Cayman Islands Continued
INSIDER'S GUIDE TO THE CAYMAN ISLANDS
Little Cayman is a large part of the Cayman Aggressor IV's itinerary. Asking Tom to pick a favorite from among this island's fantastic drop-offs, which start as shallow as 18 feet, almost led to a mental meltdown. "It's hard to pick a favorite here, they're all good. But I think Three Fathom Wall is the nicest. The wall's sheer drop right next to the mooring makes it so easy to jump right from the boat and do a freefall to whatever depth you desire.
"Across the length of its top are several deep sand chutes full of big, big schools of French Grunts, Schoolmasters and Yellowtail Snappers. When you get to the sandy shallows, there are loads of Stingrays and Yellowheaded Jawfish. A lot of people who come on board for our trips really love finding the Jawfish, especially to get those shots of the fish brooding eggs in their mouths."
Terry Thompson-Southern Cross, Little Cayman:
After discovering that social work in western Canada was not his forte, Terry decided to go to South America in 1986. He stopped in Little Cayman along the way. "My scuba instructors told me it was a cool little place. The first time I dived Bloody Bay Wall, I got vertigo. I was just off the wall in 18 feet of water, I could see the boat and didn't know what was wrong until I realized that instead of the bottom of the sea being horizontal, it was suddenly vertical. Knowing it was 3,000 feet straight down got my attention. I was blown away!" Soon after, Terry took up with Sunset House on Grand Cayman to become, as he put it, "one of their original dive boys of scuba." In 1996 while working on Grand Cayman as both a dive instructor and gourmet chef (an additional career), he received an offer from Southern Cross Club on Little Cayman to be a Divemaster. He says he will stay where he is past the millennium.
Terry's personal favorite here is Nancy's Cup of Tea, up in the corner of Jackson Bight. "It's not on Bloody Bay Wall but it's part of the same wall system. Starting 45 feet from the surface, Nancy's is part of Jackson Bight's sharp drop-off that starts to curl around back to the east. This is where most of the current comes through, bringing lots of nutrients with it. It's just magnificent. The sheer wall wraps around this bend with a deep gorge through it and it's filled with a healthy growth of Black Corals, gorgonians and spiral whip corals. In my dive briefings I like to describe it as a giant ice cream cone; you can dive left or right around the shaft. Occasionally, you see the big boys such as sharks, groupers and Eagle Rays. The sharks we get here are often four to six foot Caribbean Reef Sharks and Nurse Sharks. When you go off the wall on either side, it just drops off into la-la land; it's really cool. Photographers go crazy here."
Terry's second choice is Great Wall. "I love the changing colors and the sheer verticalness of it, which makes it unbelievable. When you step off the boat, it's like stepping off the 120th floor of the Empire State Building. Sometimes you're in 16 feet of water, sometimes you're not. It's a straight drop down! I think that's the reason people come here. I like to take divers out 40 or 50 feet from the wall. They can't believe the sensation; it's like looking up the side of the Grand Canyon, you're not falling, just hanging there. It's really cool. If you're lucky you can see turtles hanging onto the wall like Spider Man on the side of a building, with their two little claws in the front flippers dug into the sponge they're eating."
Chris McCoy-Sam McCoy's Lodge, Little Cayman:
A native of Little Cayman, Chris McCoy has been a dive guide for 16 years. He is the son of Sam McCoy of Sam McCoy's Lodge, which opened in 1983. During this time-while accumulating more than 5,000 dives-Chris earned his SSI Platinum Pro 5000 card in January of '93. This 32 year old NAUI, PADI, SSI and NASDS divemaster doesn't want to become an instructor. "I like being a divemaster, it reminds me of being a kid-finding little critters and wanting to show them to everybody, that sort of thing, you know."
Asking Chris to describe the site on Bloody Bay Wall he likes best took tremendous thought on his part. "They're all great, but Marilyn's Cut is one of the neatest. It is basically an L-shaped cut in the side of the wall. It starts at about 35 feet and leads you toward the west and then turns sharply right, leading you out to the wall between 90 and 100 feet. As soon as you come out of the cut, there are beautiful bright Yellow and Purple-tipped Sea Anemones right here. Turtles are everywhere. We've got a friendly grouper that's just like a family dog. It chases you around, loves to play and be petted. Quite a unique dive site. It's hard to take people out there and not have happy campers.
"Another fun dive you can do as a wall dive and also as a shallow dive is Jackson Reef and Wall. What's special is the wall has a lot of neat outcroppings, overhangs, chutes, caverns and splits in it. Even below the boat at the mooring, you've got a huge coral head with a big, long split right through it. The coral head rises to within 15 feet of the surface so it's an excellent safety stop. It's also right next to the wall that starts 35 to 40 feet on top. And the marine life-there's a lot there. Garden Eels, rays, groupers and stuff like that. You name it, it's right in that area."
