THE CAYMAN ISLANDS
Underwater Jewels of the Caribbean
Season: Year-round diving
Visibility: 30-40m/100-130ft, sometimes up to 60-70m/200-230ft
Water Temperature: 26-29°C/79-84°F
Diving: Wreck, sharks, walls, sea mounts, coral gardens, swim-throughs, caves, shore diving (Little Cayman Beach Beach Resort)
Snorkeling opportunities (Compass Point and Little Cayman Beach Resort)
Willing to share option on Cayman Aggressor
Rising from the ocean bed in the clear waters of the northern Caribbean Sea lies a massive underwater mountain range known as the Cayman Ridge. Three of its spectacular peaks break the surface of the water to form the islands of Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. To the north lies the island of Cuba and to the east Jamaica. The water is deliciously warm and the diving is easy. No rivers deposit sediment into the crystal clear waters that are said to be amongst the least polluted in the world. The islands are surrounded by fringing reefs with staghorn coral, canyons, pinnacles, archways and of course, the magnificent walls that provide the necessary protection for all varieties of marine life while still enabling the larger pelagic species to come within reach of the diver. Because diving is such a major part of the tourist industry, diving in the Cayman Islands has become highly organized and very professionally run. The diving industry, together with the government, have formed the Cayman Islands Watersports Operators Association, which sets the highest standards in diving safety, boat operation and diving guides. The creation of permanent mooring sites and continuing environmental education all help to preserve the health and delicate ecology of the reefs and their associated marine life.
Whilst the West End of Grand Cayman offers good (although often nowadays rather crowded) diving, the discerning diver should visit the East End of Grand Cayman or Little Cayman (plus Cayman Brac) in order to experience some of the very finest diving that the Cayman Islands, and indeed the Caribbean as a whole, has to offer.
Grand Cayman is 22 miles long, 8 miles wide and at the highest point only 20 metres above sea level. The East End of Grand Cayman is just a 45-minute drive from the tourist trappings of Seven Mile Beach with its large beach hotels, clubs and bars, but both above and below the waves it is a world away. If you think you know what Grand Cayman is about, but have never dived at the East End, a wonderful surprise awaits you. The diving here has only recently opened up and few of the East End’s 60 or so dive sites are featured in any guidebook. The reefs are as pristine as any in the Caribbean and you will rarely see more than one other dive boat during a day on the water!
Alternatively, why not take the chance of experiencing the joys of superb marine life in crystal clear, warm water around Little Cayman and Cayman Brac from the exclusive and peaceful Little Cayman Beach Resort or from the luxurious Cayman Aggressor? Whether you chose to explore these underwater wonderlands by liveaboard or from a shore-based location you will soon see why the fine reputation of these two small islands is very well deserved.
THE EAST END, GRAND CAYMAN
The East End is entirely surrounded by coral reefs that jut out into 2000m-deep ocean water. Visibility is reliably impressive and occasionally staggering, averaging between 30 and 60 metres because there are no rivers in the area. The reef forms two steps: a mini-wall starting at 5-6m and dropping to 12-18m and, further from shore, the main drop off that starts between 12-18m and drops vertically to the ocean depths. These two steps mean that the dive sites are either shallower reef or deeper wall type dives.
The East End wall is cut with deep caves and canyons that separate pinnacles from the main wall. The scenery is made all the more spectacular because so much of it is visible in the crystal-clear water. The top of the wall is dominated by soft and hard corals, which give way to large colourful sponges and gorgonian fans on the drop-off. The shallow sites are extraordinary; the famous underwater photographer David Doubilet visited the East End for the first time in 2004 and said he was keen to return just to concentrate on these sites alone. Nearly all these sites are high profile spur and groove formations, with multiple deep canyons running through the reef. In places the walls of the canyons meet, enclosing spacious caverns that are encrusted with colourful reef creatures. Not surprisingly, such complex topography provides an ideal habitat for abundant fish and invertebrate life.
