I’ll Have A Boat Bottom!

Another note from dah island, mon.

Two recent events in my little universe sent me down a slippery slope to discovery.  The first was rather mundane, a trip to the grocery store.  Several times during this visit I carelessly veered off my shopping list. I was drawn to a sweet-smelling aroma coming from a mound of fresh pineapples just shipped in from the Dominican Republic. They were golden, aromatic and ready to eat.  Yum.  I picked out a 2-pounder and tossed it in the cart.  Next, I found myself wandering among the soft beverages rows.  I’m not a soda drinker but I thought a can of ginger beer might be nice.  Instead, I found agua de coco, coconut water which can put a serious dent into a hot tropical afternoon. Yes.

The other event was event more humdrum.  Every three months I have to take our two boats from dock to an offshore mooring and clean their bottoms.  They attract barnacles, algae, crabs and crusty critters that are all detrimental to the boats’ performance and fiberglass.  It is quite a process.  I start by schlepping 40 pounds of dive gear to the dock.  I bring a metal scraper to knock of the barnacles, scrub pads for the algae, and a dive knife for the stubborn bastards.  It’s an exhausting hour-plus effort working mostly upside down.  I do one boat a day.  The only redeeming value of this labor is that once complete, I float down forty feet to check out the reef below. The last time I was greeted by two French Angelfish and five curios barracudas.

Returning home yesterday after two days of boat bottom cleaning, I was knackered.  My knuckles were scraped raw from hitting the crusty hull buildup.  I had stings on my face and hands from underwater beasts that were furious for being evicted from their homes.  My entire body felt pummeled.  Thoughts drifted to an exotic elixir to restore my mojo.  It was then that the sweet smell of pineapple wafting through the air drew me to the kitchen.  The can of Conchita coconut water was chillin’ in the frig and I remembered an unopened bottle of Mount Gay Black Barrel rum that I had stashed in the cabinet months ago.  Hmmm. It was time to get creative.

Now I’m not a fan of fruity tropical drinks and have little knowledge of them.  Give me a good rum, a slice of lime and some bubbly water and I’m happy as a clam in the mud.  So, I contacted our son for advice. He was a bar manager in London for a few years and became a quite a talented mixologist.  “Put the pineapple in a blender and blend.  Dilute with coco water and blend again with the rum.  Maybe you want to add a pinch of cinnamon.”  I did just that and poured the mix over ice.  It was fantastic and not milky sweet like a piña colada.  The mellow yellow concoction  delivered the distinctive flavor of each ingredient.  I was feeling better already.  I wrote our son back for a name suggestion.  “Well, since we are in the thick of a pandemic, how about a Piña Corona?”  Clever boy.

But this drink was inspired by my underwater toil over the weekend—drudgery at sea.  I prefer to simply call it a Boat Bottom.  Try ordering one next time you can go to your favorite watering hole.  My bet is that you will stump the bartender.

To Build A Reef

photo-Lorenzo Mittiga

An aquatic island note…

I was ready to get back in the game and volunteer again.  That is one of the many nice benefits about not having to work anymore.  I finally have the time to contribute to a good cause and maybe make a bit of a difference.  This time I chose the Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire.  Their mission is to protect and restore the reefs of the island by using innovative techniques to propagate corals.  

Why is this important?  There are a number of reasons.  Coral reefs make up a mere 1% of ocean environments but supply habitat for 25% of marine life.  Check out any healthy reef and you will find it teaming with fish.  Worldwide, reefs support over 4000 fish species and offer homes to 80,000+ species of sea life.  Bottom line- reefs are integrally important for the stability of ocean ecosystems.