Mary Coco ("Coco")-Little Cayman Beach Resort, Little Cayman:
Becoming an instructor in 1987, Mary (known as Coco) spent 10 years in the USVI, teaching, guiding and getting her captain's license. She came to Little Cayman Beach Resort in December 1995, becoming one of its most appreciated and respected divemasters and skippers.
"Down the line, my personal choice leans on Randy's Gazebo. It's part of Bloody Bay's wall system, very sheer and shallow on top. About 35 feet just below the boat at the mooring, the wall actually indents on the way down. You can usually find at least a lobster or two or a big Channel Crab, sometimes seahorses. Photographers love it, particularly for its large number of Yellow Tube Sponges. Plus, you have big Elephant Ear and huge barrel sponges with beautiful blue water. The prettiest part of Randy's is the beautiful archway 85 feet down on the wall (the bottom of the chimney), 30 yards to the east of the mooring. Loaded with lots of soft corals and Deep Water Gorgonians, it's large enough to easily go through; you can use it to frame your buddy or your divemaster for photos. I love it in the morning-you get the shafts of light coming up through the top creating the Jacob's Fingers."
"If I can't do Randy's, I like Lea Lea's Lookout. The site has two huge, magnificent fissures, about 50 yards apart, running down the face of Bloody Bay Wall. The mooring sits between two sandpits in 35 to 40 feet, which lead to the two big fissures. Like little avenues, you make your way down through soft corals and Elephant Ear Sponges out into the blue at 65 to 70 feet. Down one fissure, the passage opens into a wide grotto I call the Cathedral Room. When the light comes down through the top, it looks like a cathedral. Follow it down to where it bottoms out at about 100 feet and the opening is framed with all kinds of hanging sponges. Coming back along the outside, there are lots of little nooks and crannies and huge stovepipe shaped barrel sponges to investigate. Sometimes you're lucky enough to see them spawn. Typical of Bloody Bay, there's lots of fish life. I usually see a turtle or two or a reef shark cruising back and forth in the distance." One resident of Lea Lea's that Coco makes a point to visit is a large adult Spotted Drum she says has been living there for five years.
Cary Christian-Divi Tiara, Cayman Brac:
This tall, stocky, soft spoken 23 year old Caymanian, an underwater guide with a PADI assistant instructor rating, is happy just to be out on the water every day. "When I was attending high school on the Brac, I would watch the boats cruise by and dream about one day doing that." So, at age 16, Cary got certified with the goal of becoming a professional divemaster. Coming up on his fifth year this April, Cary is one of Divi Tiara's more active team members. Living and diving in his own backyard, Cary knows these waters intimately. "I really like is Wilderness Wall. It's sort of mystical, with lots of tunnels and swim-throughs and a really big pinnacle sitting away from the wall. It's fun to come out of the tunnels and see nothing else but the big pinnacle out in the blue with lots of big schooling jacks around it. Above the wall in the shallows, there's a good chance of seeing reef sharks, Nurse Sharks and turtles.
"I like shallow reefs, too. My favorite on the north side is Snapper Reef. It goes from 5 to 50 feet deep and has lots of big coral heads, so it's also a good site for new divers or snorkelers. There's a lot of schooling snapper and other varieties such as French Grunts, angelfish, Sergeant Majors and Bermuda Chubs. Up in the shallows in about 10 to 15 feet of water is a real nice area for finding Flying Gurnards."
Barbara McDowell-Divi Tiara Beach, Cayman Brac:
She began diving in 1987 in the cold, chilly waters of her home in Ontario, Canada, but Barbara McDowell quickly ventured out to warmer places. Now a divemaster at Divi Tiara, Barbara completed her instructor training, then landed a job in Coco Beach, Florida, in 1991. She arrived on the Brac in '93. "Among all the Brac's dive sites, I am very partial to Anchor Wall. It's so beautiful the way that giant, 20 foot high crack just runs through the crest of the wall opening up nice and deep, around 100 feet. To really appreciate the color inside you need to bring a light. The best, of course, is the anchor. The way it's wedged in the middle of it, right there when you go in. You just about need to duck when going in under it. Since nobody knows where it came from, that makes it mysterious.
