Urge To Submerge


By Sarah Sekula, published in Cayman Airways Skies

If you’re serious about getting away from it all, a vacation spent underwater should do the trick. Not scuba certified? No problem. It’s easier than you think.

Just a few short weeks before earning her diving certification, 52-year-old Shanda Owens could not picture herself donning scuba gear and slowly descending into the warm Cayman Islands waters. She had always been an adventurer, racing stock cars and hiking the Appalachian Trail and such. But when it came to breathing underwater, well… that sounded a bit beyond her comfort zone. Yet there she was, the day after mastering her diving certification, taking the first step toward seeing her beloved island from a whole new angle.

It was as if she had been handed a passport to a new world. She was 45 feet below the surface, gliding effortlessly through an underwater labyrinth better known as Devil’s Grotto and Eden Rock. Off the coast of George Town, she showed no fear, peering into crevices and checking out huge coral heads, all while being surrounded by silversides.

Most summers, the tiny silversides — sardines, anchovies and herring — invade the waters here. They show up in droves and crowd the caves and tunnels, creating quite the spectacle.

Owens propelled herself forward. The tiny shimmering wall of fish cleared a path for her. So polite, she thought. Only then did she notice the cathedral-like light shining through. With the fish darting here and there, she thought it was like watching an IMAX 3D film, but better. It was her personal National Geographic episode. And to top it off, loads of silver tarpon and grouper showed up for a little snack.

Owens summed it up well: “I’ll never be a real astronaut, but diving is as close as a person can get to going into outer space. It’s one of those special moments in life; it is like a dream.”

For newbie divers like Owens, Devil’s Grotto and Eden Rock are ideal not only because of the surreal surroundings, but because the maximum depth is 45 feet. Here, she felt as cool as a sea cucumber. She credits her dive instructors at Red Sail Sports, who have certified more than 10,000 divers over the past 25 years. They had confidence in her, she says, even when she didn’t.

Getting Certified
Experts say scuba diving is a sport that any generation can enjoy and anyone in reasonably good health can do. The first step in any new diver’s education is a bit of homework. “The certification process typically takes four days,” says Clive Webb, dive supervisor at Red Sail Sports. “Two days for classroom and pool work completion, followed by two half-days to complete the four open-water dives.”

If you are tight on vacation time, however, another option is to hop online and complete the PADI eLearning course (padi.com) for open-water certification before you even set foot on Cayman. It teaches you everything from decompression theory to how to equalise your ears and set up your gear. This will cut a full day off your training. You may also complete the pool work prior to your arrival.

If you opt for the four-day route, once you’ve committed the theory to memory and passed the quizzes and final exam, it’s time to jump in the pool. Your dive instructor will fit you with mask and fins (or you may bring your own), and you’ll work on mastering the basics. Students get familiar with setting up their gear, establishing buoyancy, breathing underwater and safety procedures, including buddy breathing and clearing your mask of water.

Owens admits all of this can be overwhelming. Breathing underwater, after all, is counterintuitive. But consider this: It’s a lot like learning to drive a car. As a teen, you were probably acutely aware of the cars around you, the movement of the vehicle and the speed. With some practice, however, things like switching lanes and adjusting the rearview mirror all became second nature. Scuba diving is similar. With the help of a PADI-certified instructor, the whole process will eventually feel very normal.

The next day, you will likely take two boat dives where you’ll be practising things like a fin pivot and inflating the buoyancy-control device just enough to lift slightly with each exhale. On the last day, you’ll do one more dive, and voila! You’re free to roam the oceans. Overall, many divers say getting certified was easier than they expected. In fact, once you’ve fallen in love with it, the toughest part is getting out of the water.

The Allure
With more than 150 dive sites showcasing towering canyons, shallow reefs and shipwrecks, there’s plenty to discover in the Cayman Islands. “I never get tired of just watching what is going on around me,” says Webb, who has more than 1,000 dives under his (weight) belt. “There are so many different things to see on every dive,” he adds. “Will I see a shark? A turtle? I can happily station myself in front of a large coral head… and just watch what is going on for ages. All the different types of fish going about their lives and how they interact with each other is fascinating. We get to see things face to face that most of the world only gets to see on TV.”

Owens concurs. Since getting certified in 2010 there’s been no stopping this “dive queen,” as her husband calls her. She’s taken her first wreck dive (the USS Kittiwake, a submarine rescue vessel that was sunk off the northern end of Seven Mile Beach in 2011), spotted her first manta ray off the northwest point in West Bay and even tackled a 120-foot dive at the North Wall.

“As our dive leader took us out over the edge of the wall, it felt as if I was jumping off a high building except I wasn’t falling,” she recalls. “The bottom just dropped away, and I could not see where it ended.” For Owens, hanging over the edge and knowing that the bottom lay 2,000 feet below was an adrenaline rush like no other.

Next up for Owens is to dive the M/V Captain Keith Tibbetts wreck, a 330-foot-long Russian military vessel that finished her career as a Cuban warship. Following her sinking in 1996, and thanks in part to the goliath grouper that resides there, she has become one of the most popular artificial reefs in the Cayman Islands.

Since becoming scuba certified, Owens has also snagged her Nitrox certification and recently became licensed to kill red lionfish, a venomous predator native to the Indian and Pacific oceans that is now wreaking havoc on the Cayman ecosystem. “I feel like James Bond, and my victims are red lionfish,” Owens says. “I can’t wait to do my part in helping to rid our beautiful waters of this menace.”

Overall, Owens never imagined how much diving would positively impact her life. She is proud of herself for overcoming her fears and looks forward to a lifetime of underwater excursions. And she now has her passport to the other two-thirds of the Earth.

Taking the Plunge

You’ll find top-notch dive shops throughout Cayman. Take your pick! Getting certified costs anywhere between $450 to $550.

With dive operations at Cobalt Coast Dive Resort and Lighthouse Point, owner Nancy Easterbrook is an active part of the Dive 365 programme and played an important role in the sinking of the USS Kittiwake.

Ocean Frontiers
Situated on the East End of Grand Cayman, Ocean Frontiers offers comfortable accommodations at Compass Point Dive Resort and spectacular diving along the nearby wall.

Living The Dream Divers
Living The Dream Divers specialises in personal attention and valet service, focusing on small groups with a maximum of eight divers. They offer custom-designed dive boats, extended bottom times, complimentary dive computers on all dives and free pickup from cruise terminal, hotel or condo.

Sunset Divers
A full-service dive operation, Sunset Divers offers friendly and professional expertise and easy access to the waters off Grand Cayman.

Red Sail Sports
Red Sail Sports maintains seven full-service dive and watersport centres on Grand Cayman, and an impressive range of resort retail boutiques.

Reef Divers Little Cayman Beach Resort
Reef Divers offers a fleet of modern, custom-designed dive boats, a complete inventory of tanks and scuba gear, and a staff of seasoned guides and professional instructors, as well as easy access to Bloody Bay Wall and Little Cayman’s best diving sites.

Reef Divers Cayman Brac Beach Resort
With easy access to Bloody Bay Wall and the M/V Captain Keith Tibbetts Russian frigate wreck, the award-winning Reef Divers offers top quality gear and boats, and a dedicated team of experts to introduce you to Cayman Brac’s pristine waters.