17 December 2010

Perks of the job: a dolphin at the Rhone


The descent into cloudy blue. The controlled fall punctuated by the slow hiss of inhalation, the bubbled uprush of exhalation. The softly enveloping water contrasts with each long dry swallow of bottled air. I tilt my head to the side and feel the pop! of relief as the pressure in my inner ear equalises with the ambient water pressure. 

I signal OK to The Captain, and glide behind our guest, hovering unobtrusively a little above her, at the ready in case she panics or drifts upwards while he puts her through her refresher exercises. We’ve already done her weight check at the surface and she looks fairly comfortable, albeit still a little restless as she grows accustomed to being back in the water. Mask fill and clear. Regulator out. Regulator retrieval. Pleased, I see her stream of bubbles settling down as she relaxes into her breathing rhythm. All goes smoothly, and we leave the dim slant of the descent line, finning towards the wreck. 

The wreck of the RMS Rhone is quite deservedly one of the best-known dives in the Virgin Islands. Lying in no more than twenty-four metres of water, it is shallow enough to explore at length; and open enough for a brief—no more than a quick fin-stroke or two—penetration. My personal favourite spot on the dive happens to be at the long upended deck supports that I call, privately, the Roman pillars. Silhouetted dramatically against the tall shafts of light filtering into the water, they rise from the sand like the columnar ruins of a temple. 

Were I to be left to myself, I would be content to hover quietly there for the duration of the dive, watching the play of light and the ever-changing traffic of sea life. A shadow crossing the light as a turtle glides overhead. The intent, wide-eyed countenance of a solitary porcupine fish, its odd wedge-shaped body surprisingly large when seen up close. The peculiarly open-mouthed expression of a yellowtail snapper submitting itself to cleaning station attentions, the tiny cleaner fish darting and nibbling. Surreal elongated trumpetfish, or here and there a thick frenetic swirl of feeders.

I am at the pillars, communing happily with a pair of absolutely enormous angelfish, as blank-faced as pagan gods, when I see a movement out of the corner of my eye. My normally serene captain is gesticulating in the most uncharacteristic manner. Finning the short distance to them, I turn my head. 

It is a dolphin.  

It is a dolphin, not three metres away from us. Simultaneously our three streams of bubbles halt for an instant, our breath arrested as the beautiful pewter-grey creature swims alongside us before swerving away past the jutting anchor relic.

Such joyous experiences as these are the perks of the job. 


Salt Island nearby, with its spiky wild scrub, salt pond and itinerant goatlets feeding plaintively on the wild sage bushes, provides a pleasant hiking spot for guests who do not dive—a cannily packed picnic does not go amiss. Whenever we are here, I am obliged to brush from my greedy mind certain nebulous longings involving very young sage-fed goats... a tender haunch to roast in the oven with slivers of garlic and a good rub with olive oil and salt, or chunks skewered on rosemary twigs and charring deliciously on the barbeque, for instance. Or a pot on the stove, simmering with red wine and bay leaf and a cinnamon stick. Or better still, perhaps, the entire kid laid gently on a bed of wet sage branches, and buried in a fire pit in the sand, to emerge after long hours of baking transformed into a sweetly smoky and herb-scented marvel... I say nothing aloud, of course, not wishing to either alarm or repulse any of our less gluttonous and more sensitive guests; but a girl can dream.

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about this blog

Occasional vignettes from the life of a charter chef who loves simply messing about on boats.

"I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brains and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world."
MFK Fisher

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