Insider's Guide to the Cayman Islands
REVEAL 31 OF THEIR
FAVORITE DIVE SITES
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY WALT STEARNS
When it comes to an incredible number of remarkable dive sites in proximity to one another, the Cayman Islands have no peer. This noble host stands at the top of its game with some of the western world's most diverse and exciting diving. Underwater, one seldom needs to travel more than a couple hundred feet to reach a neighboring site with its own set of distinguishing features. For virtually every dramatic, colorful wall site, there is an equally attractive shallow reef or wreck only a short distance away.
Through the efforts of the Cayman Islands Government and the local water sport operations, Cayman Brac now has a modern, 330 foot Russian warship as a dive site. Renamed the MV Capt. Keith Tibbetts, the former Soviet Missile Frigate (sunk September 1996) sits upright in 85 feet of water off the Brac's North Wall. The vessel's two deck guns protrude from their protective turrets at depths of 42 and 48 feet, adding eye catching perspective to the scene.
Grand Cayman's Stingray City is considered "the world's best 12 foot dive." Since its creation 12 years ago, both divers and snorkelers come to interact with these friendly rays in depths as little as four feet.
Last year, Skin Diver listed 101 acclaimed sites in the Cayman Islands. Yet there are more than five times as many named sites. To simplify choosing where to dive, we've asked a few of the Cayman Islands' most respected divemasters to select their personal favorites.
Mark "Moke" Huck and Reid McNeal-Don Foster's Dive Cayman Ltd., Grand Cayman:
Dive guide, instructor (NAUI, PADI and YMCA), and one of Foster's principal dive boat captains since 1985, Moke cites Trinity Caves on Grand Cayman's West Wall as a personal favorite. "Besides being the only place on the island I have ever seen a Manta Ray, the site has a nice feel to it. Even with all its diver traffic, it's still a very healthy and prolific dive site. The caves and long swim-throughs always have small lobsters and other creatures tucked back in little recesses. Down the outside slope of its drop-off, there is a large pinnacle at 74 feet. Several big Black Coral trees and Deep Water Gorgonians adorn the wall down to the base at about 101 feet. Sometimes I find small Sea Goddess nudibranchs in the coral. The site is loaded with sea anemones."Reid McNeal feels that Bonnie's Arch, inshore from Trinity Caves and a short distance away, is a must-see for visiting divers. "It has the appearance of a wall without the need to exceed 70 feet and the archway itself is great. There's lots of color there-Orange Elephant Ear Sponges and Green Rope Sponges. You don't need a boat to visit it; the site can easily be reached from shore. A school of Tarpon and Jacks gathers close to the arch. The photos I have taken there are stunning."
Reid's favorite dive off Grand Cayman is Japanese Gardens on the South Side. "It's really an impressive site, especially from a photographic standpoint. You have beautiful canyons of coral with archways and tunnels; beautiful Elkhorn Corals reach to the surface as if trying to embrace the sky. With so little dive traffic, everything is still largely pristine, with the behavior of the marine life entirely natural. Every time I go there I have the same feeling of anticipation and wonder I did the first time; which goes back to when I visited the Caymans on vacation 17 years ago."
Ollen Miller-Ollen Miller's Sun Divers, Grand Cayman:
A true Grand Cayman native, Ollen has probably been leading dive trips longer than anyone on the island. His career began with Bob Soto's some 20 years ago, followed by a three year stint with Don Foster's. Starting his own, personalized dive charter business in 1989, Ollen today enjoys working with small groups of eight or less.His favorite site is Big Tunnel. "You can start off on the top of the reef at 60 feet, drop down into the big tunnel archway, coming out at 100 feet and seeing nothing around you at first but deep blue. This is one of the few places I can do over and over again and not get bored.
