By Fred D. Garth
I’m dropping down the Cayman Wall like a ballast stone, passing 150 feet with some old rhetoric playing in my head: There’s nothing to see below 130 feet anyway. The statement is, of course, bunk. Otherwise I’m dragging along a $5,000 camera system for nothing. Strapped to my back is a bright-yellow rebreather that is supposed to take me to 300 feet.
My destination is the sponge belt, a collection of gigantic sponges like something you might find in King Kong’s garden. Gargantuan barrel sponges, intricate spider webs of rope sponges and elephant-ear sponges the size of, well, elephant ears, grow prolifically between 220 and 300 feet. Below that, there really isn’t that much to see.
Go wide. Reach for that fisheye, extrawide zoom or prime lens and get in close for the scene to carry impact. A dive buddy just off some sponge can add drama to the capture, and don’t forget the close-focus wide-angle shots on the smaller sponges, sea fans and corals that cover the wall. Crank the f-stop and shoot straight up. Faster shutter speeds and proper strobe position help create impressive compositions that are bubble free while on a CCR.
Take two. You’ll need two strobes to do it right, light the entire scene and make those colors pop. If guide numbers aren’t your thing, take advantage of TTL technology that greatly reduces the task loading on a deep diver.
Meter for the blue. Even with Cayman’s exceptionally clear water, at 300 feet the light-swallowing properties of the deep work against you and your scenics. Today’s high-end cameras can produce noise-free images at impressively high ISOs, allowing faster shutter speeds and f-stops too, so exposures are spot on. ISO 800 at f/5.6-8 is a good starting point to help capture beautiful blues and keep your images nice and crisp.
Don’t forget the deco stop. Decompression, although significantly reduced, is still part of the closed-circuit experience, but with your wide-angle lens and plenty of time to practice, it’s a good occasion to brush up on those diver portraits. Power down your strobes to protect skin tones and keep gear detail in check, then click away.
Play safe. You can’t play with your toys “in the deep” unless your equipment and photo gear are appropriately depth rated, and you’re trained to dive that deep. Remember, computer and gauge displays are always more important than histograms. Be aware, be alert and always keep it safe.
Doug Sloss is a photographer and writer specializing in the marine environment. He is also the producer of a handful of educational DVDs, including his latest release Adobe Photoshop CS4 for the Underwater Photographer. Find out more about Doug and his software offerings at www.underwaterphotoshop.com
Want the Complete Package? Consider Canon’s G11 inside the Fisheye FIX G11 housing, which has an optional upgrade that allows you to bring it to 300 feet. Add a pair of Sea&Sea YS-110a strobes and Fisheye’s 165-degree lens for an ideal wide-angle setup with precise lighting control at your fingertips. Combine that with the G11’s improved low-light capability, and you have the perfect rig for reproducing the darker blues and wide-angle-images opportunities found when diving deep on a closed-circuit rebreather.
The sponge belt can be explored with mixed gases, but I prefer to fly the rebreather — silent, sans bubbles and with a constant PO2 (partial pressure of oxygen) of 1.1, which translates into optimum bottom time. It mixes my breathing gases on the fly to deliver maximum time underwater and minimum decompression with warm gas that keeps the goose bumps at bay. Am I missing something? Oh yeah, it’s cheaper too.
The path that led me here began with my desire to go deep yet still return to the surface with a heartbeat. In Cayman that road always leads to Nancy Easterbrook, the matriarch of Grand Cayman’s technical community and proprietor of Divetech, located on Northwest Point. Back in the days when technical divers were considered knuckle-dragging, lower primates, Nancy helped to bring some truth to the misinformed. The trickle of tec divers to Grand Cayman has now grown into a steadily rising tide. This is partly due to two events Nancy brewed up: Inner Space and Tek Week, weeklong gatherings of tec divers from all over the planet (see Need to Know sidebar).
I check my computer as our team passes 200 feet. All systems are go. One of Nancy’s rules of the deep requires divers to travel in teams of three, because redundancy is a good thing. If you’re an hour into deco and your equipment craps out, the team is carrying enough gas to go through normal deco stops and arrive at the surface as planned. I take comfort in the team concept.
As I scan the wall, the normally vibrant colors have faded to a dark gray, so I spray some light into a tangle of rope sponges. I haven’t seen so many reds, yellows and purples since my Grateful Dead days back in the 1980s. At 220 feet, Nancy shines her light on an orange elephant-ear sponge that reaches at least 20 feet in diameter. Nearby at around 260 feet, I spot a barrel sponge big enough to park my Prius inside. The Lilliputians have arrived in the land of giants.
