Nast Traveller - 2003)
Learning to scuba dive in the Cayman Isles
Three metres under the water in a swimming pool
in Chiswick, I have my first serious doubts about the wisdom
of this assignment. I’m encased in full scuba gear: wetsuit,
mask, weight belt, compressed air tank, and a bulky inflatable
jacket known as a Buoyancy Control Device (BCD). Breathing
intently through my regulator, I’m trying to copy my
instructor, Woody, in the tricky skill of clearing a flooded
mask underwater with a single short, sharp exhale through the
It’s just not working. I’m coughing and choking and I’m still
twelve feet below the surface and I’m sorry, Woody, I can see perfectly
well what your hand gestures are telling me - ‘Don’t panic, stay
down, breathe normally’, all the theory we did in class this morning -
but I’m not going to, I have to go up, thank Christ, I’m at the surface,
breathing God’s own beautiful air at the pressure He intended, not at two
atmospheres with a half-sized lung.
Woody follows me up. He’s not happy. It’s important to practice this
stuff as if we are 40ft under. Because when things go wrong at sea you can’t
just pop to the surface. Unless you want to rupture an ear drum, burst a lung,
or risk decompression sickness, otherwise known as the bends. So down we go again,
and eventually I get things right enough for Woody to sign the piece of paper
that means I’ve passed the Confined Water section of the dive certificate
course organised by the Professional Association of Open Water Divers (PADI).
I tell a few friends about my panic. The ones who’ve never dived advise
me to stop right there, give up the assignment and kiss goodbye to my week in
the Cayman Islands. One talks of a friend of hers who returned from the Maldives
with the bends and never got over it. Those who have dived reassure me: it’s
fine, the skills you need to pass your PADI are a bit unpleasant, but you never
really need them once you’ve started diving properly. When I get down there,
with the beautiful fish, I’m going to have a ball.
Flying in to Grand Cayman a fortnight later my nerves have returned and I’ve
managed to catch a heavy cold. ‘Congestion can plug air passages,’ reads
my well-thumbed PADI manual. ‘Don’t dive with a cold or allergy.’ The
heat on the island is like a sauna. By the time I’ve hired the car and
figured out the air con I’m dripping.
Driving along a coast road thick with gleaming Hyatts and Sheratons and Colonial
Clubs and Caribbean Apartments, I come after half an hour to the quieter back
roads of West Bay. There’s the occasional cow in a field, a dog nosing
at the foot of a palm tree, a local sitting under a porch. Out on the dark coral
shore is the Cobalt Coast, a dive resort newly built by resident Dutch owner
Arie Barendrecht in the style of a Caribbean great house, with shutters and verandas
in white and powder-blue. It’s to fill a little gap in the market, he tells
me, as he shows me to my chilled suite: for divers who want more than just a
bunk or a poky room to come back to in the evening.
Arie is tall, skinny and reassuringly calm. I’m not to worry about my cold.
The dive guys will tell me if it’s safe in the morning. ‘If you can’t
equalize, you won’t go down.’ I sit by the pool with a Red Stripe
and some lobster bisque. Reggae drifts out from the Cheers style bar, where the
all-American clientele yell matily at each other. ‘Where you guys from?’ ‘That’s
a big money trip …’ ‘Holey Moley, man, give me slime!’ It
seems hard to believe I left London at half-ten this morning.
I take my jet-lag to bed and wake abruptly at 5am with a head full of phlegm.
My tongue is swollen and sore. I have a rasping cough. At seven, I go down to
breakfast in a state.
‘And how are you today?’ asks Arie.
I bore him with my symptoms. Arie smiles and folds his arms.
‘My advice? Go full steam ahead. Give yourself a healthy breakfast. Get
rid of the demons.’
So I drink strong black coffee and chase away my fears with Pancakes Served with
Sausages and Aunt Jemima’s Real Maple Syrup. At 8 am I go round to the
dive centre next door. I’ve been fully expecting to join the boatload of
fit-looking types gearing up on the dock to head out onto the choppy open sea.
