There’s more to Cayman than the Kittiwake, says Nick Robertson-brown.
Giant striding into the crystal-clear waters off the five-and-ahalf miles of Seven Mile Beach is a great way to start your day. The water temperature is in the high 20s all year round and with very little run off from this low-lying island, sitting directly south of Cuba, the visibility is virtually guaranteed to be between 20 and 30 metres at least. On most days, the sky is blue with barely a cloud to be seen, so some form of UV protection is a good idea. The most-famous dive site on this island has to be the USS Kittiwake, but there is a lot more to the diving of Grand Cayman than this artificial reef - although it must be said that the Kittiwake is a very special wreck to dive.
I was on the island of Grand Cayman to run a photography course and was hosted by Divetech, whose joint-owner Nancy Easterbrook was the project manager for bringing the USS Kittiwake to the island as an artificial reef. It took eight years of, sometimes delicate, negotiations before the island’s committee managed to bring this US submarine rescue ship from Norfolk, Virginia to Grand Cayman. The lengthy timescale was largely due to the stringent guidelines required by the United States when it comes to sinking an artificial reef. She really is a joy to dive, being situated upright on white sand at a maximum depth of 20m. The top of the wreck sits at around 5m below the surface and, as a result, the light on this wreck is as good as it gets for photography and is accessible for all level of divers. There is plenty to explore on this wreck, and it is teeming with wildlife, including large schools of jacks circling the superstructures. Penetrating the wreck is easy as the ‘sinking-crew’ have cut large holes in the side and surfaces of the ship so that any time you penetrate, you can see an exit no more than a few metres away. Many points of interest inside the ship have been left deliberately and as the ship was a submarine rescue vessel, it has a hyperbaric chamber. The chamber was not removed from the ship, and if you choose to go into it, there is a half-metre air space which you can surface into. You are, however, strongly advised to keep breathing from your second stage and do not remove it. There are many other artefacts to visit around the wreck, including the twin anchor winch and an enormous propeller that sits about a metre above the surface of the sand.
Diving Grand Cayman, however, is not just about the Kittiwake. The reefs are in superb condition and on every dive throughout the week, I did not fail to see either a turtle, a nurse shark or a spotted eagle ray; on one dive, I saw all three of these classic Caribbean creatures. Unlike many Caribbean islands, the dive sites are really varied. You can dive a flat reef surrounded by bommies, and there are walls covered in colourful coral and sponges as well as some amazing gullies inviting you down to the darker blue that is found at 30m to 40m. On most of the reefs there are Caribbean spiny lobster waving their oversize antennae, and on one dive I followed a fairly large, free-swimming green moray eel as it tried to enter the lair of three excited lobster. The face-off was one of those moments that remind you why you enjoy your diving so much.
“You can dive a flat reef surrounded by bommies, and there are walls covered in colourful coral and sponges as well as some amazing gullies inviting you down to the darker blue that is found at 30m to 40m”
The wall goes down to over 1,800m and many of the dive operators provide technical diving, including my hosts, Divetech. The Kittiwake isn’t the only wreck either, the Doc Poulson is an old tugboat lying at around 20m surrounded by white sand, and covered in amazing growth. This wreck, too, has its own story, although it was also sunk as an artificial reef. The first hyperbaric chamber on the island was set up by a local character called Doc Poulson, a doctor and diver who, allegedly, used to ride around the island, naked, on his bicycle - but only on a Sunday. Doc Poulson was such a renowned character in the local dive community that they named the wreck in his honour.
During the week that I was there, Divetech held their annual Pirate Treasure Hunt. This involved the staff and the 50 or so participating divers dressing up as pirates before donning their dive gear and searching for ‘doubloons’ on the sandy shore-diving site in front of the dive shop and cafe. Entrance to the shore dive is through a tiled pool, which was built to allow access to the dive site, even when there is moderate surge and waves. The cafe is particularly interesting as it is vegetarian, apart from the various lionfish dishes they will prepare for you. Their spicy sauce and falafel is definitely worth a try.
Like most of the Caribbean, the ecological balance of the reefs and its wildlife is under threat from lionfish. Lionfish are not endemic to the Caribbean and have been artificially introduced, probably by aquariums that have been swamped by large waves during the hurricanes that are a part of everyone’s life in this region. The Cayman Islands have been at the forefront of culling the species by taking them out of the ocean, where they are then offered on the menus of many of the local restaurants. I personally do not eat fish due to the dangerously low reserves of many species, as a result of the unsustainable fishing techniques being used by many of the large corporations. I did, however, choose to eat the lionfish in an effort to help the preservation of the indigenous marine life of the Caribbean. Many of the Caribbean islands are getting involved in similar projects, but it seems to be working particularly well in the Caymans, as I didn’t see a single lionfish on any of my 12 dives
throughout the week.
The other signature dive of Grand Cayman is Stingray City. This involves a short drive across the island and most dive operators ask for a small additional charge. This dive is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea as it involves one of the guides taking down a bottle of fish juice to attract the stingrays. Once the stingrays appear, it all becomes something of a circus act with 15 to 25 stingrays of various sizes trying to get to the dive guide and the bottle of fish gunk. Some people really enjoy it as an animal interaction experience, but I have to say, it wasn’t for me.
The four dive boats that are run by Divetech are well laid out and vary in size from a six- to eight-man dive boat to the largest one, which can carry about 18 divers. The staff are excellent and as most of them are British, there are never any language difficulties - even with the occasional American dive guide. We stayed in the Condos at Lighthouse Point and aside from having a great view, and masses of space for all our underwater photography equipment, the best thing about this place is that it is so eco-friendly, with both solar and wind power providing electricity to the rooms.
Grand Cayman is well known throughout the world as is a tax haven for the wealthy and as a result, staying on the island can prove to be expensive if you are having to pay for your own food and drinks. There are, however, many places to eat and drink that are outside the ‘rich zone’. I found several places where the food and drink were no more expensive than any other Caribbean island, and like any diving location, if you want to know the best and the least expensive places to go, then ask the dive staff. As anyone who’s worked in the dive industry will tell you, being a dive guide/instructor does not provide the most lucrative of incomes. These guys will always tell you about their secret watering holes.
Grand Cayman has a lot to offer. Aside from the sunshine, white sandy beaches lined with palm trees, there is both great recreational and technical diving here. There are plenty of critters to keep the macro nuts happy, wrecks to please the most-discerning diver with rust-lust, and lots of big marine life, too. Combine these attributes with some wonderful visibility, flat-clam seas (most of the time) and fun activities on land, such as the rum distilleries, kayaking at night in bioluminescent bays, and just relaxing and taking it all in, Grand Cayman will have something for everyone.
“I found several places where the food and drink were no more expensive than any other Caribbean island, and like any diving location, if you want to know the best and the least expensive places to go, then ask the dive staff”
Eagle ray makes off in a cloud of silt
Atmospheric shot of the Kittiwake
Colurful sponge growth smothers the wrecks
Cayman is turtle heaven
...and always be close to a light source or exit
Green moray eel and spiny lobster
You can penetrate into the bowels of the Kittiwake...