From Tourist to Local

It wasn’t until I was 35 feet below the surface that I realized I had only ever been a tourist. I love the ocean. I truly love being enveloped by the water. One of my favorite sensations is to be part of a school of fish. I love when they are as curious about me as I am of them. Or at least not afraid of me. I hate when they dart away in fear. Some days, all I want to do is glide among them in that tranquil place as waves rock my body.

About 10 years ago, I tried scuba diving. A friend’s brother provided a free lesson in her pool. Scuba isn’t cheap, which had long been a barrier. The breathing and buoyancy parts came easy, but I couldn’t get my ears to equalize. Neither could WPT. I assumed I wouldn’t be able to go deeper than the 8-10 feet I managed freediving while snorkeling. WPT had trouble doing even that. I spent the next decade bobbing along on the surface of the water, my need for oxygen and assumptions about my ears keeping me from going any deeper.

WPT and I arrived on Grand Cayman with only the loosest of agendas. We didn’t think we’d make it there, so why plan or make reservations when we expected a last minute cancellation? At the motel, we looked at brochures and I spotted a “discover scuba” course for $105 a person. If we were ever going to try to scuba, Grand Cayman seemed to be the place to do it. At worst, our ears would be in too much pain, but at least we would know for sure and only be out $200 bucks (other similar options were often $200 a person).

Alex teaching WPT how to equalize his ears
Touching down
Figuring out buoyancy

We arrived at Divers Down in the capital of George Town early the next morning and met our instructor, Alex. Safety instructions in a French accent are somehow more reassuring. She taught us basic dive sign language and we were in the water within minutes. We tried out the rebreathers and she worked on getting us weighted for neutral buoyancy. We were soon standing on the ocean floor. She guided us around the Wreck of the Cali, a cargo ship that had the misfortune of springing a leak while carrying a load of rice. It was sunk in the George Town harbor some 80 years ago and now provides an excellent scuba spot. Alex led us around the wreck and a small patch reef.

Wreck of the Cali
WPT diving the Wreck of the Cali
DGB diving the Wreck of the Cali

With Alex’s calm guidance, we each learned to equalize our ears. We soon began to use our breathing to control our accent and decent. She kept close watch over us and helped when we needed it. It wasn’t nearly enough time.

Everything is cool

Back on dry land, Alex said we were naturals and that we were better than a lot of the certified divers that visit the island. She remarked at how comfortable we were and had good natural buoyancy. I asked about other dive options and she said she would approve us for a supervised boat dive, up to about 35 feet deep.

We arrived far too early the next afternoon. We went and hung out with chickens across the street until it was time to go out. We had asked that Alex be our instructor again.

Alex and WPT

There are rules underwater that apply to everyday life. It is easy to panic and want go to the surface. It is dangerous to react that way. Stop and think before you react. You need to control your breathing or you will lose your balance, or worse. When you start to become too buoyant, the answer is as easy as breathing. In. Out. In. Out. Calm. The. Fuck. Down. She taught us the sign for that, and it works on land, too. Pay attention all around you, not just what is in front of you. Keep an eye on one another.

DGB at home

She took us 35 feet down. Then 40. And, later, 50. I was ecstatic. She later told us we were so natural in the water that she knew we would be fine. At some point, as we came through a cut in the rock formation and I looked up and saw fish swimming above me. I felt a level of being at peace and, oddly, at home. It was then I realized that, as a snorkeler, I had only ever been a tourist, but as a diver, I felt like a local. I felt like I belonged there.

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How to Meet Chicks at the Beach

By December, WPT and I were cold, exhausted, and burning out. We anticipated being colder, more exhausted, and possibly incinerated by February, so we asked ourselves some basic questions –

1) How many frequent flyer points do we have?

2) Where does Southwest fly?

3) Where is it warm?

4) Where can we fishwatch (like birdwatching, but underwater)?

We decided on Grand Cayman. Our trip was threatened by an ice/snow/rain storm, but after fleeing Baltimore 12 hours ahead of schedule, we landed at Owen Roberts International Airport the following day.

Car rental chickens

After a smooth exit from the airport, we walked outside into the bright midday sun and the first thing I saw was a poinciana tree (my favorite tree) and a chicken (my favorite bird). We were already off to a good start. We walked across the street to the car rental agency where more chickens greeted us. Ten minutes into the trip and already I loved it there.

Breakfast with John

When we arrived at Eldemire’s Tropical Island Inn, we were given a thorough introduction to the guest house and area by Bob, the resident dive instructor. He never mentioned the earplugs on the nightside table. I suspected I knew the answer. About 3am, my suspicions were confirmed. Roosters. A lot of them. I lay there, fan blades stirring the otherwise still night air, listening to the chorus that faded into the distance before resuming right outside our window. I loved it.

Majestic John

I met John after sunrise. I don’t know his real name, he just looked like a John to me. John was a majestic rooster with a big, bold comb and glossy iridescent tail feathers. I shared my breakfast with him. It was only later that I noticed he was missing most of the toes on one of his feet. I ignored WPT when he began calling him Hoppin’ John.

Georgetown chickens

We went to the grocery store early that morning and I bought John and his friends grapes and sunflower seeds. He also enjoyed some leftover spaghetti and other assorted foods we shared with him.

Smith’s Cove chickens

We found chickens just about everywhere we went on the island. Smith’s Cove was a public beach a short walk from the guest house. There, the chickens were camouflaged amid the sea grapes and other shoreline trees. There were small families within larger clans. I’m guessing I saw at least 30-40 birds at that beach.

Mother and chicks
Chicken family

We went to Smith’s Cove each day and each day we bought them treats. I noticed one particular hen with three small chicks. I watched as the mother hen would take grapes and pass them out to the chicks, only taking one for herself once they each had one to eat. She did this repeatedly. She protected them if any of the other birds got too close and she eyed us suspiciously. She was a very good mother. I also noticed one rooster was allowed near her and the chicks. I enjoy watching how animals behave and the rules of their societies. By the last day of the trip, she knew who we were and that we came bearing treats.

Hand-feeding grapes
Keeping an eye on us
Chicks at the beach
Mother chicken

I’ve now added to the list of trip requirements –

5) Where can we chickenwatch?

Georgetown rooster