PART ONE: LITTLE CORN ISLAND, NICARAGUA
At Managua airport, we hugged goodbye to mum and dad and watched them go through immigration until they were out of sight. Then we left the swanky, glassy international terminal and walked next door to the small, shabby building which served as the terminal for national flights. A few hours later, we flew from Managua to Big Corn Island (not as tiny and rickety a plane as you might think) and the next day, we caught a panga and crossed to Little Corn. The only available seats by the time we arrived were at the front of the boat, so we had an absolutely spine-thudding journey as the boat leapt through the waves, like trying to ride the wildest horse of them all and jarring with each buck.
We arrived at the Little Corn pier and disembarked, avoiding the touters advertising hostels, snorkelling tours and free drinks. Once we’d loaded ourselves with our backpacks, we set off along the concrete walkway (no vehicles on this island), and wandered along the shorefront amid the few restaurants and bars. The sea was mottled, with patches of bright turquoise and darker blue where the bottom was rocky or covered in sea grass or reef. Wandered into one and then the other dive shop. The second one, Dolphin Dive, appealed more: the staff answered our questions more fully and we liked the look of the operation. Adam, the manager, helped us find accommodation (our requests being a kitchen, to keep food cheap, and not a backpacker place) in the house of the two divemasters who worked there, Molly (English) and Gary (local), who shortly afterwards arrived back from a dive. Both really friendly, Gary took us back to their house to check it out and I quickly realised he has one of the heartiest, most infectious laughs of anyone I have ever met. Their kitchen has an oven (!) and the house is very spacious. They also have two dogs, a big fluffy sandy-coloured shepherd called Simba (aptly named, I immediately drew a line across his forehead and said ‘Simbaaa’ in as low a voice as I could manage), and an island dog (no official breed but they’re everywhere here) called Gypsy. The house is on the southern tip of the island, where it’s very quiet and most of the houses around belong to Gary’s family (he pointed in various directions, picking out his brother and dad in two houses across the way, his aunt and cousin to one side…). Seemed like it would be a lovely place to stay.
Very strange to be in a place where more or less everyone speaks and understands English, albeit Creole English, so the accent will take some getting used to. Absolutely love it though. By this time, Sam had already said out loud to me that he wondered if this would be a good place to begin our divemaster qualification. Within another hour, once we had sat down and had a smoothie in a restaurant overlooking the sea and talked it over a bit, including finances and other aspects, we decided to stay. (The extra deciding factors for me included a lending library in the village, which meant I couldn’t possibly run out of books and the two pet dogs. Yes, these things make a difference.) An odd feeling! We arrived expecting to be here a week before moving on north, and suddenly we were starting our diving internship the next day, didn’t know the first thing about where to get food supplies, and hadn’t even walked around the whole island yet.
The next day we began. I had fewer than the forty dives needed to start the qualification, so I spent the first few days getting my dives up by going out on a lot of the fun dives with Molly and Gary and groups of certified divers. Quickly realised that it is a great place to dive frequently: a lot of coral, many species of fish, stingrays, and resident nurse sharks. On my first dive, with Gary, a HUGE nurse shark passed over the reef, at least two metres long. Haven’t seen one that size for the rest of the week, but the smaller ones, especially at specific sites, follow the dive group around, swimming very close, turning over in the sand, swimming right at me sometimes before curving away at the last moment. Have seen long black moray eels, dotted with white, large shoals of different species, often Yellowtail Snappers, and several Southern Stingrays sat on the bottom and covered in sand so that only their tails and eyes/gills are visible.
Meanwhile, Sam helped out on some courses with the student divers. I joined in towards the end of the week when my assistance was more needed and I had reached forty dives, and spent several days assisting on try dives for people who have never dived before and wanna try it out. Quickly realised how much patience teaching and assisting requires. Although it is enjoyable to help people, and I know that it appeals a lot to Sam, during the dives our attention is so focussed on the students that the diving isn’t about the reef or the wildlife, or the joy of diving, it is about being a focussed, careful assistant. Watching two episodes from an AMAZING BBC wildlife series called ‘Shark’ in the evenings made me think about what I want from diving in the future: definitely want to use the diving to try and get experience in research diving and conservation.
Other than these activities, we spent every evening studying the Divemaster manual, a chapter a day ending with a knowledge review we had to fill in, which we then went through the following day with Adam. Absolutely exhausted, in bed by half nine most nights, ready to be up and at the shop by half seven or eight the next morning.
