Captain Ertis' dining room is a mesa of hard-packed sand surrounded and shaded by sea-grape and almond trees. A few yards away the Caribbean laps against the silvery beach. The location is a point on the north shore of Grand Cayman, largest of the Cayman Islands, about 200 miles south of Cuba.
These British possessions were once called Las Tortugas, because of the giant sea turtles that Columbus found here in great numbers in 1503. Today the turtles are gone. But the reef that almost completely surrounds Grand Cayman has gathered new fame as a hunting ground for lobsters—the spiny lobster or sea crayfish of southern waters. To apprehend the elusive creature in his element is a fascinating sport. And, as the picnickers on the opposite page are about to discover, there is almost nothing so delicious to eat as this Caribbean variety of langouste, fresh from the sea.
The lobsters are caught when they venture out from caves among the coral to scuttle across the bottom near the reef. They can be nailed by the underwater diver with a spear gun. Equally exciting is to peer through a glass-bottomed box from a boat and then reach down to grasp the wary crustaceans with a long pole fitted at the end with metal prongs. Captain Ertis, who conducts lobster-progging expeditions for vacationers from the U.S., knows all the best hunting spots.
In early morning the party goes aboard the captain's fishing boat, a taut, Cayman-built, 20-foot cabin cruiser powered by a stateside outboard motor. While the mate runs the motor, Ertis helps his guests to find and prog the lobsters. Between catches he dives for conch, the large pink-shelled mollusk of the Caribbean.
February 22, 1960
After a couple of hours of working the reef there will be enough lobsters for a meal (about two apiece, with the lobsters averaging one to one and a half pounds), and the party goes ashore at Rum Point. "Just a minute," cries the captain as they land, "while I get a clean tablecloth." And he quickly cuts an armful of palm fronds and spreads them on the sand. Now, while his guests do their own bartending (a favorite pre-luncheon drink is concocted by opening a large can of pineapple juice and mixing it with a fifth of light rum and the juice of fresh limes), he busies himself in what he calls his "open-air kitchen." The kitchen range consists of four empty beer cans used to balance a fire-blackened bucket.
Ertis quickly gathers driftwood, stows the lobsters in the bucket, fills it with sea water and covers it with sea-grape leaves or dried seaweed. The fire is lighted, and the visitors, famished, always want to know how long it will take the lobsters to cook. "In five shakes [which the captain translates as five minutes] they will be bubblin'," he tells them. Then "the next 15 shakes they will be doin' the mambo." Twenty minutes' cooking will leave them juicy and tender but not overdone.
While the lobsters are "bubblin'," the captain prepares his other specialty. Succulent raw conch is sliced wafer-thin and dipped in lime juice, to which is added a few drops of hot Pickapeppa sauce. "After eating this," the captain assures everybody, "you will feel five years younger."
The lobsters come out of the steaming bucket, deep red in color, aromatic, mouth-watering. The captain breaks them open (there are no claws to be cracked) and the hungry picnickers eat with their fingers, dipping the succulent tail meat into melted butter laced with lime juice.
And now, after the morning's adventures and the feast, warm air and lulling sea sounds have their effect, and conversation gradually fades. The guests begin to nod as the captain packs the gear for the boat ride home. Most of them sleep all the way.