"For a second site, I really like Eagle's Nest on the West Side, in part because you can do it as either a deep dive or as a shallow dive along the top of the drop-off. The site was named for a massive barrel sponge that was taken out by Hurricane Gilbert nine years back. The wall is nice and sheer, with lots of undercuts. The growth, especially under the overhangs, is thick. Eagle's Nest is one of the few places you find large Black Coral on the West Side. What's more, turtles hang out there more than at most other places."
Brad Nelson-Bob Soto's Diving Ltd., Grand Cayman:
Brad first visited the Cayman Islands in 1987. After diving with Bob Soto's, he sought employment with them. Several months later, he landed a position as an instructor, guide and boat driver. Operating primarily on the West Side often puts Brad on the most popular sites, such as Trinity Caves, Big Tunnel and Orange Canyon. But his favorite is Northwest Point Drop-off.
"The quality and bounty of soft corals, sponges and fish life make it a beautiful site. It's also a happening place, being right on the edge of the corner that extends toward North Wall. Besides schools of Boga, I often see big Nurse Sharks and sea turtles. What also makes it interesting is using the back eddies created by the current flowing around the larger coral heads to loop you back around to the boat."
Following Northwest Point Drop-off, Brad favors the shallow reef site known as Rhapsody, also called Mesa or Fish Reef, as a second dive. "It's a good shallow site with a plethora of fish covering a unique, 20 foot rise in the reef. It also has a high vertical ledge on one side. There's always something interesting on it."
Rob Reynolds-Sunset House, Grand Cayman:
In addition to serving as an instructor and dive guide for Sunset Divers, Rob also captains the Manta, running trips all the way to the island's East End. "I started diving in 1985, getting my instructor rating in '88, but I didn't do much till I came over to Grand Cayman in '89 to visit a friend. I liked it so much, I decided this was the place I wanted to be," he told me.
"Some of the sites I like to visit on the south side, toward East End, include High Rock Caves, Tunnel of Love and Maze. I like lots of tunnels, swim-throughs and canyons. My personal favorite by far is Tunnel of Love. The top of the wall is at 60 feet and drops off very vertically, but there is a big sand patch with two large, funnel-like entrances into two sets of swim-throughs that pop you out on the wall at around 100 plus feet. The swim-throughs branch off several times so you can pick various routes. It's neat to hover at depth and watch divers appearing out of one hole, looping back into another. Everybody always seems to have a good time there.
"Off North Wall, I am quite partial to Ghost Mountain. It's a really nice site with a big pinnacle out from the wall where you can't really see it under normal conditions until you swim a little way out and it just appears! That's where the name comes from. The top of the pinnacle is at 70 feet, the bottom of it is at 120, where it joins the wall, and there is a swim-through around the base of it. This site was inaccessible for six years because there was no mooring on it until recently. It's really beautiful right now."
Peter Milburn-Peter Milburn's Dive Cayman, Grand Cayman:
Originally from England, Peter decided a career as a banker was not his life-long dream. In 1969, he dropped out in favor of guiding divers for Bob Soto's. "I really loved diving and knew that was what I wanted to do." He became an SSI instructor in 1972; stayed at Soto's for another nine years then started his own dive service. "The site I still favor most to this day is North Wall's Eagle Ray Pass. It's a super little dive for both advanced and not so advanced divers. The top of the wall starts at 45 feet and runs straight down. There is seldom a current and it's easily accessible. Along with the occasional shark, there are always a lot of Tarpon. Sometimes there is a huge Jewfish. And, 99 percent of the time I have been there I have seen Eagle Rays, either a few or a lot."
Peter's second personal favorite is Sentinel Rock, off Grand Cayman's West Side next to Big Tunnel. "It's kind of unique in a way, because it is one of the more sheer-type walls we have on the West Side. It drops straight down from about 60 feet, with a huge coral head that comes out from the wall itself like a pinnacle. There's super stuff around it, making it very pretty and great for photography. Several years ago I took Stan Waterman to Sentinel Rock and he was very impressed with the topography. It's a very small area, covers maybe 40 feet across, but down the side of the wall, it has some very, very beautiful archways."
