Having proved my mettle to the editor of Diver magazine, he was happy to give me my first ‘real’ commission. Safe to say, I was pinching myself. I was on my way to the Cayman Islands for my brother’s wedding and wanted to dive out there. Diver hadn’t featured Cayman recently so a review of the diving in Grand Cayman was a perfect match.
The only problem was negotiating some of the inevitable family politics. Apparently, it’s not acceptable for the bridesmaid to go scuba diving on the morning of the wedding. (I would have been back by lunch!)
Wedding celebrations – my first ‘real’ commission diving in Grand Cayman
For her first ever foray into Caribbean diving, MELISSA HOBSON would have preferred free rein over her schedule while diving in Grand Cayman. However, being forced to find other activities than the renowned Kittiwake wreck opened up breathtaking alternatives… not all of them diving!
A (reluctant) trip to the Caribbean…!
Halfway across the world and well out of my price range, the Cayman Islands was not my first choice for a week in the sun. But because a family wedding was taking me to the largest island, Grand Cayman, I had to make the most of what it had to offer – both above and below the ocean’s surface.
A little research quickly enabled me to narrow down the unmissable diving in Grand Cayman. However, I was equally quickly disappointed by diary clashes between my other organised activities and my dive-shop’s schedule.
Apparently, being bridesmaid at my brother’s wedding took priority over diving the renowned Kittiwake wreck (Tuesday) and I couldn’t miss my flight home (Thursday), even if it was to experience Ocean Frontier’s X-Dive – a one-of-a-kind dive along the Cayman Trench which, reportedly, gives you the greatest chances of seeing sharks and “the big stuff”. Although disappointing, there are 365 officially named dive sites in the Cayman Islands (240 of those around Grand Cayman). So I hoped I’d find plenty of other dives worthy of note.
For our first day on the island we had chartered a boat to take the wedding party to famed Stingray City. This is supposedly “the world’s best 12ft dive” but, rather than donning tanks, we were there to meet these gentle creatures on foot, standing waist-deep in the water.
The area of shallow sandbars that is now a legendary tourist attraction was once just a place where fishermen cleaned their catch. The usually shy sting rays began gathering to feed on the fish-guts, and were soon associating the sound of a boat-engine with food.
Decades later, tourists can experience not merely seeing but getting up close to these impressive creatures. As we waded through the water, large rays began gathering around us, clearly aware that they might be in for a feed. They circled us and brushed against our legs, and we were encouraged to hold them and, rather bizarrely, to give them a kiss in return for seven years’ good luck.
Despite being someone who usually loves big-animal encounters on a dive, sliding my arms beneath these huge, surprisingly heavy creatures was mildly terrifying. Not to mention puckering up for a smooch with one.
When the guides pulled out some squid for feeding time, the rays went berserk, like a gang of kids fighting for sweets. I decided to watch the frenzy from the safety of the boat, away from the risk of being accidentally spiked by one of the multiple barbs.
For the rest of the day we cruised across the impossibly blue Caribbean Sea and, using only our snorkels, saw amazing coral, multitudes of rainbow-coloured fish and numerous rays gliding about beneath us.
The next day would give me my first taste of diving in Grand Cayman, and I had high hopes as I drove along the coastal road towards Ocean Frontiers’ dive-shop.
After a short boat-ride, we began to kit up for our first dive at Turtle Pass, one of 12 sites on the three-mile stretch of reefs and walls called Queen’s Highway.
The first thing that struck me about diving in Grand Cayman – before I’d so much as rinsed my mask in the warm, azure water – was how confusing it is for a British diver. The boat was packed with Americans, I and a couple of the crew being English exceptions, so the briefing was all in feet, pounds and psi.
Reassured by a mini “translation” briefing to the metres, kilos and bar I’m used to, I was more confident as I made my giant stride off the boat that I’d be able to tell if I was low on air (750psi is roughly 50 bar if you’re as clueless as I am on conversions).
