A Sanctuary for Scuba Divers

by Stephen Frink

Grand Cayman’s Sunset House

I remember the first time I visited Grand Cayman. The year was 1980 and, while I had dived extensively in Hawaii and the Florida Keys, at the time I had never been to the Caribbean. Like so many other dive travelers, Grand Cayman was my introduction to the beauty of a unique and wondrous underwater world. I was in awe of the crystalline clarity of the water and I had never been diving along such dramatic and colorful walls.

Yet, the enduring memory from that trip was more than my amazement at the underwater attractions, although that would have certainly been sufficient. I was also surprised to discover that such an appealing island, both geologically and culturally, could exist just a one hour airplane ride from Miami.

As the world of destination dive travel inevitably grew, proximity brought change. The secret has long been out and hundreds of thousands of divers and recreational travelers now visit Grand Cayman each year via airplanes and cruise ships. The underwater attractions remain compelling but topside Grand Cayman is now far more urban. Yet, there is still a place to visit where the pace is more relaxed and the emphasis on diving remains exclusive. Checking into Sunset House takes me back in time to the Grand Cayman I came to know and love so many years ago.

Sunset House is a sort of sanctuary for scuba divers. Once they walk onto the lushly landscaped grounds overlooking the blue Caribbean, it becomes easy to surrender to an infrastructure designed to serve their every need. The accommodations consist of 59 rooms; 20 are standard, 37, deluxe. In addition, there is a pair of fully furnished apartments. All accommodations are air-conditioned and offer color satellite TV, direct dial telephones, double or king beds and either a patio or balcony. Some of the rooms offer an ocean view, while others overlook the courtyard.

Although Sunset House is just a 15 minute walk from Grand Cayman’s major city, George Town, it is not necessary to leave the property for food, drink or diving. Meals at the resort may be taken at the Seaharvest restaurant. With indoor dining for breakfast and the option of indoor or outdoor dining for lunch and dinner, the Seaharvest offers an eclectic menu of quality meat, seafood and island specialties. The bar, known as My Bar, is one of the most popular spots on the island to relax at the end of the day, have a cold drink or snack and watch the sun drop into the sea. Locals and tourists alike enjoy the casual atmosphere and incredible view. A freshwater swimming pool and hottub further complement the leisure amenities. But, never far removed is the awareness (as stated boldly in the brochure) that Sunset House is the ‘only resort in the Cayman Islands designed by divers, operated by divers, for divers.’ To that end, dive ergonomics are paramount.

The Dive Boats: While the resort has been in operation nearly 40 years, for the past 25 diving has been a crucial component of its market appeal. It has constantly refined and upgraded the dive infrastructure. The boats are a prime example of its dive dedication.

The queen of the fleet is the Manta, a 50 foot custom catamaran with a 19 foot beam. The Manta is powered by two 600 hp diesels, enabling her to cruise at 20 knots. This speed, stability and capacity (70 tanks can be carried aboard) is utilized for a unique three tank all day dive trip, complete with snacks and lunch. The Manta trip is a single day live-aboard experience and delivers the dive quality available only by trekking beyond the range of the normal day boats. Dive computers are mandatory on this expedition to the rarely dived east, south and north ends of the island. (For those who don’t own computers, at least 30 Uwatec models are in the rental inventory).

Both the Manta and the 46 foot Sun Ray are docked at a marina in the North Sound for quick access to Stingray City or the North Wall. There are four other boats in the Sunset House fleet, typically moored in front of the resort, giving access to the popular west and south sides of the island. The Leopard Ray and Eagle Ray are custom 36 footers, while the Sting Ray and Sea Ray are diesel V-hulls, 34 and 36 feet long, respectively. All vessels are ideally designed for diver convenience with tank racks, dive platform with extended ladders, camera rinse tanks and marine electronics. Collectively, these vessels comprise the best dive boat fleet I have seen anywhere.

Underwater Photo Services: Given the excellence of Grand Cayman’s photo ops it should be no surprise that services for the underwater photographer are given high priority. Yet, Sunset House goes well beyond what might be expected by hosting Cathy Church’s Underwater Photo Centre and Gallery. Cathy and husband Herb Rafael enjoy an enviable reputation for a high level of service. They provide E-6 film processing, camera repairs, camera and video rentals and sales, custom photo shoots and, of course, underwater photo instruction. They have 25 years of teaching experience; their courses are consistently sold out and enjoy a high level of repeat participation. In addition to all the photo activity at Sunset House, guests will enjoy browsing the extensive gallery, filled with Cathy Church’s creative and inspired U/W photos from around the world.

Dive Services: Have you ever dived in a group, been forced to move along in a line and required to surface when someone in the group dropped to 500 psi? I did once and swore that if this was how all diving was conducted I would find a new sport. Fortunately, Sunset House presumes its divers are competent (unless they demonstrate to the contrary) and allows a non-intrusive means of dive guiding called the Sentry System.

On the dive boat, a thorough briefing tells guests what to expect from the underwater topography, creatures likely to be sighted and any currents that might be encountered. Once underwater the divemaster takes a position off the wall and watches the buddy teams dive at their own pace. The divemaster can watch for any potential problems, alert underwater photographers with their eyes glued to viewfinders to the Eagle Ray cruising over their shoulders and, in general, react better to the needs of the guests. During my visit to Sunset House, I found the guides unobtrusive but clearly professional and alert to everything that was happening.

Because of the quality of the dive boats and the strategic positioning at both the North Sound and in front of the resort on the southwest shore, virtually the entire island is accessible. While weather and local conditions will dictate which side of the island is preferred, Sunset House also takes its guest’s wishes into account when choosing the dive sites. A sign-up board permits multiple options daily, including some of the following favorites:

On the northeast corner of the island, Old #12 offers incredible Black Corals at 80 to 100 feet along the wall.

Along the southeast wall, The Maze offers a series of pinnacles separated by deep canyons and overgrown surge channels. Besides the dramatic terrain, the attractions are lots of Nassau Groupers and a good chance to sight reef sharks.

Along the North Wall, West Gate offers a terrific opportunity for close encounters with Eagle Rays.

Julie’s Wall actually undercuts two massive buttresses and has a sheer drop seemingly to infinity.

At Chinese Garden, the shallow reef is incredibly rich with perfectly intact Elkhorn and Staghorn Corals populated by schooling grunts, snappers and jacks.

While these represent some of the more exotic dives in the Sunset House portfolio, the familiar favorites of Grand Cayman are offered as well, including the wreck of the Oro Verde, wall dives such as Orange Canyon and, of course, the ever-popular Stingray City.

Sunset House also offers the very significant advantage of outstanding shore diving. The visibility is excellent right in front of the property. The rough edges of the ironshore have been paved over; entries and exits are facilitated by a large steel ladder. Less than 20 yards offshore the reef slope begins and drops gradually from about 12 to 65 feet. In the sand valley at about 60 feet is the wreck of the David Nicholson, a 56 foot landing craft intentionally sunk as a dive attraction. Reef fish and invertebrates have made this wreck their home and, since it is also on the tour route for the Atlantis submarine, shore divers are often treated to the sight of a submarine passing by.

Night divers have been excited at the concept of the Illuminator. One more in a long series of Sunset House innovations, this is basically a barge with a generator that has been fitted with several underwater lights. Three times a week, from 8:00 to 10:00 pm, the Illuminator is turned on to bask the David Nicholson in brilliant light. The hope is that a pelagic filter feeder; such as a Manta Ray; might show up to feed on the plankton attracted by the lights. But the side benefit is that it makes for a remarkable night dive. One need not go far from the wreck to be in total darkness as with a traditional night dive, yet to see the wreck revealed in its entirety by artificial light is bizarre and beautiful.

To find out more about the best little dedicated dive resort on Grand Cayman or to book reservations, call (800) 854-4767, (305) 451-0083 or fax (305) 451-5147. E-mail may be directed to phototours@aol.com.