Please Login to View



Posted by Dix Roper on 07 November 2007 at 06:24 AM

February, 2006

When the cold weather got down to 50 degrees and I started feeling the expectations and commercialism of Christmas in LA,  I knew it was time to go back to Panama. Although the diving is not great this time of year,  I had plans to try some new places, and I was anxious to see how it was going to work out with Michelle, my new housekeeper- dive buddy trainee. Back in Panama,  I was happy to see that the brief time we had together before I left, had not freaked her out and she was still enthusiastic about entering Housekeeper-Dive-Buddy Boot Camp. She quit her job and we agreed to a six week boot camp to see how the situation would work for both of us.  I would be evaluating whether we could get along 24 and 7,  if she was she enthusiastic and energized enough, if she could she hang with the 45 year age difference and my crummy Spanish, and would she say “Si Senor” to everything I ask her to do.  Bootcamp benefits for her would be to have her private trainer to help her play catch up on all the life skills, in addition to diving, that she had never had the opportunity to learn. Concurrent with freediving, I would also be giving her the accelerated course on bicycle riding, swimming, driving, dancing, shooting, relating, living, etc. etc.  etc.  With one accelerated course we almost had a disaster in the pool the second day I got back to Panama because I had skipped the swimming step in teaching her how to dive. She had been with me in the ocean twice and she could get down to 20 feet ,but with mask and fins, and I forgot she did not know how to swim.  In the pool she got some water in her mask, did not have on her fins, and panicked and almost drowned. The next day she was in swimming lessons and in ten days she had it down.  Those of us that grew up in developed countries often forget that many basic skills that we learned young, are not things that most people in the interior of Panama are ever exposed to.  Neither of us knew exactly what we were getting in to with boot camp, but the main objective was to try and have some fun, do some great diving, and see if it was overall a complementary situation for both of us.

        The first trip together we had some wonderful adventures diving in Morro Negrito with Jason Wetmore and Ben Alvarez. We got some spectacular clear water at one place and a half a mile away it was pea green.  Jason, a great diver, stoned the fish of the day,  a huge 130 lb mero, with a 20 foot shot while diving at 70 feet.  Armed with my T-20 with reel only, I hesitated when a nice sized Bohala came up, fearing he would run off with my gear in the deep water. He turned and gave me a perfect shot so I took the chance and fortunately stoned him. Ben scored on a beautiful blue jack and some other nice fish as well as handling the Spanish duties.  Michelle had fun under the floating logs and was first the see some wahoo that came in, but not close enough for a shot.  Back at camp she even enjoyed her first boogy board ride ever, on some gentle, warm waves breaking on the pure sand beach.  The water murked up so it was time to go back to Panama for clean up and recovery.

        Michelle loved the part of boot camp when her “Gringito” trainer took her to buy toys for Christmas.  She told me no one had ever bought her anything for Christmas because they did not have the time or the money, and she left home at 12 or 13 years old to go to work. Playing Santa Claus for a 22 year old muchacha that never had anything, and appreciates everything, was as much fun for me as for Michelle. I concentrated of course on practical things she needed, like fins and the regulation work uniform for boot camp in tropical areas of Panama and when around the house—- panties—- but in olive drab color only..

        We were thinking of where to go find fish when Charlie told me he had been fishing at one place and caught a 5 lb Bohala on a pole and put it on a hook as bait and a 60 lb Bohala came up and ate it. We decided that was the place to go next. This would be back to low budget, boot camp conditions and I was interested to see if Michelle could deal. The first night we got there after driving all day,  all we had for dinner was bread, and a cold can of spam that had only been expired for one year.  The next morning she turned me on to a great pre-dive breakfast— cheap, healthy and simple—uncooked oatmeal stirred up in a glass of cold water with some raisins. Yummy.  I was impressed that not only were there no complaints, but she liked everything.

        Unfortunately we hit bad weather and a big swell that murked up the water. Dirty water in open ocean is not good for a new diver but I did find a great rock about six miles out that came up to about 45 feet.  There were fish at one place only- the upcurrent edge of one massive rock with a drop off, and there I found 10 or 12 big pargo cruising around together in the gloom. It was magnificent to see four of five almost every dive but by the time I got down to 35 or 40 feet in the murk, I was out of air and could not hang motionless long enough for them to approach me. Because they were all 40 to 60 lbs and the area was solid rock and caves I did not want to shoot unless I had a perfect shot. At last one decided to push his luck and came too close to the purple predator—-BAM—.  Stone shot, one 45 lb Pargo dienton for dinner—better than cold Spam.

        The next day we went back to the same place to see if conditions had improved but they were worse.  But on one dive a phantom appeared,  barely visible, but coming straight at me and all I could see were big eyes and a massive head. He was only ten feet away but I was afraid I would glance the shot off his head because he was facing straight on. I waited, fascinated and he turned broadside and stopped.. What a magnificent fish. Death Star strikes—BAM—. Not stoned but almost, and no lost or damaged gear which is rare for a big pargo.  Not many dive possibilities here for Michelle but she did manage to shoot her first small fish—a jurel—and we were happy that she scored.  When the situation is better I will have her shoot a big jurel (jack) to have the sensation and practice of fighting a powerful fish. That night, to celebrate her first kill, and to induct her officially into the elite tribe of underwater hunters we built a massive bonfire on the beach covered with driftwood. The blaze was a thank you to the Gods and it could be seen for miles.

