I hope everyone had an awesome Holiday Season. My fiancé Stephanie and I just completed a weeklong Caribbean Cruise. It had been several years since my last cruise. I found myself asking why about the time we initially boarded the vessel to sail out of the homeport of Port Canaveral, Florida. The ship was stunning, decked out in her finest Holiday regalia. The crew was very attentive and the mood among the passengers was festive and anticipatory for good times to come. All the more so considering that New Year’s Eve was the next day and would be celebrated on the iconic opaline-turquoise waters of the shimmering Caribbean.

The first day at sea

My favorite part of cruising is being at sea. I am not a Broadway show kind of guy nor am I an ardent shopper. You will not find me in a conga line nor being told what to do in one of the countless cruise director-coached group activities. To each his or her own in that regard.

The fact is, for me, with the exception of my fiance, other passengers are my least favorite part of the cruise ship experience. I enjoy days at sea simply for the pure enjoyment of riding upon the awesome power and majesty of the ocean. It is in my view, one of the greatest sensory experiences on earth. This is why I joined the Navy. The icing on the cake in that decision was that it paid the invaluable dividend of annoying both my father and my brother, who were and are both Army vets. Priceless.

An old friend of mine who is a Master in several martial arts systems has been known to comment that “few things are as instructive as the sound of silence”. I agree with a strong caveat that “there are few things better suited to clear the mind and soothe the soul than the timeless sounds and energy of the churning sea.” A personal opinion that I have savored on oceans all across this blue planet.

Cozumel, Mexico Revisited

The new Port of Cozumel was vastly different than what I had seen on my last visit there. The areas around the cruise ship terminal were upgraded, bright and cheerful. There was little to no pressure from salespeople trying to persuade people to buy overpriced Mexican souvenirs (many of which had made-in-China labels affixed). The only exception was a young lady working in one of the cantinas where we stopped for a relaxed lunch who was very determined to get me to do five shots of tequila and only pay for two. I easily avoided the temptation although I incurred her playful wrath in doing so. That is a story for another day.

The seas were flat in the Caribbean all the way into Cozumel.

In port, the underwater visibility was stunning and one could easily count fish swimming along the bottom eighty feet away. Strolling along the cruise ship pier, a scattering of bleached corals was evident below.

Within the Port complex was a pavilion on coral reefs and their importance for local and global economies and food supplies. The exhibits were thought-provoking, extremely well done, and definitely worth your time should you find yourself in Cozumel. When you think about it every person boarding a cruise ship in Florida is going to a port of call that relies heavily on tourist dollars associated with coral reefs.

Whether you are going to the Florida Keys, the islands of the Bahamas, or the Caribbean, reefs are a tourist draw. Regardless of whether you are snorkeling, free diving, scuba diving, or trying glass bottom boats or one of those underwater scooters with an air-filled glass dome over your head (yes, they have those, and you don’t even get your hair wet) reefs draw tourists. The local economies flourish because of them at nearly every tropical port of call on earth.

Grand Cayman a Bucket List Dive Destination

After leaving Mexico, we spent another day at sea sailing due east towards the Caymans, a long-time bucket list dive destination for me. Winds out of the north seemed to be building on the journey however, we arrived in Grand Cayman to 10-12 MPH northerly winds. There is no cruise ship dockage in Grand Cayman so we moored and rode to shore on tenders run by local mariners. The tenders were relatively comfortable, fast, and efficient, especially as compared with some of those I rode in places such as Manila, Philippines, in my Navy days. Back then we had to climb over the side of our Navy vessel and down rope ladders onto the waiting tenders below. No small feat in rough seas angry with churning, white-capped swells that raise the tender decks up as you descend the ladders. A risky endeavor both leaving and returning to the ship.

Due to time constraints, we had preplanned a two-tank shore dive with the Eden Rock Diving Center.

A PADI five-star Resort located within sight of the cruise ship docks. We discussed surf conditions with Instructor Mario before hooking up with our awesome dive master, Alex, to review the dive plan for the Eden Rock Reef located in sixty feet of water approximately one hundred yards offshore. The six-person dive team left the dock into 2–3-foot swells. Our dive team didn’t hang out on the surface but took a “low profile dive approach” and descended after all five divers plus our divemaster were ready.

Once you are five feet below the surface, there is typically no impact from surf conditions, and this was the case on our dive.

Understandably, most non-divers think that reefs are quiet places. This is not the case. Coral reefs are often accurately described as underwater cities. Inhabitants of the reef are noisy just like their human counterparts on land. Below the waves, fish and other marine creatures croak, grunt, grind their teeth, and chomp as they try to protect their turf and their young and warn of approaching predators or attract a mate. The brightly colored parrotfish set the backbeat of this cacophony as they noisily go about their daily ritual of ingesting corals by grinding them with their namesake parrot-like beaks.

High above the reef, tarpon in small groups cruised by.

These highly prized game fish are renowned for their strength and leaping ability once hooked. Hovering below the tarpon was the ever-watchful barracuda. The sunlight refracted off the silvery bodies of these apex predators. Barracuda remains seemingly motionless above the reef all day, watching the schools of fish. Like lions on the Serengeti plains of Africa watching herds pass to see which animal can’t quite keep up, barracuda watch the schooling fish on the reef to determine which fish doesn’t turn with the rest of the school. Barracuda bide their time, and when they decide to strike, it is with lightning speed. I can testify to this from personal experience, having once had about three inches between the lens of my dive mask and the front teeth of a massive scar-covered barracuda! That, too, remains a story for another day.

Upon the reef, schools of multicolored fish of every hue dazzled us on all sides.

Indigo-colored blue chromis, purple and yellow-colored basslet, playful sergeant majors, yellow-tailed snapper, scarlet-colored squirrel fish, blue and French angel fish, wrasse, goby, jacks, and various types of grouper (just to name a few species) were in great abundance everywhere. Purple and yellow sea fans and other soft corals gently swayed in the current backdropped by stationary but colorful sponges. Fluorescent rainbow-colored Christmas tree worms, so named because of their unique conical body shape, pulled back within the corals on which they live as we approached. On the sand flats beside the reef, shy garden eels who make a living mimicking sea grasses darted back into the sand upon our approach.

We passed many cleaning stations where cleaner shrimp, wrasse and other species earn a meal by removing parasites and dead skin from their finned brethren as well as cleaning their wounds from close calls with predators.

Cleaning stations are the spas of the coral reef, and the rules are well understood by all there except for the beautiful and voracious lionfish, which, from my experience and observations, is the only species that predates at cleaning stations. This invasive species, a normal resident of the Indo-Pacific, is a problem from Texas to the Caribbean and beyond.  

Typically though, fish and other inhabitants of the reef patiently wait their turn. Moray eels are somewhat less social and do not join the line but still honor the rules by sticking their heads out of their homes in the crevices of the reef with their mouths open. This signals the cleaners that the eels are ready to have their teeth cleaned. From my perspective reef inhabitants at a cleaning station are better behaved than humans in line at a movie theatre snack bar. There is no butting in line or bickering. To me, many humans seem to lack the ability to develop a sense of peaceful co-existence which is so prevalent among the supposedly “lesser species” of the natural world. We could learn from the reef dwellers.

Our first dive ended before we wanted it to, and our second dive was canceled due to deteriorating surf conditions. After our dive, all gear was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected because of the presence of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease in the Cayman Islands. We plan to return to the Cayman Islands. A jewel in the Caribbean.  

Ochos Rios, Jamaica    

Another day at sea brought us to the mountainous, mist-enshrouded shores of Jamaica. Jamaica is an island rich in natural beauty. Unlike Cozumel the port remained unchanged since the last visit. We quickly bypassed the shopping and spent the day snorkeling on a remote tropical beach that was the stuff of travel websites. The reggae music and the jerk chicken and fish were epic, as were the scenery and the hospitable staff at the beach.

The Cruise Back to Home Port

At the risk of sounding like the message in a fortune cookie, I am of the opinion that “life is about the journey and not the destination” as the old saying goes. So it was that as we sailed north after reluctantly leaving the Cayman Islands in our wake, I sat on the balcony of our cruise ship pondering a new year while alternately working on notes for this BLOG and watching great frigate birds hunt flying fish spooked by our vessels passing. To the east gleamed the distant lights of Freeport, Bahamas, a place holding many great memories of past dives, rum-infused tropical evenings featuring robust “pirate-like misconduct,” and most importantly, quality time spent with family and friends.

Much later, as the distant lights of the central Florida coast marked the horizon thoughts of 2024 and what lay ahead were unavoidable. There would be good times and no doubt trying times as well. Such is life. I remain steadfast that every journey is what you make of it. I wish you all a fantastic 2024. Find joy in the smallest of things and hold on tight to that joy.

As we say in Jamaica “Irie mon.”   

One Response

  1. Loved this!! Wish I could have been there!! Love the way you make it sound like we could be there at the time!!
    Keep up sharing your adventures!! They are awesome!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *