September 24, 2015
It almost goes without saying that getting offered the chance to get certified and go diving in one of the world’s foremost dive sites with aBlogtoWatch and the amazing folks at Oris was a singular haymaker of an opportunity to combine two personal passions in one epic trip — one that certainly did not disappoint. Many kind thanks to Ariel at aBlogtoWatch, to Jamie and Todd at Oris, to Phil at Nauticam Housings and Wild Shutter Imagery, and to the amazing folks at the Cobalt Coast resort DiveTech for an unforgettable week, and the completion of another personal life goal. Oh, and also to my lovely fiancée — the one who spurred me on this dive journey in the first place.
As UA 1494 swung low and wide on approach to Grand Cayman, I hear the landing gear deploy with the usual rumble, but a quick glance over the aircraft’s left wing reveals nothing but blue vastness. I do the same to my right, craning my neck forward for signs of the island as the plane dips alarmingly low. But suddenly there’s a sharp bump and we’re already on the ground, screeching, slowing, using every available meter of the runway which abruptly terminates into the ocean on the other side of this tectonic Caribbean sliver — our home for the next five days.
Here, on the 76-square-mile island just south of Cuba, our primary goals are to complete my certification, experience one of “the world’s best 12-foot dives,” and explore the Kittiwake — a US Navy salvage vessel scuttled in 2011 to create one of the most accessible, and spectacular dive sights in this hemisphere. And of course, we’d be experiencing all this while kitted with Oris dive watches — timekeepers inspired by, and purpose-built for exactly what we came here to do. Dive.
My father was a water man. And a watch man. The former, evidenced by the well-traveled ScubaPro Jet Fins tucked away in the closet. And then the latter, by the sharply contrasting tanline on his left wrist, only visible when his faithful Seiko was retired to the nightstand for the evening. It wasn’t until later in life when I began to fully understood how his upbringing on the island of the Dominican Republic, and his role diving with US Navy SEAL teams during his homeland’s political unrest some fifty years ago, would later spur my own proclivities towards open bodies of water, dive watches, political intrigue, and an increasingly persistent desire to get dive certified.
The first ‘nice’ watch in my collection a number of years ago was actually an Oris TT1 Diver — an homage of sorts to that Seiko worn by my dad; with its familiar black dial, brushed stainless steel case and sweep seconds hand. But the Oris I’ve chosen to bring along this time was a more recent addition: a titanium Regulator — a fitting choice for an adventure whose measured hours are of secondary importance to measuring the minutes spent underwater, or hustling to a few fashionably late Caybrews with the team. However, Oris would have other plans, bringing along a slew of awesome watches we’d be able to wear on all our dives, including the stealthy, Force Recon GMT and a new DLC-and-yellow Depth Gauge.
The alarm clock came in two waves — first by the familiar crow of a rooster, and then by the sound of air cylinders bumping together — like the clanging of bells, as the dive shop downstairs filled tanks for the day’s clients. The primary objectives for our first day at Cobalt Coast would be to complete the brunt of our PADI classwork, familiarize ourself in the pool with the dive gear and watches we’d be spending the week with, get to know the friendly local iguanas, and sample the amazing conch (pronounced “conk” — don’t worry, you’ll only make the mistake once) fritters. And though water temperatures were a balmy 84 degrees, the tantalizing blue-green Caribbean would have to wait until Day 2, once we were better versed in the basics of buoyancy and the many safety measures that accompany a modern PADI dive education.
Fun Fact: As a pioneering center for state-of-the-art dive technology, DiveTech was the first dive shop in the world to use liquid oxygen for diving, as it’d previously only been used in medical applications.
After hearing it teased last year at a local get-together and then later seeing press imagery out of Basel this year, my anticipation for handling the Oris Force Recon GMT was high. Thankfully, our excellent Oris handlers Todd and Jamie didn’t disappoint — scattering it, along with a number of other amazing Oris dive watches like the Oris Prodiver Pointer Moon and the Oris Aquis Red Sea around the lunch table for us to wear. Like the rest of the Oris Prodiver collection, there are no two ways about it; the Force Recon is big. However, it’s also quite possibly the most wearable and exciting military-inspired watch I’ve ever handled.
Deadly in a matte black DLC finish, but highly legible due to the polished indices and brilliant lume, it’s pretty clear that it was designed firsthand by guys who know a thing or two about needing a reliable, legible, but discrete timekeeper in the field — in this case, by operators in the US Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance (aka “FORECON”). But perhaps the most exciting thing about the package are the new adapters, fitted to Oris’ proprietary lugs, enabling the use of NATO straps and adding two more points of articulation on the large case for a more comfortable fit on a wider range of wrist sizes — making the Oris Force Recon a complete package that many Oris fans have been asking for, for a long time.
“Hey Ragime, what’s the deepest you’ve ever dived?”
Our dive instructor for the week flashes a wide grin while furtively glancing around as if to hint he really shouldn’t be telling us, lest he set a bad precedent for his impressionable new students. We’re back in the classroom once more to finish our final exam and are chatting recreational scuba limits — generally 40 meters, or 130 feet (a depth which, as you might notice, is significantly less than the water resistance of any Oris we’d be diving with during the week).
“155 feet” he smiles coyly, “…but that was stupid. Really, really stupid,” he quickly adds, shaking his head. As the story goes, he was spear-hunting lionfish for a contest in an annual cull, and had just encountered a group on a reef shelf just below him. If he could bag them all, his team would win. But doing so at the end of his dive brought him precariously close to the edge of an extremely dangerous condition known as nitrogen narcosis — where his time at such depths combined with a fleeting air supply made for a harrowing ascent, with just barely enough in his cylinder for the requisite decompression stop. Moral of the story? “Do as I say, and not as I do,” Ragime jokes. Or rather, always stay within your prescribed limits.
