body and the equipment expands as you ascend, and you do indeed have to let air OUT of the BC in order to control the ascent; the practice pool isn’t deep enough to experience that.

And, technical stuff aside, THE FISHES!! A huge variety live here on the reef. French grunt are as numerous here as the four-eyed butterfly fish were in Maui, and there are many kinds of parrotfish, which I find extremely beautifully colored, large and small. I especially like the fishes that are blue and yellow and green, and after the second dive, I bring the slate along to record dive times and start and finish tank pressures as well as the fish. After the third dive, the records are pretty thoroughly in code, there are so many fish I can’t write fast enough, and I want to remember as many as I can. Each time, I recognize ones I’ve seen before, and can concentrate on new ones.

At several points in the week, I muse on how vivid are the sights and sensations and experiences of being, swimming, communicating, and making one’s way underwater. How many and varied are the fishes, how beautiful they look and swim, how like seals the young parrotfish as they scoot along, how they and the blue tangs and surgeonfish and doctorfish have much more near-humanoid eyes-nose-lips-mouth than, say, the barracuda, which remind me much more of sharks. I instinctively want to think of the more humanoid fish as smarter, and the sharks and barracudas as dumb but vicious and unpredictable and therefore to be avoided. The green moray eel somehow looks smarter than the speckled brown and white reticulated eel, but both leave me with the impression that I would do well to avoid them. Apparently the fishes mostly have figured out that the eels can’t see more than three or four feet, and thus keep their distance.

My favorites – some of them – are the large angelfish – especially the Queen and French angelfish – and the butterfly fish, all the parrotfish, the blue tang, the terminal bluehead, the damselfishes yellow-and-purple, and a couple of fantastically shaped creatures, the juvenile hogfish and the trunkfish, sheepshead, and Spotted Drum

I stay far from the barracuda, or, if that’s not a choice, then just very still. I am not disappointed that the place is not rife with sharks; we do not see any. That’s okay. (I understand that the Dry Tortugas – odd name for a wet place – some distance south of Key West are the place shark fiends head.)

Glenn and, when she arrives, Karen, both prove to be very good at finding and playing with spiny lobsters. I tend not to go too close to them. Probably the most elusive fish, and the one I wish I had seen more of, or up close, is the spotted eagle ray, flying along above us close to the surface when we were on the bottom. Rays are so elegant, and I love to watch them move. It’s a fine reminder that air and water are both fluids, and that, because water is 800 times more dense, watching a ray swim is like watching flight in slow motion. Same observation about how sand ripples on the desert floor looks a lot like sand on the ocean floor, only a lot drier.

After we demonstrate a few techniques with the instructor, we basically follow him around underwater for half an hour or so, conclude with a couple more techniques, and then ascend and get back on the boat. I marvel a bit at how one FINDS the boat, and, when we are changing over to the second tank, ask how underwater navigation works in practice, because I’ve only read the text on it. He says that, at these reefs, one uses natural navigation, and I’m not at all sure at first that he’s not trying to fool me into believing some bogus technique...but then he can’t possibly know how gullible I am, so it must be true...and, in fact, it is a technique based on observing whether the spurs are getting closer together and the sand is rising or falling away, and whether you are ascending or descending relative to the surface as you swim along the bottom, and what direction the bottom sand ripples are.

"It would hardly be fair not to mention the corals..." and my notes trail off there. I was paying more attention to the fish; the corals were equally spectacular. It takes some time for one’s eyes to get used to the spectrum, which lose the red end of the spectrum first underwater, and is one of the reasons why people bring dive lights even in daytime. The brain coral were huge, but there were all kinds of wavy stuff and spiky stuff, looking terribly delicate but taking a beating from the surge of the waves that easily penetrated right to the reef floor that day. It was so windy that the bottom was stirred up and visibility was no better than 20 feet, and often got below that, most days. It’s all what you’re used to. I know how spoiled I was by the 75 foot visibility I had on my first dives in Maui, but I appreciate them all the more now.

