To Dive For

Visitors to the Cayman Islands find astonishing new worlds underwater.
Text by Sarah Brueggemann
The Cayman Islands' sun-bleached, platinum sand causes newcomers to squint. But when vacationers trade sunglasses for scuba gear, they leave behind the washed-out surface for a realm of color. Underwater, they clearly see the beauty here.

Beneath the waves, light streams to the bottom, creating a chromatic kaleidoscope on the ocean floor. Coral outcroppings blossom in hues from gold to green, lavender to deep aubergine, cream to crimson. Orange sea fans wave like palm trees with the currents.

The Caymans' surrounding reefs, peaks of submerged mountains rising thousands of feet above a sea ridge, give way to precipitous drops into the deep blue. This diverse seascape includes more than 150 dive locations. "We've got reefs, wrecks, wall dives," says Seasports owner and guide Butch Sjostrom. "You think it's just one island-but there's so much variety."

The marine life is just as varied. Angelfish, tarpon, barracuda, and moray eels top a seemingly endless list of species. "Yesterday we saw a lot of parrot fish on the open sand," says Susan Luerich, who's returned with husband Larry Leise several times to dive with Butch. "And today we spotted a total of six turtles." The creatures move at different speeds-some skitter away, others languidly circle sponges, a few dart like daggers.

Novice divers, with breath more labored than Darth Vader's, first feel like lumbering beasts next to sea life. But soon the mind begins to focus on the environment rather than the equipment. Muscles relax. What seemed foreign becomes comfortable, calm.

Butch offers instruction in the ocean, not a pool. "With Butch, you learn not just what you do, but why you do it," says Susan. "It makes you feel more confident as a first-timer." After a brief tutorial, beginners read depth gauges, clear the face mask and regulator, and use the inflation device to reach neutral buoyancy.

"You must make the 'ahh' sound whenever the regulator is out of your mouth," reminds Butch. Once under way, it's hard not to say "ahh" with each new sight. Guides accompany paired divers as they investigate a reef's archways, tunnels, ridges, and caverns. The wet suit-clad group stops to notice one rockfish cleverly camouflaged against the coral.

When approached slowly, animals appear to be unaffected by human company. Accepting, even. Just as it's time to head back to the anchor line, Butch spots a piece of fishing wire caught in a fissure. He stops, loosens it from its hold, and carries it away for disposal. Seeing the splendor of this place inspires divers to protect its enchanting inhabitants. After all, says Butch, "We're visitors in their home."

Seasports, Grand Cayman; 345/949-3965 or bestdivingingrandcayman.com. Other good outfitters: Red Sail Sports; 345/945-5965 or redsailcayman.com. Ocean Frontiers; 345/947-0000 or oceanfrontiers.com.