Lionfish are unapologetically hated around the Cayman Islands and much of the Caribbean — in fact, it’s one of the few species that can be locally hunted all year, as they are considered invasive. Introduced to the region in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew destroyed an aquarium at Biscayne Bay, Florida, all it took was six fish whose spawn quickly made its way to flourish in the warm waters and rich reef life in the south. But the good news? Lionfish are delicious. We tried the buttery, flakey white flesh grilled, deep-fried, and blackened, and found each offering better than the last. Maybe it’s high time for lionfish to usurp halibut or sea bass as the next “it” fish in fine dining?
Later that afternoon, it was decided that our next round of skills assessment would take place not in the pool, but roughly 100 meters offshore from Divetech instead. Moments later, we’re kitted up and following Ragime as he effortlessly glides out to sea. My eyes flip down to the Oris Depth Gauge at my wrist — beyond my glance, the sandy bottom drops away quickly, the sea fans grow larger, and the colorful fish more numerous. The dark line in the gauge’s capillary tube grows to 5 meters. 7 meters. 10 meters. “This is it — I am actually diving,” I say to myself. Ragime signals us to slow our descent — our present course is leading us directly into a school of barracuda patrolling the edge of the reef shelf. They swim without fear, but so do I. See, in the shallow pool I felt clumsy and claustrophobic in all my gear, but here in the ocean, the sense of freedom is tangible and intoxicating. I do my best to communicate through hand signals how positively stoked I am to finally be weightless — a sensation that is quite literally unlike anything in the world.
The Oris Aquis Chronograph engages with a positive, reassuring ‘click’ just before I place my hand over my mask and regulator and take a giant stride off the concrete dock at Lighthouse Point. Some 60 feet below us at the edge of the reef stands The Guardian — a 20-foot bronze statue where Ariel and I would complete our final skills assessment and join the 23 million certified PADI divers worldwide.
There’s a lot to love about this Oris — for me personally, it turned out to be my favorite model of the week. Starting with the case, its 46mm diameter seems like a lot, but the balance and symmetry in the dial and those downward wrapping lugs lend the thick watch an easy wearability that rivals any 42 or 44mm watch in my collection. It’s also exceptionally legible in the crystal waters around Grand Cayman — especially handy as I used the chronograph to track overall dive time, and the grippy bezel (easy to manipulate underwater) for measuring other situational tasks, like precautionary decompression stops at the end of each dive. Granted, we weren’t diving deep or long enough to necessitate them, but as you’ll learn through PADI, good habits, no matter how necessary or redundant they may be, are the key to staying safe as you become a more skilled diver.
One thing you begin to notice after lugging around a 30-pound cylinder while wearing an awkward BC vest and a restricting wetsuit, is how so-called “large” dive watches worn in their intended contexts — even massive 52mm ones like the Prodiver Pointer Moon, start to feel small by comparison. It has left me with an entirely new appreciation for watches which are genuinely purpose-built for life below the waterline, but remain astonishingly easy to wear once topside. Case in point: the Oris Depth Gauge.[Fun Fact: Grand Cayman is the only country in the world where you could be fined (up to $250k!) for dropping anchor anywhere around the island, instead of using the special moorings at each dive site.]
Ragime is kneeling in roughly 40 feet of water on the stern deck of the USS Kittiwake — a submarine rescue vessel decommissioned in 1994 and scuttled just off the coast of Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach in 2011. He casually points downward at a dark, rectangular mouth, approximately four feet in diameter just below where he’s waiting, and motions for us to follow.
Measuring only 250 feet in length and with a displacement of only around 1700 tons, on paper, the Kittiwake isn’t the most intimidating vessel on the ocean floor. But encountering the hulking structure where it rests in 65 feet of water completely changes the equation — especially now that I’m confronted with the reality of exploring the ship from the inside. The next few moments of my first officially certified dive were some of the most exhilarating of anything I’ve ever done — an experience Cousteau famously likened to “entering a cathedral.” I’d soon find he wasn’t wrong.
The powerful light attached to my wrist casts eerie shadows on the piping as we follow Ragime’s fins into the blackness. Small fish dart to escape the attention. The larger shadow of a grouper observes us as we swim slowly by. I have to consciously remind myself to slow my breathing, because at this rate, I am galloping through my cylinder’s 3000 PSi allotted for the dive. I glance at the Oris Regulateur on my wrist, so as to ground myself in a familiar reality. We’re 18 minutes into the dive.
I’ve been wearing my Oris Regulatuer for over a year, and only now see the watch in a completely different light — quite literally, as the dial glows back at me in the depths of the Kittiwake with a confident, icy blue luminescence. Like many of the watches we’ve sampled over the week, they’ve all taken on new identities while being used exactly as they were intended. However, none of them have commanded more newfound respect than this one; a deconstructed three-hander which admittedly takes some getting used to in the day-to-day. However, once underwater where actual time is of secondary importance to elapsed time, the minute hand jumps off the dial with an at-a-glance legibility unlike any watch I’ve ever worn. And when used in conjunction with the bezel, I found it easier to read than even my diving computer. Someone at Oris really knew what they were doing when this watch was designed, because right now, I’m seeing all that matters, and I’m seeing it clear as day.
The passageway terminates at a ledge which widens into what was once a utility room, perfectly lit from a window on the port side of the Kittiwake. As I kick upwards into this larger space, I realize I’m swimming into a swirling vortex of silverside minnows, dancing between the light from the porthole and the beam emanating from my torch. I couldn’t exclaim joy, I could only observe. It was there, in that exact moment inside the ship, I realized I was already completely hooked on diving. oris.ch