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by Walt Stearns
If you haven’t heard of Grand Cayman’s Sister Islands, you haven’t been paying close attention. Off Cayman Brac and Little Cayman you will find some of the Caribbean’s finest diving; the sites are not only dramatic and entertaining but also easy and carefree. Between Cayman Brac, the largest island (measuring 12 miles long and roughly 2 miles wide) and its slightly smaller sister, Little Cayman, one mile to the west, there are miles of reefs and walls, dozens of wrecks and an amazing abundance of marine life.
The Sister Islands are virtually surrounded by walls that plummet into the depths. The most legendary is Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Wall. Its crest starts a mere 20 feet from the surface before plunging beyond 1,000 feet. Divers’ bottom times are extended here; they can go down the wall first and spend time in the shallows afterward. Of course, diving under conditions where the water is consistently warm and clear; 90 to 120 feet, often reaching 200 feet; and essentially free of strong currents, certainly adds to the enjoyment.
Virtually all of the walls are richly adorned with colorful sponge communities. Most are cut by numerous winding ravines or narrow crevices. Some of these walls even harbor a few surprises, such as the large anchor from an ancient sailing ship wedged in the middle of one of Cayman Brac’s chasms.
The plenitude of marine life on these walls adds to the drama of their geology. Divers will encounter the normal fare of small reef beauties, schools of Creolefish, Black Durgons, Horse-eye Jacks and large Black or Yellowfin Groupers. The likelihood of meeting an inquisitive Nassau Grouper, a passing sea turtle or an Eagle Ray on the dive is also very high.
The Sister Islands also offer an attractive collection of intriguing wrecks. One in particular, the MV Capt. Keith Tibbetts Memorial, has generated a lot of excitement. It is the only divable, modern era, Russian warship in the western world. Sent to the bottom off Cayman Brac’s north side (September 1996), the wreck presents one of the most arresting profiles of any ship sunk at a depth less than 90 feet. She rises as much as 60 feet from the sand floor with both her fore and aft deck cannons protruding from their protective turrets at depths of 48 and 35 feet. At this depth, there is more than enough bottom time to explore her 330 foot length from bow to stern.
Also sharing the north side of the Brac is the Cayman Mariner, a 55 foot crew boat lying upright on the sand at a depth of 60 feet. Encrusting sponges line the inside of her wheelhouse in rich red and orange hues that are brilliant in the light of a diver’s light. Adding to a great shallow dive in the 40 foot area is the inverted hull of a 50 foot steel tugboat, the Kissimee.
For night diving, the wreck of choice is Little Cayman’s Soto Trader. Sunk in 1975 on the south side of the island after it caught on fire, the 120 foot cargo freighter sits upright on the bottom at a depth of 50 feet. She is mostly intact with an abundance of growth. Under the darkness of night, her steel skeleton comes alive with multitudes of tiny animal life.
A short hop from Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman offer a good selection of resorts, as well as two live-aboards; the Cayman Aggressor III and Little Cayman Diver II; with the right amenities and services needed for a comfortable, fun dive vacation. In addition to the diving, land activities can include beachcombing, sea kayaking, bicycle touring or hiking up one of the Brac’s collection of nature trails for birdwatching. One of these trails can lead you to the top of the Brac’s highest elevation at its eastern tip, where a cliff towers 140 feet above the water.
The Sisters are among the Caribbean’s least populated islands. Cayman Brac has a permanent population of roughly 1,400, almost the same as it had 20 years ago. Little Cayman’s population has climbed to approximately 120, doubling what it was 10 years ago. Free of crime and traffic, the islands have one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean, partially owing to low unemployment levels.
With such an ideal atmosphere, visitors are inclined to move at a less hectic pace. The hardest part of staying in such idyllic tropical splendor is resisting the call to stretch out in a hammock or catch a few rays on the beach. Yes, life can be pretty good; Sister Island style