At Turtle Pass, we were told, we had a 100% chance of either seeing, or not seeing, a turtle. What? Obviously we were hoping for the former outcome, given this was supposedly one of the top spots in Cayman for turtle sightings. Loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles are all said to frequent this spot regularly, as it is directly offshore from known turtle-nesting sites. This dive-site is renowned for its steep coral wall and the underwater passageway that runs through it.
The swim through
We descended and entered the narrow swim-through, winding down through the coral wall and getting steadily deeper until we reached the other side. The tunnel requires good dive skills and, thankfully, our experienced group managed to avoid kicking up the bottom so that those at the back would still enjoy fairly decent visibility. When we popped out on the other side, we were rewarded with an incredible drop-off and what seemed like endless blue depths below us.
In the crystal water, the exit of the swim-through felt as if it was just a few metres from the surface. My computer showed 30m, however, and I realised how easy it would be to disregard depth in these impossibly clear waters. A stark reminder of how crucial it is to rely on your equipment rather than your senses.
A dreamy drift
Once out of the swim-through we turned around and the light current offered us an easy drift that guided us gently back to the boat. After recent dives in South Africa, battling strong current and huge surface swells, such mild conditions were a dream. It was easy to see why many of the divers on my boat returned each year to enjoy these easy conditions. This would be a great destination for beginner or nervous divers to get used to the underwater world.
For the rest of the dive we swam slowly around the wall and back to the boat, admiring the bright coral, sponges and gorgonians on the reef. We also examined the insides of the giant barrel sponges for macro life. The sharp-eyed were rewarded with sightings of colourful flamingo tongue snails, their clearly outlined spots evoking a Roy Lichtenstein pop-art painting.
To see or not to see (a turtle)
The visibility was unlike anything I’d seen before but, while Stingray City had lived up to its name, no turtle passed us at Turtle Pass. Only on our next dive at Fish Tank did an inquisitive hawksbill decide to swim alongside us for a few minutes. The 30m vis was a blessing, as we easily spotted the inquisitive turtle from several metres away and were able to wait as it approached us curiously.
After checking us out, it decided to swim alongside us for a few minutes before darting off into the blue. The clear water also gave our buddy-pairs freedom to venture further from the group than might normally be possible as we explored the reef. Despite the extensive visibility, I was slightly surprised by how few fish we saw here. I’d been expecting Caribbean diving to be full of multitudes of colourful fish as far as the eye could see.
Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo
It was easy to see why it was our next dive-site Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo, rather than Fish Tank, that was my instructor Kev’s favourite. Here, the water was so clear it seemed you could see for miles across a seascape of rolling hills, coral walls and canyons. This clarity made it easy to spot the most abundant form of life visible on this dive – lionfish. Just as well, because the intention was to hunt and cull them.
The cockroach of the sea
The Indo-Pacific red lionfish spread outside its usual territory and into the Caribbean, where it has become a pest. To protect its reef, the Caymans government introduced a licensing programme for people to cull lionfish from the island’s marine parks. Several dive-schools now offer lionfish hunts in which divers help the licensed cullers to spot the fish.
My dive instructor described the lionfish as “the cockroach of the sea”. If it seems peculiar to compare these beautiful creatures with their decorative striped fins to that ugly insect, what’s indisputable is their resilience. Like cockroaches, they have the ability to survive in almost any conditions. Similarly to bull sharks, they can even survive in both salt and fresh water. They’re spreading like wildfire and eating everything else in sight, so their population has to be kept under control.
Being the top predator also means that they paid no attention to us as we spotted the distinctive dorsal fins. Kev swam up very close and cocked his spear. In the blink of an eye he stabbed the fish with a quick, clean motion and disposed of it in his containment barrel.
I watched from a distance, away from the lionfish’s venomous dorsal and anal fins. The poison is similar to a bee sting and the affected area can swell up for around three weeks. Ouch!