The sponges here grow to humongous sizes for several reasons. First, the pressure from divers is negligible –– no fin kicks or silt to stunt their growth. Second, nutrients are abundant in the cooler, deeper waters. But the most probable reason they flourish here is because of the huge indention in an otherwise vertical wall. The massive concave cut in the coral is a result of wave action eons ago when sea levels were more than 200 feet lower. This was during the Pleistocene ice ages when glaciers reached as far south as Nashville and Mastodons roamed free. The recessed alcove has allowed sponges to pack themselves in and grow happily into monsters.
Nancy fins slowly along the wall around 250 feet, graciously giving me the grand tour. Not only are the big boys impressive, but the delicate crinoids and sea fans are pristine too, unlike the ones that have been loved to death on many shallower reefs. We loop around and ease away from the wall into the cobalt abyss. Nancy had told me to keep an eye out for sharks, and I can see that she’s tracking an 8-foot hammerhead. It’s lumbering slowly along and probably wondering how we got so deep. In my 25 years of diving Cayman, I’ve seen only a handful of sharks. According to my team leader, big animals are commonplace beyond 200 feet.
As we begin our slow ascent, the hammer fades into the blue, the sponge belt lodges itself into my memory bank, and I let my imagination run wild about the fantastical world beyond 130 feet. Later, when I ask Nancy if she’d ever encountered the grotesque, human-flesh-eating sea monster that haunts my subconscious, she just smiles.
Need to Know
When to Go
Late April and early May are considered the most idyllic months to visit, before the summer heat moves in and just after the more-expensive prices of high season. Divetech’s Inner Space — a gathering of rebreather divers from all over the world — is scheduled from May 15-22 to take advantage of the island’s prime weather and excellent water conditions. In addition to some intense rebreather dives, Inner Space attendees get to mingle with tec diving’s celebrities, attend seminars and discuss everything there is to know about rebreathers. Tek Week, another popular Divetech event, occurs in August and includes open-circuit and trimix divers along with rebreather aficionados.
Cayman’s North Wall is world renowned, with little to no current and visibility often exceeding 100 feet. The water is warm, reaching the high 70s in winter and mid- to high 80s in the summer and fall. This diving perfection is sometimes altered when north winds (especially wintertime nor’easters moving through) kick up big seas along the North Wall.
Multiple airlines fly direct to Grand Cayman’s Owen Roberts Airport (GCM) but Cayman Airways has the most nonstop flights, originating from five major cities: Washington, D.C., New York, Miami, Tampa and Chicago. Continental has nonstop flights from Newark and Houston and American has nonstop flights from Miami. US Airways and United fly direct from Charlotte, Delta from Atlanta and Northwest from Detroit.
Divetech offers all-inclusive seven-night packages to Inner Space and Tek Week based on the type of diving you’re going after. The closed-circuit rebreather package (Inner Space only) is $2,650, while the open-circuit price is $3,175. The price difference is partly based on the larger amount of gas open-circuit divers use as compared with rebreather divers. Recreational divers joining the event pay only $2,210, and nondivers get in for $1,500. Check out www.divetech.com/Innerspace.htm for complete details.
In the Zone
Which section of the Cayman Wall is right for you?
While the sponge belt — which is the main draw for tec divers looking to go deep with rebreathers — lies more than 200 feet below the surface, the Cayman Wall offers something for all levels of diver. You can swim to the shallow reefs from the shore of Cobalt Coast Resort or for a more thrilling ride, pick up an underwater scooter and take the fast lane to the deeper recreational sections just off shore. More advanced divers can charter a boat for a full dat of tec dives at sites around the island.
What It Takes
Anyone is welcome at Inner Space and Tek Week. Divetech assigns individuals to different groups based on certification levels, so you can go on a simple recreational dive or a closed-circuit rebreather dive and everything in between. There’s no minimum number of dives required, but Divetech strictly follows standards of the training agencies and the prerequisites for a course. For example, to dive the sponge belt, which sits between 220-300 feet, certified divers must hold a trimix CCR C-card, or students must hold a normoxic CCR certification and have logged 25 normoxic dives. Divetech often runs advanced courses for two days prior to its events.