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LITTLE CAYMAN/NORTH SIDE
Our underwater tour of Little Cayman begins on the North Side. It is by far the most popular region for visiting divers as this is where the drop-off comes closest to the shoreline. The North Side can be divided into two basic zones; GRAND CAYMAN / EAST END
The East End of Grand Cayman is the least developed region of this large island. It is almost an island unto itself, separated from the rest of Grand Cayman by a large expanse of rural countryside and brush lands. There are only two hotels at the East End and only two or three dive operators work this area on a regular basis.
The East End diving region includes a small portion of both the North Wall and South Wall plus a giant horseshoe shaped barrier reef that juts out from the eastern tip of the island. Along the outside edge of this barrier reef is one of Grand Cayman’s most spectacular walls.
The East End offers the greatest abundance and variety of rare red sponges, as well as all other types of barrel, basket, vase and tube sponges. They are absolutely magnificent.
Wall diving: The wall surrounding the East End is infinitely diverse in its profile. At different sites you can explore sand chutes, a maze of narrow canyons, coral pinnacles off the main wall, undercut walls and vertical chimneys. There are at least 35 different drop-off sites that are visited regularly by East End dive operators, the Cayman Aggressor III live-aboard or all day three tank dive trips coming from the west end of Grand Cayman.
Among the favorites is Jack McKennedy’s Wall, where visitors are likely to encounter seven large Spotted Eagle Rays. McCurley’s Drop-off is one of the best spots for viewing a dazzling array of red and orange sponges. Old #12 is a great spot for the frequent appearance of Eagle Rays. Perhaps the most beautiful pinnacle dive is at Babylon, where a giant coral pinnacle rises from 140 feet to within 50 of the surface. The vertical pinnacle is separated from the wall by a scant 12 feet, forming a narrow Black Coral filled canyon between the two.
Caverns and grottos: East End also offers superb cavern and grotto diving. Many of the grottos are filled with Tarpon, Silversides and groupers. Parrotfish Caverns is a giant coral grotto occupied by an estimated 50 supermale Parrotfish plus some 50 to 200 Tarpon. Occasionally, visitors encounter an eight foot long 350 pound Jewfish in the same cave. Snapper Hole is another favorite cave and tunnel system for seeing large Tarpon. During the late summer and fall, these caves are often filled with Silversides. Grouper Grotto is a shallow reef honeycombed with narrow canyons and large caverns. The region is a hangout for numerous Nassau Groupers, a school of Tarpon, a school of Horse-eye Jacks and several Eagle Rays. Ironshore Gardens is an extensive maze of coral caverns and tunnels that provides an endless opportunity for swim-through exploration. This cave system is loaded with reef fish of all kinds. The site is an especially good night dive as the caves are loaded with lobsters, crabs and shrimp.
Reef diving: Shallow reef diving is also superb, with great stands of Elkhorn Coral, towering Pillar Corals and other distinctive formations. Many of these coral formations can be found in the same areas as the cave and tunnel systems. Ironshore Gardens is a good example of this combination, as the entire top of the reef is covered with magnificent Antler Corals. Fantasea Land is a good shallow reef for seeing small Loggerhead Turtles. Black Rock is a great spot for viewing a large school of Bermuda Chubs as well as numerous formations of tube sponges.
Animal encounters: As for marine life, the East End is where you are likely to see the most unusual. There have been sightings of Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, Wahoo, Sailfish and other pelagics. Giant Tarpon can be encountered at no less than a dozen different dive sites as they seem to be all over the place. The same is true for turtles, Horse-eye Jacks and groupers.
In conclusion, one would have to say that Grand Cayman is much more than just another island in the Caribbean. This one island offers more diving diversity and sites than any other location in the Western Hemisphere. It is literally brimming with opportunities for undersea exploration; and more dive sites are being discovered and charted every year.
Cayman Brac is the way Grand Cayman used to be 50 years ago but with all of the services and amenities of the 1990s. This island is one-fifth the size of Grand Cayman and supports a small population of 1,400 residents (known as Brackers). It has a modern jet airport, complete with an international terminal, good roads, a fine hospital, two hotels and an assortment of condos and guesthouses.