Wall sites in the southeast such as Jack Mckenney’s Canyon and The Maze offer an intoxicating mix of stunning vertical scenery and large fish. A group of Caribbean Reef Sharks are resident and the water column is chock-a-block with Creole Wrasse, Bermuda Chub and Black Durgon whenever there is a bit of current. Hawksbill Turtles feed on the abundant colourful sponge life and are often accompanied by French, Grey and Queen Angelfish. The northeast wall, which includes sites such as Babylon and Anchor Point, is equally vertical and has even more abundant sponges and seafans. You will regularly see pairs or even groups of Spotted Eagle Rays gracefully gliding past in the blue. Lone Scalloped Hammerheads are also seen here from time to time.
The shallow sites are even fishier! The sites along the north coast, such as Fish Tank and Photographic Reef, have a tremendous variety and density of species. There is everything here from large prowling Great Barracudas down to cautious Secretary Blennies peering from their homes between the coral polyps. The terrain is classic Caribbean spur and groove reef, with massive Star and Brain Corals interspersed with the waving arms of soft corals.
In the southeast, which includes sites such as Kelly’s Caverns and Maggie’s Maze, the reef structure is much more exotic and resembles Swiss cheese, filled with tunnels, caves and canyons. The caverns are home to schools of powerful, chrome-tinged Tarpon that grow to well over a metre in size. Lobsters are numerous in the area. Float up through one of the gaps in the reef and suddenly you are in a shallow coral garden where schools of Blue Tangs, parrotfish, snappers and grunts bustle through the corals. It is hard to believe you are on the same dive site.
Perhaps the best shallow sites are those straight off the East End such as Snapper Hole and Cinderella’s Castle. The landscape is a similar mix of sheer-walled canyons and shallow, fish-filled coral gardens. The caverns create a fantasyland to explore, inhabited by cave-dwelling species. Above the reef, Horse-eye Jacks form circular schools, while Yellow-tailed Damselfish dart between impressive healthy stands of Elkhorn coral (nowadays a rare sight over much of the Caribbean after it was wiped out by white band disease in the early 1990s). Diving here is a giant stride back in time.
At certain times of the year the caves and caverns of the East End fill with schooling silversides, attracting hungry groupers, jacks and Tarpons. There are few more exhilarating underwater experiences than being in a cavern packed with silversides during the hunt. The predators literally burst through the silver curtains of fish right into your facemask. The massive schools of silversides used to appear predictably at the end of the summer, but in the last few years have tended to hang around throughout the year at lower densities. The dive staff will always know which sites have silversides when you visit. The great silverside hunt makes such a thrilling dive that they have led many US photographers to name these sites the best in the Caribbean.
Ocean Frontiers, our dive centre at the East End, are the only dive centre that regularly visits Twelve Mile Bank. This is a submerged seamount, that nearly became the fourth Cayman island (but the coral never reached the surface). This pristine area can only be dived on calm days during the summer.
Ocean Frontiers make their stingray dives at The Sandbar, rather than the original Stingray City. The Sandbar is home to five times as many rays as Stingray City and has much more reliable visibility. Diving at the Sandbar is spectacular from the moment that you settle on the powder soft sand the rays start appearing. Many arrive in groups, often ‘formation flying’ as they come out of the blue. Up close the stingrays are massive, many more that 1.5 metres feet across, and they can block out the sun as they swoop overhead. You can choose to offer them tit-bits of squid, which they will ‘hoover’ from your hand, or just sit back and enjoy their company. The rays don’t get all their food from handouts and since they are so used to divers they are easy to approach as they dig in the sand for molluscs.
Ocean Frontiers have also been instrumental in working with the National Museum to create the first shipwreck preserve in the Cayman Islands on the Wreck of the Glamis.
One of Grand Cayman’s most famous dive sites is, of course, Stingray City, where shafts of sunlight flicker through the water reflecting on the numerous Southern Stingrays which congregate on the flat, sandy ocean floor at a depth of only 4 metres. These tame creatures nuzzle and nudge divers while soliciting for food. Swirling round and performing their underwater acrobatics in the crystal clear waters, they provide superb opportunities for underwater photography. Spectacularly colourful corals, fascinating fish and, of course, the world famous Stingray City await the diver who explores this fabulous Caribbean underwater world. This famous dive site is often included on the Cayman Aggressor’s itinerary.
