Beneath the waves
Although the scuba dive site is called the Double Wreck, the only traces of the two wooden ships that went down there are the ballast stones. As I approach with Kayley Birdsall of Golden Rock Dive Center, I’m blown away by what the sea can do with the stone soup of a rock pile. The coral blankets the stones so densely that you can barely see them at all. I pass over the largest, healthiest barrel sponge I’ve ever seen — it seems plausible that I could fit inside it, like a mini-Quill. Large stingrays array themselves like parked aircraft in the sand a few yards from the coral. New rays come in for a landing, drop to the floor, and with one subtle flap bury themselves in the sand.
In addition to the parks that protect the Quill and the northern wilderness, which together cover a full quarter of Statia’s land area, the island has a marine park that surrounds the entire coastline, guarding everything down to 100 feet. Altogether, the national park system protects an area one and a half times the size of the island itself. No anchors can be dropped on coral, and all scuba divers must go with guides from one of the two dive shops in the harbor.
“The area’s been protected for 16 years, so you really get to see what reef can hold in the Caribbean,” says Glenn Faires, the American expat owner of Golden Rock. Then he examines the heavy, half-broken wine bottle I’ve brought back to the shop, confirms that it’s from the 18th century and politely explains that anything found in the marine park must stay there. “We’ll repatriate this,” he says. The no-independent-diving rule was needed to stop outside divers from pillaging the many old wrecks in the harbor.
There is, however, one loophole in the prohibition against taking artifacts: blue beads. Apparently, a ship crammed full of them sank in the harbor. Dirk, my friend from the Quill, found one on his first dive.
For my second day of diving, I tag along with the other harborside shop, Scubaqua, which is conveniently located about 50 paces from my hotel, the Old Gin House. I consider it a pretty darn good omen that when I arrive at the shop, there’s a big female hawksbill turtle laying her eggs on the beach out back. I’d heard that there would be a lot of turtles on our dive, but seeing one up close before you even hit the water is something else. We head out to the wreck of the Chien Tong, which, like most of the dive sites, is about 10 minutes away by boat.
I follow dive pro Ingrid Walther down the mooring line. Due to some passing clouds, the water darkens, so the Chien Tong doesn’t instantly appear so much as it spookily emerges into view. This makes the Taiwanese fishing vessel appear larger than its 175-foot length. I peek into a gloomy space under the bow and see something moving, something big. I assume that it’s a giant grouper, but when the bamboo-shoot antennae poke into the light, I realize that it’s a massive, dog-size lobster. We do a circuit around the wreck and stop to observe a silver school of sardines. They swirl and shimmer like a scene from “Fantasia.”
Hovering over the wreck, I notice a young green sea turtle paddle to within a couple of feet of a fellow diver. It then turns its attention to me and begins approaching in a slow, graceful arc. The turtle swims closer, stares me in the eye and continues a course for the middle of my face. It’s so close that I wonder whether it sees its reflection in the glass of my dive mask. With a few inches to spare, it at last veers off.
After observing this near-collision, Ingrid sends me a three-part message with hand signals: “Turtle,” a two-handed signal I can’t figure out, and then “you.” I laugh out a burst of bubbles when I realize that the second signal is a heart.
“Turtle loves you.”
Details, Sint Eustatius
Elder is a Washington-based freelance writer.