World-class photos for a world-class destination

The Cayman Islands
will always have a special place in the heart of acclaimed underwater
photographer David Doubilet.

“I’ve been visiting
Cayman and making images in Cayman since the late seventies. I shot three
stories for National Geographic including one cover story. The initial story
with Peter Benchley – entitled Fair Winds For the Cayman Islands – we shot in
1982 and came back to do something on Cayman Wall then another on Stingray
City.

“That broke open
Stingray City for the 40 million National Geographic readers all over the
world. Cayman means a great deal to me,” said the photographer.

Doubilet, a native of
New York, is widely-considered as one of the world’s foremost underwater
photographers. A member of the International Diving Hall of Fame, he has
received many prestigious awards over the course of his career and continues to
pursue his craft with a passion.

“To photograph in the
Caribbean is about the hardest underwater work a photographer can do. Much of
it’s the same; due to the ice ages, when the freezing waters killed everything,
a few things survived in the Caribbean basin but they were the same things. So
you can dive in Barbados, close your eyes, come up in Belize – about as far
West in the Caribbean basin as you can go – and it’s almost the same reef,”
said the photographer.

Stingray City

Stingray City, he
notes, is one of Cayman’s unique selling points, a special place that is the
world’s most popular dive site. Doubilet and his wife Jen Hayes have a unique
approach to the natural attraction.

“For me as a
photographer that has been inspirational. Jen and I get a boat and go out to
the sandbar all day. Dive masters ask if we just want to do two tank dives,
North Wall and Burger King, and I say, no, we’re going out and staying out. If
you do that you basically see a play of humanity going out and over and through
the sandbar.

“When it’s all said
and done, the rays revert to their normal behaviour; they start feeding on
shellfish, they burrow in the sand, they’ll go to sleep, they chase each other
for mating things, they’ll have territorial battles. And nobody is there; just
the whispering sound of the wind going across the outer reef, the sound of
breaking waves, and you’re all alone. All the laughter, the cries of wonderment
and mock-fear, the whirring of blenders making marguerites have all disappeared
and you’re left alone with something elemental.”

Doubilet says that
Cayman is all about the water; it’s the clearest in the Caribbean, with mild
crystalline quality featuring gradients of blue that are found in very few
places in the world. He adds that over the years the government has realised
the value of the dive industry to the islands.

“It’s amazing for me
watching the diving industry grow up over the years. The government must rely
on the input of divers and the input of ecologists on how to balance terrific
business with terrific reef system. You have to divide reefs into places of
careful preservation and some which you treat like we treat Central Park in
Manhattan: use it, keep it as well as you can. It then lets other people see
what a reef system is like.”

Sea appreciation

He says that over the
years there has always been an evident appreciation by Caymanians of the sea
that surrounds them.

“So many Caymanians
have gone under the surface of the sea to see the world. I’ve been to small,
single-walled homes in Cayman Brac and talked to first mates who are familiar
with everything I know and you know. It’s remarkable; there’s a million stories
out there. There’s an oral history there that is incredibly valuable,” he
notes.

Doubilet says that
the most important part of telling a story is to be honest; as a photographer,
he cedes, he cannot cover breaking news but rather anticipates what might be of
interest.

“One of the single
most popular stories I ever did was that first one on Stingray City. It was the
first meeting ground between humans and a relatively wild and perceived
dangerous animal. It’s not the most ecologically-sound idea, it certainly isn’t
aesthetically or biologically a wonderful thing in many respects but in the end
I’ve watched that population of stingrays go from twelve to 450 rays basically
living at the sandbar. If we left tomorrow and no humans showed up, that entire
population would survive.

“And because of that
you communicate with a million people a year who now have an appreciation for
the ocean and the Cayman Islands. I heard Cayman fishermen say it’s the right
of every Caymanian to feel the ray pulling on their lines. But when they
started there was groups of people out at West End who wanted to catch them and
how dare these foreign interlopers take our rights away. But attitudes change –
I think there’s something in Cayman that the educational system needs to keep
in mind. It should be the first country of the ocean in the world. It’s not for
foreigners like me, it’s for Caymanians, and I’ve always felt that way,” he
says, adding that the diving sector had a responsibility to take their
knowledge, expertise and skill to local schools to educate the new generation.

Exhibition

Such is the love for
Cayman – and its underwater life – that at a recent exhibition during the Blue
Ocean Film Festival, Doubilet selected three of his sandbar shots as part of
the 36 exhibited photographs from his million-strong collection. He says he is
bound to return to the Cayman Islands personally and professionally.

“There’s a
warm-heartedness and a real international flavour to Cayman and everything from
culture to food to outlook and morality makes it an incredible place; there are
stories I’d like to do but in this dog-eat-photographer world it makes sense to
keep exact plans under wraps. Like Churchill said, a mystery wrapped in an
enigma.”

One thing you can be sure of is that David
Doubilet will continue to unravel those mysteries of the deep for a long time
to come.

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