December 27, 1997

Article at Washington Post

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My first thought is: I'm going to dive 1,000 feet down into the Caribbean Sea in a minivan.

Before me, dead in the middle of Grand Cayman Island's main harbor at George Town, hovering just below the surface of the clear blue water, is a bright yellow cylinder that appears to be the size of your basic Ford Aerostar. As I approach in a small motorboat, a hatch is all that is poking above the surface. The hatch slams open and a voice issues from inside, guiding me in.

"Easy does it," the voice calls. "A little slippery there, one foot on the hatch's rim, the other foot on the lip inside." I obey, maneuvering down onto the pilot's seat, then further down, stooping down -- well, okay, folding myself down -- inside. Once in I turn to make the acquaintence of Dave Plumstead, a pilot in the employ of Atlantis Submarines, the outfit that operates the two-passenger PC-3 submersible as part of its fleet. Dave is small and slim, and sits crosslegged like an Indian guru, bracketed by a parentheses of control panels, knife switches, dials, hoses and wires. He gestures to my seat in the sub's bow, and I duckwalk all of two feet to get to it. It's a stadium cushion on a hard, flat plate. The interior is stuffy despite the fan whirring to the right, and the space doesn't seem much bigger than a bathtub. Cables snake over, around, beneath me; one curl to my left is stenciled Pressure tested to 1500. Meters or feet? I wonder. As I settle, my knees are just below my chin; bolts punched through the hull are a bare two inches above my head.

Though I'm prone to it, claustrophobia is, oddly, not a problem here: Before me the sub's entire nose is glass -- three feet of it, inches thick and convex -- creating the illusion of endless space. Of course, that space is filled with ocean. The glass is a fish-eye window, giving onto the fishes' world.

Dave closes the hatch and kicks the sub's whirring motors into action. Striped fish float and dart before us in this open water. Dave looks past me out the port.

"Oh, yes, yes," he says. His voice is a measured tenor, schooled in reassurance, promising: No one panics down here on my watch. "Yellow snappers. They'll follow anything yellow."

Yellow though we are, the snappers are strictly shallow-dwellers, and they will not follow us as far as we are going. Dave shifts in his seat behind me, his knees grazing my back as though he had assumed the rear seat on a tandem bike. He opens the valves, the PC-3's tanks fill with water and the ship begins to sink deliberately. And not too slowly.

"Fifty-five to 60 feet per minute," he responds to my question. His voice is smooth and steady, as though the prospect of dropping a thousand feet straight down the underwater cliff that is the Cayman Wall weren't remarkable, a walk in a watery park. "That's a pretty standard rate," he adds.

A minute into our descent the waters turn from turquoise to violet, the full light of day sinking as though turned down with a rheostat. The surface is rushing away from us, bubbles clearing. Dave tests the lights that stud the crash cage surrounding the PC-3, and their beams turn the water in front of us red: countless zooplankton, foundation-food of the reefs, streaking by in motes. This layer of life will thin out and clear as we dive deeper and the water grows colder.

At 100 feet the sound of our falling is swallowed in the climbing buzz of the motors Dave uses to control our movements; at 250 feet -- about 50 feet deeper than most wet-suited divers ever go -- the Cayman Caribbean appears split: above blue, below the deep magenta of a bruise. A sweat of condensation starts to form on the metal skin inside the sub. The sub is pressurized, so there's no ear popping to contend with, and no decompression necessary at the hour-long dive's end.

I'm thinking: Not much to see . . . when another minute brings us to 300 feet and the Cayman Wall swims into being 20 feet from our nose.

Though it's technically a "slope," the sea floor here is nearly vertical, and Dave slows us for a moment, flicking on the lights. The surface before us is rugged: pocked and pitted like the surface of an asteroid, the color -- except for the life that studs it -- of iron ore. We have sunk past the zone in which most corals live; this is the empire of the sponges. They grow in huge abundance here, in a bewildering variety of shapes -- rope sponges that incandesce a lurid red in our lights, appearing in bunches like nightmare hands; tube sponges that emerge from crevices like white bundles of PVC pipe; glass sponges shaped like trumpets; sponges that flap and wave like elephant ears in the current along the wall, seining the water for nourishment; sclerosponges that pop in cups and balls from the wall's holes and cracks. They are red, green, yellow, as multiform and multicolor on the vertical surface we are sinking past as the slashing lines and splotches of pigment on a Jackson Pollock canvas.

Dave flicks off the lights again, and our descent speeds. We will fall along the wall -- as though falling down the side of a building -- until we reach about 450 feet, where the slope gentles from vertical to merely steep. At 800 feet -- about six minutes below us now in the deepening gloom -- the angle becomes more gentle still, about 55 degrees.

The sub is a surprisingly bare-bones affair -- no pinging sonar, no fancy geopositioning gear, no charts in evidence. Dave sits above and behind me in a porthole-ringed turret, gazing out, navigating by landmarks. It's a system that works for him: During the past 14 years he's logged 3,500 hours here. Before taking ecotourists on these excursions for Atlantis (which also offers tours in larger shallow-water subs, both here in the Caymans and in Hawaii, Barbados, St. Thomas, Aruba and Guam), he worked the more hectic waters of the Atlantic off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia for the oil industry -- a task for which the PC-3 was primarily designed.

"Water was quite a bit different up there," he says. "Off Canada, at 400 feet it was pitch black."

In the Caribbean, however, we're at 500 feet and the wall is still visible as it rushes by our nose, close enough, seemingly, to touch. With the lights off, its friable, sand-frosted surface looks like moonlit cake.

A jettisoned cruise ship anchor suddenly heaves into view to the left, wedged in a gully. We sink past its chain, which hangs down the slope like a claspless necklace hanging from a pendant.

"Yeah," Dave says. "They lose a few of those a season. They get caught, or their winching system breaks down and they've got to cut 'em loose." I picture not one but six ships docked above us in the harbor -- as a cabbie told me sometimes happens. What would it be like down here with that lumbering ballet above, anchors dropping willy-nilly, like fishhooks for a leviathan?

We drop to 600 feet where all is turbid twilight. Cold droplets off the bolts above me fall onto my neck as I crane to look lower. I know we're approaching the haystack zone.

The haystacks are enormous limestone boulders -- 80 to 100 feet tall -- that, according to some theories, cracked off the steeper slopes above as the result of some unnamed geologic stress and rolled to a rest where the first plateau bottoms out, between 600 and 1,000 feet down. As we fall toward the first of these, we're nearing the effective limit of the sub's range, and the deepest part of our dive. Dave slows, then stops us.

"A thousand feet," he announces. No embellishment is necessary. We are far below the crush depth of the subs that hunted these waters during World War II. A weakened light still holds, steady as moonlight, turning the sand-coated boulders among which we hang into simulacra of snow-covered mountains. Little flashes and winks appear -- lantern fish and bristle mouths, inches-long deep-dwellers that are studded with phosphorescent spots. They surround us, numerous as fireflies.

Dave starts the rear propeller, then flicks on our lights again.

Outside the viewport, the top of a haystack pitches and wobbles in our view, until he levels us out. With its frosting of white reef sand, it could be a ski slope, except for the enormous flower growing on the very top of it. The "flower" is an animal -- a West Indian sea lilly -- whose two-foot-broad starburst of "petals" sifts the current ceaselessly for food. It falls below us as we start to rise. Dave pivots us and points our floods upslope at the sand at one haystack's base. I see a deck chair, overturned as though too hastily vacated.

"It's from the Kirk Pride, I think," Dave says. "She left quite a debris field when she went down." By way of explanation, he starts the motors for our slow ascent. Then, as we climb the steep grade, from above -- upright, majestic in its ruin, wedged in at either end by haystacks -- Dave's predication is proved: The Kirk Pride appears.

It is a freighter, 170 feet long, that went down in a nor'easter 20 years ago. We come up at its fantail, the sweep of letters, lightly silted, still showing its name in black.

"She'd just off-loaded when the storm hit," Dave says, his voice low "Her forward hatches were still open and she was beam-on to the sea. The waves just poured into her and she went down. Fast." All the crew got off safely; there was no loss of life. Still it's strange to skim at this funereal pace over the deck that's dusted gray with reef sand and mud, looking down at bent winch arms, floating loops of arm-thick rope, the door to the wheelhouse propped half-open as though someone had just entered, or left. It's like coasting in a yellow balloon above a haunted house.

It's showmanship, of course; Dave's done this many times. But it's a good show. When we reach the bow -- the fateful hatches yawning black and coverless, giving into the Kirk Pride's hold -- our time in the deep is done. As he pumps the water from the ballast tanks, Dave radios the little boat that waits for us overhead.

"Atlantis tender, Atlantis tender; this is PC-3 at 800 feet. We are ascending." With memories chasing us upward, like so many bubbles.

Atlantis Submarines offers several "Deep Explorer 800" dives aboard its mini-sub per day, six days a week, from its location at the waterfront in George Town on Grand Cayman Island. The sub can accommodate two passengers in addition to its pilot. The charge is $295 per person, and for an additional $60, you can have a videotape made of your experience. Photo-taking is encouraged; you can buy 1600 ASA film in the Atlantis gift shop. A 48-passenger sub offering 45-minute tours is also in operation; tours start at $72. Call 1-800-887-8571, or check out the Atlantis Web site at

For more information on the Cayman Islands, contact the islands' Department of Tourism at 1-800-346-3313 or 212-682-5582, Mark Baechtel last wrote for Travel about the Greek island of Patmos. CAPTION: Off the coast of Grand Cayman Island, this two-passenger submersible plunges to a depth of 1,000 feet.

CAPTION: The author demonstrates the tight confines of the PC-3 submersible, pictured top right in action. Bottom right, some of the sea life encountered during the descent off Grand Cayman Island.