Pat Kenney-Tortuga Divers, Grand Cayman:
Arriving in 1981 to work for Bob Soto's, Pat Kenney is a former divemaster with a lot of diving history. Pat and friend/co-worker Jay Ireland were instrumental in Stingray City's origin. Today, you will find him heading the largest dive operation on Grand Cayman's East End-Tortuga Divers. "Even before I started working here, I used to come down throughout the '70s every chance I got. The diving is still simply great-East End is really number one. The dives are phenomenal, with my personal favorite being Jack McKenney's Wall. It's sheer, with deep crevices and cuts and myriad marine life that is extremely abundant and colorful. There's everything: angelfish and chromis, Eagle Rays, turtles and sharks, as well as the site's wide collection of gorgeous sponges and superb Black Corals adorning the wall from the top right on down. It's not unusual to see a few large African Pompano pass by. Even when it's a little choppy, a current is running or the viz is down a little, as soon as you get in you know you're not going to have a bad dive. Namely because there is so much to see and you don't have to go far."
Next on Pat's list is a site called The Gate. "The mystique about it, besides being a little farther journey by boat, is the impressive 20 foot diameter chute that starts at 70 feet and opens up on the wall at 100 feet. It's a deep dive, but when you come out of that hole onto the wall with the brightness of all that open water, the world seems to open around you! Coming back over the top of the wall, there is an abundance of stuff to see, from large Green Morays to smaller Spotted Morays, little Goldentails and Arrowcrabs."
Stephen Broadbelt-Ocean Frontiers, Grand Cayman:
This master scuba diver trainer first came to the Cayman Islands in 1992, working at Tortuga Divers for a few years. In 1996, he opened Ocean Frontiers in East End with two partners. Among East End's deep wall sites, Steve's personal choices are many, but if he had to narrow it down, Pat's Wall (next to Jack McKenney's Canyon) tops his list. "This massive drop-off is slotted with deep canyons, holes and giant outcroppings of coral running downward with big sponges on them. It's really photogenic. If there is any place here I could say I have seen it all, Pat's Wall comes really close. I've seen Eagle Rays, turtles, reef sharks, Hammerheads, big Jewfish and groupers, even Manta Rays there. It's good for that, but the way the wall sticks out with all the coral formations and the schools of small fish above make it a great dive!
"After Pat's Wall, without a doubt, Snapper Hole. It has more caves or caverns than any other site around the island. With a max depth of 60 feet, 15 feet on top, the formations look as if someone built it as a diver's fantasy site, complete with an old, giant Spanish anchor and stands of Elkhorn Coral on the top. I like the buzz people get out of it-when you know the site really well and guide them through it, showing them every little turn-and, of course, all the fish life. Watching them, how they behave when they see the Silversides thick in the caves, opening then closing behind you-or when the Tarpon or jacks dive-bomb through 'em. Even when the Silversides aren't there, the Tarpon are always there. The vista of them hanging there, beneath the shafts of sunlight streaming into the top of the cave, watching the bits of light reflecting off them in the dark just blows me away. It's great!"
Tom Gebardt-Aggressor Fleet, Cayman Islands:
Tom Gebardt began working on the Cayman Aggressor shortly after earning his instructor rating in 1996 in Key Largo, Florida (a rather long way from his home in Sweden). Tom has developed a great feel for the Cayman Islands' amazing collection of dive sites. The places he likes the most are Grand Cayman's East End and South Side. "Of all the sites in this region, Babylon, on East End's northeast side, stands out the most. Not just because it's so out of the way, which keeps it pretty pristine, but it's just amazing. Coming over the edge of the sheer wall, which starts 45 feet from the surface, to find a pinnacle with Black Corals growing out from all sides blows me away! Part of its incredible nature is you have a chance to see something big, a couple of reef sharks or something like that. One dive, I had a seven foot Hammerhead swim next to me-ten feet away-for a full five minutes. Every time we are over there, I always try to get in the water, because it's just such an awesome place."