Found just to the south of Cuba and to the north west of Jamaica, the Cayman Islands in the British West Indies are well known for diving, with their spectacular walls, eerie wrecks, warm waters, shallow reefs , blue holes and sand as soft as white pepper. Now, as Katy Dartfordfound out, theres even more reason to visit Grand Cayman and its quirky little sisters, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. With a new artificial reef being created and a burgeoning sport climbing scene thats so far been one of the Bracs best kept secrets, the islands provide a unique destination for a multi activity Caribbean Adventure. In this first part we explore the various diving sites and wreck dives around Grand Cayman
My trip to the Cayman Islands begins at Boatswains Bay on the Northwest side of Grand Cayman. Despite being just a ten minute drive from the busy attraction of 7 mile beach it feels a little off the beaten track. Just a short distance from the shore is a deep drop-off (the North Wall) that’s loaded with marine life. We spend a good hour afterwards trying to remember all the fish we have seen for my log book.
The next day we head out to explore some dramatic walls and the famous Stingray City. We start at a new site called Roundabout where we swim along the North Wall surrounding Grand Cayman.
The wall generally starts at about 18 meters deep and slopes off to over 600 meters in some places. I dive to around 30 meters, passing an Eagle Ray rippling on a sandy bank, an olive green turtle nibbling at the coral and then a black and white zebra stripped fish peering out from a small cave, its spines fanning out against the sway of the tide. This pretty looking creature is the venomous and invasive Lion fish. Not native to the Caribbean, local divemasters will try to catch them or tag the area they are spotted.
They pose particular risks to the local environment as they have few, or no, predators and the local fish havent yet learnt to stay away from them, so are often killed by their venomous spines. The Lionfish can strip the area of their local aquatic life, particularly the cleaner fish that provide a service to other fish species by nibbling away at dead skin and parasites that live there.We are warned by our dive masters to let them know if we spot one, so they can catch them and put them down gently in a bucket of cold water
After lunch we head to Stingray City on the North Side of Grand Cayman. The dive site featured in National Geographic as the top shallow dives and snorkelling locations in the World. Sinking to my knees on the sandy seafloor, just 4 meters below the surface, a large stingray pulses past me, its skirts gently rippling through the sea. But is not interested in me, as its senses the squid is elsewhere. Instead I am approached by a Green moray eel, whos suffering from cataracts after from too many years over indulgence on squid.Its muscular, scaleless body glides towards me, mouth gaping and its tube-like nostrils flaring, as it begs me for some dinner, sensing it is nearby.I flap about for a few minutes trying to back away, but the tide keeps drawing us together. Then over my head pulses another stingray who allows me to stroke its sandpaper textured head, and tickle issilky smooth belly.
This November, the Russian Frigate MV Capt Keith Tibbetts, an artificial brought to Cayman Brac in 1996 from Cuba to finish its days as a diving attraction, will be joined underwater by another ship. The former submarine rescue vessel – USS Kittiwake, is to be sunk off Grand Cayman to create another artificial reef. The sinking is unique however as its the first time the US have sold a vessel to another country for this reason- and its taken over 7 years to happen. The Kittiwake will be just 4 meters from the surface so divers and snorkelers can explore her and it will help support the long-term protection of Caymans marine environment, by helping reduce the environmental impact on Stingray City and other reefs that are frequently visited by cruise ship traffic. The sinking will also help preserve its maritime history – prolonging her life rather than scrapping a decommissioned ship.
November is also a good time to visit Grand Cayman as it is Pirates Week, the main festival in the Cayman calendar. For 11 days the islands celebrates its seafaring past, with music, street dances, local food and drink, fireworks and even a pirate invasion. Parading the streets of George Town will be Blackbeard, Captain Henry Morgan, and Calico Jack Rackham.
Anyone visiting Grand Cayman shouldnt miss out on the East End of the island. Its much more laid back and less developed and feels like the Caribbean side of the island.
The diving is different too. In the west the dives are easy access, the weather is stable and the dive operations are nearby. In the east a boat trip is needed to take you out to the barrier reef which extends to its tip. Only a small fraction of divers visit the East End and youre unlikely to see another dive boat – but the trip is well worth the effort.
As we head off to the first of 4 dives that day, a kite surfer is making the most of the high surf caused by the north east winds that frequently hit the East End. He jumps and swoops around the boat, as I try to snap an action shot of him.Today we dive at the Valley of the Dolls , FishTank, Old Number 12 and Black Rock Reef. But its almost not enough to explore the craggy canyon walls with its enormous sponges, and bushes of black coral forming a canopy over the narrow sandy channels. Throughout most of the East End, the top of the wall is deep, dropping off at about 18-24 meters, but the canyon like terrain makes even the shallow reefs exciting.
A rest day has to happen every so often, so its the ideal opportunity to explore what else Grand Cayman has to offer. Take the opportunity to visit Blue Iguana recovery programme at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park. The common Green Iguana run around freely -tripping up golfers on the islands courses- but the Blue Iguana is one of the most endangered of the species on earth. So those working at the
captive breeding facility feel passionate about what they do. Warden Alberto sold up his bar in Costa Rico to work with the reptiles that can reach 5ft long and 70 years old. As he gently stokes the bluish tinted head of Steve, he tells us of the love triangle going on between Bibi, Stanley and Archie. Blue Iguanas have to have a new partner every two years to broaden the gene pool, and Bibi is already feeling its time for a change.
For some relaxation, we finish the day atRum Pointon the north side. Legend has it that a ship was wrecked here in the 18th century, spilling its barrels of rum across the bay and bringing an early Christmas present to the islanders that December. And the crew must have felt most fortunate to have been washed up here, on its sandy white beach, with shallow clear waters and shady palm trees. Now there are hammocks and picnic tables and a cluster of small bars along the beach. I stop at the Wreck Bar for a frothy mudslide – a potent mixture of coffee vodka and Irish cream look forward to the next trip – to Cayman Brac.
Stay tuned, part two is coming soon