We’re all settled in now to the dive life pace in Cayman Brac. We arrived after 3 wonderfully uneventful flights and 1 night in Toronto (where it was -22 degrees celsius by the way) to some rough seas and cold wind. Not the sunshine we had in mind but you take whatever you get on vacation right? After a night of sitting at the bar and wondering where all the other hotel guests were (it is SO quiet and empty here!) we woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed (mostly) for a 7:30am boat briefing. I’ve got to hand it to the Brac Reef Beach – they’re boat briefings are fabulously thorough and safety-oriented. I felt that we were in good hands right away. And when you’re spending all day every day for a week on a boat, in rough seas no less, its good to know the crew can handle anything. They also do this lovely thing called valet diving – I have yet to lift a single tank let alone change tanks between dives. I don’t even have to carry my scuba kit to the back of the boat to put it on before jumping in. I certainly won’t be getting buff arms on this trip!
We’re 15 dives in as I write this (2 dives in the morning and another in the afternoon) and the weather has finally calmed down enough to allow us access to the best sites on the north side of the island. Some dives have been mind blowingly awesome (yes that’s right, I went that far and yes I also know that it is not a word) while others have bordered on pedestrian with most falling somewhere in the middle. All dives are not created equal. Here’s a peek at the most memorable dives thus far.
January 6th – 1st dive of the day
#356 (M.V. Keith Tibbetts wreck) – We took off for the north side of the island for the first time since our arrival. A few of the divers had requested this site as it was the last dive day of their trip. Menne (our awesome dive master) obliged despite the rough swells and we all hung on tight. I looked out at the waves and wondered how exactly I was going to manage to climb back up on the boat. This was also to be my first wreck dive, and also the first dive of my wreck specialty. My task was to navigate Warren and I around the wreck and then back to our starting point to find the boat. Pretty easy as it turned out, just keep the ship on your right on the way out then round the bow and keep it on your left all the way back. We reached a maximum of 88ft and stayed for 43 minutes. This was a stunningly gorgeous site. The Keith Tibbetts is a Russian warship stationed in Cuba during the Cold War. It never saw action, and was eventually sold to Cayman Brac and sunk as an artificial reef. It has been underwater now for 15 years, longer than it ever floated on the surface. Its back half sits upright in the sand and the other half was torn off and lists to the port side. Almost as commanding a sight as the wreck was the hundreds upon hundreds of splendid garden eels swaying in the surge in the sand fields on both sides of the ship, as far as the eye could see with a dark blue horizon drawing a stark line against the white sand. It was truly breath taking, and I don’t use the term lightly. I didn’t take my camera on this dive as my focus was accomplishing my training task but I hope we can revisit this site before we go. I’d love to be able to share some pictures with you.
2nd dive of the day
Our morning started out with the amazing dive above so I wasn’t expecting this one to be anything super memorable. This dive really caught me off guard! We went to Bermuda Chubb Haven on the south shore of Cayman Brac. The maximum depth was 55ft and our dive lasted 54 minutes. Menne was kind enough to explain how we’d recognize the bermuda chubbs…they’re the ones in the flowery shorts. Menne actually has a website where he sells t-shirts called dumbassdivemaster.com – take a peek! This was the first dive I’ve ever taken a camera on and, as I expected, my buoyancy and air consumption took a big hit. Despite that it was a glorious dive because it was chock full of all the extra cool stuff divers love to see – there was a stingray, green sea turtle that came within a few feet of us, and several great barracuda. I also got the video from the previous post about lion fish from this dive. Whenever a DM kills a lion fish, the grouper aren’t far behind to gobble it up. On this day, one in particular was so close that Menne herded him at us so we could pet him. (I can practically see my instructor Kari cringing at this, we’re not supposed to touch the marine life! Sorry Kari, at that point the grouper was so up in my mask I either pet him and let Menne carry on elsewhere or risk him petting me).
