Dominica and the Realm of Fire

"That's close enough," hiking guide Aaron Rolle warns as the tips of my muddy boots nudge a slew of gravel off a bluff overlooking a lake. We're 2,640 feet up a mountain flank in Morne Trois Pitons National Park in the center of the Caribbean island of Dominica.

After four hours of fording rivers, hauling ourselves up muddy banks by tree roots and threading delicately along horseback ridges plunging hundreds of feet off either side, we've arrived at one of Dominica's natural wonders. It's also one of the strangest--and most dangerous--lakes in the world.

"This is definitely not a lake you want to fall into," Aaron says, joining me at the edge.

I take his word for it because while I can't see the lake--it's hidden beneath a shroud of evil sulfuric mist--I can hear it. Rhythmic gurgled burps, the wet belches of an ancient dragon. Lakes aren't supposed to sound like this.
Suddenly a cool gust of wind shreds the shroud, and I can see exactly why you don't want to take a tumble here. In the bowl below is a 200-foot-wide cauldron of ash-gray water, roiling like a lobster pot. It's the second-largest boiling lake in the world. Beneath the turbulent surface is the steaming raw muscle of the earth, fiery magma and explosive gases, a direct tunnel to Hades. We're looking down the throat of an active volcano. It would, I muse, make a hell of a dive. Quite literally.

The air grows still, and the rotten-egg vapor creeps in again, and Aaron says it is time to go. You don't linger long around the devil's swimming pool.

It's my second day on Dominica, a small island just over half the size of Manhattan in the heart of the Lesser Antilles. I've come here because I heard this is the Caribbean that time forgot: a land of impenetrable forests, growling volcanoes and legendary giants. My inside source? Hollywood, of course.

When location scouts for the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels were searching for a dramatic backdrop of spear-pointed peaks and daunting sea cliffs in a place where they wouldn't have to edit out sparkling high-rise hotels and flashy casinos from the background, they wound up here. If Dominica above the high-tide line was this wild, I had a strong hunch the submarine world beneath the Caribbean's calm surface would be equally impressive.

Immersed in Adventure

I set out to prove my hunch the next morning. With aching quads I limp down to the dock at Castle Comfort Dive Lodge where I'm staying. Sitting on the outskirts of the capital Roseau, it is one of the oldest scuba operations on the island. Shortly after my gear is slung aboard the Arienne, a 36-foot catamaran, we're skipping lightly over the rippled sea, southbound for a dive site known in Creole as L'Abym--the Abyss.

As we cruise past small, smoke-drifted villages clustered along narrow, stony beaches, divemaster Aaron Carbon runs through a pantomime repertoire for the various species we can expect to encounter. He does a little Van Halen drum solo for spotted drums and makes a dovelike gesture with one hand on top of another for a sea turtle. Then he does a sign that's completely new to me. He thrusts his hips in an enthusiastic Elvis imitation and helicopters his right hand above his head like an exotic dancer getting ready to fling some lingerie.

When he notices my quizzical look, he stops and shakes his head.

"A rodeo," he explains, "I'm in a rodeo."

"Oh," I say, but I'm still lost.

"Seahorse," whispers the diver next to me.

Seahorses and other small anatomical misfits like flying gurnards (fish with oversize pectoral fins that look like dragon wings), frogfish and batfish are among the critter draws of Dominica. There are, of course, bigger creatures, too--mako sharks, sailfish and sea turtles--but they're found mostly off the rougher and rarely-dived Atlantic side of the island. Most of the marked dive sites in Dominica are huddled off the tranquil leeward shore in the warm Caribbean water. Many of the most popular dive sites like L'Abym are clustered around the steep coast off the southwest tip of the island, in a crescent known as Soufriere Bay.

L'Abym's mooring is a Frisbee toss from a cliff that rises several hundred feet in gray slabs of volcanic cement before topping off at a jungle-draped shelf. It then climbs another 4,000 feet up cloud-wisped peaks. You can get a neck ache enjoying the scenery in Dominica.

I giant stride in and can immediately see that the island's vertical topography continues uninterrupted beneath the surface. I clear my ears and join Aaron in a free fall down the face of a seemingly bottomless wall.

It's not just the sheer landscape of Dominica that passes through the looking glass, but also the lush color of the flower-speckled rainforests mimicked in the abundant sponges padding the wall. Orange elephant ear sponges as bright as traffic cones are wedged between giant barrel sponges looking like precariously perched maroon tubas. Yellow and beige tube sponges erupt from outcroppings like a symphony of alpenhorns, while the more delicate scarlet rope sponges bob gently in Aaron's bubble exhaust.

When we level off at 100 feet, I spot a spinning school of blackbar soldierfish beneath a black coral tree; they sparkle like rubies when my camera strobes.

Aaron is on a mission and within a few minutes he looks like he's trying to molest some unfortunate barrel sponge, either that or he has found a seahorse. Either way, it's not something I've ever seen on a dive before, so I join the other divers converging on his display.

It's a seahorse, hidden at the base of a red rope sponge. The divers alternate nosing up to the sponge and nodding happily. When it's my turn, I stare blankly at the sponge. All I see is sponge. I glance up at Aaron and shrug. He points again. It isn't until his fingertip virtually nudges the seahorse that it comes into focus for me--that narrow snout and ribbed mane, the graceful violin curve of the belly and the tail perfectly coiled.
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