Friday we were treated to another rare day for this time of year. The wind finally dropped down to something too mild for sand-blasting. And the ocean joined in by smoothing out all those lumpy waves for the day. Oh we do appreciate the breezy days we get, no mistake about that. Eight to ten knots or more usually means that the sailing will be good somewhere around the island. But when we are in the mood for some snorkeling a few miles offshore, calm days are the best. And we were overdue for one.
After loading up lunch and Dooley the Deranged, we fired up the outboard motor and choogled on out of the canal and through the Southside Marina. We try to keep our wake down until we are outside the marina entirely. Notice the buoy right behind us, just under the slanting dirt road in the photo below? This is a critical spot getting into and out of this marina. If we were going back in from this point, for example, we would go past that green buoy, staying just to the right of it and then make a hard left turn into the marina entrance. Coming out of the marina, a boat should get just past this green buoy and make a hard, ninety degree, right turn. As we had just done in that photo. AFTER the buoy. This is important. Doing anything other than what I have just poorly described would be a mistake in most boats.
This subject will come up again later in this post.
As an objective for this trip, we decided to head out to see what changes might have happened with the Lionfish population we last saw almost exactly seven months ago. Dooley the Diligent observed. He does offer advice from time to time.
I know his heart is in the right place, but between you and me, that dog is terrible at electronic navigation. All he knows is "Hunt into the wind. Hunt into the wind.." I think he learned that on a National Geographic program. If I followed his advice we'd end up in the Canary Islands.
We certainly don't need the GPS to navigate between land masses here. If we are just going for a sail with no particular destination in mind, we don't even take it along. We've run aground so many times that we're on a first name basis with most of the reefs, sand bars, rocks, and coral heads around here. But finding an island sticking up out of the water is a whole lot easier than finding a small spot underwater. It's real nice to have a navigation fix for a specific needle somewhere out in the middle of a big blue haystack:
It was an absolutely sterling day and we were in no particular hurry to get anywhere. That dark line just on the horizon is the island of Providenciales, the nearest land. That's about five miles away. I don't know why I think about things like this when we have a perfectly good boat under us, but I do think about them and I think that would be a pretty long swim. I also think that both La Gringa and I could make it, along with Dooley the Dogpaddler. Especially when he's dressed up in his life jacket like an Ewok playing the Great Pumpkin. I suspect that we'd be thinking about that 14 ft. Tigershark we saw out here for the entire swim, should it ever come to that. Dooley the Dedicated, on the other hand, would be thinking about food. Same as the shark. Leeward is under that white fluffy cloud on the right:
Being out this far with only one motor has gotten me thinking about experimenting with a kite as a backup propulsion system again. I know a small traction kite will exert a reasonable pull in any kind of wind at all. And they are somewhat steerable. I need a kite that I can launch from a boat to try this out, as I can't stretch lines out on the beach to do it. I'd planned to experiment with a kite back when we owned "Cay Lime", but Hurricane Hanna drastically upstaged all my intended wind experiments for a while.
And while we do appreciate a little wind, hurricanes seem to be a great example of ' too much of a good thing'. They could tone back the rain a little, too, as far as I am concerned. Maybe this time I will actually get around to doing some tests to see how this 'emergency kite' for small boats idea works.
I don't know how fast we were going when my hat blew off. Not hard to spot it floating on a day like this though. Looks like a Tilley commercial. Or Corona. I should probably put little ®s or ™s behind those names. And in Tilley's case, I can confirm that their hats do float as claimed. I cannot confirm anything about anything that could conceivably be referred to as a Corona float.
We managed to get back to the old wreck site without any problems. We anchored the skiff and fell over the side. And the hundreds of lobster we saw back in August are gone, for the most part. Oh, there is still plenty of marine life hanging around the wing. Sometimes the schools of flashing silver slivers of fish almost totally obscured the view of it:
And sad to say, there is no shortage of the invasive Lionfish. We saw more of them than we did before. And they are bigger than they were before.