As for diving, Cayman Brac is almost completely surrounded by walls but is the least dived of the three Cayman Islands. There are only three dive operators on Cayman Brac and a small number of dive boats covering a wide expanse of reefs and walls.
Cayman Brac is a stringbean shaped island that runs from east to west, measuring 12 miles long and one mile wide. Because of its shape, the diving regions are divided into two parts, the North Side and the South Side. Both sides are blessed with superb drop-offs, caves and caverns and shallow coral reefs. In all, the Brac has more than 50 known dive sites, most of which are marked with moorings.
Our tour of the Brac begins on the South Side. The sites here offer the easiest access (5 to 15 minute boat rides) since the dive boat pier and docks are on this side of the island.
Wall diving: There are at least 16 vertical drop-off sites along the South Side and more being found all the time. Most of the current sites are concentrated toward the west end of the island, near the dive resorts and boat docks.
The wall dives are quite spectacular as the visibility ranges from 100 to 150 feet. Many of the sites have intriguing names such as Rock Monster Chimney, Manta Canyon, Sea Feather Wall and Tiara Tunnels. These drop-offs offer the usual assortment of coral reef fish plus a number of impressive pelagics such as Wahoo, Spotted Eagle Rays, Mantas and Tuna.
One of the most popular sites is Anchor Wall, where a giant iron anchor is wedged in a narrow canyon that leads to the vertical face of the wall. The anchor appears to be nine feet tall and seven feet across at the flukes. It is suspended in the center of the crevice, as the flukes are literally fused to the sides of the crevice.
Reef diving: Shallow coral reef diving is equally good on the South Side with some of the most popular locations being Elkhorn Reef, Sergeant Major, Butterfly and Angel Reef. Most are named after the dominant coral species or resident fish life. For example, at Tarpon Reef you will definitely find a school of giant Tarpon that love to hang in the shallows or in one of the many coral channels.
For more diving adventures, a trip to the North Side is in order. This side of the island is even more popular because of the high quality and diversity of experiences, including wreck diving.
Wall diving: The North Side offers spectacular wall diving with visibility that ranges from 100 to 200 feet. One of its most notable features is an abundance of brilliant, canary yellow tube sponges that are found at depths of 60 feet or deeper. Some of the best sites include Cemetery Wall, Garden Eel Wall and Strawberry Sponge Wall. There is a wide assortment of marine life to be seen along the North Side, including an abundance of Tiger Groupers, an occasional Jewfish, numerous scorpionfish, Spotted Eagle Rays and schools of Horse-eye Jacks.
Reef diving: Some of the best coral reef diving on Cayman Brac can be found along the North Side. Reefs such as Patch Reef and Grunt Valley are loaded with schools of fish, as well as thousands of macro creatures. Diving depths on the shallow reefs range from 20 to 50 feet. At Buccaneer Reef you are likely to find several Flying Gurnards grazing in the sand flats at 50 feet.
Wreck diving: The special attraction of the North Side is the variety of wreck diving found there. For example, the wreck of the Cayman Mariner sits on a flat sand bottom at the mouth of East Chute. This is a great place to encounter moray eels and a Jewfish is often seen here.
Kissime is a shallow water reef site where you can find a small 60 foot steel tugboat lying on its port side. It has rolled over almost on its stack. The site is named for the wreck. The diving depth is only 40 feet.
The Brac’s newest and by far most impressive shipwreck is a completely intact 330 foot long Russian warship sunk last fall and named the Capt. Keith Tibbetts. Declared the Shipwreck of the Century, this fully armed frigate is the only divable Russian warship in the Western Hemisphere. She was a Type II Class missile frigate that was once part of the Soviet Union’s Atlantic Fleet and originally designated #356. Today, she sits upright on a white sand bottom, barely 120 feet from the drop-off. The great wreck has already attracted a sizable community of fish and marine life and has become one of the major diving attractions of the island.
