Hundreds honor Bob Soto's 'well-lived' life

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Capt. Roberto Mark Bodden Soto, known to most in the Cayman Islands as Bob Soto, was laid to rest Saturday following a memorial service attended by hundreds of the British Overseas Territory’s prominent residents.  

The impact the 88-year-old former Home Guard corporal, seaman, ship captain, business entrepreneur and the Caribbean’s “father of diving” had on his homeland was made abundantly clear in dozens of written remembrances and farewell speeches at the Cayman Islands Baptist Church in Savannah Saturday afternoon.  

But equally poignant during the service were memories of the father of three sons, five stepchildren, 19 grandchildren and “five and ¾ great grandchildren” [the sixth great-grandchild is due to be born in April and was counted as the ¾’], who variously knew Mr. Soto as “Poppy,” “Opa” or “Dampy.”  

“I loved hearing about all of his life experiences from growing up as a resourceful young boy and the great challenges he faced surviving on an island with so little,” son Danny Soto said. “He made his own hooks and worked hard at catching fish to trade for other goods. He would paddle a canoe from Lobster Pot to South Sound searching for fish.  

“He talked fondly about his dear brothers Rene [16] and Haldene [21], who were tragically lost at sea on the ship Hustler during [the 1940] Hurricane,” Danny Soto continued, adding that his dad was only 14 at the time and had to take care of his family when his older brothers died at sea. “He looked up to them and followed in their footsteps working on ships all over the world.”  

“To most people, Bob Soto was a legend, he was a pioneer that changed the face of an entire industry,” read a tribute from grandchildren Erica and Melanie. “To us, though, he was our Opa. Bob Soto, the grandfather, was a truly remarkable man and the kindest soul on the face of this Earth.”  

Many at the service noted the swiftness of Mr. Soto’s passing last week. According to family members and friends, even at age 88, his sudden death came as a surprise to many.  

“What brave adventures we have had together and some very funny times leaving me with precious and blessed memories,” Mr. Soto’s wife Suzy said in a tribute recorded to mark her husband’s passing. “You cared for me in the most loving and kind manner. Monday [March 16] you spent with me in the hospital and then my turn came the next day, Tuesday at 2 a.m., going to the hospital.” 

Mr. Soto died at the Cayman Islands Hospital on Tuesday, March 17.  

Dive ‘father’   

It wasn’t until Mr. Soto had reached his 30s, and had decided to give up employment in the maritime industry, that he came back to Cayman with an idea to start up a new business. 

As Mr. Soto’s longtime friend and dive “buddy” Ron Kipp bluntly explained during his memorial address: “He literally carved a business out of the jungle. All we had [on Grand Cayman in 1957] were mosquitoes and Bob Soto.”  

Stories told at the memorial service about how Mr. Soto started what’s generally believed to be the first recreational dive operation in the Caribbean were extraordinary, almost beyond belief.  

Ministry of Tourism Councilor and George Town MLA Joey Hew related some of the tale: “[Bob Soto’s] dive shop started with 10 converted fire extinguishers for [air] tanks, melted battery lead for weights and a virtually homemade 19-foot wooden boat. Despite this rudimentary equipment, Bob was elated that he could now help others to experience the marvels of the magnificent underwater world that had become so much a part of his life.”  

In a memoir compiled prior to Mr. Soto’s death, which was read out during Saturday’s memorial service, Mr. Soto himself explained further: “We built [the dive boat] … under the almond trees by Pageant Beach. I started teaching people to dive. I’d go to the hotels trying to solicit business and the hoteliers would say ‘oh no, you are not going to take our guests out and drown them.’”  

Times were tough in the beginning, but Mr. Soto made the business work for nearly 25 years before selling to Mr. Kipp in 1980. Mr. Soto, born in 1926 on the Isle of Pines to a Caymanian mother and Cuban father, was inducted as a member of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in 2000.  

Today, the Cayman Islands boasts a multimillion dollar, world-renowned dive industry with more than 40 independent dive operators on three islands.  

Mr. Kipp said he intended to lobby the Cayman Islands government and the dive industry to change the name of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame to the Bob Soto International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. “And I’m starting today,” he said during the memorial service. “Goodbye, my friend.”  

Old times   

Mr. Soto’s service to the Cayman Islands and Caribbean dive industry is well known, but he was also regarded during the memorial for his military service and seamanship.  

Shane Bothwell, a Caymanian who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and who also knew Mr. Soto as “Poppy,” told the hundreds gathered at the Cayman Islands Baptist Church that Mr. Soto was one of the last members of the Cayman Islands division of the Jamaican Home Guard that kept watch on the islands’ coastline during the latter stages of World War II. The potential for enemy ships to harry and disrupt Allied shipping lanes in the Caribbean Sea was considered a real danger at the time.  

The members of the Home Guard were honored in November last year with a plaque bearing their names placed on the cenotaph outside Elmslie Memorial Church in downtown George Town. Guard “Corporal” Bob Soto gave the address at the Remembrance Day event on behalf of his fellow guardsmen.  

“There was no shortage of men willing to come forward [for guard service],” Mr. Soto said at the time. “I was 16 years old, but I told them I was 18. I was a big boy for my age. It is heart-warming … to have the recognition.”  

Following the end of World War II in 1945, Mr. Soto took a job on a U.S. Navy salvage tugboat – the SS Worbler. It was there he first became interested in diving.  

“It was hard-hat diving and we did salvage work,” he recalled in his memoirs. “We would take ships that had run aground, pull them off, fix their bottom and tow them in, if necessary.” 

After close to 15 years at sea venturing, quite literally, around the world between 1942 and 1957, Mr. Soto managed to send quite a bit of money home to his mother, who still lived on Grand Cayman. She used part of it to build a concrete duplex for her son in George Town across from where the Lobster Pot restaurant now stands. “I then built a dive shop across the street on family land in 1958 on the beach at White Hall, later adding the Lobster Pot on the second floor,” Mr. Soto’s memoirs read.  

Last week, after hearing the news of Mr. Soto’s death, that same restaurant and dive operation site – Lobster Pot – flew its flags at half-staff in memory of the man who built it.  

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The Quappe family sings ‘Amazing Grace’ at Saturday’s remembrance service, as Pastor Randy Von Kanel looks on. – Photo: Brent Fuller

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Ron Kipp tells a few stories about his old friend Bob Soto on Saturday afternoon at the memorial service. – Photo: Brent Fuller
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