I don’t dive; in fact, I don’t swim very well. But, I do manage some underwater photography, thanks to the presence on semi-submersibles and glass-bottomed boats anywhere there’s something to be seen in Davy Jones’ Locker.
My first experience of the glass-bottomed boat was in Mombasa in 1994, when we sailed in the sort of craft that has you surreptitiously counting the lifebelts, and comparing your count with the number of ‘souls on board’. The skipper let us out to walk on the reef, too … that would be a strict no-no anywhere else; the rule is usually ‘Look with your eyes, not your hands’
The cruise at Aqaba in 2003 was different … yes, we saw coral, and, when I remarked that there was just as good a view over the side, the skipper jumped overboard with a car windscreen wiper, and cleaned the bottom off for us. It wasn’t much of an improvement, though. I did see a coral formation that looked very much like a ship. Just wait a minute! grinned the skipper, and showed us another formation that looked just like … and Army tank!
He explained that various bits of machinery had been sunk for the coral to establish itself, and create what amounts to an artificial coral reef. If there’s any other explanation, the driver of that tank is probably still in the brig!
A real submarine trip happened some time later. The ‘Atlantis 1’ was different to most people’s idea of a submarine in that it had windows … which are, of course, essential, for if the passengers can’t see out, there would be little point in the trip. Unusually for submarines, too, it was equally at home on the surface or below it. It offered trips from the harbour at Vlichada, on the Greek island of Santorini, all the way to the bottom of the sea.
No, we didn’t see the volcano bubbling away, nor did we see the fabled lost city of Atlantis, although we did see a few columns and things. And, lots of fish, and sunken boats. It was probably the novelty of actually being able to see out of a submarine that was the big draw.
It may not have been much of a draw, though. ‘Atlantis 1’ is no longer based on Santorini. I think it’s operating on the Canary Islands now.
There were also ‘submarine trips’ on offer in Tunisia. We passed on those, as we didn’t think there would be a lot to see under the Gulf of Hammamet; we went on the catamaran instead. But, I did manage a word to one of the submarine pilots. They only partly submerge, he told me; although they could submerge completely, they were neither licensed nor insured to do so.
That is probably the reason Marineworld operate a semi-submersible, rather than a true submarine. They’re based in Cairns, Queensland, and offer cruises out to their viewing platform on the Great Barrier Reef. But, no matter that it doesn’t completely submerge; there’s still a lot to be seen … and photographed and video-ed.
They also have a glass-bottomed boat, and after the semi-submersible, I thought it might be a bit of a come-down. On the previous occasions we’ve been on such vessels, we saw more by just leaning over the side. Not here, though … either they use a different kind of material, or just keep it cleaner. Of course, it isn’t really glass … I don’t think I’d be too happy sailing near a coral reef if it was, but ‘transparent plastic bottomed boat’ just doesn’t sound right, does it?
Now, these experiences aren’t just for crossing off a list and forgetting about. On a recent cruise around the Caribbean, we thought we’d like to see what lay under that sea, rather than just what was above the surface. So, we’ve booked a semi-submersible trip, and a sail in a glass-bottomed boat.
On St. Maarten, we were bussed to Grand Case, on the French part of the island. The semi-submersible awaited us at Grand Case, and we cruised for about 45 minutes, observing coral, fish and turtles. I did wonder afterwards, did it actually semi-submerse, or did it just have a viewing chamber in the bilges? I didn’t notice at the time; I was too busy taking in what was around us … and under us.
It might be thought that the glass-bottomed boat from Port Lucaya, in the Bahamas, came too hard on the heels of the semi-submersible at St Maarten. Its design did make photographing and video-ing through the glass bottom rather difficult, for the bottom of the boat was some distance from where we stood, and I suspect quite a bit of cropping went on to produce decent pictures,
But, the main attraction of this trip came when they started feeding the fish from the side of the boat. Things really began to happen then, especially when the sharks arrived. Caribbean reef sharks … which we were told don’t normally attack humans … but have been known to.
I’ve deliberately avoided too vivid a description of the things we saw, because I just haven’t the words; I’ll let my pictures do the talking.
Even they don’t give a true picture. I’ve seen these lovely colours on TV documentaries, and colour magazines and the like, and wondered how they got them; on most of my imagery, the colours are rather subdued, or, in many cases, have a distinct blue cast to them. The experts tell me that you’ll get that the deeper you go; the effect is less pronounced nearer the surface. I’ve been recommended to try a red filter … but, when I learned that, there just wasn’t time to visit the camera shop and get one. Maybe next time?