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Welcome to the Cayman Islands. This trip is different; it begins underwater. We are going to take you on a tour of three of the most gorgeous islands of the Caribbean and show you why this tropical paradise is considered one of the finest diving locations in the world.
Before we begin, let’s go over the basic facts as to why these three little islands attract more vacationing divers than any other place on earth. The following are the 12 most compelling reasons to visit and dive the Cayman Islands:
These 12 natural attractions form the basic foundation for the success of the Cayman Islands as the Caribbean’s best diving destination. In fact, few places on earth can offer this remarkable combination of high quality diving and easy access. Needless to say, there are many more reasons for visiting the Cayman Islands, such as the great selection of hotel and condo accommodations, the professional level of diving services, the immense choice of dive operators, the enhanced services for underwater photography and videography, the fine selection of restaurants, as well as the entertainment, sightseeing and shopping. The Caymans have it all and you can have as much or as little as you desire. See for yourself by checking in at the Cayman Islands World Wide Web site at http://www.caymans.com.
Our tour begins on Grand Cayman, the largest and most developed of the three Cayman Islands.
This island offers a wide selection of accommodations, ranging from luxury beach resorts to million dollar vacation condos to dedicated dive resorts to economically priced bed and breakfasts and guesthouses. The island offers every imaginable form of outdoor recreation, including sailing, sunset cruises, windsurfing, riding personal watercraft, waterskiing, parasailing, golf, tennis, swimming, snorkeling and a dozen other sports.
As for diving, Grand Cayman is, without a doubt, the scuba Mecca of the Caribbean, offering world-class diving and enjoyable learn to dive classes. There is nothing quite as rewarding as taking a scuba lesson in the swimming pool in the morning and diving on a clear shallow coral reef in the afternoon.
What makes Grand Cayman so grand are the unlimited diving opportunities. The island is actually the tip of a submerged mountain peak and measures 22 miles long by 8 miles wide. It is surrounded by coral reefs and a vertical drop-off (better known as the wall). This amounts to roughly 60 miles of divable reefs, wrecks and walls.
There are four distinct regions for diving, corresponding to the geographic sides of the island: West Wall, North Wall, South Wall and East End. Each is totally different. Combined, the four sides of Grand Cayman offer great variety, calm diving conditions and superior opportunities for animal encounters.
GRAND CAYMAN/WEST WALL
First stop on our underwater tour is the West Wall, which parallels Seven Mile Beach and George Town;the islands greatest concentration of dive operators and resorts. Of all the regions around Grand Cayman, the West Wall offers the greatest variety of diving experiences: walls, caverns and grottos, wrecks, shores, night diving and rare animal encounters.
West Wall is also the easiest area to dive because of the short boat rides and extremely calm surface conditions. Prevailing trade winds come from the north and east, thus the west side is in a protected lee. On most early mornings you can look out the window of your hotel or condo and gaze upon a glassy calm sea.
Wall diving: The morning dive trip generally starts with a wall dive;on the West Wall you are blessed with a wide selection of 26 vertical sites. What is particularly notable about this region is each and every wall site is different in profile, dominant marine life and fish action. You could dive the West Wall for two weeks straight and never see the same thing twice.
Here is just a small sampling of what West Wall offers. At Trinity Caves, three coral tunnels converge and empty onto the vertical face of the wall;a great opportunity for swim-throughs and exploration. Orange Canyon is a combination wall and natural coral canyon with sides covered with giant Orange Elephant Ear Sponges. Sand Chute is an undersea ski slope of fine white sand that slowly slides downward and spills over the lip of a vertical drop-off. The vertical sides of the slope are loaded with large sponges. Bonnie’s Arch is a natural coral archway 30 feet in diameter and often filled with schooling fish. What all these wall sites have in common is stunning undersea visibility of 100 feet plus, a fabulous collection of soft and hard corals, spectacular sponges and abundant fish life.
Reef diving: The second dive of the morning is generally on a shallow to medium depth coral reef. Just inshore, the line of wall diving sites is a secondary line of reef sites;equally well marked by moorings. Diving depths on these sites range from 30 to 50 feet and offer an opportunity to see reef fish in great numbers.
Aquarium is everyone’s favorite as this site is comprised of a series of coral ridges and sand valleys loaded with tame French Angelfish. Rhapsody Reef (Mesa) is a small coral reef rising 20 feet from a flat sand bottom and absolutely covered with a dozen different schools of grunts and snappers. Beneath these wandering schools are groupers, Trumpetfish, scorpionfish and a dozen more varieties. Angelfish Reef is another shallow reef site loaded with friendly Gray and French Angelfish. Royal Palms Ledge has a unique coral reef overhang often occupied by Tarpon and groupers. Sunset Reef is a favorite for underwater photographers as most of the reef fish are extremely tame and most are willing to have their pictures taken.
Wreck diving: The West Wall offers the greatest number of shipwrecks. The Balboa is the oldest (it sank in 1932) and one of the best night dives in the Cayman Islands. The Oro Verde has been the most popular wreck and a favorite haunt for a large Green Moray Eel and several Nassau Groupers. The LCM David Nicholson is a sunken landing barge and one of the few wrecks that can be dived from shore. The Doc Polson is the wreck of a steel workboat that has become home and haven for sea turtles, schools of juvenile snappers and numerous reef fish.