After a few days, we also did our first inwater part of the course: the skill circuit. Steph, an instructor who has been teaching here for five years, took us to the confined area (shallow water) used for teaching, and we ran through a number of demonstrations that Sam and I need to be able to perform, should we need to assist student divers (like regulator replacement, mask clearing, out of air situations, buoyancy check etc etc). There are twenty plus skills we will need to be able to demonstrate clearly and simply, most of them underwater. There were a few surface skills, such as equipment set up, so we had to pretend we were instructing new divers, rather than each other and an instructor with a lot of experience, and demonstrate putting together the gear. Seeing as I’m not a fan of public speaking, I had to just ignore the weird set up and do it. Good feedback from Steph for both of us. Also had a couple of comments at the end of the weekend to the effect that we have done a lot for our first week, so I think we are working pretty hard and doing ok.
With no days off (out of choice, we wanna get into it a bit more first) we haven’t had time to explore the island any more than the necessary places. Have learnt that a supplies boat comes over from Big Corn every Saturday, so that is the day to buy anything fresh, mostly vegetables. Sam went over to Big Corn at the weekend to get money out, and came back with an absolute TREAT: three blocks of cheddar! It was American cheddar but hey, on an island with only salty local cheese that is a MASSIVE treat, never mind after a complete lack of cheddar for many months. He also brought back a huge bottle of olive oil. Only been a week and already these things are exciting. I have also learnt to bake bread (check out the domestic goddess), so every three days or so I have taken to baking a loaf to eat for breakfast and as snacks. I get Sam to knead the dough as my painful wrists make it difficult, plus the better the kneading, the lighter the bread comes out.
There is a strange vibe to the island, I haven’t yet worked it out. For such a small community (about 1000 people or so I was told, 500 or so are original Creole islanders, then a fair number of Hispanic immigrants from the mainland, plus foreigners who have permanently settled here), there don’t seem to be really strong familial ties. Maybe I am viewing this through the lens of a comparison with the family units in Cyprus and expecting that such a small community would be similar in that way. When I talked to Molly about this, she said it was partly cultural but also that cocaine has a huge influence on the island. It is apparently so readily available, and messes up a lot of friendships, families, destroys loyalty etc. A number of foreigners have described arriving on the island meaning only to stay a short while (like us) and then staying for ages, and many are repeat returners, visiting for several months a year. Some have even bought land and moved here, more or less permanently, doing visa runs to Bluefields (costal town on the mainland) every three months, then longer visa runs out of the country (usually across the border into Costa Rica for like twenty minutes then back) every six months. This influx has such an array of consequences, positive and negative, that it is difficult to untangle in my head. There is a LOT of crime, within the first week alone: robbery of a couple, also staying in Molly and Gary’s house, their bags were taken from behind their heads on a beach, an instructor from the dive shop was physically assaulted as she walked home and we heard rumours of the rape of a tourist. And the gossip just seems to circulate and morph and each story has several versions and it is difficult to work out where the truth begins and end, if indeed the truth ends up relating to ‘reality’ at all in the end. Fidelity also seems to be a hazy thing. I have heard that a lot of married local men have flings with tourist girls who either don’t realise that the men are married or don’t care.
But on the other hand, it is a palm-tree-strewn, small gem of an island, and especially when I am diving, or walking back and forth to the house chatting to Sam and looking out to sea and around us, I feel happy to be here. The simpler way of life certainly has its benefits.
Week two was off to a slow start, with two days off because I was ill. I had a blocked nose and was basically congested, and seeing as this can be dangerous for diving, I had to sit it out. Went along to the dive shop and helped to translate for a Nicaraguan student taking a course, and helped out with assembling and breaking down gear, but other than that just felt frustrated that I was missing out.
On the Wednesday evening, we went out with Molly, Gary and a few others to a local restaurant, where a couple of wandering hippies who make up the group Los Arsonistas (The Arsonists) performed an awesome fire show.