Little Cayman’s most famous dive area, Bloody Bay Marine Park, is widely acknowledged as one of the most varied and spectacular dive sites in the world. Two walls, Jackson Wall and Bloody Bay Wall, make up this stunning marine park where very strict legislation limits the number of dive boats allowed to operate in the area each day. Only two dive boats per operator are allowed to enter the marine park and each boat is limited to no more than 20 divers.
Bloody Bay Wall comprises a 4-kilometre unbroken arc of magnificent coral wall which starts at a depth of 7 metres and drops vertically to 300 metres. With visibility reaching up to a spectacular 70 metres, it is thought to be the clearest and most spectacular diving area in the Caribbean! There are more than 20 dive sites to choose from along the wall. Dotted with caves, deeply etched canyons and tunnels, the wall is rich in large coral heads, tall gorgonians and brilliantly coloured clusters of tube sponges all teeming with a variety of multi-coloured fish and many other forms of marine life. There is so much diving potential that there are still many unexplored areas of reef. Diving in these warm waters with exceptional visibility is something you will remember for a long time!
Jackson’s Reef abounds with life. A population of very friendly French Angelfish are usually more than willing to pose for photographs. Spotted Eagle Rays, Southern Stingrays and Green and Black-and-white Morays frequent the reef. For the night diver there are lots of night dwellers: octopus, basket starfish and orange ball anemones to name but a few.
At Marilyn’s Cut, outcroppings along the wall provide anchorage for red rope sponges, yellow tube sponges and various of gorgonians. The hard corals along the top of the wall attract colourful wrasse, while the soft corals provide cover for lurking Trumpetfish. A large Nassau Grouper (locally known as ‘Ben’) usually hangs out near a giant barrel sponge below the crest of the wall. Ben has a great affinity for camera lenses and has been the star of many underwater photographs!
Nancy’s Cup of Tea begins at about 12 metres, plunges dramatically in a cascade of overhanging outcrops and ends hundreds of metres down. Orange and red strawberry vase sponges festoon rugged limestone mounds. A large pinnacle surrounded by a deep passageway supports huge growths of black coral, red rope sponges and delicate twists of wire coral. Nassau Groupers, French Angelfish, filefish and wrasse live in the shelter of the cracks and crevices.
Some of the less frequently dived areas east of Bloody Bay along the north shore of Little Cayman are spectacular and include Blacktip Tunnels, Sailfin Reef and Crystal Palace Wall. Cayman Islands Department of Environment has recently designated four new dive sites: two to the west of Bloody Bay Wall, and two along the South Shore. Little Cayman’s enviable reputation as having the best diving in the Caribbean is emphasised by the stunning quality of diving at these new dive sites.
Perhaps the most recently publicized dive in the world is the wreck of the Captain Keith Tibbetts (a Russian warship in a previous existence!), which was sunk amid great ceremony in September 1996 and now lies upright in 10-24 metres of water. The 95 metre long vessel is completely intact, right down to its gun turrets, and can be fully explored (apart from the engine room and lower decks which have been sealed off in the interests of safety). Already a healthy population of fish, including Southern Stingrays and Spotted Eagle Rays, has colonized the wreck.
Wilderness Wall is a superbly preserved, almost virginal, reef covered in an abundance of the healthiest sponges and corals. Some of the sponges, which come in brilliant jewel-like reds, greens, oranges and yellows, reach enormous proportions. Delicate gorgonians, hard corals, rope and tube sponges decorate the crevices and canyons which cut through the wall. This dramatic and mystical dive attracts stingrays, Nassau Groupers, angelfish, snappers, turtles and schooling Horse-eye Jacks. Pelagic encounters are a distinct possibility here as rock formations form gullies and corridors from the deep open water through which pelagic species become channelled. The superb reef crest and wide sandy plateau on top of the wall provide superb opportunities for a fascinating safety stop.
COMBINATIONS: The combination of Grand Cayman’s East End and Little Cayman offers both wonderful accommodation in both destinations and the cream of Cayman diving. Talk to us about the possibilities.
FLIGHTS: Example price: from about $352 return from Miami to Grand Cayman (plus from about $132 from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman if visiting Little Cayman Beach Resort).