But before I could begin, the Reef Renewal Foundation requires that volunteers take a 2-day dive course that mixes above-water lectures and demonstrations with underwater work.  I chose to do my course at Wanna Dive, one of the smaller dive shops on Bonaire but one that always does a top- notch job with a friendly staff.  My instructor, Linda, explained a number of things about corals, some of which I was unaware.  Corals are living animals, not plants, that are made up of polyps, soft-bodied organisms which secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard, protective limestone skeleton base.  They have a symbiotic relationship with algae where the corals offer shelter and compounds needed for photosynthesis. In return, the algae produce oxygen and sugar for the polyps.  It’s the ultimate underwater “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” scenario.   

the nursery ‘tree’

Linda led me 20-feet under to a ‘nursery’, a set of four PVC plastic ‘trees’ with fragments of elkhorn and staghorn corals hanging from the branches.  These two coral types were chosen since they are fast growing, offer great habitat for reef fish and are considered an endangered species in need of protection.  The first task was to clean the tree of excessive algae growth, remove invasive fire coral crusting on the plastic and inspect the corals for predators such as snails.  I was also instructed on how to prune the larger pieces of coral growing on the trees.  We clipped off small bits with pliers and let them float down to the sand.  Then we looped fishing line around the corals and hung them back on the tree branches that had space.  These smaller pieces then begin their growth and the cycle repeats. 

Out-planting elkhorn coral

My favorite procedure is out-planting, taking larger elkhorn corals from the trees and making a mini colony on the rocky sea bottom.  This involves excavating an area of rock with a hammer to make a relatively flat surface base for the coral.  Then small balls of underwater epoxy clay are fixed to the rock and the coral in pressed into place.  It takes quite of bit of trial and error to find the right spot.  Often when excavating rock, dots of orange sponge will appear. These inhibit corals from attaching well and a new location needs to be found.  I discovered quickly that hammering underwater is a humbling, slow-motion endeavor. 

So that is what it is like to build a reef.  Yesterday, Linda and I out-planted 15 elkhorn corals in 63 minutes.  I glanced around to see earlier out-plantings that are now thriving.  I looked back to my newly placed colony of six corals.  Already pinky finger-sized fish of brilliant blue and striking yellow darted among the baby elkhorn.  As famed British naturalist David Attenborough once said, I can mention many moments that were unforgettable and revelatory. But the most single revelatory three minutes was the first time I put on scuba gear and dived on a coral reef.  I totally agree with him.  And for me that feeling of wonderment never ends.

Patience & the Perfect Papaya

A Fruity Island Note from the Land of Bon Bini

When I first moved to the island, I was pleasantly surprised that on almost any day I could buy a papaya.  Even when the cargo boat failed to show up on time, I could usually score on one of those golden globes.  While the abundance was a blessing my ignorance of the fruit was a detriment.  How long do I wait for it to ripen?

I would watch the skin color change from green to yellow and cut open the papaya.  It would be as hard as a hermit crab.  I waited longer for the next one, thumping daily on the outside to determine ripeness.  When the sound changed, I anxiously cut open the fruit.  Foiled again.  This experimentation went on for months. Then one day I bought a papaya and forgot about it.  Life got in the way.  I was diving one day, sailing the next. Then it was some volunteer work followed by a grand beach party.  The better part of the week passed before I thought about the fruit waiting on my counter. By now the skin had fully turned to yellow, but there were soft spots and small indentations on the surface.  It looked funky. One of the spots even had a bit of white mold growing on it.  

Drat, I had waited too long.  With nothing to lose, I sliced open the fruit lengthwise and out spilled its shiny, black seeds.  The flesh was not orange like my previous papayas, but a shimmering pink-red.  I sliced off a piece and ate it.  A wonderful flavor of sweet with exotic exploded in my mouth.  Yes, this papaya was ripe and ready.

That fruity experience seems like a lifetime ago. I learned the hard way that one needs patience for the perfect papaya.  And why not?  I’m living on island time anyway.  These days I have perfected my skills.  I rotate the fruit every day so that the bottom side is relieved of its weight with hopes that the insides ripen evenly.  That’s my tropical theory and I’m sticking to it. And once the small dimples start to appear, ripe red papaya is just a couple of days away. Squeeze a bit of lime on top and I’m in papaya heaven.