Unsurprisingly, I was tired once we got back to the dive centre, and had learned how little of the stuff I brought I needed, especially how few textile-based things I needed at all on a warm day. Seawater dries sticky, but freshwater rinse was available both aboard and ashore. The one thing I find I need even more than a replacement for a strayed towel is chapstick! Glenn and I relaxed in the pool back in Key West (like, as if we hadn’t gotten enough water that day!) for a while, and then wandered off to check out the Hemingway-Days storytelling contest at Blue Heaven, a local restaurant. It was hot and sticky, but was offset by a perfect strawberry daiquiri and a couple of funny stories, including a very good tale by a lady who hadn’t come down for the contest but just happened to be visiting with another group from New York and thought she’d try her hand at this. When that was over, we walked all the way downtown and back – lively and hot and humid.

Thursday 23 July

The final pair of dives that morning were to finish my certification, and the conditions are a bit more challenging even than the day before – a bit wavier and windier, and the visibility is down below 20 feet sometimes. But I demonstrate that I can get into and out of the equipment in the water and underwater, Glenn and I practice towing each other on the surface (the key skills for this dive), and we tour underwater again. I am feeling more at ease underwater, and can really tell the difference from my very short dive in Lauderdale, when I kept one hand on the regulator about half the time to make sure it didn’t wander off. After all the divers were back on the boat from the second dive, Alex announced to them all that a newly certified diver had joined their ranks, and they all cheered. This was nice, and I have to admit that I was pleased with myself.

Glenn and I came equipped for hot showers after we got back to shore, and this proved an excellent plan. By the time we drove north to Marathon, just to see what was there, we had found that not much was, except that there was a bit more than on the stretch between Ramrod Key and there. The longest causeway – about 7 miles – was especially pretty, and the light turquoise seas were distractingly lovely, much more so than the roadside commercial establishments, by and large. But we did find a marina for a late celebratory lunch, and the conch ceviche was yummy. Even though I like wharfside dining, I’ll admit that even I was too hot for outdoors at that point. We watched the parasailers from our cool vantage point, and stopped back in at the dive centre to book Friday’s dives on our way back to Key West.

The evening’s destination was a different part of the wharf, to a restaurant called Turtle Kraals, which offered the very best, freshest, steamed shrimp I have ever eaten, and that was pretty much all we had room for. It threatened to rain, but really didn’t, and it wouldn’t have cooled things off much even if it had.. I spent most of dinner poring over my fish books to see what I had seen. I like going through all the pictures to see how many I can identify. It’s fun.

We traipsed over to Mallory Square and watched the buskers, including a finely-sculpted, silver-painted, silver-garbed male mime who did a bit of a robot act while standing atop an inverted trash can. It’s more picturesque than it sounds, trust me. Called JJ to check in, and found that things were going well back at the ranch. Glenn wandered about in an outdoor gallery featuring bronze busts of local community leaders while he waited for me.

There are a LOT of restaurants in Key West, and with good food, too. That alone would be a reason to come back. Ones we didn’t have time to get to include a couple of Cuban ones, 7 Fish, 5 Brothers, a Thai restaurant, and a wonderful vegetarian place really close to the hotel, from which we didn’t quite get around to bringing a picnic lunch, but which I will some other time – everything there smelled so very fresh and tasty!

Friday 24 July

A pair of morning dives are my first ones without an instructor! Glenn is an excellent dive partner, and he takes the safely aspects of things seriously – very important to me – so we enjoy ourselves. He agrees to take care of navigation, and I have the wristwatch, so we coordinate the technical parts and I relax and breathe slowly and look at fish. That’s the thing the whole point of the sport is to move slowly and look at all the great creatures! This is definitely the right kind of vacation. (Leaving aside the death-defying technology part of it, of course.) Conditions weren’t terrific, again 3-4 foot seas and 15 feet visibility, but as I’ve now done 4 dives with an instructor in such conditions, it is not difficult. A fine experience, overall.

We get back and find Karen has arrived. She follows in her rental car so I can return mine, and then we all go to lunch at Sloppy Joe’s – more for the touristiche experience than the food, as it’s a lot less crowded in the afternoon than it will be for the Hemingway lookalike contest in the evening. Oh, that being said, the grilled tuna is pretty good. In fact, we had to work hard to find any bad meals the whole time we were there. Karen was excited to join us – her earlier travels had gone well, and we were very glad that all our plans had worked out when so much had been uncertain up until a couple weeks before. She was looking for straw bags and some local items for souvenirs in the downtown shops, and Glenn and I drifted along behind her.

