Cayman Islands

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996

Cayman Islands
By Tom Morrisey, Jean Pierce

For bubble-blowing novice divers, the multithousand-foot vertical walls and fish-crowded reefs of Grand Cayman might seem like a little piece of scuba heaven, but many cognoscenti now view the 76-square-mile island in terms of Yogi Berra's famous dictum: "It's too crowded; nobody goes there anymore." Grand Cayman's sister islands, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, 89 miles to the northeast, are where Grand Cayman's divemasters go for their dive vacations. But if you've never dived the big one, don't write it off. It's possible to sample some legendary diving without joining the multitudes on the double-decker charter boats.

Grand Cayman
Halfway between Jamaica and the western tip of Cuba, Grand Cayman is famous for wall-diving sites like Big Tunnels, the sunlight-shafted swim-through tubes of Trinity Caves off Seven-Mile Beach, and the two north sound sand shoals collectively known as Stingray City. Book Sunset Divers (two-tank dive, $60; 809-949-7111), a small, personal outfit, to visit Stingray City; you'll descend 15 feet to feed "ballyhoo sushi" to resident southern stingrays that shove, dishevel, and sometimes impart souvenir hickies with their industrial-vacuum-cleaner-strength mouths.

Check out Aqua'nauts, on Seven-Mile Beach and at Morgan's Harbor Marina in North Sound (two-tank dive, $55; 800-357-2212), which takes groups of up to 16 to the same spots as the larger dive boats for around the same price. Another way to avoid the throngs is to go across island to the deeper waters of the east end, served by resorts such as the uncrowded Cayman Diving Lodge (doubles, $175, including lodging, all meals, dives, and transfers; 800-852-3483). You'll see the annual winter congregation of Nassau groupers at Grouper Grotto, as well as eagle rays, sharks, manta rays, and turtles.

Cayman Brac
"The Brac" is distinguished by a spinelike bluff (brac, in gaelic) that runs the length of the 14-square-mile island (it's about the size of Manhattan but has only about 1,200 residents). Swiss-cheesed with caves that sheltered the island's residents during the last major hurricane (1932), and crossed by miles of hiking trails once used to supply the bluff-top lighthouse, the island has dedicated 100 acres as a preserve for the rare brac parrot.

Dives on the Brac run the gamut from East Chute, near the western tip of the north shore--a deep drop-off with rivers of sand near the diminutive wreck of the Cayman Mariner--to Airport Reef, on the west end, where one can spend an idyllic night-dive photographing sleeping parrotfish or playing hide-and-seek with an octopus amid the pillar coral.

The sole Brac concession to mass-market dive-resort operations is the Divi Tiara (doubles, $125-$165; 800-367-3484), which provides multiple boats and a complete photo center. More typical of the island is Brac Reef Beach Resort (doubles, $99-$130; 800-327-3835), on the island's west end, a small, unpretentious resort with a single-boat operation whose crew not only has your gear ready when you step on the boat, but washes and stores it afterward for the next outing.

Little Cayman
Cayman Brac dive boats often make the five-mile trip over to Little Cayman, a sparsely vegetated, ten-square-mile island so laid back that Island Air's twice-daily touchdown from Grand Cayman is a major event. The primary attractions here are Jackson's Bay and Bloody Bay, in the northwest, where 150-foot-plus visibility and dense sealife accentuate the best wall diving in the Cayman Islands--the wall starts at just 15 to 30 feet.

Drifting above the indigo deep next to the vertical wall, you might see a frog fish at Mixing Bowl, where Jackson's and Bloody Bays meet. As you ascend, you'll see frilly sea goddess nudibranchs inching along the brain coral. In winter you can spot some of the Cayman's smallest creatures, the jawfish, incubating their eggs. Males hold the egg masses in their mouths, occasionally ejecting and rotating them like a pizza chef tossing his dough.

At Coconut Grove, part of the North Wall in Bloody Bay, there's plenty to look at in walltop shallows, from friendly pufferfish and small yellow stingrays to a beautiful stand of bristly pillar coral. Off in the distance, a large blacktip shark may make an appearance, and divers here often bump into the resident turtles. When winter winds make the north shores too rough, go to the leeward South Wall, where you'll see sperm-groove and elkhorn coral, eagle rays, and yellow-tailed damsels.

Best divers' digs include the secluded Southern Cross Club (doubles, $105-$140 per person, meals and transfers included; 809-948-1099) and the sun-washed Little Cayman Beach Resort (doubles, $109-$180; 800-327-3835), a family-owned place with 32 rooms, a pool, and tennis courts. But if you don't mind working off extra calories, Pirate's Point Resort (doubles, $180-$200 per person, including meals, two daily dives, and an open bar; 809-948-1010) offers the extra treat of Cordon Bleu-trained owner Gladys Howard's culinary expertise. The resort has four bungalows just a step from an isolated beach, and the sole dive boat departs for the daily two-tank dive at a leisurely 10 A.M.

See also:

The Rum File

All-Inclusive Resorts

Islands You've Never Heard Of

Getting There and Around

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