La Pointe aux Cachelots

Thirty meters down, you are looking toward deep water.  There is no transition, you are simply looking at a wall of blue water one second, and then there are the two enormous sharks, swimming directly toward you.  It is as if all that infinity of water suddenly coalesced into a darker round form with two beady eyes, and then pectoral fins, and then a tail, and then your brain understands how big they are.  They are really, really big

These two bull sharks are, amazingly, not the center of attention.  We are diving at Pointe aux Cachelots, but I have not yet named this place because we have not yet seen the cachelots.  I am, for the moment, overwhelmed by the concentration of life we have dropped into.

November 5, 1995, dive 3,027.  We are at the extreme western tip of Recif Doiman, and I am sure we are the first people to ever see this place.  Eleven miles from this hard and unforgiving coast.  You have crossed into Thule.The beach at very low tide.

I am in a small boat, in a very big ocean.  “Here is the top of the reef, there is that big canyon on the right, and then we’ll make our way around all those big blocks behind it, and then we’ll turn around at the point and let the current bring us back on the outside.  This is a big-fish dive, so look up a lot.”  Blank stares, some silent scanning of the surrounding, apparently featureless seas, little looks of trepidation and fear, and then they just gear up thinking “he seems to know what he’s doing.”  I have become Hussein.

We are surrounded by an enormous school of perroquet à bosse.  These are, individually, quite large fish, and we are barely wet and find ourselves surrounded by a grazing school of fifty.  Moving down the reef top toward the canyon, I realize the bottom below is moving.  perroquet-a-bosseIt is covered, literally covered, with spawning loche marbrée, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. fakarava-passe-sud-1 Not understanding yet what I am seeing, I look up just in time to deflect three incoming thon a dents de chien, enormous tuna, with giant, unblinking eyes, entirely fearless.  Everything alive around us is, I now understand, fearless.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The bull sharks do not want to eat us.  It is abundantly clear that they, like every other creature swarming around us, simply wants to understand what we are.  I have been fortunate to be the first to dive several great sites, and that first time down, when the fish are curious and don’t know what you are, is overwhelming.  So much life, so intense . . . it is as if all of Creation wants to touch you.

We are drained and excited when the dive is over, but we do not get to rest.  Before we’ve even lifted anchor, the cachelots are there.  Sperm whales, exactly as you expect them to be if you’ve read Moby Dick.  They are everywhere.  They are lifting their tales, or breaching, or simply floating there in place.  And then humpbacks, more common whales in this region, but to see the two together is exceptional.  And then “exceptional” loses it’s meaning when the petit rorquals, Minke whales, arrive.  Everywhere you look, whales.  We shout “look, over there!,” only to suddenly have another one rise within arm’s length of the boat.  I see one swimming like a rocket on the surface, enormous and powerful, but cannot figure out what it is until I realize it is a sperm whale swimming on its back.  That long lower jaw open, but on top now, with each of those enormous teeth silhouetted.  They jump, they raise their pectorals, slap their tails.  It is too much life in one place for one lifetime.

From the shore, I could look at the sea some days and think “there is the sky, and there is the sea underneath, and that is all there is to see.”  You cannot know what is underneath.  I don’t know why I got to see these things.  I just went underneath because that is what I wanted to do, I wanted to see, I wanted to be, in that place.  Because you cannot know what is underneath.



Dongan Hiengu


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 is second from the left. Itzel, Helene, Didier, Veronique, Mustafa, Jean Philip, and Noriko.

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,


murene ruban

and that the top of the chimney housed extremely rare Rascasse de Merlet.


Rascasse de Merlet, taken by the guy I eventually sold the dive center to.

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.

map 002Dongan 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.



David Wiewel

This is a revised version of something I wrote a while back.

I can’t tell the story about what happened next without talking about David Wiewel.  David was part of a chain of lucky breaks I got, good people I met who recognized who I was and what I had the potential to be.  And David gave me a chance to do something with that, taking a part in making me who I am today.

Let’s Begin At the End

It was pretty hard to know what was going on with David back when I knew him, and he fell completely off my radar once I moved back to the States.  So I Googled David, and it didn’t take much work to begin suspecting that something bad had happened, and a short time later I learned that David was dead.  They say you don’t know how much you’ll miss something until it’s gone, and let me tell you, even though David died five years ago, learning of it now had the immediacy of discovering the body myself.  All the papers said was that David had gone out for a walk and never returned, that his family and friends were concerned, and then several months later his remains were discovered on a secluded beach.  I’m sure there are more details that have come to light since then, but it seems like a fitting end for a person as private and discreet as David.

How I Met David

I was working on a boat in Cannes when I first met David.  He came aboard as part of a group studying underwater photography, and my wife struck up a conversation with him.  Even back then, that combination of very British correctness, tightly wound intensity, and 50’s glee club haircut stood out.  The details were always murky, but I understood he’d left Holland young, had spent considerable time in Sweden where he owned a travel agency, and currently owned a dive center in the Maldives.  At the time, my wife and I were happy just to be working in diving, living season to season without much thought for what comes next, but we jumped up and down giggling in each others arms when David called and offered us a job opening a new dive center on a tiny Maldiven island.

David had years of experience at that sort of thing, so he got us all set up to operate and then basically just left us alone.  He’d come by once a month or so to balance out the books, but it was more like having an old drinking buddy come over to visit who didn’t need to get up early and go to work in the morning like you did.

David Disappears, But David Is Still There

I don’t know many details of David’s life, but I’d wager he considered taking over the diving for Club Med on Farukolhfushi one of his life’s worst mistakes.  After two years on our little island, David was losing the lease on the diving there, and my wife and I had already lined up work on another island.  David sort of cut that out from under us, because he said we were going to be working with him on Faru.  I wasn’t very enthusiastic about Club Med, but it was a professional challenge and David was a good man to work for.  David hadn’t been there two months when he decided that not only did he not like Club Med, he didn’t like diving or the Maldives, and he took off not to resurface until years later when I learned he had a horse trekking business in Chang Mai, Thailand.

Although David was gone, you couldn’t really do anything in our work without stumbling into something from David.  My favorite was Kiki’s Reef.  David of course had already made sure we learned the dive sites near Thulagiri, but when we started venturing farther out, David showed us the sites in Wadu Channel, which his island Velasura sat on the edge of.  I don’t believe it was actually David who told me the history of the name, but perhaps another instructor who had known him for years.  According to the version I learned, Kiki was one of the early European instructors in the Maldives, and David’s girlfriend.  Together they had found the series of overhangs along the north side of Wadu Channel, just east of Lion’s Head, and named it in honor of Kiki.  That was always sort of a running joke with me, because depending on who you spoke with from time to time, well-known dive sites would acquire new names depending on which newly arrived instructor wanted to honor himself as the site’s discoverer: Kiki’s Reef became Hans’s Reef became Guiseppe’s Reef.  But David and Kiki were among the first, so I was pretty sure the name was historically accurate.  And then one day out of the blue Kiki announced to David that she was leaving, and that she was doing so with another instructor on David’s team.  I always wondered how David felt over the many years afterward every time someone mentioned Kiki’s Reef, if the name of the reef brought her face to his thoughts.  Now, the details of this story are pretty one-sided, and I’m sure there’s a lot more I don’t know about it than I do, but as it is it becomes part of what I know about David.  There’s the man I knew and then there’s the myth, and the two become inseparable over time, which can still sort of define who a person was in your world.  It is a fact that he was among the first outsiders to begin diving in the Maldives, a fact that he saw and did many things before anyone else in that country, and a fact he was also a very private person unknowable to all but I suspect a very limited circle of people.  And with people like that, sometimes the best you can do is take what you know and fill in the gaps with what sounds like something they’d do and makes sense based on the person you know.

Maldives Characters

I met many characters through David.  I sometimes tried to imagine these people first arriving in the Maldives, back before it was a destination and only tramps and adventurers made it there.  One of them was a German named Eddy–I never learned Eddy’s last name, but most people referred to him as Fat Eddy when he wasn’t around.  If you want to go diving, you need a compressor, and if you needed a compressor in the Maldives back then you needed Eddy.  Eddy was a nice enough guy, with the self-confidence that goes along with having a monopoly on a cornerstone to an entire business sector.  Eddy was pattern-balding on the top, but I remember vividly his enormous belly, taut as a drum skin, covered with what appeared to be fairly well-groomed hair.  Eddy got hot easily, so any time he was working on your compressor you’d be sure to see the shirt come off and that hairy belly ready to pop.  My favorite Eddy and David story is about the time David was in Male collecting the crew’s salary at the State Bank of India, and Eddy was tagging along prior to the two stopping in a tea house for lunch.  The State Bank was the only bank in the country, and when you walked in to the un-air conditioned lobby straight off of the filthy dockside street, the first thing you noticed were the stacks and stacks of ledger books piled high throughout the work area.  You presented yourself and your little bank book to one of the dozens of clerks who would perform your deposit or withdrawal, entering by hand the transaction with calligraphic precision.  Then he would miraculously go directly to one of the seemingly randomly stacked ledgers piled throughout the room, note the transaction, and you’d be on your way.  Everything was always done in cash, and David must have had $15-$20,000 in his briefcase when he and Eddy exited the bank.  But as they’re walking down the street, a Maldivan kid comes out of nowhere, snatches the case, and takes off running.  David stood there in shock, because crime was something unimaginable to him in the Maldives.  Not so Eddy, who took off running after the guy down the streets of Male.  It didn’t take long for a 300 pound German screaming “thief!, thief!” to draw a large crowd, and by the time David caught up with him a mob had cornered the terrified teenager and was preparing to lynch him on the spot.  Now, up to this point this is the story as I heard it from David himself.  But later it was Eddy who told me that the only thing that saved the young man was David’s intervention, which Eddy found hilarious but so like something David would do.  He abhorred violence, and although he never mentioned his motivation in the incident, you can easily imagine him asking politely that we all deal with this like gentlemen and call the authorities.  Anyway, my relationship with Eddy was always colored by the fact that I was new there and had no power, while everyone eventually meets someone like Eddy, the guy who has been there forever and holds all the cards and knows that if you don’t like doing business with him, good luck to you buddy.  But David never presented Eddy as anything other than what he was, always dealt with the guy as a friend who recognizes all the real faults and adjusts himself so that everybody remains happy and correct while the myth remains nourished.

I also met Raymondo Raccordati through David, and Raymondo’s wife Tashi.  Raymondo was famous for one thing, and he did it very well: he was totally untrustworthy.  He had a big, powerful Italian personality, but he never did anything straightforward and honest if he could do it through lying and stealing instead.  So nobody trusted this guy, but he was still looked upon as a friend by all these people who had been there since the beginning.  Raymondo was certainly someone who’s reputation preceded him, and I had already heard from his friends many stories about him cheating on agreements, stealing concessions, and straight out lying long before I actually met the man.  After a year on our little island, David said we needed a vacation, and so he arranged to have Raymondo’s wife Tashi run the dive center while we were gone.  Tashi was a Tibetan orphan who had been adopted by a Swiss family, and eventually became a fashion model.  She was beautiful, although not particularly brilliant, which may explain how she ever got married to Raymondo.  But David said not to worry, she and Raymondo were split up since he had stolen her dive safari business and boat, and that she just needed us to show her the dive sites and get her some time in the water before we left, as it had been “a while” since her last dive.  We learned shortly that her prior diving experience was mostly posing topless underwater for Raymondo’s photography, which is not as easy as it sounds, and she had spent many hundreds of hours doing it anyway, so she worked out fine.  Commercially, having a beautiful Tibetan fashion model lead tourists diving in a tropical paradise had a certain appeal.  Before leaving on vacation we took Tashi with us into South Male Atoll for one of our all day trips, and I’ll never forget looking at her as she sat cold and wet in our dhoni at the end of the day, completely transformed by the hours of exposure.  Up until that moment, the Tashi I knew was the stunningly beautiful fashion model visible to all the world, but I spent that boat ride back home with the weathered and worn out Tibetan orphan that still lived inside.  Those were pretty physically demanding days, and I’m not even sure if she knew that part of her was still in there.

When we returned from our month-long break, the first thing we learned was that Raymondo was barred from setting foot on our island, that we hadn’t been gone three days when he arrived and began skimming customers and their fees so that the hotel was cut out of their commission.  I learned later that Raymondo had died of cancer, wasting away in a Male hospital bed only a fraction of the immense person he had been before, but still cherished by all those guys who had known him since the beginning.  The obvious pain his passing caused them made me suspect there was more to Raymondo than I’d had the time to discover.

Who Was David, Who Are You?

I don’t think I really knew David; I only knew that part of him he shared with me, enhanced by what I heard about him from others.  I try to keep in mind that I know exactly why and what led up to everything that I have ever done or said, but for what I know about David–as for anyone else for that matter–I will always only see what was on the surface and then make some assumptions about intent that fit.  When it comes to knowing another person, what everyone is left with at the end is that combination of the facts of a person and the image of the person that work together to create the myth of who we are to the broader world.  You can love someone, and want to know them, but these things outside your ability to know are always there, telling you that you don’t really “know” this person anymore.  And there is the sad beauty David’s passing, the fact of this wonderful man now gone, and the myth of the man that will carry on for quite some time, as real to those hearing it as if he were still there.

David on the beach