Cayman Brac dive vacation heals mind and body

| 28/06/2011

(CNS): Once a year Leland Walker takes a vacation, not just from the routine of daily life but from the constant pain he has lived with for the past 14 years. The only time that he is pain free is when he scuba dives, and the only time he gets to do that is on the annual Dive Pirates Foundation trip to Cayman Brac. Walker is an ‘incomplete quadriplegic’, which, he explained, means he still has feelings in his toes and can feel the water, and he believes the relief from his chronic pain is due to a combination of the pressure underwater and a relaxed mind. Diving, he said, takes his mind off the pain. “I think about how beautiful this earth is, and that most people don’t get to witness it.”

The Dive Pirates Foundation is a non-profit organization that sponsors people with disabilities with scuba training, dive gear and a paid trip to the Brac Reef Beach Resort to complete their certification.  On their first Brac vacation in 2004, the DPF brought a group that included four adaptive divers and their buddies. On this year’s trip, which wrapped up this weekend (Saturday 25 June), they brought a group of 83, which filled the hotel to capacity. Among them were the latest sponsorship recipients: two amputees, two paraplegics, one quadriplegic, as well as an adaptive diver with paralysis on his left side, one with a closed head injury, one with burns and fused ankles, and one with an injured back – results of combat injuries, car accidents or illness. Past sponsorship recipients, two amputees and four quadriplegics, who returned this year included Walker, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was on his fourth trip to the Brac.

“It’s the best week of my life every year,” he said. “The diving gets better and better on each trip.”  Walker and his dive buddy, his sister Muzette Walker, made three dives a day for five days, and among this year’s highlights he saw a grouper feeding, a yellow sea horse, a large crab and a moray eel, and he swam next to a turtle. But it’s not just the diving that keeps him coming back to the Brac, he noted. “There are a lot of caring people here and everyone helps when they are asked. I don’t get this love at home!” (Right: Leeland Walker wins the Dive Pirates 'Floatila' contest during his week on the Brac)

Largely because of the relationship that has built up between the Dive Pirates and the Brac Reef, when the Tibbetts family, who own the hotel, rebuilt it after Hurricane Paloma demolished most of it in 2008, they included three wheelchair accessible rooms and concrete or wooden walkways throughout the resort. In addition, most of the dive staff with Reef Divers, which operates from the hotel, are SSI trained to assist adaptive divers, and according to Walker they seem to enjoy the group as much as the Pirates enjoy coming.

“Both airports (Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac) have employees that work very hard to accommodate our divers,” commented Sophie Wimberley, one of the founders of the Dive Pirates. “We have tremendous support from the ground crew, especially at Cayman Brac, who individually lift these men and women out of the planes and back in when we leave.  This is hard work and they seem to enjoy helping and refuse extra tips or help from any of us. They are heroes!”

She also makes special mention of Philip Ebanks at Continental Airlines in Grand Cayman. “He personally came to work at 7am one year, without our asking, and checked us all in early so that we could visit Grand Cayman for the day without lugging our bags around.  Now that we have a Saturday mid-day jet, this is no longer necessary, but he was great to do this for us. Last year Cayman Airways had changed their schedule for the jet service to a 9pm departure, but when we all arrived in Grand Cayman, they boarded us and we took off earlier.”  

Before he took up scuba in 2007, Walker said, he felt as if he was just living day to day. He lost the use of his legs in a freak accident in 1997 and the shock and depression lasted for four years. He lifted weights to keep in shape but his disability plus the responsibility of being a single father with two daughters weighed him down. When his massage therapist suggested diving to him he took to the idea immediately, and his sister was excited about training with him as his buddy – but it wasn’t an easy process.

“I was scared out of my mind getting in the pool the first time and had a panic attack, but I never thought about giving up,” he said. To overcome his fears he practiced using the snorkel with his head in a bucket to try and control his breathing. On his first ocean dive he hyperventilated again, but this time not because he was scared but because he was excited. However, he regained control of his breathing and as he descended he relaxed. “Everything was so beautiful. There was stuff you only see on the Discovery Chanel,” he said.

Walker hopes to return next year and says he has no desire to dive anywhere else. “I recommend Cayman Brac to everyone, disabled or not,” he said.

For more information about the foundation or the trip to Cayman Brac go to           

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  1. leland Walker says:

    thank you for the interview im very flattered and again humble to have witnessed everything that this organization and Brac Reef Resort has offered me and everyone else! and just think… my first pool dive i was so scared i hyperventilated and now IM A PIRATE!!! ARRRGGGG!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well done CNS , thanks for a very good story,

  3. Anonymous says:

    The Dive Pirates and their organizers are awesome men and women who provide fun and a unique perspective to all of us "able" people.  Thanks for being Brac fans and for inspiring all of us during your visits. See you next year!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hello to Sophie and Barb. Welcome back to the Brac and thanks again for the wonderful thing that you are doing with these divers – and thanks for using the Brac for this wonderful work.

  5. petermilburn says:

    CNS What a breath of fresh air on an otherwise stinky past few days of Politics.Nice to know that there are other worthwhile stories to be told.Maybe ALL the MLA's should take up diving as that might take away all the bad feelings(pain) that are so prominent these days.At least down there peace and quiet would be the norm.and they would see how the underwater creatures ALL live together.Theres a valuable lesson to be learned here.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Now this is a GOOD story.   Sometimes we get caught up in too much negativity, and blaming UDP for this, PPM for that.    We just sometimes have to sit back and see how we can help each other and work together. 

    Thank you to all of those in the Brac that create these special memories each year.