Now, we had some serious shopping to do, and the lot of us were taking turns at getting a bit tired and cranky. I needed to replace the loaned dive skin that Karen was going to be rightfully claiming the next day with one of my own, and we needed to pick up lunch for our four-dive day on Saturday. While things looked bleak at one point (and I especially wanted the right thing, not a makeshift item), not only did we find a dive shop with a decently priced (and rather flattering, if I do say so myself) black-and-blue dive skin, but the place also offered an enticing pair of dives we decided to book for Sunday one to a wreck, Joe’s Tug, down about 70 feet, and then to a small reef. Karen and Glenn treated me to the Sunday dives; I got Glenn a box for his dive mask as a present for being such a fine dive buddy. Everyone was happy.

After retiring to our abode, we took in a reception/open house at the Hemingway House, as part of the week-long festival. This was a livelier sort of experience than the usual tour, even though the house itself wasn’t open. There were several hundred people wandering about, listening to a local band of the beach-bum variety and going through several buffet lines set up all over the grounds (such a deal for $15!), and CATS were everywhere. Which is a fine thing for those of us who like them. Chatted with a few people, some of whom it turned out had been on a dive boat with me earlier in the week. The festival is relatively new to Key West, almost certainly an invention to liven up the low season. The organizers I talked to thought they’d certainly do it again but price the writers’ workshop at higher than $125, and raise some of the other prices, too. It would be worth coming back for.

It was too early to go back, so we once again wandered downtown, bought some shorts, and finally caved in and splurged an entire $4 on a deliciously cool taxi for the ride back to the hotel.

Saturday 25 July

This was our big four-dive day! Karen did her pair of checkout dives with the instructor, and the four of us stayed pretty close together as we toured the reefs. Again, conditions were pretty much the same, but I liked the fact that the air and water were so warm. Karen and Glenn’s bright yellow dive suits made them easier to see underwater! I was getting a bit tired by afternoon, and we all had to remember to drink enough water so as not to get dehydrated.. We remembered to bring MOST of the lunch with us; we forgot a couple things in the hotel fridge. In the afternoon dives - to which Glenn treated me -- we were a threesome without Alex, and, of course when there’s no teacher there, I did a FINE entry. As I had the compass, I was the navigator. This I took very seriously, of course, and didn’t spend nearly as much time recording fish as I did concentrating on not getting lost. Fortunately, we did NOT come up at the wrong boat, and Glenn’s fine sense of direction was a big help.

That evening, I was very tired. We went back to Turtle Kraals with Karen for dinner, and wandered around the wharf afterwards, watching the most spectacular sunset of the trip from the pier at the edge of the square and seeing young men dive off a 10-foot piling in the harbor. There was supposed to be a storm of some sort heading in. In the square, The Silver Man was back performing, and the Cookie Lady (who sells fudge as well as cookies), and a gymnast (a noisy, strong, and crowd-pleasing entertainer who drew a large group) as well as tarot-card readers, crystal purveyors, portrait artists, caricaturists, and vendors of popcorn, lemonade, and souvenirs.

My favorite show by far was the sunset.

Sunday 26 July

A much smaller group of 9 divers, and no snorkellers, boarded the Aqua Adventure on Sunday. This dive shop assembled and hauled the gear for the divers -- less work for us -- and switched over the tanks, too, as I recall. Three of us, a father with two of his kids, one pair of divers and one solo were in the charge of a captain, mate, and divemaster. The helpful mate and cheery divemaster (Brad) made the trip very pleasant...and even passed out fresh pineapple aboard the boat! (This is a level of hospitality I could get used to.)

