Fish on the moveTarpon hunt among a school of silversides at Ironshore Gardens, one of East End's best sites.
That night, I dream of another fish: goliath grouper. Apparently vain, they reputedly stake out the mirrors in the head of ex-USS Kittiwake, slated as Divetech's afternoon boat dive destination.
Come morning, I take a leisurely breakfast at Cobalt Coast, knowing that my shore dive starts whenever I stride down the resort dock. Sea Fan Reef proves surprising — especially as instructor Ondrej Hindl and I stumble upon a pod of 100 squid — but all day my mind is on metal. I am trying to keep anticipation in check, but then I think of the 63 Facebook comments: You all love everything about Kittiwake.
Inside, the wreck is calming and yet exhilarating. Light spills in from countless openings; it's so bright, every room seems like a sun porch where a cat might curl up. Just as we start to settle into tranquility, my buddy Elly and I enter a hold electrified by pursuit. A tornado of silversides spins throughout the room, evading the jaws of a handful of jacks.
We'd forgotten about the current until we slip through one of the hatches; immediately, it tugs us from the wreck. Swarming the top deck, the resident school of horse-eye jacks, some 200 strong, cocoons us as we approach. There is no greater pleasure in life than swimming among so many waving fins and tails. Too soon the lot drifts too high for us to keep their company.
After paying respects to the propeller, we weave back through the holds, pausing at the mirrors. No barracuda or grouper greets us, but somehow I sense we're not alone. Nobody died aboard the ship — I'm not suggesting a haunting — but as I peer at my reflection in the corroded glass, I sense I'm not the only presence doing so.
I'm certain the Kittiwake dive will be the highlight of my trip, until I'm sitting in the dark in the middle of North Sound the next morning. It's cold and I'm soaked from the waves that washed overtop the Ocean Frontier boat that carried us here to Sandbar. According to your comments on Facebook, the Friday morning dawn stingray snorkel is absolutely not to be missed. Conditions are growing worse today, and ours is the only boat scheduled to make the trip. I'd been to a similar patch of sand a few days ago with PADI Five Star Dive Resort Red Sail. Capt. Mark Tarsh had detailed exactly what was and was not permitted during the encounter.
"Ever felt a wet portobello mushroom? That's exactly what a stingray's underbelly feels like," he says. "Be careful not to poke your fingers into their gill slits. They have to suck water over them to figure out what you taste like. And remove your snorkel so you're not the world's biggest slot machine."
I had visited this site three years ago and been so overwhelmed by the fervor of these wet mushrooms that my strategy then — the same as it was in high school — was to avoid hickeys at all costs. This time at Stingray City, I pay attention as Mark explains that you can use a flat palm, especially around the snout, to steer them.
"One more thing: We have a competition on this boat," he says. "It's the only free souvenir on island. Pull away from these guys, you'll get the hickey — and the biggest wins." Apparently, their mouths can attach remora-style on any surface. A nudge will keep them moving, but if they linger, everyone will soon know.
We had been on scuba with Red Sail in about 20 feet of water. I didn't accept any squid nuggets, figuring that it would be less intense if the rays didn't smell food on me. They moved slowly, making their way over my body like the whirling sponges in the drive-through car wash.
Ocean Frontiers anchors in about four feet of water. Soon the sun rises, draping us all in a rosy glow. We have this place to ourselves. Shadowy shapes appear before we toe the water.
I jump in. The sea is much warmer than the air, inviting us to duck-dive among the rays. Perhaps I'm anthropomorphizing, but I swear they seem curious. They repeatedly fly the same arcs around us; if you block their flight path, they limbo to escape contact by a mere inch. As we grow acclimated, so do they, brushing against us. At times, one will cruise right to my belly, investigating me thoroughly with its snout. I take this as my cue to pet it, then guide it with a flat palm. About 20 or so rays join us, including pancake-size babies and adults as wide as tabletops. Given the fact that these guys couldn't be better examples of Pavlovian training, this experience is as organic as it gets. At Sandbar, you're not allowed fins or shoes, so lungs and legs determine how long you can keep up with each passing ray.
I'm breathless. Laughing has tired my cheeks, and my quads are spent. Despite all this, I would happily stay, but our 90 minutes are up.
Back at Cobalt Coast, I hop online. I want to thank those who suggested the Ocean Frontiers dawn snorkel. Truthfully, I also want to brag a bit about this week and these animal encounters, so I post. Part of me expects the floodgates to open, releasing a deluge of comments.
I stare at the white space, waiting, thinking about how Sport Diver's many Facebook fans inspired this trip and helped me plan a week hyperscheduled with the best of Grand Cayman. I should feel thankful, serene. Instead, I feel restless.
Then the ping of a lone e-mail hitting my inbox sounds. A friend I haven't seen in two years has just logged onto Facebook. He read that I was on island, and he just arrived for a project. He has just checked into room No. 5 at Cobalt Coast and wants to meet for dinner.
I laugh. I'd grown so obsessed with my link to 23,000 that I lost sight of one small fact: The kindness of e-strangers is amazingly powerful, but so is the connection to one familiar face to share the joy in real time.
Special thanks to Cayman Islands Tourism, Sunset House, Cobalt Coast Dive Resort, Divetech, Ocean Frontiers Dive Shop and Red Sail Sports Cayman.