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At her mooring in Georgetown, The Cayman Aggressor IV is unmistakeable - gleaming white, her name plastered across the stern. A chorus of "get a bloody move on then mate!" from Andy and Bjorn as I climb out of the cab, a warm welcome from Russ, the mastermind and driving force behind this trip, and a boat full of NED’s to meet.
Dammit, I’ve been on a plane all day, and even in the harbour the water is too tempting to resist - jumping in, right under the boat there is 20 metres of visibility, some brutal urchins and a school of large tarpon trying to look nonchalant as they smoke and gossip under the bow.
In the water properly at last! Is it just me, or does that first night on a liveaboard always take forever? A bounce to depth over the reef wall, ending the dive on the little wreck of the Doc Polson. Below the main deck is a nice space of slatted light, the wheelhouse is full of fish, and on top a bristle worm crawls among sponges on a searchlight. First impressions - clear, warm water and unfamiliar flrf.
Viv (floating along in her usual effortless 'I only breathe once or twice a week' way) is the only person I've dived with before, but even the other NED's I know already only from dry land - Bjorn and Soyong, Andy and T.A. - seem very familiar under the water. So, to a lesser extent, do those familiar through their websites; Russ, Elisa & Danna. Old friends and new, it is a pleasure being in the water with such a universally skilled group.
Though there are no hoops to jump through, no fin pivots or mask clears to perform, this seems to be some kind of discrete checkout dive. We must pass, though no surprise there - with a mere 140-odd dives in water from 10-30 degrees and viz from 0.5 to 50 metres, I still class as one of the least experienced divers on board! As Kuty points out, the dive briefings from now on get increasingly short, no superfluous reminders of safe diving, of profiles, air reserves etc, and by the end of the week they have shrunk to nothing more than a brief site orientation.
The boat is vast - each diver has an acre of kitting up space, and so you should, as it is vastly expsensive.
Dive 2: Sensation Wall
'Sensation' might be overselling a little, but these are perfectly pleasant 45 degree sloping walls. While the fish life certainly doesn’t have the intensity or biodiversity of the Pacific, there are lots of striking new species to introduce yourself to - female stoplight parrotfish, indigo hamlets, honeycomb cowfish, french angelfish, black durgeon, nassau grouper. Creole wrasse form matrices of bright blue in the space above the reef.
On close inspection, the hard coral is pretty much wrecked - the only boulder or plate corals are small, and there is no staghorn or branching coral to be seen anywhere. These Acropora corals were devastated during the 80's and 90's by a two pronged attack. Firstly, in the early eighties, a disease nearly eradicated the Long Spined Sea Urchin, an important algal browser, causing an algal bloom blanketing and weakening many areas of reef. Then White Band Disease attacked the corals directly, leading to a regional coral dieoff of a scale without obvious historical precedent, almost certainly caused or severely aggrivated by pollution.
Filling in the gaps, however, are Caribbean sponges and all kinds of soft corals - Gorgonian fans, long whips, fingers and plumes. These last, often as tall as a man, waving in the water like discarded cream feather boas really give the Cayman reefs their character.
Back on the reef, Bjorn hunts a playful juvenile spotted drum with his vast lunar lander camera rig, which, casual as you like, always manages to drift behind a tuft of coral just as he gets it lined up. And no wonder - the fish must feel like it is in the the end of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' when the mothership comes over the mountain!
After the last dive we set out for the eight hour overnight crossing to Little Cayman. Tonight is only rated ‘averagely rough’, but til sea legs kick back in, this is still a good moment to plead jetlag and go to our bunks.
Ahhh, morning, gin clear water, vast reef wall architecture falling away into the deep, swim throughs piercing the wall. 'Eagle eye' Elisa points out a dainty longnose filefish on a soft coral, an back under the boat, a big school of horse-eyed jacks and a lone barracuda who lets you creep right up behind him, almost - but never quite - close enough to tweak his tail.
Dive 7: Bus Stop
The reef wall here comes up to form a wide rim, riddled with swim throughs and small caves, and a wide bowl of sand behind. In the sand, Hogfish and Spotted Eagle Rays swoop and hunt.
Wandering back to the boat in the space above the lagoon, watching hermit crabs inching deliberately along. With the clarity and the light bouncing back from the sand it is a bit like diving in a vast swimming pool. One of the (many :-)) things I love about diving is the way that this effortless escape from gravity seems impossible back above the surface when limbs are weighed down and feet stuck fast to the earth.
Dive 9: Bus Stop
Sea wasps - nasty, painful - can be attracted to the top couple of metres of water behind the stern by the lights of the boat, so night dive entry procedure is head first with hand on nose and BC empty to drop straight down. Mika goes in first, turns on his new HID light, and all the fish put their fins over their face and go "bloody hell, my eyes!"
