Scuba divers have gone soft. Diving used to be a gung ho, black-geared, hard-rubber kind of sport. And dive trips used to be more like safaris, with the added pleasure of lugging tanks. But in recent times, diving has evolved into a low-impact, neon-hued, Lycra-clad activity that anyone can do. Plus, it's getting really hard to tell a dive resort from a luxury hotel. Creature comforts are making divers soft. It's almost embarrassing, don't you think? Huh? Tiffany stopped working and looked up. A blonde and captivating Canadian masseuse who presses flesh in the spa at Little Cayman Beach Resort -- a quote, unquote, diver's resort -- Tiffany had spent the last half-hour oiling, kneading and rubbing her way down my body and was massaging my feet when I began my rant. Don't you think divers have gone soft? Tiffany shrugged. Still in her tender mid-20s, she lacked, perhaps, the historical perspective on this relatively young sport that an extra decade gave me. So I shrugged, too, and then I lay back down amid the aromatherapy oils and Celtic New Age music that filled the waterfront spa ... and thought about my next dive. I'd finally made it to Little Cayman. Back in the 1980s, I lived for a year on Grand Cayman, 90 miles to the west, around the time it was exploding into one of the most popular dive destinations on the planet. But I'd never ventured to Little Cayman or Cayman Brac -- now marketed as the Sister Islands to distinguish them from big brother Grand. The two smaller islands were just too far out, on the very frontier of the scuba world, almost mythical spots. Wall divers considered them heaven, and they were almost as hard to get to. Little Cayman's Bloody Bay Wall has long ranked as a must-do for experienced and well-traveled divers, but after all the trouble of getting there, you had to hitch a ride with a sport-fishing club that took out divers on the side. As recently as nine years ago, there wasn't even a power plant on the island. All that has changed. It still takes a little more effort and a little more money for the scenic hop aboard Island Air's picture-windowed Twin Otter to Little Cayman's dusty coral landing strip, but now there's electricity on the island and, with it, the air-conditioning that breeds vacation homes and hotels. There are also more dive resorts -- nine out of ten visitors to the island come to scuba dive -- but there are still less than 100 full-time residents, most of them expats, not genuine Little Caymanians. We've been to Grand Cayman a dozen times, said Jim Hinckley a dive-store owner from Marlboro, Massachusetts, with a chowder-thick accent to prove it. Hinckley was leading a group of 10 divers, and like nearly every Sister Islands visitor I spoke with, he'd seen the big Cayman's walls and its famous Stingray City. He wanted to go a step further into diving and a step back from the big resorts of Seven Mile Beach while still enjoying all the perks of an English-speaking, affluent, visitor-friendly destination. Cayman's great, Hinckley told me. But we always heard Little Cayman was out of this world. We'd all made it to the rugged frontier, although the frontier now came with a spa, hot tubs, big rooms with satellite TV, a dive staff that wouldn't let you carry a tank if you begged them, a funky bar and gourmet meals prepared by a Jamaican chef named Chubby whose fare threatened to make us all that way before we left.It was almost too much to bear. At least, for gung ho's sake, the weather wasn't going to make it easy on us. On my first dive day, high winter winds forced the boat to turn back within drooling distance of Bloody Bay Wall, and we moored at a more protected site on the tip of the south side -- Lighthouse Wall. It was classic Cayman: 100-feet-plus visibility. If you can't see 100 feet, you're not in the Caymans. These islands are little more than dry chunks of rock with no rivers or streams that flow into the ocean, retarding the coral growth and mucking up the crystal blue clarity. It's prime territory for critters, too. At Lighthouse Wall, a pack of bronze-colored, big-shouldered sharks made a run down a long coral spur and then peeled off in five different directions when they hit the edge of the wall. Back on the boat, Hinckley told me about the dive the morning before I arrived. A typical fishing story: Ya shoulda been here yesterday. It seems that a male bottlenose dolphin, nicknamed Spot, has decided to call the Sister Islands home. Now, dolphin are not unusual in this part of the world, but one that spends his time swimming the seven miles between Little Cayman and the Brac just so he can play with scuba divers? That's something special. He stayed with us for a half-hour, said Hinckley. He'd just roll over to have his belly rubbed and follow us around playing like a big puppy, a really big puppy. It was one of the greatest experiences we've had underwater. After lunch on shore, where presentation and tastiness conspired to force me into trying all three entries, I decided to work it off by touring the island. Little Cayman, it should be noted, does not have much to tour: one church, one store and one bank that is open exactly one day a week. Photo by Bob FrielTarpon Lake's dark waters are a popular spot for catch-and-release angling. The trees were killed when a hurricane's storm surge flooded the lake with salt water.But there also is Tarpon Lake, a black-water pool surrounded by mahogany forest and filled with leaping game fish. Alongside the slender walkway that stretches out into the lake, sun-bleached, silver-white trunks of trees claw out of the dark water like skeletal fingers. The trees were killed after a hurricane swept across the island and the sea surged over the beach, spilling into the lake and wiping out much of the plant and animal life -- death by salt water.Booby Pond Nature Reserve is home to the Caribbean's largest nesting colony of red-footed boobies, which, for the record, are birds. At the nature center, powerful spotting scopes give you a close-up view of a booby population that's estimated at 7,000.Point of Sand, the best beach in the Sister Islands, offers a benevolent current that lets you jump in and be carried effortlessly above good reefs to an exit spot down the beach.And then there's the small green house which sits on an oceanfront lot that once belonged to actor Burgess Meredith. A sign reads: No Trespassing Burgess Meredith. So, I can only assume that the actor wouldn't be allowed to go near the house these days -- even if he wasn't dead.I went on a bike ride with Chubby, covering just about the entire length of paved road on the 11-mile