Diving at Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Off the beaten path with Pirate Chema.

Big Corn Island coastline.
  • Big Corn Island coastline.

A vertical sign written out in white seashells stated we had reached the dive shop destination.

It was with some reluctance that I shuffled up to the two-story weatherbeaten building. My last resort dive had not been what I had hoped it would be, and having neglected getting my scuba license I moved forward nonetheless.

Pirate Chema's dive shop.

Pirate Chema's dive shop.

Fifty miles off of the Eastern Nicaraguan border, the Corn Islands shimmer in the blue turquoise of the Caribbean. We chose Big Corn over Little Corn mainly because it had a runway and maintained electricity after the noon hour – amenities its smaller sister island could not match.

The man himself.

The man himself.

Finding the shop locked, we climbed the stairs and knocked. A booming voice rang out “hold on.” We did as we were told until the door opened and we met our dive master. Almost as wide as he was tall, the barrel-chested man introduced himself as Pirate Chema. Long dark hair fell past his shoulders and a gray flecked beard covered most of his face. Wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and water shoes, he hardly inspired the trust I was looking for.

He apologized for making us wait before explaining that his baby was sleeping inside. With a little TMI he confessed that although he already had grandchildren older than the baby, he had impregnated an island girl and gotten remarried. He found his situation amusing, bellowing out in laughter. His good humor was something we would get used to hearing. After listening to my request for a lesson, he frowned, then went back into the house before returning with a CD.

"Here," he said with a hoot, "just watch this video tonight and you will be fine tomorrow. Meet us on the beach in the morning."

Abandoned building, Big Corn Island.

Abandoned building, Big Corn Island.

Lodging is everywhere on the island, with prices ranging from a $7 hostel to a $110-per-night hotel on the water. Fortunately our room had a VCR; unfortunately, it didn’t work. The decision to either seek out a functioning machine or enjoy a rum punch and a bowl of “Ron Dawn” was an easy one, so the next day I had to tell our Pirate Captain that I hadn’t done my "how-to” homework.

In true buccaneer fashion a scowl crossed his face. My guess was he was thinking about his lost booty of my dive payment. But instead of being defeated, he motioned me into the water. "Watch me," he said. "If you can clear your mask you can go." It was a simple task, but one I performed to his if not my satisfaction. With a smile and a slap on the back he exclaimed I would do fine.

Our dive boat.

Our dive boat.

We boarded an aluminum skiff manned by two helpers and headed out to sea. Gear on, anchor dropped, we sat on the edge of the boat and fell backwards into the ocean. While the others went down, I bobbed haplessly on the surface. Suddenly I felt a hand on my leg, then just as quickly Chema pulled me down towards Davey Jones’ locker.

After a few breaths underwater my apprehension abated, and I was able to enjoy the wonders of the crystal-clear water. Time passes quickly as the underwater world is exposed. Chema stayed close and pointed out different fish and marine life that I would have otherwise swam by unnoticed. Even through his regulator you could hear his laughter as he poked and prodded the animals into flight or out of their homes. Although probably not proper diving etiquette, it made for an enjoyable viewing of the wildlife.

There are a couple other dive shops in the islands that keeps costs low. However, if you want an experience with a modern-day pirate, then I would say look Chema up.

The islands, the people and country of Nicaragua are yet unspoiled. But development is coming, and if the Chinese get their way a new canal will be dug through the country to make the Panama Canal obsolete, thus altering the region forever.

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