First Look: Grand Cayman
The newly certified take a world-class dive trip
There is a tendency among certain divers to affect a jaded hauteur, a weary, been-there-done-that outlook that bores both the bearer and everyone else around them. If we were honest with ourselves, it is a habit from which, at one time or another, we all suffer, in and out of the water a dark malaise, staining a life that might otherwise be well-lived.
Recently, with the help of 21 new friends, I discovered the antidote.
Fitting that I made this discovery on Grand Cayman, for few dive destinations are as well-known as this Caribbean isle. Grand Cayman is a household word among divers, who flock to the island with good reason. With no freshwater runoff, Cayman's waters can be gin clear. They also go deep. Like neighboring Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, the grandest Cayman is a limestone peak of a submerged mountain range the Cayman Ridge that rises from some of the Caribbean's deepest waters. Hence, your gaze can fall from 60 feet to 8,000-plus as you fin over the edge of a wall. Grand Cayman's dive sites West Bay, North Sound, Trinity Caves, Stingray City ring like the notes of a familiar song. And, between the three islands, there are nearly 300 moored dive sites. On terra firma, amenities range from the palatial high rises of Seven Mile Beach to an eclectic culture where English gentility the Cayman Islands remain a British Overseas Territory rides deftly alongside West Indian color and spice. Calypso and reggae pour forth from everything with a speaker, and cricket remains the sport of obsession.
Not that the students of Recreational Scuba PE34 were aware of any of this. First, none of them had dived in Grand Cayman before.
PE34 is one of the most popular classes at Rollins College: The course always fills up and has a waiting list. Those lucky enough to get a seat ascribe the course's popularity to many things, but the primary appeal is simple. At the end of the semester, the final takes place in Caribbean waters. Such forward thinking is typical of Rollins, a tiny undergraduate enrollment is less than 2,000 students liberal-arts college in sunbathed Winter Park, Fla., that eschews a football team for sports like sailing, wakeboarding and water skiing. Students know the home phone numbers of professors. Professors invite students to backyard barbecues, perhaps because students can call them directly to ask why they weren't invited. One of the school's best-known alumnus is Fred Rogers. At Rollins it is, indeed, a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
The man responsible for PE34 is Tim Morse, an affable 43-year-old father of three. I quickly learned that Tim's credentials went beyond an extensive diving resume. For starters, he understood the interests of the average collegian. He had attended Ohio State University, where he diligently applied himself to collegial pursuits.
In Grand Cayman he bore the adult's mantle, overseeing his young charges fairly and firmly. When a decision was required, he regarded them with a wise smile and said, "Let's do this democratically ."
Happy coincidence, the lot of us arrived for the four-day stay during Grand Cayman's Pirates Week, an island-wide celebration of the buccaneer in everyone. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the November festival included parades, heritage festivals, a cardboard-boat regatta and all things pirate-y. The Rollins gang did not turn their back on the challenge. Before arriving in Grand Cayman, they purchased natty pirate outfits of impressive authenticity. Many of the male members also grew beards. My personal favorite belonged to Alex Gauthier, a red affair that forked stiffly from his chin, providing Alex just the right touch of bristle and madness.
I liked the Rollins kids. They were friendly, welcoming me into their fold as if I had sat in class alongside them.
Their plan for their four days in Grand Cayman was simple do as much as humanly possible.
"We have a motto," one told me. "'Sleep when you're dead.'"
This 24/4 agenda presented obstacles for someone who attended college during the Lincoln administration. I have tried to stay in reasonable shape for someone approaching 50, but there is no harder fact than this only around the young do you feel truly old. Still, the Rollins kids gamely tried to help me along. When I explained to freshman Kyle Scharkss (if there is a better name for a diver, you tell me) that photographer Franklin Viola and I planned to tail them the four days, he gave me a knowing smile.
"Relive the old days, huh?"
Regarding the diving, Tim had expertly laid out a perfectly scaled itinerary. In the early going, shore dives. Then to a boat and shallow dives, and finally on to deeper water, the trip culminating with a wall dive to 100 feet.
