The Cayman Islands


by Alexander Stammers

Imagine a place where nearly every day is like a tropical version of that movie Ground Hog Day, when you open your front door and the sun streams through to welcome yet another perfect day. A place where the weather is sunny and hot, and the sea flat and calm. You can swim out for a shore dive, through gin clear water to a bottomless wall, only in your board shorts and a rash shirt before breakfast. Standing on sand as white as snow, as you hand feed green sea turtles and stingrays, that beg like dogs at your side. A place like this could only exist within a dream that only divers have.

Now pinch yourself to make sure youre not dreaming, a place like that does exist, within a different sea from our Pacific Ocean. Like three small insignificant dots on the world map, just below Cuba and next to Jamaica, three underwater mountains rise up from the depths of the blue Caribbean Sea, to form the Cayman Islands.

Grand Cayman, the name of that Island sounds as impressive as the diving thats beneath its water. Graced by warm crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea, Grand Cayman and its sister islands, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, have been a dive Mecca for visitors from all over the world, since the first dive excursions to them in the 1950s. The whos who in diving have dived, photographed and written countless articles about its bottomless walls, marine attractions and underwater wonders.

Most of us in New Zealand only know of the Cayman Islands as a tax haven, mentioned in Hollywood movies. Although we may have seen footage of the Caymans underwater world, when we did our open water courses, and watched the training videos in amazement as beautifully coloured angel fish swam circles around divers.

In 1991 as a teenager, I was blessed with being introduced to the beauty of the underwater world and becoming a scuba diver, which has led to an obsession with diving. That same year I flicked through an old Skin Diver magazine, and its pages like a treasure map, introduced me to the Cayman Islands and their diving wonders. Adding it to my ever-growing list of places I must dive in my lifetime, I scribbled it down under the likes of the Red Sea and Fiji. Eight years later, I finally crossed it off a crumpled piece of paper, and left the Great Barrier Reef after two years of instructing for the Grand Cayman, where I would stay for the next four years.

Diving the Caymans is easy with very little current and visibility so good, its near impossible to get lost. Within its waters lies a huge diversity of marine life, with fish and coral species, some that we are familiar with in the Pacific, and then others that are completely new. On Cayman reefs, the great barracuda is undoubtedly king, reaching over six feet. They have an uncanny way of approaching divers, just a little too close, for an unnerving look. The Caymans are widely renowned for their sea turtles. It is said that when early sailors discovered the islands, you could walk from ship to shore on the backs of resident turtles. Alas, those days are long gone but the turtle population of Grand Cayman is still healthy, and you have about an 80% chance of seeing a hawksbill or green sea turtle on every dive. A short walk up Seven Mile Beach will bring you to a group of condos called Spanish Galleon, where a group of about eight green sea turtles will appear from nowhere, just off the beach for a hand-out of cat biscuits. This is a great opportunity to get up close and personal and get some amazing photos with these usually shy animals.

A typical dive in Grand Cayman starts on a shallow reef where purple gorgonian sea fans sway back and forth, beckoning divers from coconut-fringed beaches. The deeper rainbow coloured reefs are blanketed with sponges and hard corals.Angelfish and butterfly fish, which exist in inseparable pairs, flit in and out of the coral. You may see resting turtles, which lie snacking on a smorgasbord board of sponges. Between the reefs that stretch out like fingers towards the distant wall, large sand flats spread out like playing fields. Large conch snails lope along these sand flats and garden eels play hide and seek from southern sting rays that nose around in the sand, always on the look out for a meal.  Eventually the powder white sand cascades off the Cayman wall in grottos and through caverns, in some places looking like a ski slope.

Overhangs and tunnels from shallower depths can make for a dramatic entrance on to the wall that drops away below you, in some places down to a staggering 23,000 feet, into the Cayman Trench. Along the wall magnificent pinnacles and ledges jut out, you can encounter white spotted eagle rays, which frequent the drop-offs. If youre lucky, you may make out the outline of a lone great hammerhead shark, which prowl along the reef tops and drop-offs. Diving Grand Cayman can best be described like diving the four points of a compass, with North, West, South, and East side of the Island, all offering completely different diving from each other.

Each side of Grand Cayman is unique, from the calm waters and shallow reefs of the west side, to the limestone caverns that resemble Swiss cheese, of the south side. The East end has a more wild underwater terrain, with its less frequently dived reefs, and there is a good chance of diving with patrolling reefs sharks. North Side diving has more challenging diving, with the drop-offs being much steeper than the West side and predominantly more chop on the surface.  In North Sound, one of the largest sounds in the world, lays the famous four metre dive site of Stingray City, and the Sand Bar. Both sites are best dived in the afternoon because of cruise ship crowds, and can only be reached by boat. Unlike the name there are no shops or buildings, to the disappointment of some people! But there are however a lot of Southern stingrays or squid pigs, as dive staff affectionately call them. These unusually shaped animals will swamp any diver/swimmer holding squid. Be aware of a stingray hickey, as the rays can mistake a part of your anatomy and sucking on it hurts!  The sudden appearance of Psycho is always exciting; this giant six-foot green moray eel, has an unnerving habit of showing up unexpectedly, usually between your legs, looking for any handouts or hands.

The Sister Islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac have their own special treasures. Little Cayman is home to Bloody Bay Wall, a marine park that is placed along side our very own Poor Knights, rated as one of the best dive sites in the world. Here the wall drops from the shallows down to the inky depths, with plentiful marine life abound. Cayman Brac is home to the Keith Tibbetts, the worlds first purposely sunk naval wreck for divers. Sunk in 1996, this wreck has now become a vibrant, colourful reef of life.

Topside in the Caymans youll find true Caribbean laid back islands, with a high quality of living and fine selection of resorts from the five star to the self-catering. Good shopping and a diverse range of restaurants, where everything is a no problems mon as the locals say. Include the Caymans in your next stopover as you pass the Caribbean to Europe, or stop and have a couple of dives on a Caribbean cruise. If youre an instructor and looking and working overseas the Cayman Islands are a great place to work and can open a lot of opportunities for instructors. The Caribbean is a must do for divers to experience once in their life time, and like three floorless jewels, the Cayman Islands are as good as it gets.

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