But my induction is going to be altogether gentler. I’m driven round the
bay to a sheltered shore site called Turtle Reef. Here it turns out that my new
instructor – or ‘buddy’ diver in PADI parlance - is not going
to be a lean Ubermensch with limited patience, but a gently-spoken blonde from
the Welsh valleys. Not that you could tell by Kym’s accent, which veers
interestingly between American and Australian.
To make things even more special, Kym is going to be joined by two trainee dive-masters,
Canadian Sheri and Italian Cristiano, both lean as whippets and considerably
browner. Any cock-ups I make are going to be clocked by no less than three buddies.
Oh well. There’s no going back now. Somehow just being abroad makes you
braver. I gear up. In London Woody taught me to remember PADI’s crucial
pre-dive safety check acronym BWRAF (Buoyancy, Weights, Releases, Air and Final
Check) with ‘Bangkok Women Really Are Fellers’. Kym’s altogether
sweeter version is ‘Big White Rabbits Are Fluffy’. As I mess it up,
it becomes clear that my one-day crash course was too short. I can barely remember
the constituent parts of the BCD, let alone the rest.
Eventually we’re ready to go. The first Open Water Dive is a controlled
descent to thirty feet. First, we’re going to practice underwater cramp
removal, losing our regulator and - God help me! – flooding and clearing
I have told myself very firmly that I’m not going to panic again. Kneeling
on soft sand fifteen feet below the shimmering surface of the ocean, the cramp
removal goes fine. Kym gives me the underwater OK sign. With magnificent control,
I take the regulator out of my mouth, lose it, expel the required slow stream
of bubbles, find it, and gaspingly get my air source back. Kym does an underwater
clapping motion. Now for Mask Clearing Horror. As long as I have the reg in my
mouth I’m going to be OK. However choked I become I can still breathe.
Here goes! But no, no, try as I might I still can’t get the water out.
There’s salt stinging my bunged-up nostrils and I’m gasping. I signal ‘I
want to go up’. Kym is firm. Calm down, stay down, keep breathing. Do it
like this. But it still doesn’t work. I’m coughing and spluttering
and I have to go up. Now.
‘Sorry,’ I say as she appears beside me on the surface. She and the
junior buddies look concerned and bemused. Am I going to make it, their expressions
Kym shows me where I’m going wrong and talks me back down. Miraculously
I manage it and am given the OK. We’re off, swimming deeper on the Underwater
Exploration section of the dive. And suddenly, still shaking with nerves, I get
the point of it all. I am weightless in a beautiful place. Ahead of me the ever-shifting
foliage of the breathing reef: corals like ferns, corals like brains, corals
like pillars, corals like cacti. One is like a mad sculpture made of stag’s
horns, another a shimmering purple fan. And nibbling at them, swimming over them,
round them, are the extraordinary fish: a darting shoal of blue; a sedate trio
of yellow; an inquisitive loner with a huge black eye painted like a logo on
its white sides; another awkward creature in pink and turquoise, like some chubby
teenaged girl off to her first party in the wrong dress. Beyond it all is the
gorgeous blue of the depths.
I’m enjoying this. I really am. But at the same time I’m longing
for it to be over, to be back breathing normal air. Kym finger-circles ‘OK?’ I
breathe deeply and reply in kind. Must see this through. We swim on.
Then, bliss, I realise it’s getting lighter and we’re getting shallower.
There are fewer fish. More sand. That glitter right above me is the surface.
I just have to wait for our three minute safety stop and we’ll be up there.
Back on the dock Kym is pleased with me. You see, my cold was no problem, was
it? We get out of our gear and hang out for our Surface Interval, enough time
for the excess nitrogen in our blood streams to disperse. Luxuriating in the
hot breeze I watch the hordes of cruise ship day trippers descending from coaches
to the turtle farm next door. Kym and the junior buddies are somewhat critical
of their intelligence. A couple once came into the dive centre and asked how
deep you’d have to go to swim under the island. Another asked whether Grand
Cayman got moved when there were hurricanes.
