Visitors to the Cayman Islands find astonishing new worlds underwater.

The Cayman Islands' sun-bleached, platinum sand causes newcomers tosquint. But when vacationers trade sunglasses for scuba gear, theyleave 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 achromatic kaleidoscope on the ocean floor. Coral outcroppingsblossom in hues from gold to green, lavender to deep aubergine,cream to crimson. Orange sea fans wave like palm trees with thecurrents.

The Caymans' surrounding reefs, peaks of submerged mountainsrising thousands of feet above a sea ridge, give way to precipitousdrops into the deep blue. This diverse seascape includes more than150 dive locations. "We've got reefs, wrecks, wall dives," saysSeasports owner and guide Butch Sjostrom. "You think it's just oneisland-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. "Yesterdaywe saw a lot of parrot fish on the open sand," says Susan Luerich,who's returned with husband Larry Leise several times to dive withButch. "And today we spotted a total of six turtles." The creaturesmove at different speeds-some skitter away, others languidly circlesponges, 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 themind 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. "Itmakes you feel more confident as a first-timer." After a brieftutorial, beginners read depth gauges, clear the face mask andregulator, and use the inflation device to reach neutralbuoyancy.

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

When approached slowly, animals appear to be unaffected by humancompany. Accepting, even. Just as it's time to head back to theanchor line, Butch spots a piece of fishing wire caught in afissure. He stops, loosens it from its hold, and carries it awayfor disposal. Seeing the splendor of this place inspires divers toprotect its enchanting inhabitants. After all, says Butch, "We'revisitors in their home."

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

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