          The next morning, with the diving over, we decided to go to the rivermouth and work on some above-water gunnery training. Boot camp gunnery training was a lot of fun with plenty of floating coconuts in the river on one side of the sand spit and the ocean on the other side. The great thing about shooting into the water is that you can easily see where you are hitting. Michelle casually told me she wished she could practice on her father. She told me later that in addition to beating her with a belt, when she was 12, he arranged to let a guy rape her for money. She fought him off but the father arranged for another guy a few years later that was successful. She reported it to the police and identified the guy but she heard that he paid someone off and avoided going to jail. I can totally see how she would enjoy gunning down her father. I think the guy deserves a slip tip. But I want her to have shooting skills for dive trips to isolated areas where we are sleeping in the panga and might be approached at night. Outboards are very useful and valuable items in these areas and for some guys they are much more valuable than the life of a Gringo and his girlfriend.

        Next,  Michelle, my dive buddy Voyto, and I made a three day, 240 mile round trip to the Perlas in my panga.  The wind was blowing and the water had not cooled yet so there were few fish but we had a good time. I was glad to know I had the range on my four stroke and when I go back the fish should be there. During a break we checked out a beached mini sub on one of the islolated islands. It dates from the Civil War period, which was before they understood decompression. It was brought here for pearl diving, because divers could exit and return underwater. Apparently the German inventor and crew died of the bends after several submersions and the sub sits abandoned on the beach, covered at high tide and exposed at low tide.

        A week later we decided to try another place in the Perlas and got mauled by the north wind again. Living in the panga at night is a bit touchy because we need to be close to shore to be out of the wind but when it switches it could put us on the rocks. Also some guys quietly rowed up to us at 3 AM to check us out, but apparently with no ill intent. After diving all day I am usually wasted and it is difficult or impossible to sleep lightly and listen for any ususual sounds. Maybe I need a dive-dog to announce the approach of any visitors.

        The highlight of this trip for me was another great rooster ride. A school of six or eight big fish swam by me going in the opposite direction. The water was murky and I was not sure what they were, and by the time I brought my gun to bear and fired, the last and smallest one was going by.  I grabbed my float line and as he only pulled me slowly along I thought maybe I had almost stoned him or he was much smaller than I thought. Then suddenly, without warning, he burned rubber on me, and off we went. My hood filled up with water like a balloon and I had to grab my mask to keep it on.  I stretched out and streamlined into the flow. What power—what an experience. Three great rides and the fish was finished. What if I had shot the big one?

        Afterwards we anchored up in 20 feet of flat open rock bottom I cleaned the fish and tied the carcass off to the anchor to see what would come in.  I told Michelle to put on her mask and come see the anguilas ( morays). She did not know what they were and as we approached the bottom one of the big morays opened his mouth and started towards us. They were great to see totally out in the open but Michelle was petrified and would not get close. She told me she was afraid of snakes because of a childhood experience when she was ten.  Her next door neighbor,  a young guy was bitten by a snake and no medical care was available where they lived. She had to sit, helpless, and watch him, as he went through the convulsions and agony and turned purple and bled from his eyes, nose and mouth in the process of dying from the poison. Now I understood her fear. She also told me of another friend, known for his sharp machete, that slipped going down a steep hill in a rain storm. He fell on his machete and it went in his chest to the hilt and came out his back. She said she also had to tend him during the 10 hours it took him to die. Life in the interior for Michelle was not computer games, barbies, and ballet classes, or something most of us can even comprehend, but it makes Boot Camp look like a Cake Walk.

        The next morning she had her first chance at a nice Bohala, but this was her first time with my bigger wood gun. When the fish came up I motioned for her to dive down and shoot but when I saw that she had the gun upside down I knew that I had missed a few steps and she was not yet ready. There will be other days but I think first she needs to get in some practice time on the big trigger fish or big jurel (jacks) and get more used to the gun.

        As we battled the tossing seas at 8 mph for 5 hours to bet back to Panama, I marveled at how things we hate, or have to endure, often lead to a greater good. Like this terrible wind, is miserable today, but will lead to upwelling and huge fish next month. When Michelle asked me why she had to suffer with such a horrible father, I could only remind her that the pain is what finally broke her free. What she hated, gave her the strength to leave the negative environment and kept her away from guys for years, and the positive result it that she is not, TODAY, stuck in the boonies with two or three kids, no money,  no future and no life and no freedom. So I looked at Michelle and asked her—Are you happier to be Free? and mainly—Are you ready for the next session of Housekeeper-Dive Buddy Boot Camp? The idea clicked and she smiled——SI   SENOR!

Dix Roper
     February,  2006

Login to ReviewRead Reviews

Enjoy this article? Share it with others.

Related Photos