5 minutes in, the canister torch Russ has lent me fades to black - no problem, hopefully it is just the batteries (Russ, please tell me it just needed a charge?), out with my backup and on with the dive. A large red reef crab waves his claws at us, an anemone is full of shrimps and porcelain crabs filling the niche that clownfish take in the Pacific.
Dive lights attract hideous little fast moving worms - shine a light on your palm for a couple of seconds, and you are enveloped in a dense, repulsive hitchcockian swarm. This could be intensely creepy, but we quickly find that the coral eats them - the worms stick fast, and within seconds kind of implode in a gratifyingly grisly way. From then on, I feed the coral as many of the little buggers as possible.
A habitual prospective sweep with my torchbeam through the darkness over the dropoff catches a brief mirrored glint of a reflective eye, and a second sweep illuminates the sleek body of the Caribbean Reef Shark wrapped around it. Thank goodness I get Kuty’s attention quickly enough for him to see it too - no-one would ever have believed me...
Lights off, there is an amazing amount of bioluminescence in the water - Kuty at my side is a shower of sparks, and the fringes of a comb jelly pulse gently. After a brief and childishly enjoyable game of ‘make Alfred jump by creeping up on him and appearing in a ta-dah! blaze of light at the last minute’ it is time to pass the resident barracuda still keeping watch under the stern back to the boat.
Five dives in a day - thank goodness for nitrox...
Another brief spell of rock and roll as we head over to Cayman Brac. Technically, this artificial reef was a Frigate, and Cuban, but J-M Cousteau called it the Russian Destroyer, and thus it shall remain... Cracked down the middle during her scuttle, hurricanes have since twisted the two halves so that the bow slopes at a jaunty angle down a sandbank. The wreck is 100 metres long, but jumping in above the broken midsection you can see both bow and stern. It is a novel experience doing a wreck dive and being able to see where you are going...
Inside the front section is a nice clean corridor to swim along, rising slowly, and tilted 60 degrees from ‘upright’ - it is a bit like being trapped in a live action M.C. Esher print, and could be deeply disorienting if you were to make the mistake of thinking of any tilted part as, for example, ‘the floor’ or ‘a set of stairs’ - diligently considering it as nothing more than a diamond shaped tunnel, and keeping a close watch on your bubbles helps you keep track of which way is up...
Even after several years down, many of the heavy bulkhead doors still swing on their hinges. The guns, however are slightly comically stuck on stilts. They were removed after the boat was sold, but the new owners insisted on guns - you can’t have a destroyer without guns! - so have been rather cursorily stuck back on.
There are several cattle boats up topside, the only time other boats are in our near vicinity all week (and I don’t think I ever saw a non-familiar diver underwater). Don entertains himself between dives by mooing loudly at the muppet divers flapping around getting in the water. Oh the arrogance of us, secure in our dive freedom paradise. :-)
Dive 11: Russian Destroyer 356
Several areas of the 356 - like the leaning corridors of the bow section - have been extensively cleared for divers, with none of the cables, pipes, features, fittings and other hazards you might have expected in a warship - other unsanitised parts have been sealed off with heavy grilles. The action of storms and rust have torn some of these open, meaning there are now dangerous holes leading to the dark and hazard-strewn parts of the interior.
Obviously Andy is in there like a ferret up a trouser leg, with me right at his heels.
Even with endless visibility, ample light and no silt, without redundancy I am going no further than the second room from the nearest exit, but there are plenty of impressive pieces of machinery to admire. Fun to come back with a twinset and see how far you can get...
Two deep dives, and my conservative Suunto is creeping close to deco even at 10 metres, so once round the bridge and a brief hang with the Sergeant Majors (finally a familiar species!) over the mast.
Dive 12: Eagle Ray Roundup
I can recall the conversation so clearly it seems impossible that we weren’t talking:
Kuty: "Well, I could have sworn the wall was this way!"
Ahem. So, wall found, and with it most of the rest of the group, and we are on our way. There is a nasty, insidious little current flowing - barely noticeable, the kind which, when sneaking up behind you, makes you think "Hey! Old finning legs in good shape today!", but just at the point when you think "Hmmm - turnaround point, and we seem to be a long way from the boat..." manages to turn into a raging torrent...
I redeem our earlier navigational, errr, deliberate error by working out from first principles just where the boat must be, and Kuty and I make it - just - back to the boat under our own steam. Unlike several other members (with, say 5,000 to 10,000 dives experience between them...;-)) of this august group who have to be picked from about three dive sites further down the wall in the tender. ;-) Viv and John are the only people wise enough to have started their dive against the current.
Dive 13: Eagle Ray Roundup
I swim with Kuty and the group over to the edge of the wall, but keep going and spend 5 minutes hanging on my own just within sight of the reef - relishing the delicious terror of the vastness of the blue.
By I get back to the reef, Kuty is off conversing with another turtle and little by little after about 20 minutes I end up properly solo for the first time. Well, no worries - I try to take advantage of it, getting another extended manicure at a cleaning station, and sneaking up, head down, to hunting southern stingray/grunt combinations out in the sand - but in the end, to be honest I get a little bored. This solo thing is all very well, and it obviously suits the photo-hunters - Viv, John, Don, Alfred - but I have to admit I find diving with a decent buddy much more rewarding.
