Saturday, October 1, 2005

Up the Blue Grotto without a paddle...or a boat

An ill-advised swim into the famed Blue Grotto of Capri

It's the seventh wave that'll get you.

Oceans and seas across the world all craft waves the same way. They come in a simple sequence: each wave is larger and more powerful than the last. This sequence builds in a set cycle: the number of waves in each cycle is seven.

And it's the seventh wave that'll get you.

Counting waves

I've been counting waves for a good ten minutes now, and my arms are aching from hanging off the precipice so long, peering into the darkness of the tunnel. Is it my imagination, or is the sea getting rougher? I know the sun is getting lower and lower, and I can't hang around forever—nor, for that matter, can I hang on all that much longer, physically.

I can't figure out whether I'm psyching myself up or psyching myself out, but there is one thing the tiny rational portion of my brain is sure of: this is easily the stupidest thing I've done in quite a while. It's even stupider than two weeks ago, when I followed a goat path several hundred feet above the Grand Canyon floor past the point where even the mountain sheep were looking at me as if to say "Uh, dude? Even we don't try to go that way."

And to think, the emergency €20 bill folded up in my zippered pocket could have bought me the easy way into the Blue Grotto.

The smart way to get into the Blue Grotto

When most people arrive at the mouth of the Grotta Azzurra for the first time, few actually realize they're at the entrance to the world famous Blue Grotto of Capri. They're expecting to motor into a vast sea cave filled with unearthly blue light.

Instead, the boat that brought them around the island from Marina Grande (€8.50) has stopped dead in the water, in the shadows of a high rock cliff, and is being swarmed by tiny rowboats. The tourists are then divided into small groups and genially forced overboard to clamber into one of the rowboats bobbing in the waves, where they are told they have fork over another €8.50 per person to the oarsman.

Each rowboat, loaded down with fleeced tourists, starts pulling toward a tiny gap in the cliff where the rocks meets the crashing water. Just to the left of this gap, a thin metal chain is anchored into the rock.

The chain runs, horizontal to the water, into a dark hole no more than three or four feet high. As each wave crashes against the cliff and is funneled through the hole, the open space between the surface of the water and the ceiling of the dark tunnel shrinks to under three feet. Then, with the next wave, two feet. Then one foot.

When the seventh wave hits, the water claps together, spurts back out from the top of the tunnel, and the hole disappears completely.

At this point, the tourists in the rowboat look at one other nervously. If they knew that a trip to the Blue Grotto was going to entail threading such a dangerous needle in a frail little rowboat, they probably would have stayed back in Capri Town and spent that €17 on gelato and cappuccino.

As it is, the sequence of waves cycles back down, the tunnel reappears, and suddenly a series of rowboats comes shooting out of the hole, each oarsman leaning way back—almost flat on his back—and hauling on that chain to pull his boat through quickly.

As soon as the hole is clear, the boats waiting outside paddle quickly up to the entrance. The oarsman in each grabs the chain, and shouts to his little clump of tourists, "Please to lie down flat on you backs so you don' bump-a you head." And with no further warning, he begins hauling on the chain, sweeping the boat through into the dark tunnel.

At least, that's how I assume it still works. I haven't actually been inside the Blue Grotto for years. I did it with my parents back when I was 11 or so, and again 12 years ago when I came to Capri with a group of friends. It was fun, it was neat, and I saw no particular reason to waste another $20-plus on it again—especially as you have to tip heavily in order to stop the oarsman from singing (poorly) Neapolitan folks songs while you're in there for the whopping two-minute audience that each rowboat is granted.

That's why I'm here now, clinging to two convenient handholds in the algae-slicked limestone, my bare feet balanced on a shelf of rock just under the water, leaning out to peer into the Blue Grotto's dark entrance, counting waves.

Hesitation and a crabby crab

It's around 5pm, but that's just a guess. I left Villa Eva some time around 4:30 for the half-hour walk to the Blue Grotto, and I left everything, including my time-telling cellphone, back at the hotel. All I brought was a towel, which I left back up the path piled atop my shirt and shoes, into one of which I stuck a business card (to help identify the body—see? I'm a responsible guy).

It's early October, the very tail end of the tourist season, so the rowboats have knocked off early for the day, and the entrance to the Blue Grotto is empty. Empty and quiet—except for the crashing of waves.

There's no one else around, which makes it that much spookier to be leaning out over the pitch-black mouth of a sea cavern. The solitude also makes it seem that much more bone-headed of an idea to think I can swim into the grotto, especially with such a strong current sucking in and out—I can feel it against my calves—and with every seventh wave swallowing the tunnel whole.

The main problem is that I'm on the right side of the tunnel, and that anchored chain is over on the left. It can't be more than five or six feet from where I'm balancing on the underwater rock ledge, but there's the whole sucking current/crashing waves thing going on within those five feet.

I'm wary of trying to shuffle across on the bit of rock ledge, as once I were to leave the safety of the wall I would have nothing to hold onto, plus I know from past experience that black sea urchins nestle into the rocks of Capri just below the waterline, and that their five-inch spines can pierce right through your foot and come out the other side.

Distracted, it suddenly registers with me that the last set of waves nearly kissed the top of the tunnel, so I brace myself for that seventh wave, which sure enough comes along and swells the green water up to my chest. First it tries to force me toward the tunnel, then—after the splashback of water closing off the tunnel washes over my head, it changes its mind and tries to drag me away towards the sea.

Shaking water from my eyes, I suddenly gasp and let go of my left handhold, a piercing pain throbbing in my pinkie. I look into the hole where my hand just was, and see a mottled dark green crab with thick yellow hairs on his legs is waving an outsized pincer claw at me as if to say, "Go ahead! What are you wating for? Just you try to stick your hand back in my hole, buddy, I've got plenty more where that came from!"