long, mile-and-a-half wide island. We stopped by Salt Rocks, Little Cayman's only deep-water approach, which was first used by pirates and then by miners who dragged carts filled with phosphate down to the rocks to load onto small ships. During my visit, high seas were keeping the supply boat from coming in, a potentially troubling dilemma since an extended period without supplies could send the island back to frontier days, especially if the power plant had to shut down from lack of fuel and the hotels ran out of rum and toilet paper.Chubby took me to see the famed banana-eating iguanas of Little Cayman. In the center of the island, where the seldom-used road dead-ends at a spot long ago planted with fruit trees, the forest is full of black-footed baby dinosaurs that have come to equate tourists with food. And take note: Judging by the way the big ones rumble from the jungle to devour bananas, any visitor garbed in Chiquita-yellow risks becoming the tourist who was food.The seas finally settled down enough that we could bounce our way to a Bloody Bay site called Cumber's Caves. As soon as I began my descent, I saw how the coral had grown into a massive buttress at the edge of the wall. Actually, grow is a feeble word for the coral's accomplishment here. It billowed, bloomed and erupted, creating a massive citadel of stone bordered on one side by sand and by abyssal blue on the other. At its base, hidden from view by overhangs, were caves, natural adaptations that allowed the sand behind the reef to spill down like grains in an hourglass and pass through the wall and over the edge without damaging the coral.I angled down and slipped under a coral overhang and suddenly I was inside the reef. Sunlight filtered in, allowing me to glimpse strange sponges that hung like stalactites and small fish that flitted like bats down dark side passages. After a long, slow tour through the belly of the reef, I came out deep over the edge. Other divers were gliding out of different caves along the wall, all staring out into the blue for long moments before kicking slowly up to the sunlit top of the reef.I spotted two hawksbill turtles, sisters maybe, that swam together and watched me approach. Then the flightier sibling turned away, leaving the other to escort me along the wall and almost up to my safety stop. A couple of the divers in the Massachusetts group had just been certified -- these were their first dives outside the North Atlantic. They watched the turtle, and I watched the newbie divers. One of their very first dives was one of my best dives ever -- after literally thousands of them. Where could they go from here I wondered? They had definitely been spoiled.Turtles were what Columbus took most notice of when he came upon the Caymans and christened the islands Tortugas. This discovery was not such great luck for the Cayman turtles because word soon got out that fresh meat was available, on the half-shell, to any passing ship. Pirate vessels often ventured this way, to snack on turtles and, as many local legends have it, to hide their treasure.Popular history has it that a big pirate gathering at Little Cayman inspired the naming of Bloody Bay. When the British Royal Navy got wind that the skull and crossbones crowd was hanging out, it set a trap, destroying the outlaw ships and slaughtering the crews with such determination that it was said the waters of the bay ran red with pirate blood.After my dive at Bloody Bay, I was able to touch a gentler piece of Caymanian history when I shook hands with Mirilda Ebanks, known to everyone on the island as Miss Rillie. She and her husband, Mr. Jack, live in a house along the edge of the grass and coral airstrip.Miss Rillie was born on the Brac in 1917. The island's earliest settlers, Irish and Scots who had escaped British servitude in Jamaica, used the Gaelic word Brac to name the island after it's most distinctive feature -- a 140-foot-high rocky bluff that is the highest point in the Caymans. It's also a notable lifesaver. In 1932, when a savage hurricane roared across the Brac and Little Cayman, killing almost a tenth of the population, Miss Rillie and her family survived by taking refuge in a neighbor's house that was built close to the bluff and protected from the wind and high water. In a whisper of a voice, Miss Rillie told how she had lived through that hurricane and others after it, storms that would not even leave the island's dead to rest in peace but ripped their coffins from the ground and scattered the remains out to sea.In 1963, Miss Rillie moved to Little Cayman.It was a bit of heaven here then, she said. Twenty people and one cow. There had been a store, but it closed. Jack used to fish for conch and he'd row over to the Brac for supplies when we needed them. They were good, contented days.But although their comfortable little house, built by Miss Rillie's brother, will never know air conditioning, she is not among those Little Cayman long-timers who thought building a power plant on the island would automatically ruin it.I told them long ago that three things were all we needed here, she said. Electric light, a store and a minister. And now she has them.The next day I took the nine-minute flight to the Brac, where a new storm front, rolling down out of Canada and stirring up palm trees across the Caribbean, kept all the boats at the dock and me totally out of the water. So I rambled around the island, visiting the stony bluff that was the first bit of the Caymans spotted by Columbus and that more than 400 years later saved Miss Rillie and her family from the hurricane.The 1,500 residents on the Brac are mostly locals, making it much more Caymanian, culture-wise, than Little Cayman. The island has a jet-ready airport and larger towns, but it still resists the drive-through Americana of Grand Cayman.My dive trip was over, meaning I'd have to return to see the Brac's deep coral walls or visit its wrecks, among them a Russian frigate bought from the Cubans at a bargain basement price after the collapse of the Soviet Union and deep-sixed here to create a dive site. I'd also have to go back to Little Cayman for more dives on Bloody Bay Wall and more of that good food and more time under the stars in the hot tub and yeah, maybe another massage at the hands of any comely masseuse who is willing.Who cares that this is what has become of the diving world's frontier. If this is soft, then so be it. Crank on the a.c., carry my tank and count me in.LITTLE CAYMANCAYMAN BRACGENERAL INFORMATION
Find exclusive opportunities and packages offered to Society members on the member benefits site.