Menne carried that dead lion fish around on his spear for the remainder of the dive and near the end he sliced it into 2 pieces, stuffed one into an octopus den and left the other at the base of a nearby coral pinnacle. We were all then quite surprised to see a queen trigger fish begin picking at the carcass (we had no idea they eat lion fish! But the more fish that do, the better). Watching the food chain at work is always interesting, and not a minute later the very top of that food chain came into view. A black tipped reef shark, about 5ft in length, came swooping in to steal the carcass from the trigger fish and then cruised around the pinnacle for a pretty solid 30 seconds or so. It is absolutely awesome to see such a powerful creature in its natural environment exhibiting normal behaviors. We all know sharks are the top dog in the ocean – but watching one in action just really hammers that home. He moved so smoothly, so powerfully, so much faster than anything else I’ve seen underwater. I was awestruck and just pleased as punch to have front row seats to the show. Warren on the other hand, decided to see how close that shark would let him drift in. 15ft as it turns out, and then with a quick swish of his tail he was out of sight in a split second. The diver visible in the video is Warren by the way. Don’t bother ladies, he’s taken ;)
January 7th – 1st dive of the day
Cemetery Wall – I hit a maximum depth of 97ft (that just shy of 10 stories underwater, for reference) which was a new personal depth limit (didn’t last long, I set a new one the next day). We hoped into relatively calm seas and began our descent right away. We started our dive under the boat at the mooring line and headed straight out towards the deep to the edge of the wall. I peered over the coral at about 75ft and saw nothing – complete and total nothingness, just endless deep dark blue sea. Now THAT is a seriously intimidating sight! I wondered what might be watching me from the depths. My breath caught in my throat and I quickly pushed that thought out of my head. The golden rule of scuba diving is never to hold your breath, always breathe. That is sometimes easier said than done. They say that for every shark you see on a dive, there’s probably 3 or 4 that saw you…
We dropped down over the wall and I kept my eyes glued to the reef, avoiding at all cost glances to my left at the open ocean or down to the depths. There were all sorts of incredible critters and corals to hold my attention, and about 8 enormous groupers aggressively following our dive master Menne waiting for him to spear a lion fish they could gobble up. He rough housed with them the way you would a pet dog and occasionally had to push them away. We saw a gorgeous green sea turtle too. I was fairly nervous on this portion of the dive. I’m becoming more and more comfortable with deeper dives, and no longer becoming anxious about my air consumption or feeling claustrophobic (diving is really teaching me how to conquer fear) but there just happened to be a newly certified diver on this tour who was literally on her first dive since certifying a day earlier. In my humble opinion, she might have been wiser to respect PADI’s guideline of not exceeding 60ft depth limit at her experience level (which is to say, none). She was right down at 97ft with me and I kept thinking to myself “please don’t run out of air, please don’t get narced, please don’t get freak out, please control your buoyancy” and so on. As a newly trained rescue diver my head kept going to the many problems that could easily arise in this situation and I knew that I might have to step up if something went wrong. Luckily everything went perfectly fine, but I was rather uncomfortable with my new awareness of all the scary possibilities her presence at that depth created.
We came up a bit to 85ft and started into a swim through – a short tunnel through the reef with an overhead environment (no direct access to the surface) that curved up quite steeply to 60ft. Warren ducked in ahead of the group to follow Menne and I was right behind him. We surprised a sleeping nurse shark, taking shelter from the surge, who quickly made a beeline for the exit as Warren’s camera flash was going off. I looked up and time just s t o p p e d . The silt of the tunnel was swirling up and glowing orange from the flash and then this shape appeared out of the cloud and headed right for me. The shark swam right past me, easily within arm’s reach. Those are the moments I live for as a diver. It felt like slow motion but was probably only 3 seconds. Best 3 seconds of my day.
January 8th – 3rd dive of the day
Warren and I were the only divers on the boat for this afternoon dive. We had a 46t boat all to ourselves. Very spacious. By this point in our trip Menne has a fairly good grasp on what kind of divers we are and what we can and can’t handle. He suggests, if we’re game, we grab some Nitrox tanks (room air is 21% O2 and 79% nitrogen and that’s what’s in a regular scuba cylinder. Because the amount of nitrogen your body absorbs at depth limits the time you can spend there safely, we can extend our bottom times by decreasing the content of nitrogen in the gas we’re breathing, which thereby increases the oxygen content. I do have the special training for this but had yet to actually dive a tank of it) and head out North into the rougher swells, drop down over another deep wall and just drift for as long as the air will last us. He’ll pick us up when we surface. Normal procedure is for the divers to navigate themselves back to the boat underwater and then surface near it as the boat remains moored throughout the dive. Obviously, Warren and I were totally game for this plan!
It was a glorious dive that started out at a site called Knuckles Wall. I reached a maximum of 86ft and lasted 54 minutes. We drifted along the wall, saw 2 green sea turtles back to back, at least 7 lion fish kills (which means we also had an escort of groupers!), a few hog fish, a baby queen angelfish, a queen angel fish, an arrow crab (super cute little guy with bright purple pinchers), stingray and a group of barracuda. We also checked out a small ship wreck in the sand just over the wall. It was fabulous to be the only ones in the water, it felt like the whole ocean was our playground. There was also a tight little swim through near the wall, and I always love a good swim through. This was another “this is why I dive” kind of dive. Bliss……
The ‘pedestrian’ dives:
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had plenty of great dives here on the Brac. But when you do this many of them, you can’t help but rank some over others, or find you have difficulty recalling some without refreshing yourself on the details in your logbook. The other dives we did were all to fairly similar sites (coral fingers and pillars spread out in the sand). Some of the creatures we’ve seen include angel fish, butterfly fish, parrot fish, trigger fish, moral eels, yellow headed jaw fish, porcupine fish, squirrel fish, needle fish, honeycomb cow fish, damsel fish, goat fish, spotted drum fish and some banded coral shrimp. I’ll be posting a gallery with some pictures of all those guys soon. Warren has also started up a photography blog and he’s got tons of amazing underwater shots from our dives so the link to that page will be coming soon too. Be sure to look at my pictures first and then be blown away by his….if you do it in reverse mine will seem rather sad! Its quite challenging to operate a camera well underwater, and I was never much of a photographer to begin with, but I’m continue to learn every dive!
If you happen to be wondering what else we’re doing here other than diving, I can clear that up quite easily. Nothing. No, seriously. We’re on the morning boat by 8:15am after a quick breakfast, we get back to port at about 12:30, scarf down some lunch, log our dives and maybe catch 20 mins of either a nap or some sunshine out on the beach and then its back to the boat for the afternoon dive. Then its time to shower off, sit around at the bar, log more dives, have some dinner and get to bed early. Diving all day is rather exhausting! But I wouldn’t have it any other way.