I hiss at him, and yell at him, and puff my cheeks to blow on him as hard as I can, and otherwise try to get the bugger to budge. He just fixes me with those beady, dead black eyes and waves that claw menacingly, refusing to back down. Grumbling, I find another, far less stable handheld, and turn back to the tunnel to start counting the waves again.

'OK, was that wave two or three of the new cycle?' I think to myself. Then, cross at the crab, and at myself for being so damn analytical about the whole thing, I say out loud "Ah, the Hell with it," and, during a trough between waves, launch myself through the air towards that chain on the other side of the tunnel.

It isn't until I'm about halfway across, a new wave surging up behind me and my fingers reaching toward that dangling chain, that the thought passes through my mind:

"I wonder if there are any sea urchins where I'm about to land?"

Into the Blue Grotto

I splash into the water, my left hand closing about the chain, the forearm slamming into the rock behind it. As I vaguely register with relief that no urchin spines seem to be piercing my body, the incoming wave sweeps me along and helps carry me into the tunnel, the chain slipping rapidly through my palm.

Funny thing is, once I get inside, it's all much easier. I haul myself all the way through the tunnel and into the grotto itself, which starts to take dark, shadowy shape above and before me. I avoid looking back toward the bright entrance so as to better let my eyes adjust.

I still can't see the far walls, but I can hear the scattershot echoes of the water splashing against them, under the constant, cycling roar of incoming waves, their sound amplified by the tunnel.

Ten feet or so in, the chain swoops up, away from the water, to anchor somewhere into the rock at much higher level, so I can no go no further and still use it as a lifeline. I tread water, clinging to the chain that's now a good arm's length above my head, and let my eyes continue to adjust to the darkness.

I can begin to make out the pale stone of the ceiling soaring away from me and the walls widening to each side. The water, though—that famous glowing azure water—is dark. It's blue alright, but a shade of blue just shy of black.

Damn. I tarried too long. The sun's too low in the sky. The effect of the Blue Grotto has been turned off for the night. All that silly fear and senseless bravado for nothing.

Well, might as well get a little swim out of it. The current that was so concentrated by the narrow tunnel isn't nearly as strong even this short distance inside, so I steel my fears and let go of the chain to paddle a few feet further into the cave.

Just so I can gauge how strong the current really is, I turn to look at the only fixed point of reference I know of, the tunnel entrance.

Which is when the true extent of my own idiocy finally hits me.

Lights up

The famous glowing effect of the Blue Grotto is created by the daylight from outside refracting through the entrance tunnel and filtering through the limpid water. That is to say, you cannot see it if you're staring toward the cave-dark of the back walls.

You have to be looking towards the entrance.

As soon as I turned around, I realized I was swimming in liquid lapis lazuli. My arms and legs were windmilling around a field of pale blue so intense it looked fake, like the light from a neon sign. The effect was so shocking, it actually made my jaw drop (didn't know that jaw-dropping could happen for real; thought it was just a metaphor), whereupon, of course, I started shipping water down my throat.

Once I get the coughing and sputtering out of the way, I scramble to unzip my pant's pocket and yank out the waterproof camera I had bought earlier in the day, and started snapping a few giddy photographs.

The waves and current weren't strong, but they were definitely present and persistent. After so much time spent hanging around at the entrance, and all that adrenaline wasted on worrying and getting myself in here, I realized my out of shape bod wasn't going to permit me to swim about and fight the pull of the sea for too much longer. Besides, the eerie, intense, impenetrable blueness all around my pale, flailing limbs was starting to creep me out.

Unbidden, the words "Monster of the Blue Grotto" floated into my mind—a local legend I managed to conjure up, just now, out of thin air as I treaded the glowing water, spooked by being alone in this sea-filled cavern. I could almost feel my invented monster grabbing my ankles and jerking me under the water. All they would find would be a shirt, towel, and shoes with some travel writer's business card in them.

Silly, I know, but YOU try putting that sort of thing out of your mind when you're swimming around a giant, echoing, sea cave all by yourself, a place as sinister and dark above the water as it is bizarrely opaque and bright below.


I paddled back over to the point where I could lunge up and grab the chain again, and that helped calm me down a bit. I took a few more pictures, then treaded water, hanging off the chain, facing the tunnel, and started counting the waves again.

The seventh wave came. It filled the entire tunnel, blocking the air and the light, and then rolled over my head, raising me higher than the chain for a moment. When the tunnel reappeared and the water level fell to a deep trough, I started hauling myself quickly along the chain, speeding through the tunnel and toward the setting sun during the lull.

I passed the territorial crab, who set to waving his claw again when he saw me, and scrambled over the rocks to the little rowboat landing platform at the trail's end. As I hauled myself up to the platform's railing, I scared the hell out of a young French mother and her little blonde girl, who were leaning over to peer towards the tunnel entrance. They stepped back to let me slither up and over the rail, and I stood there, dripping and grinning like a maniac.

"Ehh… Bloou Gra-TOH?" The woman asked, hesitantly. Yes, I replied in my high school French, wiping water off my face, this is the Blue Grotto.

"The boats?…" She asked, and I explained that they left around 4pm. "No boats?" She asked again, seeking confirmation.

"No," I replied. "No boats." Then I smiled mischievously. "But you can swim in!"

She laughed a bit nervously, and stammered something about how the water was probably too cold. I was already bouncing up the trail toward my towel and little pile of clothes. No, I called back, the water was really just right.

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