Sitting at a bar in Little Cayman not long ago, I was speaking to an Australian man who said he’d worked as a diving guide in Grand Cayman for years before coming to the smaller island four years ago. Our conversation turned to the proposed cruise port project.

I was a bit surprised when he said he didn’t think the project was a problem for the underwater environment. The reef in the port area, he told me, was already dead.

That statement surprised me even more.

I had dived the reef and the Balboa wreck just the day before. It was anything but dead.

The 20-foot high wall of rock that faces the jagged remnants of the Balboa — a ship that was damaged beyond repair in 1932’s major hurricane and was later broken up with explosives — runs for a good 100 yards and is infused with brightly coloured orange and purple sponges, green and gold corals, moray eels, lobsters, crabs and a host of vibrant fish. Anemones and urchins are sunk into small pockets. Lacey sea fans undulate in the tidal surge.

“There is no place on Cayman that this reef structure exists,” said Courtney Platt as we motored toward the site in his 17-foot dive boat.

Platt is a well-known local promoter of Cayman’s diving areas and a photographer whose work has appeared in such international publications as National Geographic. For years, he worked in the local dive and tourism industry.

“When I drove the glass-bottom boat for Bob Soto, I became familiar with how important these areas are for glass-bottom boats,” he said, noting the popular draw for tourists. “This is ideal for snorkelling and glass-bottom boating and we don’t see that elsewhere [in Grand Cayman].”

Here the top of the reef is within eight feet of the surface, making it good for viewing from a glass-bottom boat. Elsewhere on the island, the reefs are at least 20 feet deep.

That part of Cayman and other reefs surrounding the port will be lost to the activity of construction, he said. The silt expected to be stirred up by the dredging of the port to create a path for the new mega cruise ships, and the ongoing activity of those ships, he said, will settle on the corals and kill them.

How potent and widespread the effect of the expected silt remains unknown. Port proponents say screens around the dredging site will mitigate much of the potential damage. Platt and others worry that such mitigation efforts will be ineffective and that sites as far away as Eden Rock, to the south, and the reefs off the Lobster Pot on the north, could be impacted.

Just north of the Balboa, between the port and Rackam’s restaurant, lies the wreck of the Cali, a popular snorkelling site for visitors because, again, it is in shallow water.

There are plans to relocate both the debris fields if the port project goes forward, but it’s unclear exactly how that will be accomplished. The port plans also call for the corals on the affected reef to be relocated.

Diving activity near the Balboa is restricted. Those who want to crawl the wreck or explore the reef, have to get clearance from the Port Authority. The area is closed whenever cruise ships are anchored nearby or when cargo ships are coming and going.

Underwater photographer Courtney Platt gets a close-up shot of rare elkhorn coral on a recent dive.

We found a window on a Thursday afternoon and anchored our boat just off the boiler room of the Balboa.

Aaron Hunt, head of Grand Cayman Eco Divers, provided a layout of what was beneath the waves.

“About 15 feet this direction,” he said, pointing east, is the edge of the reef structure. It’s a half-mile-long structure that is 20-30 feet tall.”

He then pointed southeast.

“Twenty feet outside of that is the dredge area.”

Moments later, we slipped beneath the surface, kicking our way past a truck-sized metal chunk of the Balboa as we headed toward the towering wall of coral. There we found various types of star corals, lettuce corals, brain corals and even a patch of elkhorn coral, once abundant on Cayman’s reefs. Here and there feather duster worms spread their colourful tentacles.

Yellow-and-black striped sergeant majors filtered through the craggy openings in the reef, darting about with such other fish as blue chromis, yellow-headed wrasse and damsel fish. Beneath a low ledge of rock, a five-foot-long green moray eel was hanging out, unperturbed by our presence.

“Dead” was not a word to describe the area.

Nearby the reef, were several squat metal framed platforms, about one-meter square, with netted sides and bottoms. Inside the nine-inch perimeter walls, rows of metal plates sat on the bottom, each with a central protruding metal post.

Hunt said they had been placed there about a year earlier and were meant to serve as scaffolding for coral growth, one idea for relocating the material on the reef. A few snails were scattered across the algae-covered base of the apparatus, along with a single slug, but there was no coral.

Platt, Hunt and others are concerned that much of this reef and those nearby will be in a similar state if the planned dredging for the port goes forward.

“Just put in your mind,” said Platt, “the bottom filled with this super fine sludge.”

Stirred up, that sludge is lethal to coral and reef life, he said. He fears it will leave the surrounding area in a state that many already perceive it to be: dead.

Which sites could be impacted?

Eden Rock

The underwater tunnels and caverns that form the Eden Rock and Devil’s Grotto dive sites are a magnet for photographers, snorkellers and free divers. These sites are to the south of the main dredge zone for the cruise pier and were designated in the Environmental Impact Assessment as high impact areas that would be subjected to lethal and sub lethal sedimentation. The design has since been altered to move the piers slightly to the north. With an update to the EIA still in the early planning stages it is not yet clear what difference the change in layout could mean.

The Balboa

The shattered skeleton of a 375-foot freighter that was dashed on the pier in the 1932 hurricane and then blown up, the Balboa is more wreckage than wreck. The broken pieces of the ship are now crusted with coral. A separate 20-foot high wall of rock and reef studded with sponges, corals and anenomes, also forms part of the site. The wreck and part of  the reef are directly in the footprint of the piers. Verdant Isle will attempt to relocate them as part of the mitigation effort.

Soto’s Reef

Sometimes known as Cheeseburger Reef, this stretch of shallow reef close to the Lobster Pot dive shop is popular with snorkellers and glass-bottom boat tours. This site is just outside the dredge zone. The original Environmental Impact Assessment suggested the southern portion of these reefs would be exposed to lethal and sub lethal impacts from the project development and operations. The new layout moves the piers marginally closer to Soto’s Reef.