Local luminaries explore the island's past, present and future.
Scuba Diving in the Cayman Islands started with one man's passion for the sea. His prophetic vision launched the scuba diving phenomena from Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach, and this island with its epic visibility, inquisitive marine life and unparalleled location on the edge of the Cayman Trench plunging some 25,000 feet ruled the world of diving. Five legends and legends-in-the-making share why they are passionate about this island, its future and its ability to continually inspire.
"Here we are with a garbage can full of gold coins," Bob Soto says as he flips through an album of faded photos taken during a treasure-hunting trip. He says it the way other people might say, "Here we are at the company picnic." He chuckles before turning the page, as if he still can't believe that it's his blue eyes smiling back in the photos.
Sitting beside him on his sofa, I'm trying to contain myself. This is the man who first explored Cayman's underwater playground and introduced many to the sport, the lifestyle, the adventure.
"Everyone thought it was a crazy idea," he says of opening his eponymous dive center in 1957. But Bob grew up on the water, just across the street from what is now the Lobster Pot restaurant on North Church Street. He knew his fascination with the ocean wasn't singular. Doggedly, he would walk the beach and present slideshows at all the hotels, drumming up interest for trying scuba or riding in his glass-bottom boat, then a novelty.
As people's curiosity in what Bob was selling grew, so did his need for equipment. But it wasn't readily available, especially in the islands, so Bob fashioned BCs from airplane life vests. For night diving, he cobbled together scuba diving lights using "pitch" as sealant.
It was these dive lights that he used to convince his now-wife Suzy, who then owned and ran the Tortuga Club on the East End of the island, to enter the water at night with him he on scuba, she on snorkel.
"Then his magical lights went out," Suzy says. There was no moon that night, making it impossible to see. Panicked, she tried to kick to the surface but couldn't. "I had to tell myself to stop and relax." She knew that only if she stopped moving would she float to safety. "After that, I got certified. If I was going down there again, I wanted air."
More often than not, Bob's lights did work. Such as when a team from Kodak came to capture the colors of underwater Cayman for an ad, they illuminated the Balboa, a wreck just off Seven Mile Beach. Turquoise, chartreuse and glittering silver finned into the frame, surrounding Bob. The resulting image towered above Times Square, where the likeness of Bob could quietly spread the scuba gospel, piquing the curiosity of those who had not yet heard of Grand Cayman.
THE WORLD'S MOST-FAMOUS DIVE
Its name has become practically synonymous with Grand Cayman, and for good reason: Stingray City still reigns as the world's only site where divers and snorkelers can interact with five to 10 up to 12 on a good day of these opportunistic feeders in their natural environment. What photojournalist Geri Murphy dubbed "the world's best 12-foot dive" started in 1986 as a pet project of photojournalist Jay Ireland, then a Cayman divemaster, who noticed the rays congregating here to devour the scraps thrown overboard by fishermen cleaning the day's catch. Curiosity led him to feed and swim with the rays, visible as dark shadows flapping across acres of white sand. Jay showed Pat Kenney, who had just left the Detroit police force to work for Bob Soto's Diving, and together they would pool their tip money for ballyhoo so that their guests could feed the stingrays during the surface intervals in between North Wall dives. Pat witnessed their behavior almost daily; during the workweek, he was in the water with customers, and on days off, he'd take a boat to the site to keep interacting with rays.
One morning he got lucky. Pat had been closely observing the rays, especially Hooray, a large female that was the first to come around the site regularly. After sucking down the ballyhoo that he offered, she would linger to let Pat stroke her belly, which is how he noticed she was pregnant.
He was alone at the site on a day off when he saw Hooray give birth.
"It was like a rosebud coming out of the birth canal," he says. "And boom! It just unfurled and flapped away."
Lucky sightings became the norm for Pat.
"Late on a Saturday afternoon, it wouldn't be unusual to see five spotted eagle rays," he says. "When we set down the anchor, it would stir up the bottom and create some food for them."
The afternoon that I visit Stingray City with Sunset Divers, eagle rays don't grace us with a fly by, but within minutes of the boat's arrival, six rays sweep figure eights under the boat in anticipation.