On Open Water Dive Two I have to take my mask off completely. And do the CESA:
the Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, where you take three deep breaths and
then return to the surface from 40ft on one slow breath, looking up and murmuring ‘Ah-h-h’ (‘Ar-r-gh’ in
my case). It’s a breeze.
Two dives and one day later I’m a fully qualified PADI Open Water Diver,
leaving the traffic jams and condos of Grand Cayman behind and wobbling in a
tiny plane through a cloud-flecked sky to swoop down over the reef-fringed, mangrove-dotted
green emptiness of Little Cayman and land with a bump at the famous ‘grassy
Little Cayman may well have the finest diving in the world. Certainly the Southern
Cross Club is pretty perfect. Manager Ken, a Canadian in a flowery shirt, shows
me to a semi-detached pink hut five yards from the turquoise lagoon. There’s
a big double bed in the cool interior and a hammock out on the warm deck. Ken
asks me about my diving experience and I explain that I’m newly qualified.
Yes, it all went fine apart from one exercise that panicked me.
‘Not mask clearing by any chance?’ He laughs.
Up at the central clubhouse a Friday night party is taking place at the open-air
bar. Resort guests mingle with instructors and locals from the island (population
110). Supper is equally gregarious. I’m put on a table with two couples
and a dive-mad doctor from Idaho who bears a more than passing resemblance to
Frasier. They tease me about the difference between shore and boat diving. ‘You’ll
be too seasick to be scared,’ cries Stefan, leading the laughter with a
Out on the boat the next morning all the theory and exercises of London and Grand
Cayman are left behind. My gear is set up for me by new ‘buddy’ Mike,
a squat, muscled Welshman with a gung-ho attitude. The BWRAF routine never materialises.
It’s just one giant stride into the choppy water and down we go, to a shallow
plateau at 20ft, then to 40ft and the face of the reef, finally dropping over
the edge of ‘the wall’ to 80ft.
This really is as ‘awesome’ as everyone has told me it will be: a
sheer cliff face of coral, plunging away vertiginously to who knows what depths
below. Despite my continuing nervousness about underwater breathing, I realise
I’m starting to relax. I’m enjoying the feeling of weightlessness,
the fun of being able to follow the fish, breathe out to sink a little, take
in a full lung to rise and hover over the swaying tendrils of a coral. There
are new varieties and species out here. One very neat little number I think of
as Office Fish, dressed in black with a tiny white collar, heading off purposefully
to an important meeting. Mike, swimming ahead, points out a lobster lurking in
a hollow, then an octopus. A little later we follow a turtle, lumbering sleepily
through the depths and into an underwater cave. Back up on deck, gulping water
and eating fresh mango and paw-paw in our Surface Interval, Stefan shares my
new enthusiasm. He has done over a thousand dives, he reckons. Once you get into
it, you just can’t stop. Well, he just can’t stop. If he could develop
gills, he would.
Over dinner that evening with Stefan the Would-Be Fish and two new couples -
from Dallas, Texas, and London, England - I start to feel like an old hand. The
danger of the whole enterprise, I realise, is at least part of the point. Twickenham
Pete is full of tales of underwater derring-do: the BCDs in the Maldives that
leak like sieves; the time his eyes were almost pulled from his head by a faulty
mask. These are matched by the Americans. One time, Martha tells us, when she
was taking anti-histamines she panicked completely at 60ft. God alone knows how
she had the presence of mind to stay under and breathe, rather than bolt for
the surface and risk bursting her lung.
So I’m well prepared for my own little drama the next day. On the second
dive, I’m on the brink of stepping confidently off the end of the boat
when there’s a clatter on deck. It’s the seal round the lens of my
mask. ‘What would I have done if that had happened at 60ft?’ I ask
‘You’d have remembered your training, kept breathing normally, and
made a controlled return to the surface.’
‘And if we’d been half way through a cave?’
‘We’d have got you out. The main thing is not to panic.’
Stefan has a mantra far more useful than BWRAF. Breathe, Think, Act. That’s
the key to staying safe underwater. If anything goes wrong, keep the air coming,
then get yourself carefully out of there.
That night at dinner I have my own tale to tell. With Stefan’s acquiescence,
it’s already a little exaggerated.