What lies be­neath

The div­ing is su­perb off Lit­tle Cay­man in the west­ern Caribbean, re­ports Tim Ecott

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

EIGHT me­tres down and the reef is a patch­work of sponges, white sand and lumpen coral out­crops. Sec­onds af­ter I empty my buoy­ancy jacket, I am joined by a fat-bel­lied Nas­sau grouper. It hov­ers in front of me for a few sec­onds, hop­ing that, like many divers, I will scratch its tummy. Dis­ap­pointed, it con­tents it­self with hang­ing be­neath my belly, us­ing me as cover to hunt an un­sus­pect­ing squir­rel fish on the reef be­low.

As I approach the bot­tom, the grouper makes its move. There is a loud thwump as it hits the squir­rel fish with an ex­plo­sion of mus­cle and mouth. Great, fat retic­u­lated lips clamp down on the strug­gling crea­ture and I glimpse a flash of red tail trail­ing from the grouper’s mouth. In sec­onds the squir­rel fish is gone, swal­lowed head­first, and the grouper re­sumes its pa­trol.

Nearby there is a hole in the reef, a hid­den en­trance to a tun­nel lead­ing down­wards into the gloom. I al­low my­self to sink into the dark space, tuck­ing my arms and breath­ing hoses tight around me so as not to brush against the frag­ile coral walls.

The tun­nel slopes down­wards like a chute at a swim­ming pool, be­com­ing wider. There is light, and the coral walls form a frame around pure blue space 10m ahead. The tun­nel leads me out on to a ver­ti­cal reef that drops sheer and straight 2000m into the abyss.

It is like look­ing at a cloud­less sky on a bright sum­mer day and I hang there for a minute or two, star­ing up at the wa­tery sur­face and the light 40m above me.

I feel as in­signif­i­cant as a gnat dropped into a vat of blue emul­sion.

The wa­ters around Lit­tle Cay­man, in the west­ern Caribbean, are al­most al­ways crys­tal clear. This low lime­stone is­land has no rivers to gen­er­ate sed­i­ment and silt and, with just over 100 per­ma­nent res­i­dents, re­mains un­pol­luted. I am re­turn­ing to the is­land with one goal: to dive the sheer drop-off at Bloody Bay Marine Park.

One of the first marine re­serves es­tab­lished in the Caribbean, it has for 21 years pro­tected fish and coral along a 4km stretch of the north­ern side of Lit­tle Cay­man. Per­ma­nent moor­ings al­low dive boats to tether along the reef with­out drop­ping an­chor on the del­i­cate coral and fish­ing is not per­mit­ted. Even so, at the most pop­u­lar dive sites, up to 3000 divers may visit in the course of a year.

To the naked eye, Bloody Bay re­mains a spec­tac­u­lar div­ing spot and there are just as many fish as I re­mem­ber along the wall, which is fes­tooned with gi­ant bar­rel sponges, azure vase sponges and gi­ant sea fans wav­ing lan­guorously in the cur­rent.

Nev­er­the­less, at the Cen­tral Caribbean Marine In­sti­tute on Lit­tle Cay­man, coral sci­en­tists are keep­ing a care­ful watch on the reef.

The Caribbean re­gion has seen an 80 per cent de­cline in live coral cover over the past 25 years, says Car­rie Man­frino, the in­sti­tute’s pres­i­dent.

Lit­tle Cay­man has also seen a de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, but in rel­a­tive terms the degra­da­tion here is not nearly as bad. For the past three years, we have seen a sta­bil­i­sa­tion of the coral growth, and sub­stan­tial new re­cruits among the hard coral pop­u­la­tions.’’

This may be the best news any­one has heard about coral in a decade. It is the hard corals that build the reefs. The lime­stone skele­tons of mil­lions of coral polyps

De­serted white beaches and crys­tal-clear wa­ter make Lit­tle Cay­man in the west­ern Caribbean a per­fect hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion, es­pe­cially with divers ex­plor­ing the reefs and drop-offs lay down the struc­ture on which ev­ery­thing grows. If the hard corals die, the reef slowly erodes and is over­taken by slimy al­gae.

With­out the corals, there is no habi­tat for fish, or the many in­ver­te­brates on which the food chain de­pends. In many parts of the world, large hu­man pop­u­la­tions rely on reef fish­ing for their sur­vival and, with­out reefs, coastal ero­sion wors­ens. The con­se­quences of mass coral mor­tal­ity are too hor­rific to con­tem­plate, says Va­nia Coelho, an­other re­searcher based at the Cen­tral Caribbean Marine In­sti­tute. ‘‘ Even as a sci­en­tist, I can only use the word apoca­lyp­tic.’’