I'm equally anxious. I've been nervous about this dive since I booked a ticket to Grand Cayman not because I fear an injury or any harm whatsoever. Rather, I don't know what to expect. My knowledge of stingray behavior is basic: I know to avoid approaching from behind, which is what predators, like hammerheads, do. I know that they bury themselves, and to look for their knobby eyes peering above the sand. But I don't know how they behave around food, especially food that I am holding.
I jump in the water before everyone else to buy myself more time before Divemaster Trevor Amodeo enters with his plastic bin full of squid. The rays quietly gather as the other divers form a circle in the sand.
We've been told that the rays will stick around only as long as the squid buffet stays open. In other words, keep your fist clenched tightly around that appetizer and serve that bounty only after you've had a lengthy interaction.
Trevor hands me a nugget of squid, and I tuck it into my fist as shown. Thirty seconds pass before I gasp as a ray wider than a stop sign slides up from the sand, giving me ample time to appreciate her determination. The drawer handle-shaped mouth flexes in and out just inches from my mask, sucking in vain to find food. It's not looking so much as smelling; stingray's eyesight is comparable to that of bats.
I wave my arm in circles as another ray swings in to double team me. The jacks dart around my head, and I start losing track of who is where and quickly surrender the bait and take cover.
And then I am alone. I miss them already. It reminds me of something Pat said: "Every dive is an education. Each time you enter the water, you come away with more positive feelings about the ocean."
I couldn't agree more.
"What do you see?" Cathy Church pauses and holds up a photo.
"A duck," I say.
I study the photo that Sunset House's resident photo expert of 18 years presents. It's of a lone stalk of yellow tube sponge, its offshoots gesturing wildly.
"A penguin conductor."
She laughs. "That's the beauty of these. You can just keep going, finding more in each image."
The "these" that she refers to is her latest project: abstract art images of marine life everything from the hot-pink and yellow stripes of a stonefish's outspread pectoral fins to the faces and forms Cathy sees staring back at her from the reefs of Grand Cayman.
"I personally have more fun with the odd sponge. I just like to play," she says, while showing one that uncannily resembles Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream."
As she continues giving me a tour of her office, she can't help but voice the drama she's captured in another photo of a nudibranch eating another nudibranch.
"Oh no!" she says, channeling the cartoonish voice of Mr. Bill. Then she shows us the next images in the series of one Hoovering up the other. "See his little eye? He's looking right at you."
Underwater, Cathy sees the personality of each sponge, each lettuce sea slug, each sharknose goby. She's taking us on a shore dive of the Sunset House Reef and LCM David Nicholson wreck, but the route we take is circuitous a jagged series of turns as she zeroes in on each new discovery. She lingers for several minutes at each find, as if listening to each tell a story as she shoots.
As a green turtle paddles toward us, strobes flash and arms are adjusted as she wiggles to find the right position, the perfect frame.
The turtle swims off just as we reach the wreck, where an angelfish stands almost motionless, pecking at the sponges off the stern. And the tango resumes. Clouds drift by overhead, shifting the light below. A mutton snapper enters the mix. The angelfish weaves between yellow tube sponges, lavender rope sponges and sea rods.
When Cathy is satisfied with her takes, we pick our way back over the reef, past the Amphitrite statue. Just before we exit, she points to a clingfish. Back in her office, Cathy shows me more of her favorite images on her Mac and talks about some of her favorite discoveries on Grand Cayman. In the '70s, before moving to the island, she had been flipping through a book when she saw a full-page photo of a greenbanded goby. It was unlike anything she had ever seen before, so she decided then to make it a "life goal" to find that fish.
"Years went by. And more years went by, probably seven or eight," she says. "Up at Spanish Bay Reef, we used to have to walk out to the boat. One year I was tired and it was calm. I had my mask and snorkel on, and I just swam back. And I didn't stand up and walk over the last 10 yards where it was knee deep. Pretty soon my mask was almost scraping the bottom where there's fire coral and some urchins. Lo and behold, everywhere around the urchins are these doggone greenbanded gobies. They were all over. I'd been walking over those for nine years and never knew they were underfoot. So when they talk about how some of the best things in life are in your own backyard it is true."