Our first dive took place just south of George Town, quite literally off South Church Street. Grand Cayman is fat with great shore diving, (including such other shore strides as Sunset House's famous beach entry to check out the Amphitrite statue), but I feel safe in saying that few travelers to Cayman have experienced a shore dive like this. Yes, the finger reef (dubbed "Cheeseburger Reef" for its proximity to a Burger King), a stone's throw from The Lobster Pot Dive Center, had lovely coral heads and fun swim-throughs, and three large tarpon glistening like chain mail in the sun. But the truth was, I was absorbed with my dive mates. They checked on their dive buddies with heartwarming regularity, but they also spent time punching at each other's bubbles, tugging at fins and assuming ridiculous poses for pictures. In other words, having the goofy, good time divers should have, but miss, in the name of maturity.
They were good divers, too. I have negotiated swim-throughs with divers purportedly vastly experienced who bounced up and down like Ping-Pong balls while kicking up more silt than a Saharan sandstorm. The Rollins students passed through the swim-throughs like neoprene arrows, so that even the last diver (me) enjoyed a Windex view.
When I mentioned this to Tim, he pointed out the obvious to me.
"These guys are good learners; they're used to being told what to do," he said. "They're not like adults, who are used to telling people what to do."
On that first dive, I also saw two of the kids scoop up cans from the seafloor, a simple act of green.
When post-dive, I complimented Henry Cadwalader, and he simply shrugged.
"I've got these big, huge pockets on the side of my BC, I might as well," he said.
The next day, Henry would emerge beaming from a shore dive at Devil's Grotto with Eden Rock Diving Center.
"That," he announced, "was the best dive I've ever done."
How fresh-faced and sweetly naïve, I thought, to unequivocally single out one dive in a vast ocean.
I wasn't the only one who noted the group's youth.
"I thought, 'It's going to be a long day'," a divemaster at Divetech confessed to me. "They turned out to be good divers."
Divetech shares their ocean-edge West Bay quarters with the Cobalt Coast Resort where Franklin and I stayed; both are first-rate operations that adroitly mix a friendly, down-home attitude with service of the highest degree.
It was Divetech that took all of us to the Doc Polson, in 55 feet of water in West Bay, where most of the kids descended to their first wreck, and anyone who wanted to have their first go with an underwater scooter. As you might imagine, this was highly entertaining. Holding the scooters in front of them, the kids buzzed about like James Bond. Placing the scooters between their legs, they rode sitting up like the Lone Ranger (not that they'd know who he was). Squeezing the scooter between their legs and stretching out prone, they buzzed through the water with their arms thrust out, rising skillfully up and over the wreck, Superman-like, then circling around to do it again. They all appeared supremely comfortable underwater. For reasons that still escape me, a toilet rested alone on the stern of the wreck. Someone straddled the seat and pretended to open up a newspaper.
It was uplifting to watch such unrestrained joy, but nearly 30 years their senior, I saw the broader picture, too. After they ascended to their safety stop (goofing around seems to quickly end a tank), I remained on the wreck. In the now still blue, the molten silver bubbles they had left behind slowly percolated up through the deck of the wreck, as inexorably as passing youth.
That night, as part of Pirates Week, we reveled aboard the Jolly Roger, an 80-foot, three-masted replica of a 17th-century galleon. At one point, everyone's attention was momentarily distracted from the open bar by a spectacular fireworks display. Pyrotechnics burst high in the starry sky, drifting down like sand through fingers.
Face upturned, Eva Gauthier, Alex the Redbeard's sister, said to no one in particular, "I love this class."
At that moment, I did too. A tropical breeze nudged at the rigging. The Jolly Roger rocked like a cradle. I watched the fireworks, reflected in a sea of smooth faces.
Franklin and I bowed out early that night, as we did each night. They were pirates, but they were not automatons. Morning reveille at Eldemire's Tropical Island Inn was entertaining. Tim, wisely, would send others into the rooms to roust the sleepers. Those who had been out the latest emerged last, proceeding slowly like newborn foals, shaky-legged and consulting their feet as if they had never seen them before. A day of adventure beckoned. A rooster crowed.
