Impermanent Vacation

Fish don’t have a lot of lifestyle choices to make. If you’re a small reef fish, you probably hang around the same coral head for most of your life. If you’re a Nassau grouper, you live pretty much solo, occasionally joining thousands of your species-mates under a full moon in a giant mating bacchanal. If you’re a female stoplight parrotfish, there’s a chance you’ll undergo a sex change, like it or not. And if you’re a male rosy razorfish, there’s little mystery to mating: The females have clear abdomens, so you can see when they’re ready to spawn.

If only life were so easy for modern humans. We’re forced by notions of individuality to choose how we’re going to live and prone to endless bickering over just what constitutes the right way. It’s no wonder T.S. Eliot’s choice-plagued J. Alfred Prufrock dreams of mermaids and oceans: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

It’s good to have a mission, even if it’s just for a week. I find myself engrossed in our evening fish lectures, scribbling notes as though much hangs in the balance. And much does: If I remain absorbed enough in the lives of the fish, I’ll have less time to dwell irresolutely on my own. (I’ve ruled out mating bacchanals and sex changes, but have much left to decide.)

St. Vincent, fortunately, provides lots to absorb my attention. The swimming pool is a few paces from our room, and just beyond it is the sea. A scattering of masts bobs on the bay. Lillian gets up every morning at 6:30 for a swim in the sea, while I—not accustomed to two hour-long dives a day—sleep as late as I can. Breakfast is on the restaurant patio, then we walk five minutes along the waterfront to Bill’s dock. This daily routine reminds me of paths considered but not chosen—perhaps unwisely, since they included more beaches and boats than my current city life.

Bill Tewes has cut an original path. If Lad is our general this week, making sure everyone is supplied with pencils and survey forms, Bill is our guru. He’s unrivalled at finding and identifying some of the most unusual fish in the Caribbean. Diving these waters for more than two decades, he’s helped put St. Vincent on the map for turning up marine life still undocumented by science. The tiny bluebar jawfish, for instance, was first spotted here.

A native Texan, Bill worked in the oil industry in the United States, then as a dive master on a cruise ship, and at some point in Australia. He ran a dive shop in Papua New Guinea for two and a half years, near the town of Madang, where the deep, clear water of the Bismarck Sea hosts copious marine life and scattered testaments to human folly. I dove there once (while considering one of those other paths) on the wreck of a B-25 bomber. * Corals and fish had made their home on the World War II airplane, and the roof of the cockpit had long ago disappeared. The seats inside, though, were so well-preserved that it was tempting to slip into one, look up at the dancing surface, and contemplate the life of a draftee.

Rising crime drove Bill away from New Guinea, and in 1984 he opened his dive shop on St. Vincent, where he gradually became an institution. He has appeared on a St. Vincent postage stamp. He also had the privilege of naming many of the local dive sites, one of which he called New Guinea Reef.

My first day on his boat, I’ve barely clambered aboard before he barks at me for not washing my feet. “Look at all this sand!” he says. Before I can protest, he commands, “Get it later!” to someone rummaging near her tank. Once his six divers are assembled, he announces strict rules: No going behind the imaginary line dividing fore from aft, unless you’re putting on your tank. No more than two divers at the back of the boat at any given time, one to a side. If you ignore protocol on deck, he’ll admonish you. If you misbehave underwater—for instance, by kicking up sand, which lowers visibility and distresses small critters—you’re likely to feel his sudden sharp grip on your heel. God help you if you steal a shell with a living creature inside.

When not berating us, Bill tells off-color jokes that, fortunately, are often hard to understand through a Texan accent seasoned by decades in the West Indies. As we cruise along the southwestern shore of the island, he points out a former leper colony at the top of a cliff and the spot at the bottom where the inmates came down to bathe in the sea. Perhaps, I think, we’re about to get a history lesson from the island’s colonial past? No. But we do hear the one about the leper and the prostitute.

Bill’s tough-guy image is burnished by his habit, at sixtysomething, of diving in nothing but a pair of Bermuda shorts. Even the Caribbean gets pretty chilly after an hour and a half under the surface, but it doesn’t faze him. His voice has grown raspy from years of breathing dry compressed air from scuba tanks, which, he laments, has also ruined his folk-singing voice. When I ask him more about the singing, he says that the biggest gig he ever played was on a cattle station near Airlie Beach, Australia, a gateway town to the Great Barrier Reef. The stage was a flatbed trailer. I imagine a callused crowd of ranch hands and miners.

Bill’s orneriness fails to disguise his kindness. Several local children plainly adore him, sidling up with big smiles whenever he appears. And his love for the sea creatures betrays a protective instinct. When the fabulously caped flying gurnard skims the sand, overturning sea urchins as it hunts for food, Bill sometimes can’t resist swimming along behind, turning the sea urchins right side up again.

Many of the divers hover close to Bill underwater, eager to see what life forms he’ll find. If we’ve wandered off, he summons us with a shaker that sounds like a pair of maracas. He writes the species’ names on his erasable slate: “Long arm octopus.” “Spotted scorpionfish.” Usually his finds are “write-ins,” too rare to appear in the preprinted section of our underwater form, which lists only the 127 most common fish of the tropical western Atlantic.

Back at the hotel, we transfer the day’s fish data—along with details about current, depth, and location—to bubble sheets that remind me unpleasantly of college exams. There’s just enough time to shower, hang our wet suits over the veranda railing, eat a late lunch, and fill out the data forms before Lad’s daily lecture begins. Lad dives with us every day but is somehow always ready to go with new PowerPoint presentations—polarized sunglasses, as always, propped on his head—by 5:30.

First there’s discussion of what we saw that day. Two divers say they spied a golden hamlet, inspiring murmurs of envy. “That’s my favoritest fish in the world,” says Bill, who has one on his business card as proof. Sunny yellow and several inches long, the golden hamlet, Lad tells us, is a simultaneous hermaphrodite. Unlike the parrotfish, which is a sequential hermaphrodite, the golden hamlet has both male and female organs at the same time. It’s therefore capable of mating with any other member of its species, and when two pair up, they take turns playing male and female roles.

I carefully make notes on the golden hamlet.

The next day, I dive at a site called the Wall. Before we splash in, Bill tells us there’s a golden hamlet living below on a particular patch of coral. After exploring the Wall, I’m climbing to shallower water when I hear the sound of maracas and turn to swim toward it. There, darting around a head of coral, I see a 3-inch-long flash of sunny yellow, right where Bill said it would be.

Correction, July 12, 2007: This piece originally and incorrectly identified a plane whose wreck the author dived to as a B-52. It was a B-25. (Return to the corrected sentence.)