It helps that Cathy's backyard is the Sunset House Reef. In her backyard, just inches from the ladder, she's found seahares, squat lobsters and a rare clingfish.
"The Caribbean has a lot of weird stuff," she says. "We just don't look for it like we do in the Pacific."
Luckily for Cathy, her careful observation has paid off. Her ability to see so much art on every dive, and capture it beautifully in photographs, led to an induction in the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2000, as well as in the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in 2008. She has found success as one of the world's leading underwater image-makers and teachers (the going rate for an hour's instruction with her is $125). Her portrait gallery in the basement of Sunset House doubles as a camera shop. When we walk through, I overhear Cathy's husband, Herb, sealing a deal on the phone.
"With that camera and housing, I'll throw in a few nights at Sunset House and lessons with Cathy."
The buyer on the other end of the phone must know what an opportunity it is to spend time with Cathy, be inspired by her playfulness and see some of what she sees underwater be it the dappled light on a shallow reef or a sponge that looks like a penguin conductor.
He immediately says yes.
The eye of the reef shark stays unmoving, fixed on us as it glides by. Then another, equally attentive, follows in its wake.
I'm following Steve Broadbelt, owner of Ocean Frontiers Dive Center and Compass Point Dive Resort. The East End die-hard got his start on Grand Cayman while working as a divemaster for the Tortuga Club. He's been diving these sites for 17 years, which explains why he knows each passageway through the reef and the best spots for spotting big animals.
He arcs over the reef and aims for a slit in Jack McKenny's Canyon, a site along Cayman's East End. This pass, wide as a paper cut, leaves little room for outstretched arms. But it's suspenseful. We're in it for 10 minutes, following the sand as our depth readout increases: 90, 100, 117 feet.
The chute finally spits us out at 130 feet. Trying to take in the vertiginous view of the wall tumbling down into darkness and acres of reefscape hundreds of feet worth in this endless visibility is overwhelming. I'm reminded of every amazing dive of my life all at once.
Ocean triggerfish wave above us as Spanish mackerel and schools of bluehead wrasse flow past. I look up to see Steve signaling. A green turtle noses between sponges, and we watch for a while before continuing our swim along the wall, our attentions every so often drawn to the blue. Only by constantly eyeing what's out there will you be rewarded with that chance encounter.
Steve tells me later over coffee that he's seen an eagle ray the size of a cow that shows up every few years, as well as hammerheads and pods of orcas at sites on the East End. One of his most memorable animal encounters, he recalls, was at Snapper Hole on Christmas a few years ago.
"The caves were so thick with silversides that you had to stick your hand out in front of you to clear a path through so you didn't bump into any of the sides of the cavern. As we're swimming blindly through the silversides, I bumped into a pair of nurse sharks the biggest nurse shark I had ever seen, about 12 feet long, and a smaller one about 6 feet long. They were lost in the silversides just like we were. It was just startling to bump into such a big fish."
The marine life is one reason that the East End has such a hold on Steve. The other is that, through exploration, he's been able to find new sites and new formations, like arches and swim-throughs, that continue to surprise him.
"People have a 'been there, done that' attitude about the Cayman Islands," he says. "They feel like they've seen it all, but we know they haven't seen half of it. What about the sites we go to on our days off?"
His latest endeavor: the Cayman Dive 365 Project. On his days off, he and his staff dive off the grid, with a boat in tow. When they find something remarkable, they surface, make note of the GPS coordinates and add it to the list of new sites. Together with teams from dive centers on all three islands, Steve is working toward the goal of this five-year project: to have one for every day of the year.
A DEEPER INTEREST
If Bob Soto had let the naysayers influence him, he wouldn't have stayed committed to bringing recreational scuba to the Cayman Islands. If Nancy Easterbrook had turned an ear to her critics, she wouldn't have pursued offering customers nitrox, then believed to be a "devil gas." Or trimix, rebreather or any of the other mixed gases and advanced training that have made Divetech so popular with those who want to go deeper, stay down longer and spend more time observing the reefs and marine life.
"I believe you should be allowed to dive to the level you're certified to," she says over breakfast at Cobalt Coast Resort. Just a few yards away, a pair of divers is putting together closed-circuit rebreathers.