The first dive was to Joe’s Tug, a boat which had been sunk in 70 feet of water about a half-hour’s ride away. This would be my deepest dive, and the procedures were different from on the reef. The descent and ascent were guided entirely by ropes. A traverse line at about 15 feet took us to the stern of our own boat and intersected with a descent line. The dive boat was ultimately moored to this line, which led to the bow of the tug (another boat was moored to the stern, and there was a case of beer penalty for divers who came up at the wrong boat). No threesomes allowed, so I was paired with a young man, and we were all instructed to head for the ascent line when our air got to 1000 pounds, or we had been down for about 25 minutes, whichever came first. The general ideas was to swim slowly around the base of the tug, then make another circle at the level of the bridge, then head back to the ropes. The local moray eel had tucked itself into the sand at the base, but was plainly visible, all green and gaping and wrinkly. A fair number of fish, including barracuda, Rock Beauty, sergeant-major, and black grouper, abounded, and French Grunt were everywhere. My dive buddy, Chris, went through his air a lot faster than I did, so we did the safe thing and headed up. (Interestingly, his father expected to run out of air, and expected his own dive buddy to plan to share air to stay down longer. Not a planning mode I would like much.) I was very comfortable at 70 feet -- didn’t notice really any difference from the more shallow dives -- as evidenced from my very low rate of air consumption. I followed the instructions, and moved hand-over-hand on all the ropes rather than swimming, and that made a difference. Had to watch the time on the ascent, to make sure we didn’t rise too fast, and made the safety stop at the 15-foot tie off to help decompress. Karen & Glenn stayed longer and saw crabs, too.

The second dive, to Cannonball Reef, was mostly interesting by comparison with the rich marine life of Looe Key. There weren’t nearly as many fish or as much coral there. I did manage to dive well with my buddy Chris – we communicated well underwater, I did a good job watching the time and the air consumption, and he didn’t get lost. Karen & Glenn got separated from us, but they were looking our for each other, so that was fine, and Glenn’s navigation skills got them back to the boat okay.

Listening to the divemaster reminded me of the gift of loving what you do. He left the insurance industry after his wife decided she preferred "the little woman" a number of years ago (which left him with the cheerful conclusion that it wasn’t his fault...). "We both had good jobs so we split everything down the middle and got joint custody; two of the kids are with me and one is with her." He quit his insurance sales job several years ago to become a divemaster, and is so happy he shines, just beams. He freely admitted that he made an awful lot less money, but greatly enjoyed the boating life, the sun, the sea, and teaching students like Meaghan, the young woman, aboard Sunday morning’s boat, whom he had certified for diving on Thursday (the same day as I did mine elsewhere).

Our late-ish downtown lunch was under overcast skies, and the afternoon was spent poolside. (For those who care, my trip reading comprised Angela’s Ashes, Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson -- nothing like reading about the cold when you’re in the hot! -- and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.) We had planned Sunday dinner to take in the final storytelling contest at the Hemingway house, and there were light munchies there as we listened to the bards from our perch on the balcony of the Hemingway house as the sun set and the wind swished the palm trees all around the place and the makeshift string of electric lights occasionally blew out the power. All in all, a highly satisfactory evening.

All of which came together in a happy smiling thought as we walked back from the Sunday night storytelling contest I love what I do. I don’t particularly do it for the money. I do it for the sheer joy of the challenge, because it’s somehow never done, and there is always something different, a new challenge, a way to do things better. Even as I write this, the buzzing swarm of work-things I haven’t thought of all week comes crowding in closer, from the horizon towards my brain, and I hold them back "No, no," I say. The striving, sensitive part of my soul, the light, the creative, gentle drive, the shining and ever glowing part that endures despite the swirl around it, that part of me is terribly torn and distracted by wanting to please all, and runs when chased by the darker ambition.

This is almost an ambition of jealousy, one that dismisses all my talents and accomplishments, belittling them in the face of things that other people are good at and taunting me for not being as good as they are at those things. This ambition has this urge to win all the games, even ones that don’t in fact interest me and invents impossible games because it enjoys torturing the gentle soul, the happy child who loves and giggles and laughs and chats with ladies in the park and gaily munches their sandwiches please and thank you. The gentle soul is always there, and is kind to me and to all, is trusting and loves unreservedly and is loved in return.

To protect and make room for that creative soul is perhaps the most important thing I can do, for that giving spirit not only lights my way within, but leaves me so much more free to give to others as well.

Monday 27 July

Karen had a VERY early morning departure, following which those of us who remained slept in for another couple hours and then relaxed poolside for a couple more. I was so relaxed that I misread my ticket, got to the airport an hour late, and had to catch a pair of later flights home.

And it didn’t matter a bit.