Diving Grand Cayman Your Way
BY Walt Stearns
Introducing the first assembly-line produced Model-T Ford in the early 1900s, Henry Ford remarked, 'You can have it in any color you like, as long as it is black.' Back then, your choice was limited. Today it's nearly unlimited, whether you're choosing an automobile or diving with Grand Cayman's Parrots Landing. For some time now, Parrots Landing has been offering divers a large selection of trip profiles in conjunction with its fleet of seven custom dive boats, ranging in length from 25 to 60 feet.
More commonly known as the Parrots Pick, the program essentially provides guests the means of selecting (usually after a morning two tank West Wall boat dive) anything from the Parrots Landing daily dive itinerary. Simply pick the boat/trip fitting your preference;a two tank wall/reef dive on West Wall, North Wall or South Wall, followed by an afternoon trip to Stingray City; a two tank reef trip off Seven Mile Beach; or doing your own thing with one or more day or night shore dives anywhere around the island. (Parrots Landing guests have unlimited airfills for shore diving.) The following day you can do it all again or take off on one of Parrots Landing's special three tank dive charters.
Deciding which side of the island to dive can be tough. With Grand Cayman's pronounced north, south, east and west shorelines, fronted by stretch upon stretch of superb reefs and drop-offs, you really can't lose. So, no matter which direction those unwelcome winds should decide to blow from, there is always a protected side for diving. And, when it comes to diving services on Grand Cayman (with the exception of East End), Parrots Landing has the island well dialed in.
Covering the West Wall is Parrots Landing's flagship, Amazon, a 45 foot Garcia that carries a maximum of 20 divers. For most Grand Cayman visitors the first diving experience will likely begin on this side of the island. Besides its usually calm seas (making the time on the water more enjoyable, particularly for those born without sea legs) and easy access (just a short run from the dock) there is the exceptional diving. It includes a good range of formations: walls and drop-offs with lustrous colored sponges; coral tunnels and swim-throughs; and a wealth of shallow reefs with abundant fish life.
The West Wall also has several special assets. Thanks to the release program conducted by Cayman Island's turtle farm during the past few years, sea turtles often greet divers here. Although most are juveniles, getting the chance to see one or more of these animals is an added treat. The crew of the Amazon is expert at finding turtles on sites such as Eagle's Nest and Big Dipper, just south of West Wall's more popular Tarpon hot spots, Orange Canyon, Big Tunnel and Bonnie's Arch.
When it comes to Tarpon, the island's largest population of big guys (weighing in excess of 70 pounds) resides on the West Side. From as far north as Bonnie's Arch and Big Tunnels to as far south as Armchair Reef near Southwest Point, (even in several of the shallow sites such as Soto's Reef and Lobster Pot, off George Town) you will have no problem finding a few of these oversized 'sardines.' In addition to the morning two tank wall and shallow dives, the Amazon runs a second afternoon trip strictly reserved for a two tank, double shallow dive in this area.
Grand Cayman's North Wall begins at Northwest Point. The walls in this area are fascinating;and there is no mystery as to why. Their majestic vertical drops, starting at an average of 55 feet, are regarded as some of the most awesome marine geologic spectacles this side of the globe. Multitudes of colorful sponges, gorgonians and Black Coral trees add to the wall's awe-inspiring vista. Each year divers marvel at the opportunity to drop over the edge of this famous precipice to explore its dramatic contours as it makes its plunge to the abyss. To veteran divers, the North Wall is simply the place to go.
The North Wall also attracts many of the Caribbean's more impressive sea creatures. On any given day, expect to see Eagle Rays, sea turtles, Tarpon, schooling Permit, large groupers and even a shark or two (during late spring and early summer) cruising along the drop-offs or over the shallow stretches of the mid reefs. Eagle Ray Pass is a series of deep winding cuts and tunnels perforating the crest of the wall. The most notable, a large tunnel beginning at the base of a wide sandy V-shaped basin, drops down 45 degrees opening onto the wall at 120 feet. The spot earned its name from the numerous Eagle Rays sighted there. Sites similar to Eagle Ray Pass include West Gate, Main Street, Hammerhead Hill, Three Bs Wall and Dream Weaver.
Since many of the drops on the walls do not initiate their plunges until the 55 to 60 foot mark, they can be ideal for making a second dive along the wall's crest. Cruising the edge of the wall in hopes something interesting might rise from the depths or just for the feeling of hanging over the edge of the blue is certainly a thrill. Such dives, however, are a little shorter than the shallow ones conducted on West End (typically 60 feet for 30 minutes, instead of 50 feet for 40 minutes).
Making excursions to many of the North Wall sites is Amazon's sistership, African Grey, Parrots Landing's second 45 foot Garcia. African Grey's capacious size and weight make it one of the most stable vessels plying the waters of this region. It's a good thing because diving the North Side can present a few challenges from time to time;this is Grand Cayman's windward side.
