I suddenly became aware of the absence of any other diver's air bubbles rising to the surface in the area where I was swimming. I had lost my buddy. Then I remembered the words of my first instructor, Rich Wells of Fairfax, Va. "Don't panic!"

I surfaced and checked the position of the dive boat -- approximately 75 yards from me. I knew that it would beuseless to swim on the surface with the chopy waves, so I checked my pressure guage, dove down and began my swim in the direction of the anchor line.

It was no crisis, fortunately, but divers are never supposed to dive alone, and the buddy system insures that one will look out for the other in the event of an emergency.

I have dived in Florida and the Bahamas, having earned basic certification. Now I was seeking additional experience to help prepare me for advanced certification. I certainly did not want to look for any trouble in my first few days in Caribban waters.

It was a welcome sight to finally see air bubbles from other divers, and then to come upon the anchor line -- my "security blanket."

When I arrived at the Grand Caymanian Holiday Inn a few days before, I immediately went out by the pool and headed for Bob Soto's Dive Shop. It had been six months since I had had a tank on my back, but my gear and I were ready. Though the shop was closing, one of the attendants told me that no dives had taken place that day because of weather conditions, and that I should call at 8 a.m. the next day to check with them.

The following morning, after deciding not to take the deep dive since I had spent quite some time away from the water, I singed up for the afternoon dive. Soto runs this trip to either a beautiful shallow reef (30 to 40 feet), or to the Wreck of the Balboa, 200 yards off the town dock.The Balboa is a freighter that sank during a hurricane in 1932. Depths at this location range from 1k to 35 feet, and it is equally suitable for snorkelers.

The price for the afternoon dive is $17.50 (U.S.) The two-tank morning dive ($22.50) usually takes place in the area around the northern tip of the island, where there are about eight dive sites concentrated near each other. On calm days (which are the rule) the dive boat picks up divers right on the beach. The boat is a 50-foot barge capable of carrying 40 divers (although they never had anywhere near that number during my stay).

Soto also runs night dives for the more adventuresome diver. These trips also cost $22.50 and are almost always run on the Wreck of the Balboa. Divers meet in the lobbies of their hotels and await a pick-up by van at 6:30 p.m. They are brought to the dock, then gear up ummediately on the boat. After a five-minute ride to the center of the harbor, the divers hit the water -- but not until one of the two divemasters expalins the site. Incidentally, lights can be rented for $5.

You should not pass up the night dive. The wreck at night is very different from during the day. It can be entered, and at night the undersea explorations are all the more eerir and exciting. There are some residents of the wreck, including an octopus, but I did not see any of them during my dive. tWhat I found most interesting was an air pocket, about a foot or so high, inside the wreck. But be forewarned! If you breathe any of the air, says the divemaster, you may end up with a respiratory infection, since it has been in the pocket for quite some time.

If it is possible, visit the wreck ahead of time on an afternoon dive, in order to get idea of the layout. The wreck is scattered over a fairly large area, which may seem even larger at night to the diver who is unfamiliar with the territory. Photography is excellent at this location.

The morning dives are equally satisfying. One dive in particular rivaled my earlier favorite, the Lyford Cay Drop-Off in the Bahamas. This was a wall dive at Cayman Caverns. The top of the drop-off starts at 70 feet, and then plunges straight down to a depth of 6,000 feet. The boat ride lasted approximately 10 minutes, and while the divers were suiting up, dive procedures were explained by the divemasters.

It is Soto's policy that all divers who have not dived with him before should limit their depth to no more than 60 feet for the first dive (this group descends with one of the captains). The rest of the divers will hit the 100 foot limit with the other captain. All divers are required to have bouyancy compensators, pressure gauges and dertification cards.

As I descended along the anchor line, I was struck by the fantastic view and visibility (150 feet or better). There are many tunnels and caves, and the entire area provides fine photographic opportunities. The most breathtaking moment of the dive came as I exited from one of the tunnels. At that point, I came out on the side of the wall. Sea fans and a variety of corals greeted me as I swam around the edge. The total time actually spent at 100 feet was 10 to 12 minutes. To get back to the 60-foot depth, I entered another tunnel, which was closed at the end but open at the top.

All dives run by Soto are carefully supervised. There is more than an adequate decompression safety margin built into the dives, and the divemasters are definitely safety conscious. Yet all the safety measures do not detract from the dives; each and every dive is enjoyable, and the captains go out of their way to please you.

(In comparison, Bahamas Divers on Paradise Island seemed to me less careful in their operation because they did not have any divemaster actually descend on the dives with the group.)

The only complaint I have is that the scuba tanks on board Soto's boat could have been filled with more air (each of the tanks I used had 2,000-2,300 psi of air, and some of them had bent valves around the "O" ring).

My fellow divers included professioanl people, students and children. Snorkelers were also present for the afternoon dive trips.

For those individuals who would like to try scuba for the first time, Soto conducts a three-hour resort course for $50, which includes one supervised dive to 15-35 feet. The course also includes experience in the pool using scuba.

There are, of course, other competent dive operators in the Cayman Islands, and there are dive shops in various hotels that offer a selection of rental equipment and some for sale. However, most divers come fully prepared -- and that's a good idea because the selection varies from shop to ship is limited.