What lies beneath
The diving is superb off Little Cayman in the western Caribbean, reports Tim Ecott
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
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.