"I'm gonna kill that thing," someone muttered.
And if they stayed out late, so what? It didn't affect their diving and it was, after all, Pirates Week. It's a safe bet that Blackbeard, Henry Morgan and Stede Bonnet didn't obsess about getting a solid eight hours. Everyone dived like summa cum laudes, and yes, even college presidents were young once.
A FINAL EXAMINATION
As the days progressed, I saw that Tim missed little and subtly orchestrated much. After the dive guides gave their briefing on the boats, Tim always added a few tips of his own: how to neatly lay out one's gear to keep the boat organized and how to call attention to oneself should, for some inexplicable reason, one surface 300 yards from the boat.
On the day of the final a 100-foot wall dive at a spot called Eagle's Nest I sensed, for the first time, a nervous tension. On the boat ride out, my pirates were straight-faced. They checked and rechecked their gear. Alex the Gregarious had become Alex the Pensive. He sat beside his sister Eva, staring intently at the horizon.
They were qualified, but they remained new. When we arrived at the dive site, drifting at the edge of an 8,500-foot plunge into the abyss, Tim turned to the business of shepherd verifying buddies, telling everyone to descend on the mooring line, his gaze absorbing rigs as, one by one, everyone took a giant stride off the stern.
Standing beside Eva on the dive step, Alex had regained his spirit.
Peering down into the blue depths, he turned and smiled back at his friends.
"I don't know why the Little Mermaid ever wanted to come to land," he said.
"He's obsessed with The Little Mermaid. It's his favorite movie."
And then down we went to the hazy blue reef at 60 feet, and then over the edge of the vertical wall. It is a wonderful feeling, the languorous free fall of wall diving, and it's timeless too, as pleasurable on wall 5,000 as it was on the first. My heart soared as my body fell. All around me, the Rollins pirates drifted down, too. I noticed someone was missing. Glancing toward the surface I saw Alex and Eva, hanging motionless 30 feet down. Eva kicked awkwardly. Alex looked divided; a part of him craned forward, but a hand reached for Eva's elbow.
The wall was glorious, smeared with corals, barrel sponges and rainbow schools of fish, and basted with that syrupy sense of serenity one gets at 100 feet.
I wasn't the only one who felt the magic. On a small ledge one of the girls simply stood stock-still in the sand, staring up at a school of fish swirling in the blue. I heard muffled laughter. Turning, I saw Tim. Gesturing at his hypnotized student, he grinned at me through his faceplate.
And then Tim was gone. When I saw him next, he was swimming again through the deep, escorting Eva, who looked paler and more fragile at depth. They finned together, elbows touching.
Back on the boat, Eva told me, "I couldn't clear my ears."
"I'm glad you made it down," I said.
It surprised me, the strength of the feeling. I had become more attached to my companions than I thought.
Eva paused for a long moment. Then she said softly: "Me too. It looked awesome down there."
Quick as that, our friends left. School started again on Monday. In their absence, Franklin and I poked about the island, visiting Grand Cayman's famed Turtle Farm, hunting for meat pies (Franklin's favorite), participating in an underwater treasure hunt and diving, too.
One afternoon we drove out to Cayman's East End to dive. Gone was the high-rise buzz and hustle of Seven Mile Beach, replaced by the wind whistling across open beach.
We dived with Ocean Frontiers, whose pirate attitude (a wetsuited effigy warning off a rival dive shop swayed from a noose above their dock) was outdone only by their consummate professionalism. Though I rode out to the nearby reef with a friendly group of adults, it was the Rollins kids who occupied my mind. When our dive guide Mark Landman gave everyone the option of following him or diving on our own at a spot called Maggie's Maze, I swear I heard Tim's voice: Follow the guides
So when Mark ducked into a low, dark slash of cavern, I went with him. For a few moments the world went inky still, and then the tunnel opened into a wider cavern, this one bathed in downy half-light that pulsed and flashed, a rival to any treasure chest brimming with silver.
For a brief instant I thought I had absorbed one pirate tale too many. Then I realized what I was seeing. The ball of silversides swirled and pulsed like a living rainstorm, as muscled tarpon shining brighter still slashed through their midst. In the liquid silence I fell to the sand on my knees, hypnotized by the glistening world of predation.
