The Cayman Islands are one of the world’s best diving destinations--the reefs are lively and the visibility is excellent. I spent ten days on Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac; here are my picks for the best dive sites in those islands.
Lighthouse Point: One of the best wall dives in Grand Cayman. The reef is thriving, and the water is relatively calm compared to nearby diving sites. About 250 feet from shore is a mini-wall, 30-60 feet deep. The deep wall is about 600 feet out and drops from 120 feet to 4,000 feet. There’s a plethora of sponges, corals, and sea fans.
Be on the lookout for eagle rays, octopus, angelfish, and scorpion fish. I was lucky enough to see a sea turtle munching its lunch in Turtle Head Canyon near the deep wall.
The Kittiwake Wreck: This ship was sunk on Jan. 5, 2011 and marine life has already begun to grow. It’s fun to swim through the decks and check out the rooms. Down at the bow, I spotted a goliath grouper weighing more than 100 lbs. A school of squid greeted me near the stern.
Big Tunnels: This is a deep dive--more than 100 feet--so only do it if you’re comfortable. Tunnel formations filled with fish, and the occasional eagle ray, offer plenty to see. When you come out and around, keep your eyes peeled for sea turtles stationed beneath an overhang at the base of the reef.
Peter’s Reef: A relatively shallow dive. You won’t go below 50 feet here, so it’s good to do this after a deeper dive. I got to swim with an adolescent sea turtle and paused to look at an eel poking out from the reef. You’ll see barracuda pass by and yellowhead jawfish on the ocean floor. These small jawfish burrow holes in the sand, and you can watch them hover above their burrows searching for food.
Buccaneer Reef: I did my first night dive here. It’s possible to see octopus and lobster. The animals don’t seem bothered by the presence of divers, so it’s easy to swim calmly around in the middle of the night. I was hoping to see a parrotfish, which encases itself in its own saliva as it sleeps, but forgot about it when I started following a spiny lobster on the ocean floor, until it crawled off into the dark.
The Captain Keith Tibbetts Wreck: Marine life has adapted well to this former Russian destroyer, which went down in 1996 with Jean-Michel Cousteau diving with it as it sank. Corals and sponges grow all around, and fish swim by like the ship is a normal feature of the ocean floor. It’s hard to explore the interior—it’s dark, and I was only able to enter through one door and quickly exited out another—but from the bow, 85 feet deep, to the stern, around 60 feet deep, you’ll see plenty of critters. Look for secretary blenny, goliath grouper, moray eels, and hawksbill turtles.
Snapper Reef: This reef is in pristine condition, and it has an incredible amount of marine life. The diversity of color is spectacular. There are large “fingers” of coral reef, divided by sand, so you can swim the peaks and valleys, peek into sponges to see if there are creatures inside, and try to keep track of the many fish, such as Bermuda chub, grunts, and snapper.
When To Go:
Winter and early spring. You could score good travel deals in the off-season, but you’d have to deal with muggy conditions and/or hurricane season.
Where To Stay: Cobalt Coast, Grand Cayman (cobaltcoast.com). This resort is in a residential area, so you’ll be among the locals. It’s a quiet, cozy spot where you can roll out of bed in the morning and saunter a few steps to the open-air dining space, facing the ocean, for breakfast. I stayed there late March, early April, at the tail-end of peak season, so it wasn’t crowded. I got certified by Divetech, a dive operator on the premises. Ask for Jennifer Chapman, a bubbly expat Australian, if you need lessons or a guide. Sea Fan Reef is right in front of the resort: a good place for beginning divers if the water isn’t too choppy.
Brac Reef Beach Resort, Cayman Brac (bracreef.com). The landscape of this resort is so gorgeous, it’s surreal. The hotel’s exterior is motel-style, which belies the elegance of the rooms. The family that owns the resort renovated it completely after a disastrous hurricane swept through the island. Reef Divers Cayman Brac is the on-site dive operator--ask for BJ and/or Manny as guides; you’ll enjoy diving with them. Once the boat docks after a day in the water, you can while away the evening at the Tipsy Turtle Pub between the beach and the pool.
Grand Cayman—Coconut Joe’s (caymangoodtaste.com). Come here for breakfast and have the banana pancakes. You can toss your scraps to the feral chicks roaming around the dining porch.
The Sunshine Grill (thesunshinegrill.com). A local favorite. Located in touristy Seven Mile Beach, it manages to seem like a secret, tucked away behind a parking lot. Try the fish tacos and wash them down with a “Painkiller” cocktail.
Bacchus (bacchus.ky). It started as a wine bar and grew into a fine restaurant. Discovery Channel featured chef Keith Griffin in its Great Chefs of the Caribbean series. Go for his garam masala grilled giant prawns, laid atop perfectly cooked nasi goreng, the Indonesian version of fried rice.
Cayman Brac--The Palms Caribbean Restaurant (bracreef.com). No need to leave Brac Reef Beach Resort for food. The Palms sets out a tasty buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A convenient stop in between your sojourns in the water.
Photos: Sea turtle (Photograph by Lawson Wood, Cayman Islands Department of Tourism); Yellowhead jawfish (Courtesy of NOAA CCMA Biogeography Team); Spiny lobster (Photograph by Claire Fackler, CINMS, NOAA); MV Capt. Keith Tibbetts, Cayman Brac (Courtesy of Cayman Islands Department of Tourism); Yellowtail snapper (Photograph by Dr. Anthony R. Picciolo, NOAA NODC); Cobalt Coast (Courtesy of Cobalt Coast Dive Resort); Brac Reef (Courtesy of Brac Reef Beach Resort); The Sunshine Grill (Courtesy of Sunshine Suites).