The first dive I did when I had recovered more than made up for the two days off. We came to the surface at the end of the dive, to hear the captain yelling that dolphins were heading towards the boat, so we stayed in the water. Only a couple of minutes later, seven individuals, including a baby, swam into sight, gliding around us, playing with each other and coming quite close. Absolutely incredible moment. We all got into the boat and set off back towards shore, and the pod rejoined us, swimming really close alongside the bow, so we all put our masks and fins back on and jumped into the water. This time they were even closer, and as I was so massively keen, I was swimming out in front and got a really good look, especially at one individual who turned to watch me. There were a total of sixteen individuals by now, who swam below us, wrestling playfully with each other whilst keeping an eye on us, then would swim up to the surface ahead and curve out of the water for air. If I could have told my child self that I would get to swim with bottlenose dolphins in the wild when I was older, I wouldn’t have believed it.
On Friday and Saturday I interned on an Advanced Course, which meant shadowing an instructor as she taught and carried out the course. The Advanced Course is made up of five adventure dives, plus a knowledge review for each dive to be completed in the accompanying manual. I especially enjoyed the peak performance buoyancy dive. It was just the instructor, the one student and me, and we took a few weights and a big square made of plastic piping down to about twelve metres and did various exercises to improve buoyancy, which included different fin movements to increase efficiency, hovering, and swimming through the square in a number of different ways, including upside down which was pretty disorientating. Good fun though, and showed up a few cracks in my own skills which I can improve on, though also showed to me that I am more competent even in ten days. It has got to the point where even just breathing, suspended in the water, has become a joy, that pure, effortless weightlessness is almost addictive. Never mind the incredible wildlife and marine scenery, simply the act of diving is amazing.
By Friday, we had finished reading the Divemaster manual and completed all the knowledge reviews, so did Part One of the exam. All went well, I got 57/60, and Sam got 100%, the smug thing!
Saturday began unremarkably. We then heard the news that a hammerhead shark had been spotted during a dive by the other dive shop at a site off the eastern side of the island. Incredibly exciting, especially considering there has been one confirmed sighting in the last eighteen months (apparently they used to be common but now are incredibly rare, most likely due to being fished). I had to accompany the final Advanced Course dive, but Sam went off with a group to the same site. He was swimming out front of the group and saw the hammerhead glide past him, as well as a group of twenty plus eagle rays which ‘flew’ above him. I was VERY jealous when he told me, more than made up for him missing the dolphins, and though we went on an afternoon dive to the same site to try search for the hammerhead, it was no longer there. Everyone was so keen to see it that the dive group consisted of four customers and six of us members of staff. It was a site called Tarpon Channel, an eerie place, about twenty metres deep, two walls of rock rising on either side of the deep blue. Not much to see by the way of wildlife. As we made our five metre safety stop at the end of the dive, Gary waved a tiny plastic hammerhead shark attached to his BCD jacket at me, then once on the surface made me smile as he laughed uproariously and told me that at least I’d seen one underwater.
Sunday was our first proper day off. I spent the morning writing and reading and doing other exciting life admin things like laundry. Sam and I then taught Molly and Gary an Israeli card game which we have picked up during our travels. They call their place the Game House because they like board games and card games so much, so it went down a real treat. We played amid preparation for a veggie roast dinner, which when served was delicious: one large Yorkshire pudding divided between us all, carrots done the way my dad does them, cabbage, and rosemary roast potatoes topped off with veggie gravy. We rounded off the day by watching the final part of the BBC Shark series. Dr Andrea Marshall, the top manta ray scientist who I met in Ecuador featured a lot, was odd to see her on screen.
Instead of allowing me to rest, the day off brought out an illness. I became completely bunged up again, and thought we gave ourselves a really good night’s sleep, I woke up on Monday and decided that if I really wanted to get better I had to not go into the dive shop, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to go diving, especially if they were returning to the site where the hammerhead was spotted. When I headed in to use the internet, I took one look at Sam’s face and knew that I had missed it again. Really upset.
Over the next few days we got talking to Birgit, one of the instructors. She had great things to say about the dive shop on Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras, where she did her Divemaster training and instructor course. The diving is in a Marine Park, and has completely different topography, with a lot of diving along the wall created by the drop-off into the deep blue. As the island sounded larger (well most anywhere is larger than Little Corn), there would also be a greater range of diving experience, including tec diving and various specialties. We pondered it for a while then decided that it sounded like a great place to finish off our DMT to broaden our range of diving experience. Without booking anything in advance, we said our goodbyes to Molly, Gary, the two dogs and our new friends and left Little Corn on a morning panga.