There is one lobster and four Lionfish in this photo. The ratio has turned around since we were here last. I wouldn't blame all of that on the Lionfish, though. They didn't eat the big lobsters. They must have migrated to wherever they go if they escape being caught.
We also noticed some different behavior in the Lionfish than the last time we were here. The larger ones were all facing inward toward little crevices and holes in the wreckage, with all their fins and fans spread out. This is similar to the way they corral small fish they want to eat. They corner them into a spot and trap them. With prey, they spread out their fins to keep the small fish from escaping and then they just gulp them down. But on Friday they were not gulping. At first, we were wondering if perhaps they have offspring of their own tucked back up into these safe spots, and are guarding them.
But that didn't make sense. If they were guarding them, they would be facing outward. That is where threat comes from. These fish are not afraid of anything. I think it's more likely that they are waiting for the hatched juveniles of some other species to emerge, and intend to eat them all. Maybe lobster. Lionfish are not very popular. And the overall fishing has been noticeably worse the last couple of years. I doubt that anyone is studying the problem here, but I found some other info on how bad the Lionfish are for the local species. This is just some of the scientific press on the voracious Lionfish.
"It was not unusual to observe lionfish consuming prey up to 2/3 of its own length. Results of the experiment show that lionfish significantly reduce the net recruitment of coral reef fishes by an estimated 80%."
Beautiful to look at, but deadly to the entire ecosystem here.
Every so often we have to make sure to take a look at Dooley the Disenfranchised. He definitely does not like being left alone to guard the boat:
I don't know what he was complaining about. We put the bimini top up and left him plenty of shade to relax in. He even had ice water to drink. So don't listen to anything he might tell you about being marooned, ignored, or seriously inconvenienced. He keeps signing up for these cruises.
The weather and the sea were so nice for swimming that we explored the surrounding area a bit more, looking for other pieces of the old airplane wreck. We saw several assorted chunks of the old disaster, scattered over the area. I saw a glint of shiny out of the corner of my eye, which suddenly elevated my heart rate for some reason. A biological reflex, perhaps? Is sudden greed biological? That could explain a lot.
Anyhow I fanned away some sand and found what I think is an exhaust pipe buried at about the right place relative to an inverted wing. This was an emotional moment for me. You see, this stainless steel still looks shiny and new after fifty years underwater. In a highly oxygenated, high sodium zone with plenty of sunlight. This piece of airplane lasts half a century, so far, and I can't find a "stainless" door hinge that will last three years. Yeah, I got emotional.
We saw a lot of other fish around the various bits of wreckage, but the Lionfish seem to be concentrated back on the wing. Somewhere around here I think we have a video of coming in on a wing and a prey-er.....
(music is “Logos” by Rodrigo y Gabriela)
This wreckage didn't seem to attract the Lionfish:
If this guy had not blinked his eye at me, I am not sure I would have spotted him at all. Nice camo job, eh?:
I know a lot of you will be aware of what happened to the Australian Steve Irwin, and I decided to be a bit extra careful when I wanted to see if I could get this guy to move for some video. I looked around for a few minutes, and found a live conch. I swam it back to our cleverly disguised subject, and dropped it squarely on his head. I wasn't sure how he would respond. I think these guys eat conch. So this should have been like a Big Mac from heaven dropping down right in his lap at lunch time. Right? And live stuff doesn't fall fast underwater, so I know this didn't hurt him. Sheesh.
He didn't see it that way. I guess these guys don't appreciate conch dropping in unexpectedly.
(music is “Pyrrhic Victoria” by Joe Satriani)
If you watch closely early on, when he's still buried in the sand, you can see his eyes following me in the video. The motion of the eye is what alerted me to him in the first place.