Little Cayman is the untamed wilderness of the Cayman Islands. The island’s population is comprised of 116 residents. There are five very small resorts that cater to divers, fishermen and nature lovers. There are very few roads, a small grass airstrip and one tiny village called Orange Blossom. Air service to Little Cayman is available through Island Air, an inter-island airline that operates scheduled and charter flights to Little Cayman from Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac. It operates a fleet of small, 5 to 19 passenger propeller aircraft.
The island is virtually unknown to the commercial tourist industry, yet among divers Little Cayman is legendary for its superb diving. There are no less than six dive operators on the island, plus weekly visits by two live-aboards (Cayman Aggressor III and Little Cayman Diver II) and day boats coming over from Cayman Brac.
Bay Wall and Jackson Wall. It is fairly easy to identify these zones as each is marked by a neat row of boat moorings spaced 30 to 50 yards apart.
Wall diving: Bloody Bay Wall is perhaps the single most famous drop-off in the Cayman Islands. It has attained worldwide fame as the only vertical wall in the entire Caribbean that begins at the incredibly shallow depth of 20 feet. Yes, you heard it right, the lip of the wall starts at 20 feet and drops straight down to 1,000 feet or more. It is a sheer cliff of awesome proportions. Add to this phenomenon super clear visibility that ranges from 100 to 200 feet and you can see how Bloody Bay Wall has earned its reputation as the best wall dive in the Caribbean.
The wall itself is comprised of at least a dozen individual dive sites, each a little bit different than the next. At Mixing Bowl you will find a veritable fish bowl of marine activity with dozens of different species all mixing together. It is also a great spot to photograph blood Red Vase Sponges. Marilyn’s Cut features a vertical crevice plus a sheer wall festooned with bright yellow sponges. Randy’s Gazebo features a coral archway. Nearby are two more sites called Great Wall East and Great Wall West; sheer vertical drop-offs that are actually undercut. Other sites along Bloody Bay include Lea’s Lookout, Coconut Wall and Barracuda Bight. In addition to the vertical wall itself, the top of the reef is tightly packed with hard corals, gorgonians, sponges and fans.
Jackson Wall is a bit farther east of Bloody Bay and the wall itself is farther offshore. Again, there are at least 12 different dive sites in this zone and they are considerably different from each other. At Nancy’s Cup of Tea, a large coral pinnacle, rises vertically just off the main drop-off. Jackson’s Wall has marvelous tunnels and caves along its face. Blacktip Boulevard is loaded with giant basket sponges. Eagle Ray Roundup is comprised of a large sandy flat separated from the drop-off by a coral ridge. Several long crevices and tunnels lead from the sand to the vertical face of the drop-off.
Caves and grottos: Jackson Wall is also an excellent area for caves and grottos. These tunnel systems are found under many of the shallow to medium depth reefs. They are often occupied by large groupers and jacks that feed on schools of Silversides. Some of the best grottos can be found at such sites as The Meadows, Cumber’s Caves and Eagle Ray Roundup. In addition to Silversides, these sites are excellent for sighting Spotted Eagle Rays, sea turtles, large parrotfish, stingrays and French Angelfish.
LITTLE CAYMAN/SOUTH WALL
When the wind blows out of the north and it is too rough to dive the North Side, Little Cayman’s dive operators switch to the South Side. This is fairly easy to do since many of the resorts and most of the dive boats are kept at South Hole Sound.
Wall diving: The sites on the South Side begin deeper, at 50 to 60 feet, and are not as well known. The quality of diving is just as good but these fine sites have been overshadowed by the legendary Bloody Bay Wall. Most of the sites are at the western end of the island, which is conveniently accessible from nearby South Hole Sound. The most popular sites in this area include Patty’s Place, Pirate’s Point Reef, Charlie’s Chimney and Black Hole.
Wreck diving: Little Cayman has one shipwreck known as the Soto Trader, a 120 foot long steel hulled freighter that sank in 1975. She now sits upright on the bottom in 50 feet of water, still fully intact with her stern up against the coral reef. There are many points of interest on this wreck, including the remnants of two Jeeps in the forward and middle cargo holds.
In conclusion, one can say that Little Cayman is a nature lover’s paradise, where the diving is easy and the island atmosphere extremely relaxing.