Bobbing along in Bocas

Published: October 28th 2010
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The dive 'centre' at BastimentosThe dive 'centre' at BastimentosThe dive 'centre' at Bastimentos

Once again we had to flush the toilet with sea water. With the pressure the metabolism is accelerated so the kidneys work much faster. You pee loads!
Bocas Del Toro is a collection of small islands just off the coast of Panama. The main island is Colon and is actually a peninsula, joined to the mainland by a narrow, one lane road. We travelled there from San Jose on one of Costa Rica's local, long distance, high frequency buses. There was no toilet or air-conditioning and the side mirrors were duck-taped to the outside of the windscreen. It took about six hours to go from San Jose to the Saxiola border post. In all, about 250km, some of it over gorgeous mountain scenery but a lot of it through countless Dole and Chiquita banana plantations.
The border is a river, over which is a rickety iron bridge that is held together chiefly by rust and goodwill. Somehow huge articulated lorries complete with wagons and Scania buses make it across the worm-eaten wooden planks that form the walkway. Walking across for emigration purposes was daunting enough, not withstanding being trapped in a truck cabin when the timbers start to shriek.
From the border post, along with some other travellers and that most elusive of breeds, the French backpacker, we took a minibus for an hour to Almirante on the coast. We passed through what looked to be a pristine forest, reminiscent of Guadeloupe's National Park. We were meandering along a narrow tarmac strip in perpetual shadow due to the high canopy above us and the failing light of the day when we turned a corner and were confronted for a few seconds by the largest rubbish tip I have ever seen, sprawling across a jungle clearing and looking ugly beyond compare amongst the moss covered trees.
From Almirante we took a water taxi to Bocas Town, the main habitation in Bocas Del Toro. I loved the high-speed, bouncing, windsweeping, 45 minute crossing. It was better than any roller coaster. Del did less.
The first thing that struck me about Bocas was how most buildings seemed to have been constructed so that most or some of their structure is above the water. There is no edge to the island, just a lot of open fronted buildings and restaurants, resting on stilts about three feet off the water. Wood is the primary building material for walls, floors, stilts and doors, while the ubiquitous corrugated iron provides the roof.
Jan and Judith, our German travelling companions, stayed at the same hotel with us for the first evening. Del and I had decided to moderately splurge on accommodation while in Bocas and had found Hotel Casa Amarilla to be only 5 dollars or so more than some competing hotels/hostels but offering large ensuite rooms, A/C, fan, widescreen TV with cable, an electronic safe and computer with WiFi in the room.
That first night we were all dog tired from the journey so followed a recommendation from the American owner, Dennis, to eat at 'The Boat' just five or six doors down. The “large beers are a dollar”, won Jan and I over. The Boat turned out to be just that. A boat moored on a floating, ill-lit, drunken gangway. With Del holding onto my hand for dear life over the smallish gaps, we had a very pleasant evening, where indeed, beer was very reasonable and well appreciated.
Del has described our time with Judith and Jan, particularly our snorkelling tour, which was the best snorkelling either of us have ever done due to the clear water and abundant aquatic life. I'm now going to recount our time scuba diving. Scuba diving is something that I'd always wanted to have a go at and never had. I wanted to like it, I thought I would, but you never know. Del was also really interested as she loves to snorkel and see different fishes and marine life. We were originally intending to do our 'Open Water' certification, which is a global qualification that allows you to scuba dive anywhere on your own, with another certified diver, you're buddy in Honduras, in the Bay islands, reputedly where some of the best and cheapest diving is in the world. With some of the places we'll be visiting over the next year getting qualified seemed to a good idea. Can you imagine us going to Australia and not diving on the Great Barrier Reef?
In Honduras we'd read about courses starting at $225 and John, our diving American friend from St Lucia, had told us anything around $300 was a good deal. Walking down Bocas high street (this is a misnomer, walking down the street next to the water, where a lot of the tour operators and restaurants are) I saw dive shop sign advertising the full course for $175, only the owner couldn't tell us when we could start. The next day he told us it would be Monday. It was Wednesday, the course takes three days and we were a little concerned that we really didn't have the time or money to wait around that long. Then, we saw 'The Dutch Pirate' near our hotel. We enquired and we could start for the same price the next day.