There is no thought for the apoc­a­lypse at the South­ern Cross Club, the smartest re­sort on Lit­tle Cay­man. Es­tab­lished as a private club in 1958, when the is­land had no mass tourism, the re­sort main­tains its rep­u­ta­tion as the best place to stay in the Cay­man Is­lands. Grand Cay­man, a short do­mes­tic flight away, has its share of shiny in­ter­na­tional chain re­sorts, but South­ern Cross has a qui­eter, more in­di­vid­ual feel. Guests are drawn to its bare­foot chic and the charm of Peter Hil­len­brand, whose fa­ther was one of the orig­i­nal own­ers of the vil­las on the beach.

Here I join other divers on daily trips to the marine park. Most are reg­u­lar vis­i­tors to the is­land. ‘‘ I love it here,’’ ex­plains Joan, a teacher from Florida. ‘‘ The div­ing is easy and the peace and quiet of Lit­tle Cay­man are un­matched any­where else in the Caribbean.’’

The South­ern Cross Club at­tracts a so­phis­ti­cated clien­tele, most of whom want to dive at Bloody Bay. With just 12 suites on a private beach, the term club is en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate. The re­sort is also among the first in Cay­man to min­imise its car­bon foot­print. ‘‘ We are aiming for Green Globe cer­ti­fi­ca­tion,’’ says man­ager Cate Fer­reira, ‘‘ as part of the Cay­man Is­lands En­vi­ron­men­tal Project for the Tourism Sec­tor.’’

This is one of my favourite div­ing spots on the globe. There is some­thing in­tox­i­cat­ing about the drop-off, with its com­bi­na­tion of clear bright wa­ter and a plethora of marine life to ob­serve. At Bar­racuda Bite, I linger at the edge of the deep as a Caribbean reef shark as­cends the wall in lazy spi­rals. When we are level, it ap­proaches me head-on, veer­ing off to one side al­most within touch­ing dis­tance.

The shark’s skin is the colour of burnt sugar, glow­ing with vigour and strength, its pupils golden sliv­ers picked out against the per­fectly stream­lined head. Sharks are a good sign that a marine ecosys­tem is healthy and soon I see two more spec­i­mens in the dark­en­ing deep.

In the shal­lows, I peer in­tently at ev­ery piece of coral,

In the frame: A diver pho­to­graphs brightly coloured coral in the Cay­man Is­lands look­ing for the signs of bleach­ing that I have seen on al­most ev­ery reef in re­cent years. Here and there, I find signs of white plague, a bac­te­rial in­fec­tion that causes the reef to lose its vi­brant colours.

At the Cen­tral Caribbean Marine In­sti­tute, re­searchers are try­ing a new tech­nique to stop the in­fec­tion spread­ing. They scrape away a nar­row band of healthy tis­sue along with a ringlet of in­fec­tion, then smother this cor­don san­i­taire with a spe­cial marine epoxy, cre­at­ing a fire­break across which the bac­terium can­not leap. The re­sults are en­cour­ag­ing.

‘‘ This is highly ex­per­i­men­tal,’’ Coelho ex­plains, ‘‘ but it seems to work when done prop­erly. At this stage, when Caribbean reefs are un­der such en­vi­ron­men­tal stress, we have to try ev­ery­thing in our power to keep them alive and al­low them what­ever breath­ing space we can give them.’’

Corals grow slowly, but white plague can kill a 1000-year-old colony in weeks. On Bloody Bay Wall, things still look good. Deep wa­ter, and hence cooler tem­per­a­tures, seem to have saved the reef from the worst ef­fects of ris­ing sea tem­per­a­tures.

To spread the word, the in­sti­tute of­fers sport divers the chance to join with a marine bi­ol­o­gist and learn more about coral ecol­ogy. Like many sport divers, I fear for the long-term sur­vival of the corals that make me want to go un­der­wa­ter. Pol­lu­tion, overde­vel­op­ment and ris­ing sea tem­per­a­tures are the en­e­mies at the gate, and they are knock­ing hard. In places like Bloody Bay, how­ever, there is a glim­mer of hope. The Daily Tele­graph, Lon­don

Check­list

The Cay­man Is­lands group is a Bri­tish over­seas ter­ri­tory in the west­ern Caribbean and con­sists of three is­lands — Grand Cay­man, Cay­man Brac and Lit­tle Cay­man— 772km south of Mi­ami, Florida. From Grand Cay­man, Cay­man Air­ways flies up to four times daily to Lit­tle Cay­man from $US124 ($130) re­turn. www.cay­manair­ways.com. The South­ern Cross Club on Lit­tle Cay­man of­fers rooms from about $260 a night in­clu­sive of air­port trans­fers, three meals a day and non-al­co­holic drinks. www.south­ern­cross­club.com.

Pic­ture: Cor­bis

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