GRAND CAYMAN

There’s more to Cayman than the Kit­ti­wake, says Nick Robert­son-brown.

Sport Diver - - Contents - Pho­tographs by 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

St­ingray City

...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...

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