After 45 minutes we returned to the boat with our catch. Although some divers have been known to feed other fish with the remains, this is frowned on as it can change the behaviour of those fish. On the west side of the island, divers noticed an increase in the number of free-swimming moray eels; elsewhere, cullers found grouper following them like dogs begging for treats. Even sharks started to recognise the association between divers and a free feed.
A quick snack
So, instead, the team bring their catch back to their bar, Eagle Rays, and make it into a tasty treat.
I had worked up an appetite and was intrigued to learn what lionfish would taste like. Speared before my eyes just an hour ago, it couldn’t have been much fresher. I’d been told that the meat can be fairly bland but that wasn’t the case. Pan-fried in light Cajun spices and piled into soft tacos with salad, sweet chili, mayo and a squeeze of lemon, it was delicious.
The kayak trip
The final activity of our Caymans trip (apart from the wedding itself), was a night-time bioluminescent kayaking tour. Under an awesome starry sky, we made our way quietly out from Rum Point into the darkness of the bay. When we reached the right point, our guide told us to stir up the sand beneath us with our paddles. Puzzled, we prodded at the murk below.
As we did so, the sand began to sparkle as if we’d uncovered a layer of diamonds. The kayaking guides call them “disco crabs”. As soon as we stopped prodding at the bottom the glitter “disco” faded. Once the sparkles stopped, we headed towards the real reason for our trip – the rare, secluded Bioluminescence Bay.
We didn’t notice at first that, as we moved into the bay, our paddle-strokes were becoming more obvious. It was as if bubbles were coming off the blade as it moved through the dark water. As we glided into the centre of the bay and away from the open ocean, the faint greenish “bubbles” – which were in fact plankton – slowly grew brighter.
Like fireflies, these microscopic organisms (a type of dinoflagellate called Pyrodinium bahamanse) can create and emit their own light energy. This means they can glow in total darkness if touched by or interacting with anything else in the water. It looks like magic, but this is actually a clever form of predator avoidance. To stop fish eating them, each organism will light up the water around 100 times their normal size. They do this in the hope of attracting a larger fish to eat its attacker. So as our paddles interacted with these tiny organisms, bright phosphorescent swirls erupted through the darkness.
We dipped our fingers and, before long, our whole arms into the water to watch the incredible effect. By this point the bioluminescence was practically neon against the black water. As we scooped up water it sparkled like fairy dust in our palms. We scattered the glitter and watched the shimmering ripples it made against the darkness as it splashed across the bay.
Within the bay, there are up to a million of these magical organisms per gallon of water. You get an idea of the spectacle you might experience if you went on a rainy night. By all accounts it’s something to behold, as the entire surface of the water glows and swirls in the rain.
Bioluminescence also occurs in the open sea, as night-divers know. However, this bay’s isolation protects the micro-organisms from being flushed out by wind and tides. Its isolation makes the phenomenon much brighter and more striking there. It was a magical experience and stole the show; even from the colourful reefs, breathtaking coral walls and spectacular drop-offs on our dives.
- GETTING THERE BA flies to Grand Cayman from London Heathrow.
- DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Ocean Frontiers specialises in diving Grand Cayman’s East End and offers Dive & Stay holiday packages for three, five or seven nights or customised packages to take in special requests, oceanfrontiers.com
- WHEN TO GO The dry season from November to April is best. Hurricane season lasts from June to November.
- MONEY Cayman Islands dollar.
- PRICES BA return flights from £780. A two-tank dive normally costs $129. Bioluminescent kayak tours with Cayman Kayaks cost $59, www.caymankayaks.com
- VISITOR INFORMATION www.caymanislands.co.uk
Thank you for reading
Hope you enjoyed my article on diving in Grand Cayman. You can check out the print piece in all its glory below. Plus, scroll right to the end for a few wedding photos – that is why I was there after all! Such a beautiful wedding and a fab trip.
A few wedding photos
A couple of my favourite snaps from our week celebrating my big bro’s wedding to the lovely Stephanie: