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Under the Caribbean Sea

Under the Caribbean Sea

Destination: Puerto Viejo

Rain, rain, go away. This was the mantra repeating in my head as we approached Bocas Water Sports Dive Center. It had been thunder storming all morning. Our boat captains, Leandro and Modesto, wisely postponed the trip by one hour, but the clouds looked just as ominous.

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In most circumstances, rain has no effect whatsoever on diving -- clearly, it doesn't rain underwater. (This fact becomes humorously obvious when you stop to think about it.) However, when lightning makes an appearance, all trips are called off.

Finally, Leandro decided to risk that the storm would get better and not worse. We boarded the boat and traveled for about an hour, with angry raindrops slamming into our faces like pellets from a BB gun. When the boat finally stopped, we were all cold, wet and cranky. "This had better be worth it," one of the children noted.

Thankfully, it was. In fact, to say that the ride was worth it would be a dramatic understatement. Despite the damp, dark weather above the surface, the panoramas 50 feet under the sea were nothing but bright rainbows of color. I studied fat, icky sea slugs and an underwater clover patch, while Leandro passed time playing with a gigantic upside-down jellyfish that looked like a bunch of cabbage leaves glued to a disc. Many species that I had never seen before were positively fascinating. The seascape truly felt like a scene from Disney's The Little Mermaid.

I was shocked by how much smaller but brighter the tropical fish are on the Caribbean coast in comparison to those of the Pacific. Even some of the exact same species were tinier but so much more vibrant in color -- particularly the male and female parrotfish. Interestingly enough, I found that parrotfish personalities also vary from one coast to the other. Here, they are notably more skittish and high strung than their big, brave brothers on the Pacific.

For me, the most breathtaking aspect of diving on this side of the country was the vast array of coral gardens: soft corals, hard corals, and neon green corals that looked like mazes and handcrafted pottery. Nature's underwater artistry truly sparks the imagination, and everywhere I looked witch's cauldrons, castles, and giant alien-cerebrums manifested themselves in my mind's eye. Such variations of color and shape simply do not exist on the Pacific (at least not to my knowledge). Despite the vast quantities of underwater plants, I also noticed a striking absence of fish. The few schools that we did see were much smaller in size.

After what seemed like 15 minutes, Leandro signaled for me to ascend. I checked his dive computer: we had been underwater for 51 minutes. Time flies when you're sucking air from a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. As we neared the top, I noticed thousands of little raindrops bouncing off of the ocean's surface. Experiencing raindrops from this reversed perspective -- exactly opposite of how I normally view the rain -- was completely surreal. All thoughts and worries cleared our heads for the few moments that Leandro and I stared upward, open mouthed.

Back in the boat, the snorkelers were irritated. They hadn't gotten to see nearly as much as the divers had. Swinging by Bahia del Delfines (Dolphin Bay), Modesto noticed a family of bottle-nosed dolphins. The animals were standoffish and did not approach the boat, so we moved on.

Lunch was a plate of typical food at an isolated restaurant that was, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. Only accessible by boat, the facility was without electricity -- and a true one of the kind experience. Kim and I ordered fish fillets cooked in garlic, while the other guests feasted on fresh lobster and conch. With our stomachs full, we took another quick dive that was almost identical to the first. Then we sped off to Red Frog Beach.

After paying the $3 entrance fee to enter the private property, we walked past a "NUDE BEACH" sign and onto the hot sand. A pair of Panamanian children raced to show the group three fire-truck red tree frogs that sat upon a palm frond. The amphibians were about the size of a child's pinky fingernail, and decorated with minuscule black spots. Kim thanked the adorable children, who smiled and promptly held out their cupped hands for a dollar.

We swam the beach's crystalline waters for an hour, and then started our journey back to Bocas del Toro. After spending an entire day at sea, Kim and I fell asleep back-to-back on the return trip to the dive center -- and then again upon reaching the hotel. We didn't wake up until morning.

Under the Caribbean Sea in Pictures

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