How Cayman geology book was born

When I first came to Grand Cayman to visit my daughter, Alita, and drove around the island I was amazed by the subtle splendour of the low-lying landscape.

Dr. Murray Roed

Dr. Murray Roed is the author of Islands from the Sea: Geologic Stories of Cayman. The book, distributed by Cayman Free Press, is available at outlets including Hobbies and Books, Book Nook and the Caymanian Compass reception desk.

When I ventured into the interior I was even more impressed by the deeply etched expanses of carbonate rock that formed nearly impassable jungle terrain marked by millions of dagger-shaped pinnacles of jagged rock.

My curiosity was sparked, and in the search of any helpful information in bookstores, the Archives and government sources, I realized that there was in fact no information readily available to the public about the geologic history and origin of the landscape of the Cayman Islands.

Then I visited Cayman Brac and was even more impressed with the natural features that include mysterious caves, spectacular deep notches in the bedrock carved by a long subsided sea, and a formidable cliff that virtually encircles the island.

I was hooked; could I do something about this lack of information that has the potential of enriching the lives of residents and visitors alike? Could I, a virtually unknown geologist in this part of the world, and a stranger to almost all Caymanians, be of some service to the gentle people of these islands?

Since I had recently written a book about geologic development of the Okanagan Valley centred about the City of Kelowna in British Columbia, Canada, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast that terrain with this tropical paradise.

As a geologist with about 50 years of experience in the field, one of my missions has been to transmit any knowledge I have to the public. The Okanagan book, written in a non-technical manner was a huge success, a local best seller, with many public accolades that still precipitate numerous invitations to talk to various clubs and associations.

I began to read numerous scientific articles about Cayman that were stashed away in obscure scientific journals, forever hidden from an unsuspecting public. Having seen things for myself, I believed with all my heart that Cayman needed and deserved a book that could help the general public appreciate the incredible kaleidoscope of ancient geologic events that produced these mysterious but beautiful tropical isles from the sea.

Another factor was, if I did this, what would my peers and colleagues think about the audacity of my actions to tread on ground that they have historically devoted much of their research life to in the pursuit of answers to many geologic subjects in Cayman and the general Caribbean? So I procrastinated for five or six years, hoping that one of them would publish their own account that would be inexpensively and adequately available to the public. That never happened.

I discussed this conundrum on numerous occasions with friends and relatives during my frequent visits to the islands to see my daughter and her family. One major drawback of course was the cost of a quality publication, so from my viewpoint it was really only a dream because there was no way I could possibly afford to produce by myself a book of this nature.

However, as the saying goes, ‘be careful about what you dream for!’ Lo and behold during one of these conversations, one of the participants asked, ‘What would a book like this cost to print?’

I told her what the Okanagan book cost, a staggering sum made possible only through a great number of generous donors. She said, to my total surprise, ‘I’ll pay for it.’ I couldn’t believe my ears. Then, for me, it was put up or shut up.

With this financial initiative, everyone else I spoke to in both the public and private sectors was interested and supportive. This enabled me to begin work on what I hope will be a benchmark account about the very essence of Cayman.

It would have been somewhat arrogant if I were to attempt to write a book about the geologic resources of the Cayman Islands without the benefit of local experts.

Also, many of the subjects they wrote about did not fall into the sphere of my specific expertise, so, in a way, it would have been impossible in the first place. The book clearly would have sadly lacked credibility, and probably would have never been published.

Casting back, it took about ten years to simply become familiar with major issues in the country and who, locally, were most involved and had a vested interest in the subject.

To present a chapter on water resources, for example, it turned out that it would have been unthinkable to charge ahead without the cooperation and input of the Water Authority Cayman, and Hendrik-Jan van Genderen’s modern work concerning the freshwater groundwater lenses, especially on Grand Cayman.

Likewise, the first-time history of water desalination in the Cayman Islands presented in the book would never have been known if it hadn’t been for Greg McTaggart of the Consolidated Water Company. My only knowledge of drinking water was how well it tasted with scotch on the rocks.

Chapter 14 reviews the history and future directions of the Department of Environment and highlights major environmental concerns. Without the expertise of Dr. Mat Cottam, a contributing author, and the cooperation of Gina Ebanks-Petrie, Director of the Department, it is highly probable that such an important and admirable account would have never been available.

Much of my knowledge and success about obtaining the cooperation of local experts is due directly to the numerous friends I have met through the National Trust. Principal among these is of course Frank Roulstone, Manager of the National Trust, who introduced me, over the years, to almost everyone he knows, and encouraged the completion of the work despite the hardships of Hurricane Ivan. Frank even found time to include his own chapter on some Biotic Treasures of the islands.

As an acknowledgement of this help, 10% of the proceeds of this book will be donated to the National Trust.

So these people are the prime contributing authors from Cayman who have volunteered their expertise without any compensation whatsoever, except a complimentary copy of the book. This was a lot to ask but each one of them did not hesitate to offer their help. I believe their input was critical and that they were the perfect partners for this one-of-a-kind publication.

Behind the scenes, many other experts were consulted on various geological aspects of the book. Prime among these was Dr. Brian Jones, Professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, along with his students. He has spent most of his research-orientated career in the Cayman Islands and has dozens and dozens of scientific publications on a wide range of geologic subjects in the islands.

Dr. Jones is without a doubt a modern giant of geology in this part of the world. His review of early manuscripts of the book saved this author considerable embarrassment, and although in the end there were some minor controversial items, they were not due to any lack of diligence on Dr. Jones’ part. Geologists do not always agree on everything.

Dr. N. Terance Edgar, recently retired from the United States Geological Survey, was also an important behind-the-scenes contributor. His life has been devoted to the study of the Caribbean Sea floor and its geologic origin utilizing sophisticated ship-borne oceanographic tools to unravel the fascinating history of, for example, the Cayman Trough or Trench.

Likewise, Dr. Grenville Draper of Florida International University is a key expert on the how the Caribbean Sea was formed in the first place, and his insights greatly assisted in trying to make this complex story simple for a diversified public audience.

So, in conclusion, it turns out that the contributing authors, in a way, were predestined to contribute to this book, because they were in the right place, at the right time, and with the right knowledge, but also they trusted me to actually get it done. I thank each of them again, and also my expert reviewers working behind the scenes.

It is a project that is a fine international example of what some people can do when there is unbridled cooperation toward a mission that fulfills an obvious need.

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