After 65 mins, I still have 80 BAR left, and consider setting a new personal time record, but it looks like even 'the late' Brad will be back on board before me - so I give up.
A little sniffly this evening, a nasty head-cold (or should that be NED-cold?) is doing the rounds of the boat, so I skip the night dive and hope it clears by the morning.
This is where we keep all the fish, says Captain Tom in the briefing, and true enough, schools of yellowtail snapper, blue striped grunt and squirrelfish wheel between the coral heads. Bjorn bails out early with a misbehaving strobe, but gets some good shots first.
Dive 15: 3 Fathom Wall
Andy has spotted an intriguing canyon, so we set off to explore. Lined with sponges, it passes under a high arch at 20m and splits into a couple of dead ends before one branch becomes a secret tunnel popping us out onto the reef top like worms from a hole.
The weather isn't ideal - a tropical depression sits over the Caymans for most of the week, and huge breakers are crashing on the other side of the island. It is calm enough here in the lee, though, just a little swell at the safety stop, a few showers and grey skies.
Dive 16: The Meadows
Lock up your daughters, here come the Hells Angelfish! It’s time to take the rental Apollo scooters out for a spin, Kuty, Andy and I zoom about the reef terrorising man and beast. It is strange being able to outrun - for once - many of the creatures. No such luck with the resident ‘cuda though - he just plays with us, staying as usual just out of reach with lazy tail sweeps.
Russ takes a fly-by picture, and I swoop down to have a look - a little too fast. Damn! If I wasn’t already a little sniffly it wouldn’t matter, but this time I get a pain in the right ear which clears only after extensive jaw-wriggling. Rising back up to the reef top afterwards I get a twinge of reverse block and it is obvious the damage has been done. Andy's scooter is near to running flat - I swap with mine, call it a day and head for the hang chain.
I skip a few dives to rest my ears - which is the only reason I didn't get up for the 3am dive that Kuty, Russ, Elisa and Lauren did last night, honest! - and go in really easy on this one, creeping down the stern line to 5m to be sure my ears are OK. They behave themselves pretty well, and I get to fall straight down the wall until it disappears - still plumb vertical - far below my MOD. Huge barrel sponges and snow-laden tufts of black coral decorate the wall down into the abyss.
Dive 18: Joy's Joy
The reef that Kuty and I swim over here is sadly in terrible shape - the coral is choked by thick clumps of snotty green algae. Hmmm. There must be a sewage outlet or something nearby - fasten lips tightly round reg. More evidence - those old poo-eating scavengers, Lobster, are hanging around in the open. There is the largest green moray of the week in a small ravine, and the reef flat is pleasant as usual, spending the last 15 mins of the dive watching goatfish shelter in sinkholes in just a couple of metres up on the hardpan.
We have been promised a storm and a half for the crossing back to Grand Cayman - a small craft warning has been in place for the last couple of days, and there is every possibility of a hurricane developing - so Captain Tom decides to cut the afternoon dives and make the crossing in daylight. It doesn't gets as bad as all that, even though the boat rolls like a drunkard - anything not fastened down (including the jacuzzi) crashes about - a weeks worth of sea legs make this seem far easier than the first crossing.
Most people on board (yes, me included) are affecting world-weary poses 'Of course, I'm *far* to experienced to get excited about such a touristy dive as this, but I suppose I'll join everyone else in the water', but nonetheless everyone comes out grinning. It is a hoot being mugged by hungry Stingrays - even before the squidbait comes out, one has a damn good chew at my sleeve, and leading a metre wide ray about by the nose with a fistful of squid is comical. Yellowtail snapper have also learned the feeding routine, and any stray bits of tentacle poking from between clenched fingers will be taken by force, with injuries if necessary. Lauren has managed to smear squid juice on her wetsuit, and disappears below a scrum of eager rays.
Dive 20: Devil's Grotto
Within sight of the harbour, the last dive of the trip could be nothing more than an afterthought, but a couple of minutes in I see a lone turtle out over the sand, and set off in pursuit. I read somewhere that the best way to get close to a turtle is to use it's own vanity - swim parallel to them, let them know you've seen them, but then appear to find something else much more interesting. Before long, the turtle will be muscling over to say "Oy! Wat'cha lookin at? Looka ME!" and what do you know, it works! I get to swim with him for five minutes or so, my best turtle action of the trip.
I catch up with Kuty, but keeping pace with the turtle in borrowed Jetfins has burnt gas like there is no tomorrow, and I have to cut short. Danna and Lauren enliven the safety stop with a kung-fu routine.
How can a week - and not far short of 19 hours underwater - go so quickly? Roll on the next NEDfest...
All content © COPYRIGHT Huw Porter