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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve now added to the list of trip requirements –
5) Where can we chickenwatch?
On the way to the hotel, we passed a road sign that pointed to “The Caves.” There was a small, unassuming parking lot and a stone chair, but not much else. We passed the spot at least 5-6 times before we finally pulled over to explore. This unassuming spot is a naturalist’s delight.
There are multiple openings to what was once a sea cave, allowing visitors to approach from above or below and once inside the mouth of the cave you can adjust to the relative darkness. It isn’t safe or suggested that you go far into the cave, but from the visible openings, you can see hundreds (thousands) of indigenous buffy flower bats. There were so delightful we went back a second time.
Totally worth a stop along the coast road.
You’ll find them near here: https://goo.gl/maps/mZdDMCZY3K52
I suspect deep down I enjoy being disapproved of. It may explain my adoration of a former bartender at the Russian Samovar. It may also explain my new favorite fish, the polka dot batfish (or maybe it is the shortnose batfish). I have experienced fish being wary, hungry, curious, and ambivalent, but never before have I felt disapproved of by a fish…until now.
We were snorkeling at Jaws Beach when Patrick and Garnet came to tell me about a weird fish they saw. I found one a few minutes later. We were excitedly telling each other about the weird face, the stubbly legs (pelvic fins), and the awkward pectoral fins that looked like wings. We had never seen such a thing and frogfish and sea robins leaped to mind, but neither seemed right.
Research turned up batfish and several species were cited as living in the shallows in the Bahamas. I’m going with polka-dot batfish* for this article because the coloration was the most similar. According to Guide to Marine Life: Caribbean, Bahamas, Florida, “Polka-dot batfish have distinct spots on the fins, head and body, while shortnose batfish are generally more mottled. The polka-dot batfish is not found in the true Caribbean, but it has been documented in the associated waters of Florida and in the Bahamas.” They are usually between 6-12 inches long, which matches the ones I saw.
Batfish are in the anglerfish family and many live deep along the ocean bottom, but a few, like the polka-dot species live in shallow waters. They generally sit around on the bottom of the sea and wait for prey to come to them. They are masters of camouflage, blending in with the sand and sea vegetation. They use that bulbous forehead to lure in their prey, which consists of crustaceans, mollusks, and worms.
And they walk. Seriously. When they move, unless they are doing a slow flee, they walk on stubby little pelvic fins. They swim with short pectoral fins that jut out on the side. I was completely fascinated by them. We snorkeled Jaws Beach 3-4 times during our trip and I encountered several batfish. I pestered the hell out of them with my camera and diving down to take a close look at them. I broke my rule of trying not to interfere with animals in the wild. I was so curious. I couldn’t stop myself. I had to touch the batfish. Thus, I received a look from the fish that conveyed I had deeply offended him and should stop these antics immediately. He awkwardly swam 2-3 feet away. The disapproving look was so effective that felt ashamed and I left him alone. In that moment I had a new favorite fish.
* If you are reading this and I got the species of batfish wrong please let me know. I almost hope it is wrong so they can disapprove of me further.
I’m not going to lie. The only reason Jaws Beach made our short list of places to visit on the trip is due to its place in pop culture infamy. The beach was used as the setting for Mike and Carla Brody’s home and the dock for his sailboat in Jaws: The Revenge. The movie is bad, yet fun to watch in that growling-shark, drunk-Michael Caine, exploding-shark kinda way. Michael Caine once said of the film, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!” We’ve gone on quests to see dumber places, so off we went.
We drove out along the coast road toward the western end of New Providence Island. Traffic thins out considerably on that end of the island. Jaws Beach is a bit of a cove, tucked inside Clifton Bay, just north of Clifton Heritage Park. The first time we went was at the height of the day with temps well over 90F. We pulled into an empty parking lot and followed a trail back to the beach. Along the way we saw a snake, blue-tailed lizards, butterflies, and a small pond that would likely attract nesting and migratory birds other times of the year. We got down to the beach and were shocked by how beautiful it was. It was stunning. A postcard come to life. And almost entirely empty.
The water was completely calm and looked rather shallow. There is a broken dock, which to a snorkeler is mighty appealing. Garnet jumped into the water fully clothed and just sat there. We vowed to return the next day, our initial mockery replaced by awe at the beauty of the place. We also realized there was an access road and we could park under trees mere feet from the beach.
We went back the next day, and twice more after that. We learned it is a locals’ beach, drawing few tourists. The busiest day there we saw maybe 30 people, other times we had the beach almost to ourselves. It was a small, quiet place. We noticed pizzas being delivered. I watched as a girl swam, holding her pizza aloft out of the water, surfacing to take a bite. She’s my new hero.
The first time we snorkeled, we all spotted batfish, which were so amazing that they deserve their own post. Under the docks were thousands of small silverfish, as well as schools of snappers, young reef fish, and even stingrays. The water was so warm, clear, and still that it was some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever experienced. I could easily dive down and watch fairy basslets protecting their homes, pink-tipped anemones swaying in the current, and watch young squirrelfish peering at me suspiciously. What started as a joke is now one of my favorite beaches in the world.
Patrick leaves lodging up to me. I’ve got a decent track record for finding interesting places to stay – everything from friends of friends to boats to a hostel devoted to Gram Parsons. My criteria are this: I like to stay local (no chains if I can help it), I need coffee in the morning, so a kitchenette or at least coffee maker, and location. Once I get there, copious hot water, a view, the proprietors, and the ability to open the windows or a door pretty much seal the deal. (I hate hermetically sealed rooms.) The Orange Hill Beach Inn offered all of that and a wild octopus.
When we started to plan the trip, I looked at airfares (frequent flier points largely cover those), car rental (ouch), and hotels with kitchenettes. Most places were outside of our price range, but one caught my eye: Orange Hill Beach Inn. The website touted a pool, an honor bar, and there were cottages across the road from the ocean. I called and spoke to someone there about rates and availability. I also checked Trip Advisor and Google reviews. The positive reviews mentioned the beach, staff, and rooms, and the negative reviews served to reinforce our decision to book. The negative reviews mentioned bugs, stray hairs, cats, and, in my opinion, unrealistic expectations. In other words, it sounded perfect for us and like the negative reviews would deter entitled assholes.
One of my great joys in life is watching Patrick’s reaction once we reach our destination. We walked in the front door and he said, “How do you find these places?!” The room was octagonal, with French doors leading to a small balcony overlooking the ocean across the street. The kitchenette was perfect for our needs and we cooked most of our meals at the room. The water pressure and temperature were damned near perfect. It was a relief to have only a few TV channels, and the wifi was stronger than expected.
We opened and closed the balcony doors with the rhythm of the day. In the morning, it was nice to have them open and listen to the bird song. Mid-day, when the sun was blazing and we needed a break, the AC came on. In the evening, after mosquito hour passed, we opened them again and could hear insects and frogs signing. Tree frogs, anoles, a young green heron, and cicadas surrounded us, as did smooth-billed anis. I noticed ants outside, but few inside; once I spotted the house geckos I knew why. I also spotted a brown racer on the property. If you are a traveler afraid of the natural world these things might freak you out. I have no doubt that the hotels on Paradise Island go through copious amounts of bug spray and noxious cleaning agents. However, I would point out that chemical pesticides are far more dangerous than wee lizards and a few bugs. I was on a tropical island; I expected (hoped) native wildlife to be part of the experience.
We largely kept to ourselves the first few days, keen to adventure around the island. Our next-to-last night, we ventured over to the pool, where a family from Texas, a family from the UK, and two of the hotel staff were engaged in a trivia game. Before we knew what happened, we too were shouting out answers. “Are You Being Served?” is always a good answer.
The next night, our last night, was Patrick’s birthday. We had planned to head back to the pool, but it was a stormy afternoon and we ended up hanging out with one of the hotel employees, Dave, as well as the owner’s son (who is Garnet’s age), and another kid who was visiting him. We enjoyed Watling’s rum while they built a water balloon cannon out of PVC pipe and a bicycle pump.
At some point, Dave asked if I had seen the octopus yet. My response was almost cartoonish. Seeing an octopus in the wild has been a perpetual goal for well over a decade.
Dave directed me to the third rock from the left, just offshore in front of the hotel. Look for the large red sea urchin, and then look up to spot the octopus’s hole. He also said to look for crab detritus, that they are messy housekeepers. While these directions seemed vague and distinctly Bahamian, by that point in our trip, I knew exactly where he meant. We had spent hours swimming and snorkeling across the street at Orange Hill Beach. I remembered seeing the small patch reef area of three rocks.
Orange Hill Beach was even better than the pictures on the hotel website. The sunsets were lovely and most of the time the beach was empty. It also offered decent beachcombing. The water was warm and the visibility was great. Most of what I saw snorkeling were young fish, starfish, lobsters, corals, and sea urchins. I could see a reef line farther out from shore, but I didn’t want to risk being so far out and getting run over by a jet ski.
On our final morning, we walked over and I went straight for the three rocks. I was so hoping that I would finally get to see an octopus in the wild, but also realistic enough to know that I had been looking for one for well over a decade. I found the third rock. I found the sea urchin. And then I found the octopus. I was so excited I started making honking noises with my snorkel. I spent about 15-20 minutes circling the octopus rock. He watched me and I watched him. I could see why I didn’t notice him before. He camouflaged himself perfectly and added some rocks near his entrance that looked just like him. I was giddy.
I would have given Orange Hill Beach Inn a five-star rating based on my own quirky criteria, but with the octopus factored in, they now rank in my top 10 of lodgings.