GOD’S THUMB, he says to us. I know we’ve arrived when Caesar, the dive master, cuts the skiff’s engine and raises his sun-spotted fist, one dark thumb saluting the sky. The celestial waves stretched beyond Caesar’s face grant his declaration a particular resonance. Divers say that Babylon’s tower is God’s thumb.
Babylon the ancient kingdom was short-lived. So too is my Babylon. My family arrives at the site in 2011, our third day of Easter break in Grand Cayman. Babylon is a famed site for divers around the world; though we will dive it only once, it is the reason my father brought us to the Caymans. He has been diving since he was in his twenties, which, for a welfare kid from Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a surprising feat. After an afflictive childhood cloaked by cornfields, the vast ocean is my father’s favorite place. He spent summers off from Florida State’s campus at his football teammate’s fry fish hut in the Bahamas, spearfishing for grouper that they’d fillet and eat on the blades of knives. He dove Babylon years ago and describes the reef before we descend.
Yes, Babylon is a wall dive—where the reef grows vertically, forming a wall of coral—but Babylon is unique from most other wall dives. At Babylon, the reef’s wall resembles a tower. The reef here rises from the ocean floor like a six-story lighthouse looming in the salt abyss. Its calcium summit is about forty feet beneath the surface, invisible except to underwater wanderers. To dive Babylon, we will descend the forty feet to the tower’s head, then spiral down and up the tower’s wall. The base of Babylon meets the white-sand ocean floor 150 feet below surface.
I am sixteen and Babylon will be my deepest dive yet, though I’ve been a diver for the majority of my life. While in elementary school, my brother, sister, and I spent one frigid Chicago winter in the heated YMCA pool passing certification tests at our father’s encouragement. For our conventional Midwest culture, this was a strange after-school pastime; we didn’t know any other kids who dove. While each year the pink-cheeked kids of other spring-breaking suburban Americans splashed their floatable arms in Caribbean resort pools, my siblings and I huddled on boats in our inflated BCDs like child astronauts sent to trek the outer world.
Dive sites often have mythic names: the Cathedrals, Devil’s Grotto, Acropolis. They resound with the echo of archaeological sites. My father, who taught us to dive on tiny boats with local instructors, shows us to venture these sites with pristine care. We observe Babylon like a memory. We revel in it but do not touch. We take nothing with us when we return to the surface.
As we descend to the tower of Babylon, shoals of blue-striped grunt fish roam around us, sometimes so dense their sudden parting feels like swimming through a tunnel. Stranger life is here, too—flamingo tongue snails, spotted eagle rays—not to mention hawksbill turtles, who feed on blooms of thimble jellyfish; reef squid, who eat half their weight in shrimp and crabs in a day; and elkhorn coral, whose branches have protected Caribbean shores for two million years.
Staring into the blue abyss beyond Babylon’s tower, I starfish my limbs and let the slow current move me. I close my eyes and praise silence. When I open them, I am disoriented by the uniform blue expanse, unsure which way is up. I recall learning in a science class that NASA trains future astronauts for space by fitting them with scuba equipment in Olympic-size pools. In this moment I understand. I feel, on the edge of Babylon, as I imagine it feels to float in outer space.
I used to think that associating the reef with outer space—or with God—lent it an important preciousness. But now I consider that part of my problem is thinking of Babylon as a deified world, separate from my own and not materially tied to my quotidian life as a graduate student in Chicago. There, I eat cheap prepackaged dinners, buy bargain goods on Amazon, speed to class in my boyfriend’s Civic, smoke cigarettes leaning from my apartment window—all of these mundane actions are the entitlements of an irreverent tourist, making waste that ends up out of sight, only to arrive at the doorstep of more fragile kingdoms—like Babylon.
Most estimates predict that Babylon will be gone in twenty-five years, by the time I am fifty. Even my father exclaimed the day we surfaced, wetness in his voice, that the reef was sparser than it was when he’d seen it a decade ago. I now think often of returning to that tower, but am afraid of disturbing my pristine memory; afraid of finding nothing, of what that would do to me.
As Caesar steers the skiff back to the dock—a thirty-minute ride from Babylon ushering us through the channels of Grand Cayman’s populous beaches—he frowns at a number of passing tourist boats. These are the hordes of resort-advertised day-trip divers, tour bus boats that unload hordes of Americans who fall clumsily into the water in their string bikinis and shiny rental snorkels and fins. They are the sea’s irreverent tourists. They steal fist-size shells from the ocean’s chest; they nick coral carelessly while snapping underwater Instagram grins; they litter plastic sandwich Zip-locks and sunscreen bottles. They crowd cathedrals but do not pray. They carry knives.
Read the author’s feature, “A Uniquely American Animal,” in Winter 2020.