Caves and grottos: No underwater tour of the West Wall would be complete without a visit to many of the coral caverns and grottos that abound in this region. Many of the shallow reefs are honeycombed with natural tunnels, caves and caverns. These formations are quite safe, as they lie in shallow water (20 to 40 feet) and are fairly well lit by sunlight streaming through the holes and cracks in the reef above. However, if you wish to enjoy these swim-throughs to their fullest, a dive light is recommended so you can enjoy all of the color and fish life contained in these labyrinths.
One of the most famous cave and tunnel systems is Devil’s Grotto, a network of perhaps 100 winding tunnels, caves and crevices. At certain times of the year it is filled with thousands of tiny Silversides. They flow through the tunnels like rivers of mercury. Soto’s Reef is another shallow inshore reef honeycombed with caverns and tunnels. Here you will often find Tarpon and Barjacks hunting for Silversides. More caves and tunnels can be dived at Pageant Beach Reef and Fish Pot Reef.
Shore diving: One of the alluring aspects of Grand Cayman is the high quality shore diving available at a number of different locations. For those making boat dives in the mornings, this is a great way to supplement your vacation with additional afternoon dives. And, for those on a budget, shore diving is the most economical way to spend those limited dollars.
The West Wall region excels in shore diving, especially in the George Town area. Many dive resorts and shore diving facilities have been strategically positioned adjacent to excellent coral reef areas. One of the best known is Parrot’s Landing, a shore diving facility that provides easy access to Parrot’s Reef and Parrot’s Perch. Nearby is Eden Rock, another shore diving facility that offers snorkeling and scuba access to Eden Rock Reef.
Sunset House is a dedicated dive resort with shore diving access to both Sunset Reef and the LCM David Nicholson wreck. Farther south is Coconut Harbour, another dedicated dive resort with beach access to Waldo’s Reef. Still more shore diving opportunities are available at the Seaview Hotel and Smith’s Cove.
Animal encounters: West Wall is ideally suited for underwater photographers and videographers because this region offers the widest variety of marine life encounters with semi-tame creatures. For example, giant Tarpon can be seen regularly at Big Tunnel, Bonnie’s Arch, Royal Palms Ledge, Soto’s Central and Devil’s Grotto. Green Sea Turtles can be encountered at almost any dive site but are seen regularly along the northern portion of Seven Mile Beach. Flying Gurnards are often found in the shallow sandy areas along the shoreline from Victoria House north along Seven Mile Beach. Giant Green Morays are seen at Waldo’s Reef and on the Oro Verde wreck. Schools of Horse-eye Jacks can be seen cruising almost any drop-off site on the West Wall, plus Rhapsody Reef, Bonnie’s Arch and Eagle’s Nest.
GRAND CAYMAN/NORTH WALL
Next stop is the North Wall, Grand Cayman’s adventure wall for wild diving and extraordinary animal encounters. This region is ideally suited for experienced divers, as well as novices who wish to improve their skills. This section of reefline faces the traditional trade winds so surface conditions are a bit more choppy at times. However, in the summer, the wind often disappears and the surface becomes glassy calm.
North Wall is famous for spectacular wall diving and rare animal encounters. Underwater visibility is almost always 100 feet and on good days can reach as much as 200 feet.
Wall diving: Although it may be hard to imagine, the wall diving sites along North Wall are even more spectacular than those at West Wall. Part of this breathtaking panorama is owing to the extended underwater visibility, which allows a diver to see much more of the wall from one place. Add to this expansive feeling the dramatic structures and bold profile of these undersea cliffs. It feels as if you are touring an underwater version of the Rocky Mountains.
Of the 30 different North Wall drop-offs, Eagle Ray Pass is perhaps one of the most dramatic. It consists of an assortment of deep coral ravines, thundering overhangs, natural archways and a seemingly infinite vertical face. At a site such as this you will find Tarpon hanging under coral ledges, sea turtles cruising along the lip and formations of Spotted Eagle Rays flying parallel to the edge of the wall. The site is truly awesome.
Ghost Mountain is another impressive site consisting of a large coral pinnacle that rises from a sand slope at 140 feet. Schools of Horse-eye Jacks are often seen cruising around this pinnacle. Nearby is another site called Black Forest, which consists of three coral pinnacles rising to within 50 feet of the surface. Far to the west are some of the North Wall’s finest drop-offs, such as Leslie’s Curl, Hammerhead Hill, Chinese Wall and White Stroke Canyon. Eagle Ray’s are seen regularly at all of these sites, often flying in formations of four to six rays. Other animals encountered at these locations include Thread-fin Pompano, Wahoo and an occasional manta.
Tarpon Alley is famous for tons of Tarpon. Two long coral crevices run out from the deep sand flats to the lip of the wall and in each of these are 50 to 100 Tarpon. They hang almost motionless in the shadows of these narrow canyons and divers can often swim among them. In addition to Tarpon, giant stingrays, turtles and Barracuda are often found here.
Reef diving: The North Wall is by no means just limited to wall diving. There are numerous shallow sites, such as Lemon Reef, Queen’s Throne, Andy’s Reef and Pinnacle Reef. The formations in this region are somewhat different than those of the West Wall, offering a greater concentration of Elkhorn and Staghorn Corals and, of course, an abundance of Caribbean reef fish.