"If I can't dive the south, unquestionably East Chute on the north side would be choice number two. Starting about 50 feet on top, it's a great shallow wall with a beautiful little wreck sitting in the middle of the sand. Nearby, the chute cuts deeply through the wall, creating a 30 foot high mini-wall of sorts on either side. Where the current hits the outside wall, where it sticks out the most, there are tons of gorgonians and sponges that make it look like a garden. I always see groupers getting cleaned and lots of little fish. Finish on the wall, come back around over the sand and you've got the Cayman Mariner wreck. It used to be sort of bare, but since they sunk the Tibbetts wreck [the Russian Frigate] two years ago, the growth on the Mariner has really bloomed! Now it's really covered with Green Rope, Yellow Tube and Purple Vase Sponges. It's a great dive you can do shallow or deep. I like that."
Brett LeMaster and Jason Belport-Reef Divers, Brac Reef Beach Resort:
From Albuquerque, New Mexico, Brett started diving in 1988 when he was in the service, going professional in 1990 in New Mexico as a divemaster and regulator repair tech. "I decided I wanted to do something beyond that. I realized I could be doing that in the Caribbean and getting to dive every day. So, I sold everything I had that was worth anything and went to instructor school. I worked for Blackbeard's Cruises for a while before arriving on the Brac to work for Reef Divers in 1995."
Approaching his third year on the Brac is Brett's partner, Jason Belport. Jason's introduction to diving began at the age of 12, following his move from New York to San Diego. By the time he turned 18 (in 1988) he was teaching for both PADI and SSI at a dive shop in La Jolla, California.
In addition to being professional divemasters/instructors at Brac Reef Beach Resort, both are highly accomplished freedivers with IAFD. Jason can shoot down to 125 or 135 feet, while Brett is working in the constant ballast category to about 230 feet. Compared to holding their breath, choosing among the Brac's premier collection of dive sites is tough. Brett's favorite dive site "would probably be Foster's Wall on the south side. It's a relatively new site, only recently did it get a mooring. The top of the wall begins about 54 feet from the surface, dropping off to, well, the bottom of the Cayman Trench. Down the face it's very jagged and convoluted, with several good size tunnels you can enter at about 55 feet, shooting you out at about 110. It's a rush to pop out of the end, like flying out of a cloud and watching the bottom just drop out from under you. Cruising back up along the top of the wall there are lots of soft corals and sponges. In the shallows, there are a lot of isolated coral heads in the sand; a good place to look for Nurse Sharks, Eagle Rays and turtles cruising close to the wall."
Brett's second choice is Pillars of Hercules on the Brac's northeast point. "It's real shallow, no more than 40 feet deep. But close to the bluff several giant boulders have fallen into the sea, creating a kind of maze you can swim back and forth in. There's not a lot of hard coral, but what makes it unique is the thick, low covering of small soft corals and sponges. In the shallow depths, the oranges, greens and reds really stand out, making everything very, very colorful. It's great for macro photography. There's a lot of tiny fish you normally don't see out on the reef-Butterflyfish, juvenile Yellowtail Damsels, baby Lettuce Sea Slugs, Scorpionfish and Spotted Drums of all sizes. The site also has adult Sargasso Triggers, which I haven't seen anywhere else around the island. I enjoy sitting on the boat, taking in that beautiful bluff and the two big pillars on shore, which is what the dive site is named for. Neither Grand Cayman, nor Little Cayman has anything like it."
Jason's first choice is Schoolhouse Wall on the north side. "Although it's a deep, sloping wall, roughly 70 feet at the top, along its edge are several pinnacles with huge barrel sponges. The pinnacles aren't big, but they are very productive as far as critters go, with plentiful numbers of Creole Wrasse, French and Gray Angelfish and some schooling grunts and snappers. About 80 percent of the time you can find Flying Gurnards out in the sand flats above the wall. It takes a good eye to find them, but if you follow the contours of the wall cracks, you'll see them, often by spotting Bar Jacks hovering above them. Sometimes we'll find lobsters either out and about or hiding inside some of the barrel sponges or turtles cruising the alleyways searching for sponges to graze on. It creates great photo opportunities. Overall, I would consider it an advanced dive site because even when you're inside on the wall, you are at 65 to 70 feet. So you do need to watch yourself when you're there.
"It's a tough choice, but I'd probably have to say my second favorite dive is Elkhorn Forest on the south side. The deep spur and groove formation of this site is topped with nice growths of Elkhorn Coral. It's a great critter dive as well. We find Blue Sea Slugs, Scorpionfish, Spiny Lobsters, Nurse Sharks and Green Morays on a regular basis. Hanging out under the reef's top coral structures are grunts, snappers and Black Margates, as well as a couple local Tiger Groupers. It's a wonderful sensation to just hang out with the fish near the top of one of the coral fingers or spurs and let the wave action gently rock you back and forth. After a while, the fish don't seem to mind you being there."