"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea."
Isak Dinesen wrote that, and in so doing struck right at the heart of why we are here. We’ve come not for the sun or sand, per se, but for the salt water, for the island life, the whole notion of which is predicated on there being a sea to surround and shield us.
The Cayman Islands are the highest points of an underwater ridge that runs to the north of what is called the Cayman Trench or Trough, and which at approximately 20,000 feet constitutes the deepest section of the Caribbean. It is this placement that gives dive sites on both the north and south sides of Little Cayman some of the most dramatic topography in the underwater world. Hard coral reef and sandy chutes slope from eighteen to one hundred feet, and then drop out abruptly, vertically, into a thousand feet of dark space.
But how do you convey a great drama that is quiet? The drama of this landscape is one that unfolds, for the human species, in absolute silence and near absolute stillness. There is no vertigo, no free fall. Adrenaline and fear are mute.
Diving is an extreme sport only in that mammals are not meant to breathe underwater, but it is less a sport than a form of visitation to an alternate universe. It necessitates setting aside notions of what is alien and what is not. You are not, for a brief time, of the land anymore. Clearing the outcroppings, finding the abyss where you thought it would be, drifting ten or twenty feet down into it, hanging weightless by the great wall of coral, it’s hardly smallness or fragility one feels, but a rare sense of belonging to the sublime.
Today we returned from the wall by way of a sand chute that, around 50 feet, widened into something of an underwater meadow. The second half of any dive is spent in shallower water to mitigate nitrogen buildup in the body – too much of which can cause decompression sickness – and patches like this are a nice respite after the rapture of the deep.
Here you must train the eyes to really see. You must sip your air and sneak across the sand without kicking your fins and stirring up clouds. Here, if you are careful, you can find the half-buried southern stingray, the shy conch trying to pull its way across the ocean floor, and veritable acres of garden eels no bigger than your pinky finger sticking their heads out of holes like prairie dogs on the Great Plains.
Today a special treat: in a clump of wiry sea grass our dive leader found a pipehorse. The pipehorse, distant cousin of the seahorse, resembles nothing so much as a miniscule stick with fluted nose and tiny curling tail. Using a magnifying glass each diver in the group took turns watching as it drifted from stem to stem. If it noticed us, it gave no indication. Was it eating or sleeping? A coral reef is full of little creatures going about their inscrutable business.
Returning to the surface world after an hour underwater is a difficult inversion. You drag yourself back onto the boat streaming water, all your equipment suddenly heavy, all your steps clomping and quick, your body suddenly exhausted – this, again, partly from the nitrogen buildup – and your lips and fingers puckered from salt, your hair stiff and unmanageable, your ears still full of a departed pressure.
On dry land everything seems to waver. The sun is hot. Wind in the palms. Frigate birds still cut overhead.
Now I am writing in the shade, just as before, and my mother is getting a massage. I will not move until dinner – or at least until she gets back and I’m sent to get gin and tonics – and it’s very likely that the salt water cure also calls for a nap.