In 1988 I was standing on the wooden deck of Thakurufaan, our dive dhoni, somewhere in the middle of North Male Atoll. “Here is the big reef–you can see the hole in the top there. Then the little one at the end, and the third one out there to the side.” Hussein, the captain–a man who had never put on a mask or a scuba tank–was describing for me in detail Okobetila, which is now quite a famous dive site in the Maldives. All I saw was water. As far is you could see in any direction, nothing but water. And down–a lot more water.
“You take this rope, dive down and pass it through the hole in the top of the reef, and bring the end back up to tie off the boat.” I had no idea what I was going to dive down into, but Hussein seemed to see clearly something I did not, and I trusted Hussein absolutely. That was my 505th dive.
Nineteen ninety-four, dive 2,629, the northeast coast of New Caledonia, near Hienghene. Hienghene is one of those places in the world you really have to want to get to. It’s not near anything else. But I had seen a lot of water by then, and every time I looked at what had become living, moving, breathing water, I thought of Hussein.
When we got the opportunity to open a dive center in Hienghene, I didn’t really need to dive there first to know if the diving was going to be any good. If you know which way the wind blows most of the time (New Caledonia sits in the trade winds), and understand water, and had paid attention to Hussein, you could stand on the shore with a nautical chart and take a pretty good guess where the coral and fish would be.
Most people may not know this, but a lot of the ocean is not particularly interesting. Diving in New Caledonia, you had to hit a pretty exact sweet spot: exposed to current, near deep water but with an accessible top not too deep, and moderately protected from waves once the wind picks up. We’d asked the local kanaks where they thought diving would be good when we first arrived, but whenever the sea was calm and I had time, I’d take the boat and my chart, and go look for sweet spots. I dove multiple times almost daily with paying customers, and should have rested, but when one of those incredibly rare calm days came by–the sea literally like a sheet of glass, clear skies–and we had no divers, I decided to drive the five nautical miles out to Passe de Hiengu (I’m going to use the French/Kanak place names now, because that’s what they were to me), and I asked Helene, the equitation instructor, if she wanted to come.
Helene was and is beautiful. It is mostly in the eyes, where you see her intelligence and will, but the rest sort of knocks you back on your heels, too.
Helene and I took the boat to Donga Hienga, the west side of the pass, first. It looked like a pretty easy dive, just a double barrier facing northwest, about 10 meters deep on top and then a vertical drop to perhaps 30 meters, and deep water very gradually offshore. I did not realize it at the time, but I dropped anchor at precisely the best point on the whole reef, right next to a small chimney descending straight down through the reef top, turning 90 degrees, and exiting the reef on the wall through a gorgonian-lined cave facing the morning sun. I would learn over many dives at Donga Hiengha that the channel inside the double barrier was one of the few places in the world to consistently find ribbon moray eels,
and that the top of the chimney housed extremely rare Rascasse de Merlet.
It was not generally a dive for big fish, but it was where I saw my first Tiger Shark, a 20-footer who swam directly over me near the end of a later dive without showing any particular interest, but left me with a lifetime sense of humility.
The day was still beautiful after the dive, so Helene and I took the boat to the other side of the pass, which is actually just a pivot in a very large reef structure, anchored by a reef named Dongan Hiengu: between Donga Hienga and Dongan Hiengu you have the North/South-running Passe de Hiengu, but then from Dongan Hiengu the lagoon swings out directly north, where the barrier rises six miles further out at Recif Doiman.
Dongan Hiengu was not going to be an easy dive. The sea was calm and clear, and I could make out a series of submerged reefs extending seaward from that pivot-point, and I could also see all that water roaring by both sides, the falling tide exiting the lagoon via both Passe de Hiengu and the transversal Grande Passe north of the reef. Two great oceanic rivers, pouring out to sea. We dropped anchor on top of one of these faint glows beneath the surface, and as I paused to consider our options I was embarrassed to realize I had been momentarily transfixed by Helene’s beauty, sitting there across from each other on deck, and Helene had shyly looked down when she realized it as well.
More to change the subject than anything else, I asked Helene if it would be ok with her if I just went down very quickly alone to see what was down there. There was obviously enough current to make the dive a challenge for an experienced diver, and Helene–new to diving–looked at me with those enormous green eyes, and even 24 years later I can’t remember what she said but I can still feel those eyes.
The current was so strong that I was forced to go down the anchor line hand-over-hand, and was only able to scan briefly the area around the reef–patate in local parlance–for a few minutes before I had to ascend. A small reef shark flew by in the current, gorgonians bent like willows in a wind storm, thousands of Fusilier swarmed above the coral. Definitely a place to explore further, so a few days later–after waiting out the moon so that a smaller tidal variation would weaken the current–I returned to Dongan Hiengu with Helene, and this time my wife, Nathalie. I found again that glow I had seen from the surface the first time, explained what to expect to Nathalie and Helene, and then waited on the boat while they became the first people ever to dive Dongan Hiengu.
Waiting on deck, I had the leisure to look at the water, the reef nearby, the patates, that glow. Something looked different. And when Nathalie and Helene returned, the incredible dive site they recounted did not resemble what I had seen briefly only a few days before. I realized that the first time, I thought I was diving at the spot on the map where we were today, but that I had actually been closer to the visible reef marking the pivot in the lagoon. This day, I had returned to what I thought was the same spot I had been before, but had accidentally ended up where I had intended to dive that first day. And Dongan Hiengu remains one of the most beautiful spots on Earth I have ever seen. Five separate reef structures, aligned perpendicularly to the strong current, covered in hard and soft corals that attract hundreds of species of reef fish, hundreds of thousands of individuals, and then of course all the way up the food chain. Arches, caves, occasionally very large bull sharks, plenty of smaller ones–a pulsating concentration of life, invisible from above.
Today, Helene lives in a castle in Saumur, France. Dongan Hiengu is still there, probably will be long after I am gone. For a time, if you knew where to look and zoomed in enough, you could spot my little boat via Google Earth moored there, alone in that big, empty sea. And I was standing there, seeing all that water, seeing it roaring by as clearly as if each strand of current had it’s own texture and tint, seeing that glow where the life was strongest, seeing first the big reef here, the second, smaller one there, and the other three, heading off toward deep water.
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That’s it. I’m learning to dive after I retire next year.
Thanks, man. It is truly a different world, and I recognize how very fortunate I was. It took A LOT of diving, but I felt very comfortable there. I remember once a New Zealand academic, hanging around the dive shack, asking me why I loved diving so much. I told him that it was the only place I could think without using words in my thoughts. He started to tell me that it was scientifically proven that humans cannot think without using words, but paused, then stopped. I think he recognized that he could not argue this point with someone who had spent well over 5,000 hours of his life underwater. I will never know that again.