Oasis in Time

By Michael Lawrence

From a sunken warship of another era to a lifestyle that exists mostly in memory to water that has cradled life since the earth's beginnings-they all converge in a quiet corner of the Caribbean known as the Sister Islands.

When the plane from Grand Cayman landed on the rain drenched tarmac, I sensed something had changed. An odd feeling. Nostalgia? No, it felt too solid, too dimensional for just an abstract feeling. I looked out the port window of the plane, but all I could see were twisting, undulating images through the water pouring across my view. Without noticing, I removed my watch and stashed it in my carry-on; then stepping from the plane, I paused and let the cool rain wash over me for a moment. I'm not sure what happened-A vortex? A time warp? Something distant in my memory that Einstein had predicted? I quickly looked in the mirror. Strange. I looked the same. But, glancing around, I was sure, no I would swear, I had stepped into the Caribbean idyll I had first encountered more than 20 years ago.

Snorkeling in paradise.
The Sister Islands of the Caymans-Cayman Brac and Little Cayman-exist in an odd balance of contradiction. You'll find modern comforts arm in arm with the pace and essence of life of a previous time. Although only a short hop from Grand Cayman, the Sister Islands are as far removed from Grand Cayman as Manhattan is from a sleepy shoreside town in New Jersey.

The islands, the exposed pinnacles of ageless subsea mountains sprinkled along an oceanic ridge, are surrounded on all sides by a narrow, shallow shelf defined by precipitous drops into the deep cobalt blue of the Caribbean Sea. The ancient forms of life that evolved into today's lush coral growth and the broad variety of tropical reef fish, invertebrates and a fascinating variety of deep-sea and blue-water creatures, danced, fought, died and reproduced in the same waters that surround the islands today. And the diving remains as timeless and full of life as it was during my first exploratory dives.

A sponge dwelling shrimp.
Since the pace of life has remained in a relative stasis, it's probably good that the dive sites throughout the Sister Islands are seldom more than 30 minutes from the dock, often much closer. But some changes have occurred to the undersea profile. On Cayman Brac, one of my first stops was the well-known wreck of the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts. Though this renamed Russian Destroyer plied the world's oceans during the angry times of the Cold War, and even before I became a diver, the sea has stepped in and a silent transformation has begun. Its impressive undersea profile is sharply defined against the sandy bottom off the south shore, near the edge of the wall.

And the diving remains as timeless and full of life as it was during my first exploratory dives [20 years ago].
Once I hit the clear water above the Tibbetts' weather deck and the bubbles dissipated, I could look down and see the awesome sight of this fully outfitted vessel of war spread out below me.

The visibility was so clear that snorkelers could enjoy the experience as much as scuba divers. I quickly dropped down to 100 feet and kneeled in the sand in front of the bow. I found myself surrounded by a school of Horse-eye Jacks and marveled at the sharp lines and high point of the bow of the ship. As my mind drifted back in time, I could see this Cold War-era destroyer cutting through the pounding waves, chasing a frightening reality that never occurred. But now she's serving a far nobler purpose: home for a multitude of creatures-the finest legacy a vessel such as this could bequeath. This time capsule is only one of many found in the Sister Islands. At Anchor Wall, seeing the ancient anchor lodged in a crevice in the wall, brings to mind the days of creaking, wooden ships, tall masts and gold doubloons. The coral walls remain much as they have always been: lush and ridden with marine creatures; both sites echo the past and the future.

Touring the island by kayak.
My first time on Bloody Bay Wall off Little Cayman (named for a violent battle between 17th and 18th century pirates and buccaneers and their intended victims) and Jackson Bay Wall on the south side left me spellbound. I thought about those first dives as I readied to slip into this surreal world once again. At some points the wall starts in water as shallow as 18 feet, but all along its contours is a sponge-crowded profile that drops straight down to a world without light. Hovering over the unseen bottom provides a feeling and sensation as close to flying as a human will ever come. As I slip beneath the surface and head out from the wall, the feeling returns, along with the exhilaration of my first dive here. I quickly look for a mirror again. Surely I must have grown younger. But, alas, there is none to be found.

On Cayman Brac (population steady at 1,700 to 2,000), you should visit the bluff on the east end of the island, which is the source of Cayman Brac's name (Brac is bluff in Scottish, the Scots being some of the earliest inhabitants). At 140 feet, it is the highest point in the Caymans. This limestone bluff is riddled with caves and caverns reputed to be the stronghold of pirate treasure. True or not, the top of the bluff offers another treasure-it's a reserve for the Cayman Parrot as well as many forms of orchids.

...I could look down and see the awesome sight of this vessel...
On Little Cayman (population less than 100), Tarpon Lake is a small proof of Darwinian theory. Atlantic Tarpon (normally four to six feet in length) were washed into a land-locked brackish lake during a storm in the first part of the century. They have now been transformed into a unique, diminutive subspecies (two to three feet), found only here. As I walked out into the pond on a rickety wooden walkway winding through the mangroves in the golden light of evening, I watched as fins broke the surface here and there as they fed, leaving only a slowly dissolving V-shaped ripple as they swam on. It was both a quiet moment of meditation as well as a rare glimpse into the cogs and gears of evolution.

Visiting the two Sister Islands is like strolling down the boulevard with loved ones. Although choosing between the islands is not an easy decision, they are bound to take you steps back in time and, some may say, to a better pace of life.