In addition to African Grey's North Wall morning itinerary, she also handles the afternoon Stingray City charters, along with Parrots' 31 foot Island Hopper (16 divers maximum), Conure. If an afternoon snorkel is your preference, there is Parrots Landing's 60 foot catamaran, Cockatoo. In addition to its sunset cruise, Cockatoo makes half day snorkel trips to North Sound's coral gardens with a stop at Sandbar so guests can swim with the rays.
Diving Grand Cayman's South Side is the Parrots Landing 34 foot Crusader, Macaw. Designed for smaller groups (15 divers maximum), the Macaw visits the side most other operations commonly reserve as an alternate when sea conditions become too unfavorable for diving the North or West Walls. Consequently, most of this remarkable, 20 mile stretch of ocean facing reef is ignored. In actuality, the South Side holds a tremendous amount of extraordinary spur and groove reef formations.
If you're into huge chasms and swim-throughs, here are some of the best in the Cayman Islands. The chasms are actually the gaps in the classic spur and groove formations seen in most coastal fringing reefs. The valleys, however, are similar to canyons (starting at 15 to 30 feet) that bottom out at 45 to 50, even 60 feet in a few places. In several instances, the trenches running seaward through the reef are interconnected by short tunnels and swim-throughs, often becoming giant labyrinths capped by stands of Elkhorn Corals. Examples include Red Bay Caves, Japanese Gardens, Oriental Gardens, Tin City, Spotts Caves, Pedro's Castle and Teachers Caverns, to name a few.
Starting slightly deeper than the North Wall (on average 60 to 70 feet), the sites on the South Side feature walls dominated by deep fissures and ravines bisecting their crests, instead of steep drop-offs. There are also large pinnacles dotting the edge of the wall. The first of the series is Palace Pinnacles, next to Hole in the Wall and Ron's Wall, featuring three coral monoliths that rise from the ends of three large sand chutes. Covering their vertical structure is an array of sponges and deep water gorgonians. Farther east is a second, equally attractive grouping, called Little Pinnacles.
Private Charters and the Advanced Boat Program
One of the most overlooked options offered by Parrots Landing is its Advanced Boat program. This is a vessel dedicated to more experienced divers who like to get the most out of their underwater experiences, giving them the freedom to conduct two to three multi-level dives.
Heading the list of the Advanced Boats in the program is the Lorikeet, a Pro 42 jet boat designed to carry 16 divers quite comfortably (even for long range trips). On Lorikeet's three tank Advanced Boat charter, leaving the dock at 8:00 am and returning around 3:00 pm, divers can make two wall dives (back to back) followed by one shallow dive in the 50 foot range. This allows three, long quality dives on either the North Wall and/or West Wall as well as a little snorkeling. Lunch is provided on the boat. For those with less time or those who don't want to spend the entire day on the water, there is also a two tank version of the Advanced Boat program.
Unlike the three tank trips on the Lorikeet, the two tank Advanced Boat trips dive Grand Cayman's West Side. Supplementing Lorikeet's coverage on this area is Parrots Landing's smaller boat, Toucan. With an eight diver cap, a typical two tank, morning Advanced Boat trip on this 28 foot Burpee might start off with a wall dive. A second dive can consist of either another wall site (such as Sand Chute or Dragon's Hole) or a shallower site (such as Wilderness or the wreck of the Doc Polson).
Parrots Landing's philosophy leans toward allowing more freedom during dives, in particular for buddy teams using computers. Safety, however, is first and foremost in their book. This is achieved by having the divemasters act more in the capacity of sentries during dives, particularly on the walls. As long as buddies stay within each other's field of view, they can generally do what they want within the rules of the Association of Cayman Island Watersport Operators. And, any of the divemasters are more than happy to provide their expertise for guided tours.
A warning to late night partiers: Parrots Landing's crewmembers are predawn risers. To be able to dive the choicer spots on the walls, Parrots Landing's boats depart early (8:00 am from Parrots Landing headquarters for West Wall trips, 8:30 am from Governors Harbour for North Wall trips). Depending on the weather and the availability of the site, the group on board is normally allowed to choose the site they would prefer to visit.
For those wanting their underwater adventures captured on video or further instruction in underwater photography, Parrots Landing also offers a full service Underwater Photo Center. Housed in the headquarters building just south of George Town, the center is well equipped with rental equipment, film and batteries.
What has made the Parrots Pick Program an even bigger hit, in addition to the diverse dive plan selection, is the operation's relationship with 16 of the island's most popular hotels and condos. Does this create more work for the staff at Parrots Landing? You bet. But then again, maybe that's what they're all about. The intent of the Parrots Pick Program is to make the most of a dive vacation by providing guests the option to custom tailor a dive package that best suits their needs, be it individual or group.
To book a visit to Parrots Landing, contact its new reservations center in Dallas, Texas at (800) 448-0428. The watersports headquarters in Grand Cayman can be contacted direct at (809) 949-0294 or (809) 949-0294 (fax).
Getting to Grand Cayman is easy, it's a little more than an hour from Miami via jet. Cayman Airways offers several direct flights from Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Houston and Atlanta.