There’s only one thing better than your last dive, and that’s the next one.
It’s something that divemaster Tom Byrnes has experienced countless times during the past 25 years of operating in the Cayman Islands.
In fact, he holds a doctorate in marine biology, so he is better placed than most to advise the grateful guests of Cayman Marine Lab on the beauty and fragility of the marine life that makes the Cayman Islands famous worldwide.
“Part of me doesn’t believe it is 25 years. One of the things I do is give marine biology or ecological talks; I used to start my talk about sharks, asking people where they were when the movie Jaws came out,” he said. “Now they look at me funny and say, ‘I wasn’t even born yet, you old man,’ So that’s when it hits you – the fact is you get up and do this seven days a week for 25 years but you can’t believe it’s been that long – it goes so quickly.”
He said he is amazed diving is still so good in Cayman albeit by the same token some sites have deteriorated over the years.
“In the last couple of years, the lionfish thing has popped up. I have been one that’s always been more on the edge and out there in terms of doing drift dives and things that are more adventurous; in our constant search for lionfish we are very carefully doing dive sites between other moorings and have incredible dives I never knew were in Cayman,” Mr. Byrnes said. “That’s why we prefer to be up on the North Side; it’s harder and more expensive to run there but it is something the customers really appreciate. And it’s what I appreciate, too. I want to get up and go to work and have a reason to do it and I am getting more excited now about the adventure dives than the run of the mill stuff.”
He said there has been an explosion in the amount of dive operators on Grand Cayman since he started; it used to be a word-of-mouth recommendation but not so much now.
The underwater experience has also inevitably changed since the mid 1980s, he said.
“Moorings are a great thing, having a dive site in the same place, but there is going to be physical damage and stress. Even in the North Side it is very apparent; when you go off the beaten track it really brings that home,” Mr. Byrnes said. “The lionfish dilemma is a real problem; although Cayman has tried to be proactive compared to a lot of places it should be easier [to get a culling license]. We want to see fish around so let the dive industry regulate. My customers are always saying they see them and I think we could do a better job of it.”
One of the overriding expenses in getting people here he said could be addressed in attracting tourists from new markets.
“The diving is so underrated in helping this economy,” he said. “Many years ago as dive operators we paid for an independent study on how much people spend and what they come here for. It showed government how important it is. Some of my good friends are the local people involved.”
He said the industry in the Cayman Islands is strong and that the islands have a lot going for them.
“Cayman has clear, warm water, experienced guys that self-regulate with good equipment; the fly-by-night guys get beaten out. There is a group of divers who poo-poo Cayman because it’s so easy but there are some pretty good things in Cayman,” he said. “These adventure divers travel around the world and have a limited amount of time but may not dive because of the weather conditions. But Cayman is shaped in a way that you will always find a leeward side with good diving.”
Mr. Byrnes sees himself continuing in the industry for at least another five years on a very involved basis. “My son seems to really want to do it so we’ll take it from there. I spend a lot of time doing the actual work; my customers know they’re going to go diving with me and it will be a personal experience,” he said.
“It is a whole relationship, as opposed to going with a kid not the guy behind the desk; often people aren’t here long enough to learn their trade. It can be a very transitory experience [in this industry] and you get promoted quickly. There aren’t very many real, professional people actually out there and doing it.”