Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers went to great depths for this
story. Take a deep breath and read on:
Reed Travel Features
GEORGE TOWN, Grand Cayman -- I am not a diver.
It's an ear thing. I've just never been able to clear my ears
below three feet of water.
So when the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose to take a ride
on the Atlantis research submarine, I hesitated.
I've done the regular Atlantis submarine rides before, in the
Cayman Islands, St. Thomas and Barbados, in a 48-passenger craft
with individual viewing windows. The pressure inside is stabilized
even though the sub descends 100 feet. I saw lots of fish, and my
ears were fine.
This ride, however, was to be much, much deeper.
In my pre-descent briefing on land, Asko Rasinen, Atlantis'
marketing manager, reassured me that I would experience no change
in pressure, my ears would not hurt and I would see things that few
had ever seen before.
That was all I had to hear. I love to tread (or, in this case,
dive) where others have not.
I boarded a launch at the Atlantis dock in George Town for the
short ride to the sub.
So far so good, I thought. Besides, I was still safely above the
We pulled up alongside a large bobbing raft. Just as I was
climbing off the launch, a mass of frothy bubbles and splashes
alongside the raft froze me in mid-step.
Rising from the water was a bright yellow hatch with blue
portholes. The hatch cover popped open, and the upper torso of a
man in a white navy-type uniform emerged.
"Hi. I'm Gary. I'm your captain. Welcome aboard for the ride of
a lifetime," he said.
"Yeah, well, I'll reserve judgment on that," I thought.
I boarded the yellow thing that looked like a huge water
My descent down the narrow stairway in the hatch was ungraceful,
to say the least.
Once inside, I could see it was to be a cozy ride. Space was at
a premium inside the two-passenger capsule.
I scrunched down in front of a three-foot-wide viewport in the
front of the vessel.
Capt. Gary was seated behind and slightly above me.
Uneasily, I watched him wipe globs of moisture from his brow and
"Is there a leak?" I asked nervously.
"Oh no. Once I close the hatch and we begin our descent, this
thing is watertight, believe me," he said. "This is just normal
condensation from the temperature outside."
Just as he closed the hatch, I wondered if I'd completed the
revision of my will -- a project my husband and I had been working
on before I left the relative safety of home.
Capt. Gary got all businesslike then.
"I need to go through the safety checks with you," he said. "If
something happens to me down there, there are fail-safe measures in
I barely heard him above the pounding of my heart.
"If something happens to him down there," I thought, "I go down
with the ship."
He showed me a valve that would bring the sub to the surface, he
pointed out an air hose and the radio and telephone links and he
showed me how to use them.
"Is there a life preserver on board?" I asked.
He laughed, apparently mistaking a sense of panic for a sense of
He flipped a switch, and engines (I later learned they were
giant batteries) began to hum and throb. We began our descent
alongside the face of a sheer underwater coral cliff, dropping at
the rate of 65 feet per minute.
I tensed, waiting for that awful pain in my ears from the
pressure. Nothing happened. It didn't come. I relaxed. This was
going to be great.
And great it was.
Millions of particles of plankton swirled before the window.
The light intensified. Capt. Gary explained that the ultraviolet
rays of the sun are most dominant at deeper depths.
Science is not my strong point, so I just nodded.
All that stood between me and drowning was a
two-and-one-half-inch thick window. Its fish-eye shape acted as a
magnifier that distorted distance.
The great Cayman Wall was actually 60 feet ahead of us, but it
looked more like six feet. In fact, it looked as if we were going
to crash right into it, but I refrained from acting like a backseat
Colors disappeared, replaced by a blue glow ahead, above,
"Man has only identified 2% of all that is in the ocean, and
that's at the 150-foot level," Capt. Gary said. "It's not unusual
to see stuff here that no one has seen before."
At 600 feet, we passed a rusted anchor chain.
At 700 feet, a deck chair, tossed or blown from a passing cruise
ship far above, rested at an angle along the wall.
Busy taking notes in the blue glow and trying to photograph
without reflecting the glare of the flash in the window, I almost
missed the shipwreck at 760 feet.
"That's the Kirk Pride. It was a cargo ship and it hit the reef
in the harbor and went down on Jan. 9, 1976, at 9 p.m.," Capt. Gary
"Everybody got off the ship in time, but the wreck wasn't
discovered until 10 years ago by one of our submersibles."
We went closer. I could see the huge ship clearly, resting on
its side on a ledge. The needle on the engine wheel was frozen in
the Abandon Ship position.
Suddenly I felt very vulnerable, but Capt. Gary was cool and we
kept on going.
The Haystacks appeared at 900 feet, a bunch of rocks that fell
from the upper levels of the wall eons ago.
As we reached our mark of 1,000 feet, Capt. Gary congratulated
me for being the first person -- other than scientists, geologists,
professional deep-sea explorers and a crew from National Geographic
-- to go that deep.
"Nothing to it," I said modestly.
A group of NASA astronauts who had preceded me had told Capt.
Gary that the landscape down here looked like the face of the
That was probably true--- (who am I to argue with the guys from
Apollo?)---but I bet that the moonscape was not marred by the
rusted webbing of a beach umbrella that I spotted or the Miller
Lite and Coke (Diet) cans that I also saw.
Next to those 20th century icons was a plastic cup bearing the
familiar logo of a hotel chain.
"No place is sacred," I thought.
Tracks in the sand below looked like chicken scratchings.
Capt. Gary pointed out a stalked crinoid, also called the
Caribbean sea lily, the oldest known animal in that region of the
"Nobody knows how it reproduces at this depth," he said.
I certainly didn't have a clue.
As we began our ascent, Capt. Gary said we'd take a different
"I always see new things when I'm down here. No two dives are
ever the same."
"Just as long as we go up," I thought.
He pointed out a brittle starfish, first seen 10 years ago, and
bunches of sea whips, which looked like sticks swaying to and
Dandelion coral decorated the hull of the Kirk Pride.
A pair of blue jeans lying in sand near the ship led me to
believe that one sailor had little warning before he jumped
A seven-foot-tall coral sea fan that Capt. Gary said was more
than 1,000 years old passed in front of my window.
Black specks on the fan indicated that a form of parasites was
attacking the coral.
At 320 feet, we encountered a riotous kaleidoscope of purple,
pink, orange, yellow and red.
This was the Sponge Belt, described by the captain as the most
colorful place on the planet.
We zoomed in four feet from the wall to get a closer look at
weird things called Convoluted Tube Sponges and Elephant Ear
"This area is never seen by regular divers because it is too
deep," Capt. Gary said.
Soon, we broke through to the surface. We'd been down an hour
and 15 minutes.
I was ready to go again.