by Denise Mattia
It was late afternoon by the time we reached shore. The look of delight on my dive buddy’s face mirrored my own. Dan and I had flown around the world to experience scuba diving in two regions, and had endured long boat rides, boarded fishing vessels and wobbled about on a floating dock to arrive at scuba sites. Dive instructors who knew no English had accompanied us, and the camaraderie we shared over the love of the sport had bridged the language barrier. The sentiments would remain long after the dives were over.
China’s dive craze has been developing over the last 25 years. In the early 80s the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Chinese State Oceanic Administration (SOA) agreed to promote a better understanding of marine issues through scientific and technological cooperation. Between 1995 and 1998 SOA expanded coastal management to include marine sanctuaries and estuarine research reserves.
Additional projects included mooring buoys, coral reef ecosystem monitoring, mariculture, scuba training and ecotourism.
With the United Nations decision to name 1998 the International Year of the Ocean, awareness of the marine environment among the Chinese people intensified. The result was the construction of more than 300 marine and island parks and recreational facilities along the country’s 11,000-mile coastline.
September’s stormy weather had mixed the plankton-rich water with bottom sediment. Visibility at Star Rock, a site located 30 minutes from shore, was only a few feet and, if our dive guides Yan Jun and Han Jun hadn’t known where the algae-coated fractured rocks that comprised this reef were, I might have swum headlong into them.
Fortunately we found clearer water at Fortune God Reef, a lighthouse 18 miles due south of the Tiger Beach Reserve. It took us an hour and a half to reach the pinnacle in a flat, banana-yellow fiberglass skiff. It was another hour before we got into the water.
While we waited for the tide and currents to ebb, we boarded a picturesque state-run wooden crabbing vessel that was moored near the site, where we witnessed the living and working conditions of the fishermen.
The time went by quickly while we learned (by gesture) how the men used their fish pots, and what their names for fish were. Ready to have fun, they mimicked my abysmal pronunciation, and I laughed right along with them. Still, I made points by recognizing the calligraphic carving, fu, which hung above their boat. It means happiness and it’s also a good-luck symbol for the boat.
Trussed up in a 7-millimeter wetsuit, I hardly felt the chilly, 64-degree water. Visibility at this site was more than 30 feet. Yan, Han, Dan and I sank to 70 feet and slowly explored the base of the pinnacle. Bald slabs of rock, cleaved by weathering in a distant millennium, lay askew on the ocean floor and were reminiscent of formations I’d seen in Hawaii, Baja, Panama and Brazil. Punctuated only by blue cushion sea stars, the obsidian surfaces created a stark contrast in juxtaposition to the nearby carpets of brightly colored golden zoanthids.
Fluted sea slugs danced on boulders, while abalone clung to fissures and juvenile seabass hid in crevices. Yan Jun found a swimthrough and we glided past razor-sharp edges, exiting into a band of colder water that swooshed out from deep within the pinnacle.
After 53 minutes in the water, we’d covered most of the leeward side, and it was time to surface. We climbed aboard the vessel and transferred our gear to the skiff. Thanking (shur shur) the fishermen for their hospitality, we boarded our “banana split” and sped back to port, realizing that we’d been on an adventure few Americans can brag about.
Two days later we flew 1800 miles south to Sanya, a province in Hainan. It’s the second largest island in China and the playground of the Chinese world. Seasonal downpours didn’t dampen the spirits of visitors to this stunning holiday destination in the South China Sea, but the gear in our bags didn’t see the light of day until we were almost ready to leave.
Despite the rain, we finally did three back-to-back dives at Jalong Bay, where my guide, Wu Tie Ling, quickly pointed out red night shrimp hiding inside the recesses of a coral head and jewel and pencil urchins on the sea floor. The reef system along this southern section of the island is comprised of coral mounds or bommies, the tops of which are coated with varieties of rose and brain coral interspersed with saucer coral.
It’s possible to dive this area by boat or from the floating dock that’s anchored about a half-mile from shore. Dan and I chose both. Because of time constraints, we kept our dives between 35 and 70 feet, finding plenty of critters in the 81-degree water directly below the floating dock. In addition to Moorish idols and lionfish, Wu spotted a pair of splendid flatworms crawling on a mound. Studding the coral nearby, colored anemones stretched their slender tentacles in the mild current. When I approached a bright orange variety, I was attacked fiercely by the three-inch clownfish fry within, and fled the nipping guardians in favor of photographing a dozen docile pipefish. They, at least, were unconcerned about my being there, and obliged me by moving calmly in unison from one bommie to another.
We squeezed in one last dive on the reef at West Island Marine Amusement World. With hundreds of enthusiastic divers experiencing the thrill of discovery underwater (and making a splash of it), savvy fish took cover. I was assured, however, that there are abundant populations at less frequented sites.
Brilliant sun shone over the South China Sea as I packed damp gear, content at having been able to appreciate some of what this fantastic country has to offer. I especially appreciated the privilege of diving with a coterie of great scuba instructors, who quickly became newfound friends. To witness more of China’s wonders — underwater and topside as well — I’d return in a heartbeat.
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.