After checking out the Lionfish, annoying the local stingray and scaring the bejabbers out of at least one local conch, we decided to motor over to another spot we had been wanting to check out. It's an area we were told is called the "Little Blue Hole". It's this spot out by itself, miles from the nearest deep water. All of the Caicos Bank for up to ten miles in every direction is between 6-10 ft. deep Then in the middle of a small rise in the sea floor, there is a depression that's about a couple hundred or sod feet wide and around 25 ft. deep. That's not much of a "Blue Hole" as Blue Holes go.. but it's unusual enough that we wanted to take a look at it. We let the boat drift for a while and just watched the bottom of the sea go by ten feet below us. Maybe after seeing a few photos like this, some readers will better understand our seeming obsession with shallow water boats. There's a reason for that. Several thousand of those reasons, come to think of it. One really doesn't want to hit one of these things with one's boat at any appreciable speed.
It's mesmerizing to just lazily drift along watching the ocean on a day like this. It was also a nice change to know that we were able to get back to harbor without having to plan for the wind and allow an hour for the sail, too. Outboard motors do have their uses. Especially on windless days when we wouldn't be sailing anyhow. Just another excuse to be on the water. Or maybe it's one less excuse not to be. I forget.
It's not too difficult to spend a few hours like this and on Friday we did exactly that. Four hours after leaving the boat ramp we were still out on the Caicos Banks just enjoying the sea, and the sun, and the day:
This is not as transparent as the water gets here but we judged it to be clearly acceptable. This was the first windless day after a week of rough weather kept the sand stirred up. It takes a couple days to settle out. These are La Gringa's feet hanging over the bow of the boat and the water is about ten feet deep starting ten inches from her toes:
Even Dooley the Distracted got into watching the undersea world drift by:
I don't know what would have happened if an inquisitive fish of some kind had come up next to us. If it were a fish, Dooley would likely have to be restrained.It would be interesting to see what would happen if one of the bottlenose dolphin were to come up to visit the dog again. This would be a close encounter of some kind.
By this time it was getting toward the end of the afternoon. La Gringa put her new 'rash shirt' on but then decided it wasn't worth getting wet again right before we zipped back ashore. That's a good way to get a chill. The swimming is great this time of year when the sun is high overhead. It can get a little less comfy as the day cools in the later hours. The rash shirt gives her some thermal insulation in addition to protection against jelly fish and coral stings. I don't typically need one. For some reason I seem to stay essentially numb most of the time.
Obviously I took that photo of La Gringa and Dooley from the water. We had seen a school of at least two dozen barracuda swimming around the area. This is an attempt to get a photo of them from the surface:
If you look carefully you can see several of the barracuda swimming along the edge of the hole. The rocks on the right side are in about 8 feet of water, but the sandy bottom on the left is over 20 ft. down. There are ledges around parts of the hole.
I wanted to try to get some underwater photos of the barracuda. I also wanted to take a look in this deep hole to try to figure out what caused it. My best guess so far is that it is an old sinkhole in the limestone bottom. I am curious, because most of the major caves on Middle Caicos are under mounds. And so is this sinkhole. And this was dry lowland back in the long ago, and way above sea level for a long time. My imagination was probably still ringing from that silver flash of stainless steel.
Well, I hopped over the side, swam down a few feet and then noticed some other critters down there, much deeper than the barracuda. Other big animals moving in the ocean can grab one's attention. I get this suddenly intense curiosity factor thing going on when I see another large thing swimming with me. I just need to know what it is, for some silly reason. It might need poking with a stick. Or bonking with a conch. Or I might.
I swam over and saw that there were at least two smallish sharks down in the deeper part of the hole. I would guess that they were no more than maybe 4 or 5 feet long. But they were acting strange. We have seen a lot of sharks while swimming here, and for the most part they are all pretty businesslike. Inquisitive, but respectful. The creepy thing about swimming with sharks (for me) is when they go by you, and then turn back toward you suddenly. And then they come close enough that you see that alien looking eye turning as they look you over. Wouldn't you just love to have real-time information on how this evaluation is going?
