2000-02 Converging on the Cayman Islands
By Michael Lawrence
When one dreams of the ideal dive vacation, the typical daydreams revolve around some very simple, softly idyllic images. Powder-soft white sand beaches, icy tropical drinks and relaxing island music wafting through a tapestry of palm trees crowned with puffy white clouds and framed by rich blue skies. Offshore a rich blanket of crystal clear blue water overlays an incredibly healthy coral reef system populated by a seemingly endless variety of gregarious, colorful fish and invertebrate life—the tropical ideal defined.
Certain Caribbean destinations have led the pack over the years for one distinct reason. They deliver this dream almost every day, every month and every year in the most dependable fashion. From the inception of tropical dive travel, the Cayman Islands have stood at the very peak of these must-do dive destinations.
All three members of this island group have a sparse covering of tropical vegetation, and the warm, tropical rains quickly soak through the islands’ limestone substrate into the freshwater layer beneath the islands. This structure allows little water-clouding runoff, even in adverse conditions. The result is a halo of brilliantly transparent, brightly tinted turquoise and azure waters surrounding the islands, waters that quickly drop over the edge of a precipitous wall into the deep cobalt blue of the 6,000-foot-deep Cayman Trench.
Visiting divers can expect visibility averaging 100 to 120 feet or better, superb and diverse spur and groove coral formations, vertical and undercut walls, and a wealth of colorful sponges and other invertebrates. These impressive structures are inhabited by a broad variety of marine creatures, both mobile and sessile. Strong and well-enforced marine conservation measures (in place for at least two decades) have insured healthy coral growth as well as a wealth of protected fish life—clouds of Sergeant Majors and Yellowtail Snapper (locally known as Cayman Piranha), large and friendly groupers, turtles, rays and much more including an extensive list of colorful tropicals. In the Cayman Islands, there is no shortage of fascinating creatures and interactive behavior to entertain divers.
As in any family, each member island is distinct, different and attractive in its own way. Your destination of choice will depend upon your own sense of taste and style. You may well decide you can’t decide and choose to visit two or three in one trip. With air transport readily available between the islands, this is easily accomplished in the space of one week.
Grand Cayman, the big island, offering the widest variety of vacation options, is by far the most populated and cosmopolitan of the Cayman Islands. It is widely acknowledged as one of the very first Caribbean islands to offer traveling divers the services required for a superb dive getaway. While the diving is neither better nor worse than the Sister Islands (Cayman Brac and Little Cayman), Grand Cayman does offer a larger menu of vacation possibilities. If you desire a destination allowing great diving in conjunction with a variety of extra activities for nondiving members of your group and/or family, Grand Cayman may be your best choice.
Do you enjoy fine dining? Look for an array of international choices along with standard Caribbean comfort food. Golfing, boating, sailing, deep sea fishing and many other activities are available to fill your spare time. With a multitude of choices in accommodations—hotels, guest houses, suites, villas, timeshares and simple rooms, almost anyone should be able to find something appropriate for both their budget and personal lifestyle.
For at least two decades diving has been the primary mainstay of Grand Cayman, but today many divers choose to exercise other vacation options along with exploring the island’s remarkable reefs. You can do everything from dedicated dive outings (four or five dives per day) to a simple two-tank dive in the morning and a round of golf in the afternoon to a one-tank shore dive and a few hours in the sun on Seven-Mile Beach (don’t forget the sun block!).
The choice rests in your hands. The sites you will explore depend largely on the direction of the wind. While tropical breezes normally blow from east to west, making the west end and north side of the island the lee side, this can change based on varying atmospheric and climatological conditions. Do not despair! The big upside is this—Grand Cayman is the peak of a steep-sided seamount. You will find reefs and vertical walls on all four sides of the island. The result? Rarely will you be blown out of the water. When a winter nor’wester blows, dive operations will opt to visit the sites arrayed along the southern and eastern shores of the island. This creates a definite winning situation for divers. Not only will you continue to dive, you will also have the enviable opportunity to visit sites inaccessible much of the year. During the best of times, all four sides will be accessible. When this happens, your only problem is making a decision concerning which great site you are going to drop on that day.
Grand Cayman has an incredible variety and style of dive/snorkeling experiences available. One of the biggies in animal encounters is Grand Cayman’s stingray experiences. Two sites, Stingray City and Sandbar, see divers, snorkelers and waders feeding and safely interacting with hordes of Southern Stingrays. Stingray City is about 12 feet deep, necessitating snorkeling and/or diving skills. Sandbar offers the unique image of dozens of legs submerged to the knee with stingrays winding their way between them, a sort of human leg forest with critters gliding around the pale trunks of fleshy trees. Both sites have rightfully become internationally famous.
This experience found its origin with local fishermen cleaning their catches inside the barrier reef bordering the north shore. For years, Southern Stingrays gathered to dine on the scraps and by-catch as the fishermen cast them over the sides of their boats. When local divers discovered this phenomenon, they passed out the information and gradually began to introduce visiting divers to the rays. Today, these sites have become absolute must-dos and are among the most popular dive/snorkel sites on the island.
Wall sites? Shallow reefs? Take your pick! There are well over a hundred named sites that are commonly visited, each offering a dozen different profiles. Beyond this are hundreds of other in-between sites.
Spotted Eagle Rays, turtles, sharks and other large critters are always a possibility. Tropicals large and small are a guarantee. You won’t be disappointed.
The Sister Islands
Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are usually referred to as the Sister Islands. Physically, they sit just about 90 miles north of Grand Cayman. In terms of attitude and lifestyle, they are at least a decade in the past. Each has its own personality, but both share several important qualities: a laidback approach to life, friendly people, superb dive potential and the distilled essence of tropicality.
The Brac acquires its name from the sheer cliffs edging the eastern end of the island. The word brac comes from early Scottish sailors who settled here and refers to the cave-riddled limestone bluff rising some 140 feet above sea level. In the past, these caves were reputed to hide pirate booty snatched off treasure galleons traveling the Spanish Main (some people still believe treasure exists and actively search for it) and also served as a welcome refuge from periodic hurricanes.
Today, adventurous visitors view the vertical cliffs as a rock climbing challenge. In addition, the area at the top of the bluffs has been declared both a parrot and an orchid preserve. While the Brac’s villages are generally on the north shore, all dive resorts are positioned along the southern shore of the island, and there is a sufficient number of restaurants and watering holes to keep you entertained. Communications are excellent and most resorts have satellite television.
There are some 50 registered and moored dive sites clustered around the island. These include shallow reefs suitable for snorkeling and freediving as well as scuba diving, the walls which define Cayman diving and several excellent wrecks. Preeminent among these wrecks is the M/V Captain Keith Tibbets, the Russian Destroyer 356 sunk in September of 1996. She sits near the edge of the wall in 65 to 100 feet of water and is highly impressive. Three-hundred thirty feet in length, her stern and bow guns are now silent, pointing impotently toward the surface. A gentle population of Horse-eye Jacks, groupers, Yellowtail Snapper and other fish resides within and around her. The hull is slowly developing a fuzzy sweater of invertebrate life. All in all, she has a truly imposing presence.
With less than 100 permanent residents, Little Cayman represents the traditional dive hideaway. For the dedicated diver, naturalist or tropical escapist, this is a Mecca. The diving is first-rate and the topside is fascinating. Beyond diving, Little Cayman has a wonderful collection of land-based wildlife. Booby Pond, immediately adjacent to the south shore resorts, is a primary resting point for migratory birds. There is a population of the rare Red-footed Booby as well as a variety of egrets and other shore and wading birds.
Tarpon Lake, to the east, has a very unique resident, a sub-species of the Atlantic Tarpon. Washed into the lake during a major storm, standard Tarpon found themselves isolated and adapted over time to evolve into a smaller version. The pond is an eerie scene where mangroves surround a forest of dead branches projecting from the water. In the golden light of evening it has a striking silence, a sense of peace and glassy calm water broken only by the Tarpons as they rise to feed.
The diving around Little Cayman is extraordinary with the most famous area being Bloody Bay Wall. Vertical and undercut with dramatic topography, the wall begins as shallow as 18 feet and drops dead away into the inky depths of the trench. Sponge formations are among the most impressive anywhere with blood-red Strawberry Vase Sponges fighting for space with tube sponges, barrel sponges and sheets of Deepwater Seafans. This wealth of life is not limited to this superb site. Anywhere you drop in the water is guaranteed to take your breath away. This is one of the acknowledged pinnacles of Caribbean diving, a crown that is not likely to be taken away. The island is also dived on a regular basis by Brac operators. If at all possible, experience Little Cayman—you will not regret it.
The Big Picture
The Cayman Islands enjoys its reputation for one simple reason: it doesn’t get better than this…just different. For any traveling diver, all three of the Cayman Islands are great additions to a logbook. It comes down to professional dive operators, oodles of accommodations, lush surroundings, a wealth of topside activities, easy international access, a cosmopolitan yet friendly vibe and a relaxing tropical atmosphere. It’s considered to be one of the best, because it has the timeless qualities divers look for—good fish, good water and good fun.