A Deep-Sea Encounter with Coral, a Stingray and the Abyss

As I left the surface above Martha’s Vineyard, the chaos of the rolling surf and wind gave way to an infinity of calm blue.

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Gishani

Waking to the sounds of birdsong and pounding surf was pleasant enough, but another sound was cause for concern: the wind. It rustled in the fronds of the coconut trees outside my cabana with an unrelenting ferocity. Not sea creatures, nor cold nor rain give a diver the same fear as wind. That’s because wind causes waves, and if waves get big enough, surface conditions can be too unsafe for diving off a boat, even though it might be a postcard day on the beach. At breakfast, my fears were confirmed. The water on the north side of Little Cayman was too rough for diving. We’d be diving a site called Martha’s Vineyard on the south side instead. I tried to hide my disappointment. I had one day to dive in Little Cayman and that meant one goal: Blood Bay Wall. But it wasn’t meant to be.

We loaded up the dive boat Yellow Rose and motored out towards the cut in the reef that provides a natural breakwater from the open ocean. The boat captain shouted for everyone to secure their gear and sit down; it was going to be a bumpy ride. We bounced over the 10-foot rollers and veered west to the far end of the island. The land to starboard provided shelter from the wind, but the swells were still big enough to cause a woman sitting across from me to turn green. I was glad I took my meclizine with breakfast. As we neared the tip of the island, the full force of the north wind found us and the captain angled the Yellow Rose’s nose into it and headed towards a bobbing mooring ball. This was “Martha’s Vineyard”, Little Cayman’s newest dive site, named for a former divemaster on the island. When the engine was cut and we all scrambled into action, zipping up neoprene and testing regulators. Waddling to the transom was challenging in the rolling boat and I ungracefully crept aft and stepped straight into the sea.

Lion Hunting

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All over the Caribbean, lionfish are a scourge, an invasive species native to Indo-Pacific waters. Legend has it they got loose in the Caribbean from a Florida aquarium during a hurricane. Now they’re eating their way through the reefs of countries from Belize to the Bahamas and there are no predators that will touch them. They’re beautiful to look at, with their psychedelic orange-striped feathers but spines on its back contain a venom that will kill a fish and give a diver a painful sting. Still, several Cayman Island dive operators like George Town’s Sunset House are offering lionfish culling certification courses, to train divers how to safely dispatch these slow-swimming pests. The downside is there’s a long way to go. The upside? Lionfish make for very tasty fish and chips.

All three of the Cayman Islands are renowned for their diving and they take it seriously. A recently completed project called “Cayman 365” identified 365 different dive sites around all the islands, and the tourism department likes to say you can dive a different site every day of the year. Cayman Brac has the sunken Russian warship, the (renamed) Keith Tibbetts; Grand Cayman has the Kittiwake wreck and Devil’s Grotto as its star attractions; and over on Little Cayman is the Bloody Bay Wall. After two days diving on Grand Cayman — where we chased lionfish, explored a dilapidated wreck and hung out with the huge docile tarpon and a curious nurse shark — I’d loaded up my dive gear and boarded a Twin Otter for Little Cayman.

Little Cayman is a tiny speck of land, barely 20 miles long and only a mile wide, that’s known for its endemic iguana population, its migrating bird colony and its diving, and not much else. Fewer than 100 people live on the island year-round, most of them divemasters, herpetologists, birdwatchers and eccentric expats. The airstrip is a half-mile dirt path that only accommodates Twin Otters and Piper Cubs, and the terminal is the size of a Manhattan studio apartment. However, since it’s an airport, it requires a fire truck, and one that dwarfs the building is parked nearby, and a volunteer fire crew starts its engine monthly to ensure it’s ready if needed. There is no TSA checkpoint, no baggage claim and no duty-free shop. Chickens cluck from the yard next door. The flight from the international airport on Grand Cayman takes 20 minutes, but it’s a world away.

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There are only three dive resorts on Little Cayman, the most venerable being Pirate’s Point, which sits on a stretch of undeveloped beach that, if you haven’t visited, you’d swear has been Photoshopped. Gladys Howard, a Texas-born, classically trained chef, bought the resort in the early 1970s when she was looking for a place to cook and serve food the way she wanted, as well as a great place to dive. On a visit to Little Cayman, she found this small resort that was for sale and she immediately bought it — or rather, she traded 10 acres of Texas horse pasture for it. She’s been there ever since, and even in her 80s she presides over the nightly dinner seating, her guests filing into the dining room after her at the ceremonial ringing of a bell.

I hovered over the abyss and puffed air into my buoyancy vest to level off, wondering with some dread what lay below.

Gladys doesn’t dive (or cook) anymore, but instead has a small, devoted staff of divemasters who pull double duty serving meals and driving the airport shuttle (which also doubles as the dive gear van). Mike is a dreadlocked Floridian who came to Little Cayman to study iguanas and never left. Michelle is a thoughtful Brit who has dived all over the world, and Bob fled Michigan’s cold 10 years ago and never looked back. Little Cayman attracts people either leaving something or looking for something, and most of them seem to end up at Pirate’s Point.

The Cayman Islands sit smack dab in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, rising up improbably from a 25,000-foot-deep canyon known as the Cayman Trench. The steep walls surrounding the islands are covered in soft and hard corals that provide shelter for all manner of sea life from the perils of the deep and draw in passing pelagics that cruise the walls from out of the open ocean. The most famous of these sheer canyon walls is the Bloody Bay Wall which sits on the north side of Little Cayman, just offshore and the closest jumping-off point for the Trench itself.

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As I left the surface above Martha’s Vineyard, the chaos of the rolling surf and wind gave way to an infinity of calm blue. Below me the white sand was interrupted by fingers of coral that disappeared into darkness below, like a giant hand clawing for purchase on the edge of a cliff. This may not have been Bloody Bay Wall, but any disappointment I had vanished as I reached the coral and our small group of divers drifted down the sand chute to the edge. A stingray, spooked by our noisy exhalations, burst from the white sand and cruised across the lunar-like surface, trailed by a scavenger fish. The coral was lush and countless fish lurked under ledges and among the fans, tubes and bushes, like birds in a jungle. But I wasn’t here to look at the fish.

70 feet, 80, 90 — we continued to descend until there was no more sand. The sandy bottom disappeared suddenly; I was at the lip of the wall, the blue water disappearing into black beneath my fins. Fine sand was drifting over the side of this cliff and I hovered just over the edge of the abyss and puffed a little extra air into my buoyancy vest to level off. I looked straight down, wondering with some dread what lay below. All that kept me from finding out was a valve and a half-liter of air inside this heat-welded nylon vest. I was thankful I had spent a little more on my dive gear.

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For all the colorful fish and healthy coral to be seen underwater, there’s something special about a wall dive, perhaps akin to the sensation BASE jumpers and astronauts feel. It makes your fragile weightless state more real, more precious when there’s no sandy bottom below and gravity’s pull comes from deep inside the Earth. I wasn’t supposed to be there, something my beeping dive computer made even more apparent — yet there I was, defying physics, physiology and no doubt several other branches of science. With a last look into the abyss, I turned and kicked towards the coral heads and sunlight above.

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