Father and Son Cruise
I expected that it would be difficult to devote the hours needed to write at this time of the year. I underestimated. It is almost impossible. I still have to write the holiday letter – the pressure is unbearable…
Once again Ryan was gone when the wake up call came, this time at 7:00. Apparently the lure of unlimited breakfast made it impossible for him to sleep in. I rarely have any interest in food until lunchtime, and today was no exception.
I packed up for the excursion, which combined snorkeling and a swim with the stingrays. I read a thread on CruiseCritic where several people named the stingray swim as their favorite excursion. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me, swimming around with a couple of stingrays. I tacked on the snorkeling trip so we’d have something memorable for our efforts.
After neatening myself and the room, I packed up for the trip — video camera, digital camera, extra batteries, extra memory cards, two underwater cameras, sunscreen, MP3 player, two sets of headphones, towels, tissues, ibuprofen, identification, bathing suit, mints, and an umbrella – just in case. “Be prepared,” I learned in the Boy Scouts.
There was just enough time to run upstairs for a cup of coffee before reporting to Rendezvous Square at 8:15 for the excursion. I got a cup in the Palm Springs Cafe and made my way to the table area out on the stern. The day looked like it could go either way. Lots of big cloud formations hid the sun much of the time, but the temperature was perfect.
The Mercury was anchored off shore, as there is no big dock on Grand Cayman. The island stretched out in front of the ship, flat and sparsely vegetated. It looked like a 20-foot wave would easily wash from one side to the other. I would not want to be on Grand Cayman during a hurricane.
Anchored nearby was a warship of some kind. There was not much activity to view as I sat at a table under an umbrella. It was, after all, Sunday morning.
“Yo, dad.” Ryan placed a tray of breakfast food on the table and sat down.
“When did you get up?” I asked.
“I caught the sunrise. I wanted to get some pictures.”
“Yeah, it was beautiful.”
Ryan offered me some of his food. I broke my fast and had some melon.
“I don’t usually eat breakfast.”
“This is my second one,” replied Ryan.
At 8:00, we ran down to the room to get our things. Ryan asked me to put some sunscreen on his back. He had NoName brand SPF 45 lotion that was as thick as butter.
“Not taking any chances, huh?”
Ryan put his shirt back on, picked up his camera, and said, “I’m ready”.
I paused and looked him over. He was wearing cargo shorts with a belt, low brown work shoes with no socks, and a tank top.
“Aren’t you going to bring a bathing suit?”
“Nah, I’d rather wear this.”
“I must have left my sneakers at home.”
I thought back to the period when Ryan, like every child, was embarrassed to be seen with his parents. What goes around comes around. I handed him a towel and we headed out.
In Rendezvous Square, a woman was handing out stickers numbered according to the excursions. We were #15. Ryan bought two giant bottles of high-priced water offered at the bar, and we sat to wait for our number to be called.
It was nearly 9:00 before we were led down to the tender loading area. I reached the security podium and inserted my card. The machine responded by alarming with a sound that would be appropriate to warn of incoming missiles. A security officer quickly took me aside. Ryan was right behind me, and his card produced the same response. He joined me with the security guard as curious people filed by on their way to the tender.
“We don’t have your pictures in the system” said the guard. “Please wait here.”
Our check-in process had been somewhat unusual, and it struck me at the time that no one took our picture.
When the crowd diminished, we were taken back to the podium and had our pictures taken. Our cards then produced the pleasant ding-dong that indicated we were cool. No big deal.
Out at the loading platform, the tender was waiting. The seas were rough enough to make boarding an adventure. This was the first time I’d been on a ship’s tender — everywhere else, we’d used ferries run by local operators. Inside, the space was crude and cramped.
We cast off and began the ride into town. Though the view out of the tender was limited, I recognized the French flag hanging from a mast on the anchored warship.
In a few minutes we were at the small dock in Georgetown. Getting off of the tender required good timing, as it was rising and falling quite a bit in relation to the dock. We were taken to a nearby parking lot and boarded a small bus for the ride to the boat that would take us back out to sea.
Once we got out of town, the route revealed a place that could have been somewhere in Florida. Beachfront resorts lined one side of the road, and dozens of fast food and commercial franchises had taken root on the opposite side. Compared to every other place I’d seen in the western Caribbean, this was the most prosperous. I still wouldn’t want to get caught there during a hurricane.
In a few minutes we turned off the main road and drove up to the dock, which was situated in a sheltered cove. Behind us a larger bus arrived with the rest of the group, and we made our way to the boat.
Onboard the Wave Raker, we were introduced to Captain Martin and his fearless assistant Atilla. Also with us was Monique, an employee of Deep Blue Images. She was the videographer for the trip, and was equipped with an impressive-looking underwater video camera.
Once everyone was settled, we motored slowly out of the cove and into the open water. The boat was not a speedster, and it took a pleasant hour to reach the reef where we would snorkel. The crew entertained us with stories, and Monique wandered around taking video of people doing silly things like the “stingray wave”.
As we approached the reef, Atilla handed out the fins, masks, snorkels, and inflatable life vests.
We anchored, and followed the crew off the boat’s rear platform into the perfect blue-green water. The reef was just in front of the boat, breaking the surface in places. The water was 10-15 feet deep, with a sandy bottom ending abruptly at the looming reef.
I lost track of Ryan just after entering the water. Monique was leading the way, and everyone headed in the same general direction. The reef was teeming with life, and I got my underwater camera into action. The crew sought out some of the reef’s more interesting residents for us, including a huge eel and a medium-sized shark.
It was kind of like an underwater show, and we watched as Monique taped the whole thing.
I eventually found Ryan. In his leather belt and cargo shorts, he was easy to pick out of the crowd. At least he took his shoes off. He was swimming along the bottom, examining the fine details. I had forgotten that while in the Marines he became a certified diver. He really seemed to be at ease and was relishing the experience.
At one point when Ryan was on the bottom, a stingray approached him curiously. It came right up to his face before swimming away. Odd behavior, I thought.
After about an hour, a horn sounded to call everyone back to the boat. We climbed aboard and settled into our seats. Other boats filled with people came and went. They were lined up along the reef, about 75 feet apart. It was a busy place.
Ryan was beaming. “Wow, that was awesome! Did you see that shark?”
“Yeah. Beautiful. Did you get some good pictures?” I asked.
Ryan retrieved his underwater camera and held it up. A stream of water emerged from the housing. “No. As soon as I went under, a bunch of bubbles came out. I don’t think it’s supposed to do that.”
I took the camera. It was indeed defective, and I tossed it into a nearby trashcan. I was a little embarrassed, as the camera was a product of the company I work for.
“What a shame. Oh well.”
When the count indicated that everyone was on board, Atilla pulled the anchor and Cap’n Martin backed the boat slowly away from the reef to head for our stingray encounter. I waited for him to shift out of reverse and get going, but instead he backed up a few hundred feet and stopped. It took a couple of tries to get the boat anchored again in the current. Apparently, we had arrived.
Off the stern was a sandbar. The water looked to be about four feet deep. The passengers quickly lined up and filed off the boat and into the water, led once again by Monique. Ryan bypassed the crowd and jumped off the side of the boat.
I was not prepared for our arrival, and struggled to get the video camera ready for some shots. Apparently I had put the thing into its bag while it was still set to record. That meant the tape had about 10 minutes of material followed by 50 minutes of darkness.
I was putting in a new tape when I heard it. A woman screamed like she was being murdered – a blood curdling scream. Within seconds, a whole group of people joined in, adding their own screams to the mix. Men’s and women’s screams created an odd harmony of panic and horror. I ran to the stern, still trying to load the camera. I expected the worst – someone must be seriously hurt.
About 50 feet off the stern the passengers stood in a tight knot. People were clutching each other as the screaming continued. I didn’t see any blood. Instead, dark shadows under the water were circling the group, and more were approaching from all directions. Stingrays were homing in on the group, looking like underwater UFO’s.
I finally got the camera working, and took a brief shot before going back for my mask. By the time I got in the water, the screaming had become slightly less intense. Happier sounds were joining the chorus – ooo’s and ahh’s, squeals of delight.
I made my way to the group and found Ryan. He had a wary look on his face.
“This is spooky… Ahhhhh!”
A huge stingray – at least five feet wide — brushed past his legs and headed for me. It raised its wing and touched my leg. It rubbed along like a cat, and then swam away. Another one came from the other direction and did the same thing. I had to agree with Ryan. This was spooky. I stifled a scream as a third stingray passed between my legs.
At the center of the group, the crew was demonstrating the remarkable behavior of these animals. When they extended their arms just below the water’s surface, a stingray would swim up onto them and just sit there. Some of the rays would flap their way up onto the person’s chest and get face-to-face, as if they were trying to get a kiss.
The rays’ mouth is a suction device located on their bottom surface. I learned this first hand when I went underwater to take a picture of Ryan holding a ray. A huge one came right overhead and explored my back with its mouth. The suction was strong, but I must not have tasted too good. I let it satisfy its curiosity and swim on before surfacing.
Brenda, our tablemate, offered us some squid supplied by the guides for feeding the rays. We passed, and she accused us of being chicken. Fair enough.
The screams continued to pierce the air, but with less frequency. A few people had quickly returned to the boat, too unnerved by the experience to stay in the water. Rays were everywhere. It was difficult to walk without stepping on one. They were all sizes, from a few inches to many feet across. Monique was encouraging everyone to take a turn doing the outstretched arm routine for the camera. Ryan took a turn.
At length we were summoned back to the boat. The rays simply vanished after the people left. We turned in our gear and settled in for the trip back to shore.
“That was just unbelievable,” said Ryan.
“Yup.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say for a little while. “Mom would have loved that. Maybe I shouldn’t even tell her about it so she can be surprised someday.”
Monique announced that the video of our trip could be purchased for $40, to be delivered to the ship before our departure. There was no way I could pass on that – that is until a disturbing thought came to mind. In all my careful preparation, I had forgotten to bring money. Any money. Not only could I not buy the video, I couldn’t even tip the guides who did a great job. How humiliating.
I made my way forward to where Brenda and Paul were sitting. I summoned the nerve to ask for an emergency loan. Paul shook his head. “I don’t have any money either,” he said, opening his wallet to reveal emptiness.
When Monique approached us about the video, I made my ashamed confession.
“Hardly anybody brought money,” she said. Now I felt really bad for the guides. “We keep the video for six weeks, and you can order it on our web site.”
She wrote some codes on the back of a business card, and handed it to me.
“Just give this information when you order.”
When I got home, I did just that. I had the video within a few days, followed by a personal thank-you note from the proprietor. The image quality on the video is excellent – the underwater shots are stunning. (I will post some of it in the future)
As we motored back to shore, the highest parts of the Mercury could be seen looming over the island. As we got off the boat, I awkwardly avoided the guides who were accepting tips in a little can inside a stuffed stingray toy. I vowed never to make the money mistake again.
In the parking lot, we were directed to board the large bus this time. It was basically a school bus, painted blue with many rust accents. When the driver — a dredlocked man with a powerful build – started the engine, it was obvious that the muffler had succumbed to rust. As we turned out of the lot, the door swung open. The driver reached behind himself and held the door closed as we made our way back to town.
Georgetown was very quiet. A few stores were open, but I couldn’t buy anything due to the lack of funds. We went to cross the street to the dock. Ryan glanced to the left. No cars were coming, but as he began to step off the curb I grabbed him.
“Look both ways,” I said with fatherly admonishment. To our right, the woman who was driving quite properly on the left side of the road had come to a quick stop. She was probably used to tourists who were unaccustomed to vehicles traveling on the “wrong” side. On St. Thomas, pedestrian accidents were common, but tourists in rental cars were the real nightmare…
Next to the dock, several children were playing in the water along a tiny sliver of a beach. It was backed by a high sea wall, sandwiched between two small docks.
We boarded the bobbing tender and departed for the Mercury. Back on board, my security card allowed for an uneventful entry. Ryan had managed to get way behind me in the line, so I stepped aside to wait.
“Mr. X, I need to speak with you.” Christine’s voice was hushed and mysterious. “Please come over here so the other passengers can’t hear us.” She glanced around and led me to an alcove behind the baggage x-ray machine.
I felt a little numb. This didn’t sound good.
“I want you and your son to meet me at 3:45…,” she began.