It was the best dive of my life.
Head to Seven Mile Beach and George Town for great shopping; buy locally made wood carvings, authentic treasure coins, Caymanian-style birdhouses and Caymanite jewelry. Order a Caybrew at the Colbalt Coast Bar and ask owner Arie Barendrecht to tell a few yarns from his cruise-ship days. Don't miss Friday night at My Bar at Sunset House. Check out the Cracked Conch by the Sea (try the conch fritters). Take a seat at the lone picnic table in front of Season to the Bone (backside of George Town) and sink your teeth into heavenly jerk chicken. Stop in at Cathy Church's Underwater Photo Centre & Gallery. Visit the Farmer's Market on Thomas Russell Way and Frankie's Fresh Fruits & Juices on Red Bay Road for local jams, hot sauces and baked goods. On the East End, catch the quiet life; blowholes, empty beaches and local restaurants serving fish Cayman-style with peppers, onions and tomatoes.
LITTLE CAYMAN AND CAYMAN BRAC
In addition to Grand Cayman, this diving Mecca includes two other world-class dive destinations: Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.
About a 45-minute flight from Grand Cayman, Little Cayman is a true diver's island. The world here revolves around Bloody Bay Wall. And, it should. This vertical wonderland has sat undisputed among the top of divers' wish lists since they first explored this marine life-packed world. It's an experience littered with superlatives. Expect to encounter sea turtles, nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays, lobsters and an array of groupers and other tropicals among the sponge and gorgonian crowded reefs. There seems to be a cleaning station about every 3 feet in the coral gardens at the top of the wall. And you'll usually find the company of a barracuda hovering in the shadows below the boat. Above water, Little Cayman is ruled by about 2,000 Cayman Iguanas and legions of seabirds. In fact, the iguanas have the right of way on all the roads. And the best show at night has always been the thick carpet of stars in the heavens.
Awaiting a quick 30-minute boat ride from Little Cayman, you'll find Cayman Brac. Like the other two islands, "the Brac" exudes its own vibe and ambiance. The big attraction on the Brac is the Russian Frigate the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts, but there are 120 other sensational dives that ring this island, too. You'll find steep walls, spur and groove, swim-throughs and colorful shallow coral gardens that ripple with marine life and are among the Caribbean's healthiest. Spotted eagle rays frequent the drop-offs, and you're almost guaranteed to encounter turtles, several species of eels, schooling squid and more macro critters than you can count. Consistently clear water makes this a photographer's paradise. It is also a birdwatcher's paradise with close to 350 species. And no trip to the Brac is complete without a hike to the top of the namesake cliff at the East End of the island.
THE GUIDE TO GRAND CAYMAN:
Average water temperature: 82 degrees
Average visibility: 100-feet plus
What to wear: A skin or 1.5 mm shorty in summer, 3/2 mm in winter.
When to go: Year-round.
Visit Boatswain's Beach. Part turtle farm, part Cayman Islands cultural heritage park, it's a must for dive travelers.
Here, an overhang actually "curls" out over a wall. Loaded with black coral, it has an interesting swim-through.
Victoria House Reef:
Named for the resort that overlooks this Seven Mile Beach site, the Victoria House Reef can be accessed via boat or shore.
Just off Seven Mile Beach, this site features lush, coral- and sponge-crowded swim-throughs.
This pinnacle dive got its name because it looms out of the blue like a spectral coral wonderland.
Part of the North Wall, Chinese Wall features swim-throughs and a vertical seascape that sea turtles, gray angels and a host of other critters call home.
Caymanite jewelry, made from semiprecious stones, found only on the Cayman Islands.
Rigged & Ready:
BC Tags: Slap on a bright, Velcro-on, all-fabric tag to your BC to identify it from others. yourbagtag.com
Price of Paradise:
Ever dreamed of living in the Cayman Islands? Check out our online guide to owning a piece of this diver's paradise. sportdiver.com/ownapieceofparadise
Cayman Aggressor IV