The next day we were introduced, by an English guy from Watford, to our Italian instructor, 'Wakimo', or as we later discovered, Giacomo, pronounced, Jack-o-mo, the Italian for Jack. This guy was a legend. He was a good teacher; kind and thoughtful on land and very calm and reassuring underwater. It was evident very early on that Giacomo was really passionate about scuba diving and everything that went with it. He spoke at length about his scuba diving experience with no trace of ego despite having completed hundreds of dives over twenty years in the sport, worked in some of the best dive spots in the world and reached a very high technical level in his profession. He spoke about the behaviour of man towards some of natures most astounding but misunderstood creatures. He loved sharks and explained why, with more sense than I'd ever heard. He knew the name of every fish, worm and sponge that we pointed excitedly to, in English. He spoke in a soft, almost hesitant voice, in brilliantly accented English, “the air become trapp-ed”, but possessed a massive technical vocabulary. He came to our hotel room to give us one of our examinations one day because the dive shop was unavailable and told us about the career paths in scuba and his instructors' exam (two days - with the examiners trying to stress each candidate as much as possible). Later, he told us how, fresh after becoming an instructor, he took a scuba class and jumped in the water forgetting his flippers.
The course is broken into three distinct sections: theory, including required own time reading and modular examinations with a final exam at the end of the course; controlled environment dives; and open water dives. There are practical skills that you need to demonstrate to the instructor, like being able to navigate simply underwater with a compass, control your buoyancy or be able to replace your regulator if it is kicked out of your mouth or clear your mask of water if it becomes flooded. Although some of the skills were more uncomfortable than others (removing your mask underwater or having your air turned off unexpectedly to see how you follow your training) the majority of the training was enjoyable and nicely challenging. For the rest of the time, when you weren't actively demonstrating skills, it was awesome to be underwater, breathing, swimming with the fishes. It is strange how quickly breathing underwater becomes normal. Once the safety skills are in your mind and you're comfortable with your equipment, it feels very natural and pleasant, like a muscle memory, almost. Apart from the time I was in the water about to dive and realised I hadn't switched my air on, or the time Del went to descend, neglecting to put the regulator in her mouth. Or on the first day of the course when Del learnt she was the only girl on the course and so would have to strip down to her bikini in front of, that day, eight guys. Or the time Del destroyed a coral reef with her fee (ouch!!!)t. Or the time I wore two flippers of different sizes. Circles.
We dived twice everyday and after every dive we got better. The first few dives you're always banging into things or shooting upwards because you can't control your buoyancy very well yet. Each diver wears a BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), which is an inflatable vest that you inflate from your air tank or deflate to make the big changes in your buoyancy, like going down initially. For small changes in buoyancy, like tracking the terrain of the bottom and going over coral, you learn to use your lungs. Speaking of lungs, in my first two dives I burned through my air, there's so much to see and everything is new, and if you kick hard you don't sink. As time goes on I learnt to be calm, slow and deliberate with my actions and so made my air last longer.
After three days, Del and I had earned our accreditation, had our individual dive logbooks and we'd loved the experience. We were now certified to go anywhere in the world and dive down to a maximum depth of 18 metres, about 60 feet. However, we were thinking of more.
The Advanced Open Water course was the same price as the Open Water, contained five dives and sought to perfect our scuba skills to enhance our diving. We also heard the words, “wreck dive” and “night dive”. Speak to someone interested in scuba long enough and these two dive situations are bound to come up.
First, a wreck dive. This is a dive on a sunken ship or other man-made object. These are interesting dives because minute sea creatures colonise the wreck, turning it into a garden of coral, following the original contours of the object. Where small creatures are, big creatures are and so forth, until you have a rigorous mini ecosystem all centred upon an unwanted or unfortunate piece of rubbish. Recycling at its most beautiful. Our wreck was a small ferry boat but of course you can have genuine pieces of history and sights of great cultural importance, which also makes the dive doubly stimulating.
A night dive is a dive on a familiar sight at night. Why dive at night? There are various reasons but the best one for us is that not all marine creatures are awake or active during the day, in fact most are nocturnal. So, a reef seen during the day can be totally transformed during
Delphine: "Si c'est le maitre nageur, je me noie tout de suite!"Delphine: "Si c'est le maitre nageur, je me noie tout de suite!"Delphine: "Si c'est le maitre nageur, je me noie tout de suite!"

Translation: "if this is the lifeguard, I shall drown at once!'" says Delphine.
the night. Plus, at night, sea creatures are far more inclined to get close to you. Why this should be I don't know, but it is undoubtedly true - a white snapper let me run my hand along its side and a squid hovered just out of reach for perhaps a minute, like some glorious alien emissary before it jet powered away like a soft, living bullet.
Also, thinking about the Great Barrier Reef and some other sights we're interested in, 18 metres is good, but what if we need to go deeper to see the best stuff? The Advanced course enables us to dive to 30metres. This is a significant depth because this is where PADI, the main governing body of scuba, begins to classify dives as 'deep'. Any dive over 18 to 40 metres is considered a deep dive, with 40 metres the absolute maximum depth for recreational scuba diving. There is little chance reputable dive shops or resorts would take you on a 'deep' dive without this accreditation, plus, you wouldn't want to dive that deep without being how to do it safely.
30 metres is also around the depth that nitrogen narcosis and decompression stops begin to make an appearance. Nitrogen narcosis is when nitrogen concentrations under pressure in the blood begin to have a narcotic effect (remember the air we breathe is 70% nitrogen, at 30 metres you're under 4 bars of pressure, which means you're breathing four times the volume you would at the surface - see we did learn stuff). It's like being drunk, underwater. Like being drunk normally, being drunk itself isn't dangerous, it's the bus you walk out in front of or the bouncer you call a girl. The dangers underwater are obvious but interestingly, like being drunk, the more exposed you get to it, the more you can operate effectively with it, to a degree.
Happily, neither Del nor I felt the immediate need to find the kebab shop just out of sight down below or get 'narky' with our regulator. I did, however feel a little bit slow in my thought processes. We were supposed to conduct an experiment, showing the effects of nitrogen. We did a timed maths problem at the surface and the idea was to do one at the bottom to show how much longer the brain takes to work.
Unfortunately, visibility was zero at the bottom and some of our group had problems. Some got lost and had to be found by Giacomo (scary that deep with an impenetrable brown smudge in all directions) and one of the bigger guys got very low on air so Giacomo and his buddy had to take him up for an emergency ascent. To make matters more complicated though, because we were that deep, they had to make an advised safety stop, akin to a decompression stop, five metres from the surface for three minutes. The guy ran out of air so Giacomo had to give him his emergency regulator.
I won't bore you by telling you the different scenarios that might entail making a stop underwater but basically as you spend time deep the more nitrogen builds up in your body tissues. If you come up to quickly the nitrogen expands like all other gases as the pressure drops away. If it expands too quickly it might become too big to fit through some blood vessels causing a clot, or blocking neural pathways, causing paralysis or death. It's a big deal but is easy to avoid if you ascend to 5 metres and wait for the excess nitrogen to genteelly work its way our of your system.
So,we loved diving and plan to make sure we do some more during our travels. Reluctantly, we left Boas Del Toro on Saturday, 23rd October for Monteverde, via San Jose. Monteverde is in the north of Costa Rica, in the mountains, and is home to several 'cloud forest reserves', which we'd like to see. Plus, one of the Delphine's favourites - frogs!


28th October 2010

Diving diving diving
Oh Matt - you're descriptions of scuba diving take me back to my travels. My ex is a scuba dive instructor so I learnt in Thailand and I loved feeling like a supersize weightless fishy - done my advanced and over 30 dives - keep it up - it just gets better and better! Happy onward travels to you both. KT-x-
31st October 2010
Delpine and her accursed compass/Delpine et sa boussole maudite

des bulles...
Petite chanceuse va! à ce que j'ail lu, vous avez fait 3 jours de plongée, super!! rassure moi, c'était qui alors le maitre-nageur...? Bisous
2nd November 2010

Diving Dreams
The furthest I've been in seven years or so has been Newcastle! That's a lot of travelling I've been hoping to do. I'm envying you terribly right now, and it's amazing that you're taking a whole year out. Diving's definitely going to be on my to do list.

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