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The Depths of Little Cayman

At a depth of around 300’ diver Dirk Peterson gets close to a giant elephant ear sponge in order to show its size. Photo: Drew McArthur

Words and Photos by Drew McArthur

If you’re a diver who has ever travelled for a scuba vacation then you’ll appreciate that the whole operation can be quite a task. Making sure the gear is in good working order, lugging it from door to door, ensuring you haven’t forgotten that one little piece that makes the whole puzzle come alive and of course this all comes on top of everything else you have to do for a regular vacation. With this in mind, imagine if you will a similar endeavour yet on a far greater scale. In 2019 Divetech decided to leap out of their comfort zone by taking their annual rebreather event to Little Cayman which has nothing in the way of existing support for closed circuit divers. The main goal of the expedition was to explore the depths of this premiere destination and put their divers in a part of the world where no one has ever been before.

The event in question is called Innerspace and had previously been attracting rebreather divers to Grand Cayman from around the world for 14 years. According to Divetech owner Jo Mikutowicz, “The event was the first of its kind for the rebreather community and as it has been running for so long we decided to start experimenting with it to see what it could become. Historically the event had been based in the Divetech locations in the north west of Grand Cayman but in 2017 we moved it to the east end of the island. The success of that event gave us the proof of concept we wanted in order to move the whole event yet further again. As 2019 was going to be our 15th year for Innerspace we decided to push the boat out and head over to Little Cayman.”

Cayman Collaborations

In order for the dream to become a reality it would be necessary for Ms Mikutowicz to work with an existing operation in Little Cayman. The event that was run out of the east end was done so with the support of Ocean Frontiers who provided the venue, accommodation, boats and a base for the team. Ms Mikutowicz found working with people who some may perceive as being her competition refreshingly easy, “Ocean Frontiers did an incredible job for us and helped make the whole event exactly what we wanted to give our customers. When I approached Clearly Cayman to ask about the possibility of running a similar event from their location in Little Cayman they were on board right from the start.”

With Little Cayman Beach Resort secured as a location it meant that food, accommodation and boats etc were all covered but the main issue would be getting the supplies required to specifically support rebreather divers over from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman safely and in time for the event.

Rebreather divers typically require a notably larger amount of equipment than their bubble blowing buddies in order to facilitate the kind of diving they do. The divers going to the greater depths of 330 feet would need two 80cf tanks filled with specialist gasses as emergency “bailouts” in addition to two smaller tanks, again filled with specialist gasses to run their rebreather unit.

As the event was set to attract 40 divers the logistical operation to blend the mixtures of helium, nitrogen and oxygen and then “bank” these gasses into large storage tanks had to start months in advance. As the gases required for the event were not available on Little Cayman, the Divetech team worked out the consumption rates of the average diver and then did the sums to establish how much gas all 40 divers would need for six days of diving with of course a contingency amount just to be safe.

Ms Mikutowicz recalls, “The first issue we had with the logistics was that the helium which is crucial to enable divers to reach the depths we support is getting harder and harder to find. Globally the resource is running out and although this has been known about for years, it was only when we went to the gas supplier in the Cayman Islands to place our order that we discovered the shortage had finally become a reality for us. At first our supplier just laughed at us when we asked for so much helium.”

As the event loomed ever closer the gas supplier agreed to do what they could with their supply chain to get as much helium as possible. It was required on the island by the medical community but also frustratingly, the rationed amounts coming through each month had to be shared with events companies who needed the gas to fill party balloons.

According to Ms Mikutowicz, “The few weeks prior to the event were almost unbearable. We finally got the gas we needed onto Grand Cayman but then due to weather warnings it looked like we were going to have difficulties shipping it on again to the sister island. Everything came together in the eleventh hour and the team did what they had to do to get each link in the chain in place.”

Smiles all round for the Innerspace 2019 attendees on the last night of the event. Photo: Drew McArthur

Logistical Nightmare

In total Divetech had to ship close to 200 tanks ranging from the size of a 2L bottle of water up to the big storage tanks that are approximately six feet tall and weighing around 165 lbs.  Additionally 6 rebreathers, tool boxes, 6 pallets of CO2 scrubber and a booster to pump the gas out of the storage tanks and into the breathing tanks all had to go.

Once everything was on site and in place, the Innerspace crew were able to breath a sigh of relief but it turned out to be a shortly lived period of respite before the next issue came to light. The flights that run from island to island were struggling to accommodate the amount of extra baggage that the divers were bringing with them which resulted in a few people turning up without their beloved rebreathers.

In order to make sure that everyone got the dives they wanted, day one was shuffled around a little to accommodate the divers who’s units were held up in transit. By the time everyone had been in the water however, the concerns of logistical frustrations melted in comparison to the awe inspiring diving.

The 40 divers were allowed to sink to different maximum depths depending on their training and experience and these were 140’, 200’ and 330’.  Each of these depth limits had a Divetech rebreather guide with them but anyone who wanted to break off and run their own profile was allowed to do so provided they had a buddy. Dive times were capped at three hours and in order to safely manage the depths on offer, some dives required more than an hour’s worth of decompression time on the way back up.

The walls of the Cayman Islands are a deep diver’s paradise. Each day the Reef Divers’ boats pulled up on regular moorings and told the excited groups the stories as to how the site got its name. Once the pre-dive preparations were complete, the groups began to splash and descend.

Certain areas of the sponge belt were festooned with growth.
Photo: Drew McArthur

What’s Down There?

And now for the question that deep rebreather divers get asked so often by recreational divers, “Well, what did you see down there?”

The first observation for the deeper groups was a feature that exists in the Cayman Islands called the Sponge Belt. The idea is that between the depths of around 200’ to 300’ the life changes from what most divers will get to see in usual recreational depth limits. As the light penetration changes so most corals can’t grow thus leaving vast expanses of area for sponge to populate. As the sponge has been peacefully growing undisturbed for centuries, some of it has reached astonishing sizes and abundance.

To call it a “belt” is a little misleading because the name suggests that at that depth there is a constant unbroken layer of sponge, which just isn’t the case. Divers who are lucky enough to reach this part of the world may well see small clusters of strange shaped sponge punctuated with the odd colossal barrel sponge the size of a car, but when you trip over an area festooned with growth, you will appreciate how that particular depth zone got its name. There has been a small amount of deep rebreather diving in the past in Little Cayman but nowhere near enough to account for every area of the wall down to 330’. As such, when the dive team found themselves surrounded by sheets of bright colourful sponge that were bigger than them, so far beneath the surface of the sea, coupled with the fact that they may well be the first ever human beings to witness the sight, a shared feeling of awe ran through them.

Marine life like this nurse shark are far less bothered by rebreathers due to their lack of bubbles. Photo: Drew McArthur

Reef sharks are relatively common in Little Cayman but typically tend to show themselves more often to rebreather divers due to the lack of bubbles that scare them away. In addition to the reefs there were a few sightings of hammerheads recorded throughout the week.

The topography was stunning. Many parts of Bloody Bay Wall present themselves as disappearing to the abyss in a straight shot downwards. This cascading drop continues further and further and for the divers at the bottom, to be able to look both up and down and see such an impressive spectacle of nature was humbling.

Throughout the week the divers enjoyed plenty of time on the top of the walls too where they were treated to the kind of wondrous sights that anyone who has been to Little Cayman will appreciate. Spotted eagle rays, healthy abundant coral and legions of turtles all played their part in what turned out to be a very successful expedition indeed.

As a special bonus, each of the groups got a chance to head over to nearby Cayman Brac where they could dive to the depths they wanted to before coming up and using the wreck of the Captain Keith Tibbetts as a playground to decompress on.

It took a considerable amount of work and effort in order to be able to move a complex event from a remote area to an even more remote area. The Divetech crew hadn’t imagined that it would be easy from the outset but as is often the case with such ambitious endeavours there always ends up being more to the exercise than could have been foreseen. After the event had been successfully wrapped up, packed down and everyone had returned safe and well back to their homes, Ms Mikutowicz could finally relax and was able to evaluate the whole thing, “It was hands down the best event we have ever put on. Was it worth it? For sure, would I do it again? Well….. watch this space.”

For more visit the official Cayman Islands website

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