Grand Cayman, with its neverending walls, couldn't be a more-fitting arena for these systems that enable lengthier bottom times. Divers on rebreathers can enjoy a reef at 60 feet for several hours, she tells me. And while the decompression time for deeper dives (to 200 or 300 feet, for example) could be seen as a deterrent, Nancy sees it as a prolonged chance to see more of the reefs and more marine life.
"I always remind people to look up," she says. "Because the eagle rays usually cruise at 100 feet. If you want to see them, they'll be cruising over your head for half the dive."
The extended bottom time allows her to travel beyond recreational limits, and back in time.
"Millions of years ago, the water level was 250 feet lower," she explains. "That's where the sponge belt is." Then she describes sponges of prehistoric proportions: yellow rope sponges that hang down 50 feet, encrusting sponges as big as blankets and fields of barrel sponges "as beautiful as a field of sunflowers."
The sights sound surreal.
At Northwest Point, a freshwater pond bubbles up like a red lake at 150 feet deep.
"It's like diving in tea," she says of the freshwater that gets its color from the tannic mangrove forests.
On the morning that I join Divetech in the water, I follow Nancy's advice and dive to my level, which is Enriched Air Diver. My time at 80 feet on 32 percent at Orange Canyon won't be hours long, but it's long enough to watch a turtle cruising, admire the schooling midnight parrotfish and attempt to measure the elephant ear sponges (7 feet across, I reckon).
But I catch myself staring down the wall, where the reds, oranges and yellows disappear. In this visibility, unparalleled in the Caribbean, I can see the reef hundreds of feet below painted only in shades of blue and curiosity takes hold. Is it the same drama unfolding along the wall's edge at 60 feet? Or are the discoveries better there? There's only one way to find out: Explore. What I learned this week from these people, all of whom make Grand Cayman legendary, is this: Pursue what you believe in; always find another way of looking at what's right in front of you; explore, explore, explore; and never lose your sense of wonder.
The morning that I dive Lea Lea's Lookout, I see only one Nassau grouper, but that's a good thing. Usually several of these sluggish swimmers can be spotted on every dive here, but I happened to visit Little Cayman in early February, their spawning season.
For the past 10 years, a team from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) sets up research camp at the Southern Cross Club, an upscale beach resort owned by Peter Hillenbrand that has maintained the Caribbean lodge charm that made it so popular when it opened in 1958. With this idyllic setting as their base, they conduct the Grouper Moon Project, using acoustic tagging to track the fish's behavior. So threatened elsewhere, this species thrives in the waters surrounding sleepy Little Cayman.
It's just one of the reasons that the diving here at Little Cayman is legendary. This island has long been supercharged with marine life.
No development, no pollution, no runoff, no sedimentation. It's the perfect recipe for reef success, and no sites showcase this better than those along Bloody Bay Wall. At Great Wall East, red rope sponges curl up like the tail of a jungle cat. Fat tufts of feathery black coral spread like peacock plumage against the wall. Spotted morays nose out from the nooks. Where the wall becomes a ledge, a nurse shark, asleep and unafraid, has settled atop an unprotected sand patch. Farther in the shallows, lantern bass and tobacco fish guard their rubble palaces.
At Lea Lea's Lookout, light pours through a canyon cut from the sheer wall, leading to the abyss. I swim slowly through this pass a dramatic entry to a dramatic site. Near the chute's exit, monolithic pinnacles shoot up from the deep. I watch, captivated, as turtles and southern stingrays alight upon sponges and sand, respectively. Then I remember what's missing from the tableau: the Nassau grouper, off attending to affairs. But the picture that Bloody Bay Wall paints is much akin to a work by Hieronymus Bosch. With this much going on, I don't even miss them.
Special thanks to: Cayman Airways (caymanairways.com), Cayman Islands Department of Tourism (caymanislands.ky), Cobalt Coast/Dive Tech (cobaltcoast.com), Compass Point/Ocean Frontiers (compasspoint.ky), Sir Turtle Beach Villa (caymanvillas.com), Sunset House/Sunset Divers (sunset house.com) and Southern Cross Club (southerncrossclub.com).