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  • 2000-06 Grand Cayman Then and Now
    by Paul Tzimoulis
    Grand Cayman has changed
    dramatically during the 40 years that I have been visiting this Mecca of scuba diving.
    The three things I remember most about my first visit to the island are the airfare, mosquitoes and crystal clear water. In those early days, the Cayman islanders were desperate to attract tourism, and BWIA Airlines was offering a round-trip ticket from Miami to Grand Cayman for $59. This fit my budget just fine. I was staying at a beach hotel where each sunset seemed to attract a voracious horde of mosquitoes that had never tasted a soft skinned tourist before. To me, this was no problem since every Caribbean Island seemed to have its share of these pesky devils. Yet, what struck me the most was the incredibly clear water that awaited just off the beach and led to what were then undiscovered reefs and wrecks.

    Today the cheap seats and mosquitoes are gone, but the crystal clear water is as sparkling as ever. Grand Cayman’s tourism popularity, combined with extremely fast jet service, has helped make the island a huge success and created the highest standard of living among any island in the Caribbean. Years ago, the government established “mosquito control” and today there is hardly a bug to be found anywhere along Seven Mile Beach. And the waters have actually improved, too, through the timely implementation of environmental programs and controls.

    In those early days four decades ago, there were less than a handful of resort hotels and only a couple of dive operators. Bob Soto was in George Town, operating a company called Sport Fishing Headquarters—catering to fishermen, scuba divers and snorkelers.

    Tom Hubbell ran a resort diving operation along Seven Mile Beach, taking guests on The Tiki—a 30-foot catamaran rigged with a brigantine sail and a 40 hp motor. You could rent a bicycle for $1 a day. A beachfront room at the Coral Caymanian was $10 a day, meals included. It was paradise!

    The island is now populated with dozens of oceanfront resorts, plus loads of vacation condos where visitors live like kings while they enjoy the natural pleasures of sunshine, white sand beaches, a balmy climate and an enticingly warm, clear ocean. It is still paradise.

    The untold paradox of Grand Cayman is that the marine life is far more plentiful today than it was 40 years ago. The reefs were fresh and beautiful then, but not especially active. Yes, there was the usual collection of small tropical reef fish, but not much more. The only large fish I encountered was a Tarpon at Soto’s Reef and a hogfish that was speared for lunch. Perhaps the absence of big fish activity was the result of heavy local fishing and early divers hunting with spears.

    Nowadays spearfishing is prohibited, and most of the former fishermen now run banks and shopping malls. As a result, the fish population has increased dramatically; divers now encounter more marine life in one dive than you could formerly see in a week. The constant presence of divers (who do not threaten the fish life) in the water has conditioned the marine life to accept them and not run for cover. As a result of this metamorphosis, today’s visitors can leisurely swim among schools of giant Tarpon, play tag with friendly stingrays and swim with the island’s resident population of sea turtles. Grand Cayman has become a fantastic underwater zoo without cages. Divers mingle with the marine life, shooting photos and video instead of spears. This miraculous co-existence has become a booming industry for Grand Cayman, and the island now offers more diving services and more diving experiences than any other island in the world.

    There is no question that the clear seas, healthy coral reefs and teeming fish life is Grand Cayman’s finest legacy. In fact, it has become the Cayman Island’s national treasure. It is hard to predict what Grand Cayman will be like 40 years from now, but I suspect their natural treasures will be as safe and as protected as the crown jewels in London.

    Editor’s note: Paul Tzimoulis first visited Grand Cayman in 1960 and has been a frequent visitor ever since. His first travel feature on this island was a six-page photo essay published in the January 1965 issue of Skin Diver, shortly thereafter he joined the magazine as Associate Editor.