Cathedral Rocks by
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A fellow Retronaut asked for a diving story. I touched on a bad dive in Lost and Found. What follows is the tale of a magical one.

The sun was just at the horizon. I could hear a strange sound which I could not at first identify through my thick rubber hood.

Shore diving often involves an arduous climb down large, often sharp boulders, slick with algae and pocked with holes sized perfectly to swallow a foot and snap a leg. Add to this heavy tanks, weight belt and the restrictive diving suit  needed to survive the cold, and you can see why I much preferred wreck diving off a nice safe boat. But dive charters are expensive and the shore is free. So, I did a lot of shore diving.

My partner Howie and I planned the dive at Cathedral Rocks in Rockport, MA for near sunset in the hope that we might snag a lobster or two; they hide during the day, but emerge at twilight to forage for food. Taking lobsters while diving was somewhat illegal, but it’s a secluded spot with few places for police or wardens to hide. The sea was calm, the day warm. It was Friday, August 26th, 1994. We geared up quickly and gingerly made the nasty climb down to the water. We deployed the legally required “Diver Down” buoy which we’d take turns towing behind us to warn boats of our presence, and set out.

The coast off that part of Massachusetts descends stairstep fashion in a series of terraces. We’d descend to the base of one, then work parallel to the coast, shining our dive lights into holes in rock outcrops, seeking the wily crustaceans. Sometimes we could see them looking back at us, but neither of us relished the idea of sticking an arm deep into a hole to try and drag one out. A big one can break a Coke bottle…the old, thick kind.

We soon reached our pre-agreed depth limit of roughly seventy feet; the coast there drops away quickly. As we swam along the last terrace, it suddenly got much darker. The sun had reached the critical angle where most of its light reflects off the water rather than penetrates it. It was cold, and we had seemingly arrived a bit early for the lobsters to make their appearance. Other than rocks, there was not much to see down there. In fact, it was sort of gloomy, almost disquieting. Howie and I looked at each other. We checked our watches. For the depth we had attained, our no-decompression limit was fifty minutes. It was time to head back.

As we finned leisurely back to shore, we passed the occasional brave lobster venturing out for the best pick of dead fish or whatever else they could find, but we had neither the time nor (for me at least) the inclination to pursue them.

Without consulting our depth gauges, we knew we were close to the rocks by the increase in wave action in the shallow water. We stopped, did a precautionary listen for boat motors, and ascended to the surface. We’d hit it well; we were only about fifty yards from shore, warmth, beer and a burger.

We did a precautionary 360 degree spin, still wary of boats. The sun was just at the horizon. I could hear a strange sound which I could not at first identify through my thick rubber hood. Then I spotted it.

Almost directly in front of us, a piper stood on the rocks at the water’s edge, silhouetted against the setting sun. He wore full Highland piper’s regalia; kilt, sporran, feathered headdress, the works. With the sun behind him, he faced the sea and piped a song to the descending darkness, a wild, mournful sound, utterly suitable to the place and time. We climbed carefully up the treacherous rocks to the sound of “Scotland the Brave.”


Profile photo of Dave Ventre Dave Ventre
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.

Tags: SCUBA, diving, music, bagpipes


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I love this Dave! I am particularly partial to the wail of the pipes (very difficult to play, I’m told). Perhaps because I had a Scots nurse when I was born, who then babysat for us and gave me dolls dressed in full Scottish regalia, just as you describe. It truly does sound magical to ascend from the cold depths and be greeted by that lone piper. What a lovely story.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    I wondered about the featured image—but what a magical experience (and perfect picture). You can’t plan that stuff. Thanks for the vicarious adventure. You brought us all along with your evocative descriptions. Loved the Coke bottle comment. The shoreline can indeed be the most dangerous part of a trip, as we were always reminded on rafting trips. It’s not the waves and rocks in the water that get you are much as the ones on land.

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