When I looked down into the Little Blue Hole, I saw these two sharks acting agitated. They were swimming rapidly around in circles, and rolling over so that I could see their eyes. They were making rapid changes in direction, and swimming much faster than we usually see them. There was a definite tension in their body language. I decided to exit the water. Fairly quickly, as a matter of fact. The water was getting chilly... it's still winter you know.
Since it was getting late in the day anyhow, and I didn't have time to study these agitated sharks in detail, I elected to climb back on the boat and call it a day. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Back on the skiff I tried to take a photo of the two sharks, but they were deep, and I was out of the water, and it didn't really show any detail. This is all I got of them on this trip:
I know they are hard to spot in that photo. Funny how much bigger they looked when I was in the water with them and they were about ten feet away. I stuck a 'magnifying lens' around them in this version:
Climbing back into the skiff is somewhat of an adventure without a boarding ladder. Notice where in the narrative I bring this subject up? Right after I did my Polaris missile imitation while two sharks were arguing over me about twenty feet away. La Gringa managed to gracefully get one foot on the anti-ventilation plate on the outboard and muscle her way aboard. Made it look easy. Me? I did my Shamu the Whale imitation. I start near the bottom with my flippers going like crazy and come flying out of the water gasping for air and land across the stern of the boat with a huge splash.... well.... not exactly. I do use the flipper power to get out and it's not pretty. At least we spared you those photos. I gotta find a boarding ladder.
We packed up and pulled our anchor and left the Little Blue Hole for another day's expedition. Some of the locals escorted us to the town limits:
Remember back early in this post when I mentioned the buoy behind us as we zoomed away from the entrance to Southside Marina? I believe I mentioned that this is a pretty tricky little spot if you don't know the waters here. Boats that draw up to six feet can get in through here at high tide. And the channel is clearly marked. And if you get outside of it, there are some shallow spots.
These guys were hung up but good on a shallow sand bar just to the west of the channel marker. Fortunately, it is sand and not coral or limestone. And they were also lucky in that this was the calmest day we've had here in weeks. We asked them if there was anything we could do to help. They said they had decided to just wait out the tide. It being Happy Hour and all, we figured that it could have been worse. We told them we would be monitoring Channel 16 on the VHF if they needed any help later. The tide was still falling at this point, but didn't have much further to go.
Makes for a nice picturesque photo, though, doesn't it? Sailboat heeled over in the evening breeze..... just missing the wind and sail.. and motion.
That's pretty much it for this post. We knew it would be a short one, as we have been kept near home recently except for this first shakedown cruise for the little skiff. We started back out to look at the Lionfish progress on that airplane wreck just a week or so ago, in the Hobie TI but the weather was getting lumpy that day. We ended up just ducking behind some shelter for a picnic lunch, instead.
This time, we actually made it back out to the wing. I think we are going to start doing something about these Lionfish. Technically, it's illegal to use a spear gun here in the Turks and Caicos Islands. But the Lionfish are taking over and devouring the local fish. They won't take bait or artificial lures, so catching them with a hook and fishing pole just doesn't work. Netting would be very difficult, and I don't know how the rest of you feel about this but I don't want to deal with a live, agitated, venomous fish at close quarters anyhow. A net wouldn't do anything to stop those 13 spines. The logical thing to do is to simply spear them. I can't keep them, which would be spearfishing, which I already admitted is illegal here. But maybe we can just modify the Lionfish slightly if I don't take them out of the water. I'm thinking of adding a small decorative puncture wound. Something like getting their ears pierced, for free. And then we'll just leave them with the lobsters and other local sea life to deal with. Turn about is fair play.
And that's not fishing, is it? This new 'spear and release' program I am thinking about? I am seeing it more as pest control.
We'll have to sleep on it. Tomorrow's another day. And I need one more cliche, such as this one for a great sunset: