“WE WATCHED them coming through the Bahamas, which they just devastated,” she says. “They lay 25,000 eggs every four days and have no predators here. They will literally eat everything on the reef.”
I am sitting on a shady terrace in the Cayman Islands, watching the sun ripple off the Caribbean and sipping a fruit punch, while Nancy Easterbrook tells me about the threat to local coral reefs from the invasive lionfish. She is a dynamic bundle of energy who, with her husband, runs local diving company Divetech and their livelihood depends on preserving some of the best diving in the Caribbean.
Native to Asia, it is thought the colorful fish were first exported to the US for display in home aquariums but were freed into the wild when they became too big. Starting from only eight females, according to genetic studies, red lionfish (Pterois volitans) have spread rapidly down the eastern seaboard since their release in Florida during the mid-1980s.
“We saw the first ones at Little Cayman in 2008 but the water sport dive operators have been very aggressive in combating them,” says Nancy. “We have very, very strong conservation laws in Cayman preventing anyone taking anything from the sea but we had that law amended for lionfish. The Department of the Environment has licensed the dive operators to have spears. Spear guns are banned here but these ones do not shoot, they stab. Lionfish are quite docile, if you get them the first time.”
Nancy explains that the lionfish spines contain neurotoxins which cause severe pain, swelling and rash in humans. But the fish are venomous, not poisonous, and make good eating. “The groupers and eels know they are tasty and they know there are a lot of them – they just can’t catch them yet,” she says. “We hope evolution will take care of that. In the meantime, their only predators are human. We have managed to keep the dive sites relatively clean but if you go out further you will see them. We are catching lots but it’s non-stop and forever. We will not eliminate lionfish, unless they eliminate them on the eastern seaboard of the US, but we do hope to manage the population with constant effort.”
A few days later, diving off Little Cayman, I see my first lionfish hovering over a reef. Its long, trailing spines and red body with sinuous white stripes are unmistakable but it presents an incongruous appearance, solitary and alien in its marked difference from the other reef fish darting around. During the rest of my time in the islands, I spot no other, so the first battles in what will certainly be a long war are certainly having an effect.
The three Cayman Islands lie just west of Cuba in the Caribbean Sea. Most of the 56,000 inhabitants live on Grand Cayman, where ramshackle housing developments and an untidy jumble of electric lines blight the capital, George Town. The major tourist resort is Seven Mile Beach, lined with a continuous row of beach bars and multi-story hotels. When several cruise ships come into harbor together, disgorging thousands of passengers, it is time to flee to the quiet outer beaches or the two smaller islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.
All three islands may be well known as tax-free, financial hideaways but there are very few conspicuous displays of wealth and daily life seems focused on the simpler things in life. Given the Caribbean attractions of sun, sea and sand, it comes as no surprise to learn that 18,000 people, or half the working population, actually work in the tourism sector. T-shirts, shorts and beach sandals are an egalitarian costume for rich and poor alike. Days are spent swimming, snorkeling and diving, or just relaxing by the pool, while evenings start with a drink or two at a beach bar watching the sun go down.
I pass my nights with leisurely meals at one of the many restaurants, before retiring to a beach bar where laid-back divers from all over the world talk shop, philosophy and nonsense until the early hours. The chief appeal for non-cruise visitors is the coral reefs starting close to shore amid clear waters that result from the lack of rivers bringing sediment off the land. With visibility down to 30 meters or more, and the variety among the three different islands, you have one of the world’s top dive destinations. The tourist board claims there is a different dive for each day of the year and who is going to start an argument about that – or anything else – in the laidback Caribbean?
One star attraction for divers is the wreck of the USS Kittiwake, deliberately sunk in shallow water off Grand Cayman as an artificial reef. Fittingly, she is a former US Navy diving support vessel that Nancy was instrumental in bringing to her new home. “The Kittiwake’s life in service was for divers and submarines; I have photos of hardhat divers onboard,” Nancy says. “So we thought it would be a very interesting for divers.” It took ten years, and some $750,000, to sort out the paperwork and environmental requirements insisted on by the US Navy but she is now the world’s cleanest wreck.
The last-minute removal of a set of rubber seals from 32 seacocks that might have released pollutants meant putting the 2,200-ton ship in a Virginia dry dock at a cost of $40,000 alone. “It was a pilot project for the export of a ship from the United States to a foreign government,” she says, explaining some of the reasons for the delay. “Now she belongs to the Cayman Island Government, a British Overseas Territory, so we like to say she is resting on the Queen’s bottom.”
That regal bottom is an expanse of clean sand that acts as a picturesque backdrop for the ship as I drop down to 20 meters from my dive boat. I swim past the stern, admiring the large propeller and a goliath grouper posing nearby. My small group of divers gathers outside one of several large jagged-edge holes cut in her side to allow for easier access before we swim inside, flashlights in hand. Starting near the bottom of her hull, we twist through gray-painted corridors and up ladders to make our way to the bridge. On the way, I see my masked face in the bathroom mirrors and watch my exhaled bubbles form fluid patterns on the roof of the cargo bay.
The large internal spaces of this workmanlike navy vessel provide a safe environment even for novice divers, although my tanks bang off hatches more than once before I get the hang of equalizing my way up and down the companionways. I recall Nancy saying the wreck is swept early every morning for lionfish, a reassuring thought. In the wheelhouse, I play with the remains of the steering gear, looking out of its glassless windows to a clear view of the equipment-laden foredeck. A school of horse-eye jacks swim past like a flock of seagulls but, instead of being battered by spray, the bow is now part of the tranquil underwater world the ship once explored from above, being slowly claimed by the ocean as plants and coral colonize every surface.
The next day, I have an equally memorable experience when I dive with rays at Stingray City – regularly voted the world’s top dive spot. Again, we gather as a group to sit on the sandy bottom at five meters, carrying extra weights and blowing masses of air out of our buoyancy vests to find equilibrium, before our dive master produces fresh squid from a sealed bottle. Within moments, a large group of stingrays is swimming around and among us. We have been carefully briefed to make no sudden movements and have left off our snorkels to remove the risk of an accidental bump displacing our masks.
As barbed tails swish past my naked chest, I recall being told that they are one-off weapons and hence the rays are reluctant to use them. Guided by the dive master, I feel their leathery skin on top and velvety undersides as they ripple gracefully past, unconcerned by my clumsy attempts to stroke them with one hand as my other protects my regulator. As time passes and even more rays join us, I start to feel part of their element. We have kicked up a cloud of sand, reducing visibility, so it is a shock when a bright green moray eel suddenly appears, its ghostly white eyes clouded by cataracts. Diving offers the real thrill of being in an environment as alien to us as another planet.
Between these two adventures, I enjoy the simpler attractions of the underwater world of Cayman. I explore long caves that tunnel through the fantastic coral shapes of Ironshore Gardens, and stare into the inky abyss of a 2,000-meter drop-off at Leslie’s Curl. There is an infinite variety of coral in all shapes and colors, while fish appear in an equally wide range, from exquisite tiny seahorses to cruising sharks.
One welcome sight is a large green turtle, its bulky profile belying the grace and speed with which it swims underwater. There used to be vast numbers of turtles in these waters, so much so that when Christopher Columbus passed by in 1503, he nicknamed the smaller two islands Las Tortugas, “the turtles”. Unfortunately, the clear waters worked to their disadvantage, making the turtles easy to harvest to feed hungry sailors. Their meat continues to be a traditional local dish, served as a steak or in soup, and overfishing eventually led to a population collapse. In response, the Cayman Turtle Farm was set up to breed turtles in captivity for the table and also release adults into the ocean.
The farm is now a tourist attraction where visitors can handle these gentle creatures out of the water. Having seen a turtle swimming free in the wild, the concrete pens of the farm are a shock. The tour guide explains the turtle life cycle, from the incubators where I watch tiny hatchlings struggle upwards through sand, to the giant 250kg adults.
The farm has been criticized for its hygiene and the tank where visitors can snorkel with the turtles looks very murky and uninviting. As with fish farms, there is a question as to whether stock bred in captivity can thrive in the wild and if the cost, in terms of genetic weakness or the spread of disease – not to mention the annual subsidy – might be too high. The Cayman Islands government spends $10million a year in support, or about $175 dollars per year for every resident. “To break even, it would have to double visitor numbers and, as three-quarters come from cruises, that is dependent on the building of a new port,” says one skeptical resident I meet in a bar. The farm claims to have released more than 30,000 turtles and says that, by providing a reliable source of meat for restaurants, it discourages fishermen from poaching. Critics say that there is no humane way to keep what is essentially a solitary creature in crowded pens.
“The subsidy could be better spent on anti-poaching patrols and a proper conservation policy,” says the skeptic, who asks not to be named. Restoring the population, by whatever means, might have a side effect of even more benefit than keeping turtle on local menus. “As the turtle population bounces back, we hope they will start eating the lionfish eggs sacs as they are not poisonous,” says Nancy.
At the farm, I see many visitors taking photos of another prehistoric creature, the iguana. Unfortunately, these common green iguanas are another invasive species, thought to have escaped from pet shops. Like the lionfish, they have thrived at the cost of local species, in this case the less aggressive blue iguana. The two species can co-exist but the pest-like prevalence of the green iguana does affect attitudes to its rarer distant relative. Found only on Grand Cayman, the blue iguana was considered extinct in the wild by 2005, hunted by cats, dogs and rats, and its habitat drastically reduced by the growth of the human population.
At the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme, I discover a project that has brought them back from the brink. I walk around a series of pens with warden Alberto Estevanovich who knows all the lizards by name and it is remarkable to see them come running when they hear his voice. Each has a number of colored beads on its crest that act as a code to identify it. He explains how blue iguanas become aggressive to each other within a month of hatching and have to be separated into individual cages to stop bullying by the larger ones. The smaller ones would soon be unable to feed and waste away.
“That shows how solitary and territorial they are in the wild,” says Alberto. “They are fussy eaters and volunteers have to gather fresh leaves every day from indigenous plants to feed them.” A banana in their diet encourages them to turn blue. “We do not give them bananas very often,” he says. “We prefer them not to get used to the sugar.”
The center has already released 800 blue iguanas into the wild, and with new births hopefully replacing those who die, or are killed by vehicles while warming themselves on roads, it is very close to its planned target of 1,000 animals living free. Even so, these native iguanas have to be carefully protected in reserves. “The green iguanas are native to Central and South America, where they evolved defenses against the predators that do not exist on the Caribbean Islands,” says Alberto. “Our blue iguanas lack those instincts and are still very vulnerable to domestic pets in suburban areas. We have to preserve our wild areas for them.”
On my last night on Grand Cayman, I make my own small contribution to preserving its fragile environment. On Nancy’s recommendation, I try out a beachfront restaurant that has lionfish on the menu. “Lionfish sushi, lionfish chowder, lionfish fritters and so on are proving very popular,” says Nancy. Realizing that restaurants need a constant supply of any ingredient, she has helped develop the wholesale market and encouraged the spread of information about different ways to cook it. The result has been a boom in places serving lionfish. Sitting in the cool of a Caribbean evening, chilled white wine in hand, I order it grilled, with a simple lemon dressing. The fish, after all that bad press, proves to be surprisingly delicious, with a buttery white flesh.
“Everyone can help with this battle,” says Nancy. “Just ask for lionfish at your favorite restaurant.” Eating for conservation: I like the sound of that.