Photographs by Byron Conroy
The Cayman Islands are a group of three islands located in the Caribbean Sea, and the largest of the islands is Grand Cayman – where I was to spend my week discovering all that Grand Cayman diving has to offer. The island is 21 miles long and eight miles wide at its widest point. Seasonal temperatures don’t vary much and the sea is consistently warm, making Grand Cayman diving perfect all year long.
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Explore Pristine Caribbean dive sites
Grand Cayman has a low population of just 67,000, with around 40,000 of the local population living in the capital city, George Town. This makes the coastal areas scarcely populated, and ideal for a relaxing destination. The local economy benefits greatly from tourism and Grand Cayman dive sites are some of the most pristine in the Caribbean – healthy reefs, large animal encounters and wrecks are some of the main things you will encounter there.
I took a flight into the islands on Cayman Air, the local transport provider, from Tampa, Florida, and upon arrival I was greeted by very friendly locals at the airport, The islands are an autonomous British Overseas territory, meaning they have a colonial feeling mixed with Caribbean. English is the language of the islands.
After settling into my accommodation and taking a short walk around the local area, it was time to find out more about Grand Cayman diving and what we could expect. There are two very famous sites in the Cayman Islands, the Kittiwake wreck and Stingray City. Photos of these two locations have adorned the covers of magazines and diving calendars for many years. We would be stopping at both of these during the visit.
The island is also famous, if lesser so, for a good population of Acropora Palmata (elkhorn coral). Hurricane Ivan hit the islands in 2004 and pretty much destroyed all elkhorn coral and sponges when it swept through. That was now 16 years ago and the sponges and coral around the islands have been left largely undisturbed since then, and as a result there are a large range of subjects all of a similar size situated around the islands.
For our first day of Grand Cayman diving, we were caught by a little bit of bad weather, making some of the more-desirable sites out of range due to the waves breaking on the reef surrounding the resort, so we headed to Sunset Reef for the check-out dives. The reef itself is actually home to some interesting super macro critters.
On one of the large boulder corals you can find small holes. If you are patient enough, a little golden roughhead blenny will poke his head out and make an appearance. They are a very photogenic subject with a very expressive face. The other highlight of the dive is the elusive yellow-head jawfish with eggs in the mouth. These can be found in the white sand but they are difficult to approach to shoot. A lot of time and patience is needed along with slowly inching towards the subject. Otherwise they shoot back into their holes and don’t come back out for another five to ten minutes. The fish carry their eggs in the mouth until they are ready to hatch, when they pop up from the hole, they sometimes need to aerate the eggs and do so by spilling the eggs out and washing them in the water column.
Diving Grand Cayman – Endless Blue Waters at Babylon Wall
For our second day of Grand Cayman diving, the weather had calmed a little so we were able to make our way through the breakers on the reef and head to the most famous wall dive on the island, Babylon. The wall is where the main reef drops off into the deep blue water. The boat was moored and after descending down to the reef wall top, I peered over the edge into the wonderful clear blue warm water and down into the abyss.
“The site is one where you can easily go into deco on the wall. The water is so inviting and so clear that you can easily be at 130ft and still see the boat on the surface.”
The walls themselves are filled with large sponges and colorful corals, along with cracks and canyons that you can easily fit through. Conditions were so good for the dive site that we conducted both morning and afternoon dives at the same location.
Non-stop Stingray Action at Stingray City
For the next day, we planned a long day. Stingray City for the morning sunrise followed by a morning and afternoon dive at the famous Kittiwake wreck.
Grand Cayman diving is synonymous with Stingray City. This stingray hotspot is located off the coast, it’s very shallow at only 12ft or so, and it’s home to around 50 stingrays that range in sizes up to six feet in width. The area is well managed with boats arranging time slots, keeping the amount of visitors at one time to manageable levels. The guides use squid to feed the rays, meaning there are always many rays and lots of action at the site. We went to the nearby Sand Bar, which has plenty of ray action also but is only a few feet deep, you are not allowed to scuba there, and no shoes are allowed in order to protect the sand as much as possible.
Sunrise is a great time to shoot the rays – 50/50 or over/under shots using camera lights to light the rays can look really good with a sunrise peeking above, Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have the best of sunrises but once the sun was up, we had great conditions to shoot. A rash vest and shorts are the best for this to make sure you can duck down to the sand level and shoot the rays as they sweep past. We were on location for a few hours and the time flew right by due to the non-stop action of the rays flying by.
Grand Cayman Wreck Diving at the Famous Kittiwake
After our time slot was up, we headed over to the Kittiwake wreck. The wreck itself is a decommissioned submarine rescue ship, it would accompany submarines during sea trials and manoeuvres. Crew would monitor dive operations and practice underwater rescue drills. The ship was also often used in salvage operations supporting divers and crew. The ship had a rich history, with many of its operations still classified to this day. One of its more-famous journeys though was when it took part in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle rescue operation, it was the Kittiwake and its crew that recovered the lost ‘black box’ and its vital information.
The ship was used to serve divers for its whole career, so it’s a fitting end to become a Mecca for divers. The ship is also filled with some interesting items for the more aware diver to spot, such as a hyperbaric chamber and many ‘bank’ tanks used to store compressed gases that supply both divers and hyperbaric chambers onboard.
The depth of the wreck is great for people to venture into first-time wreck diving and also for more-experienced dives to conduct very long dives. It sits at 66ft and has some points reaching to just 16ft below the surface.
The wreck is also listed slightly to one side. It used to be upright but was hit pretty hard by a hurricane which tipped the wreck on its side and also moved it sideways across the sand closer to the reef. We were lucky enough to dive the wreck twice on one visit, a morning and afternoon dive where the sun conditions differ, one allowing the natural light to fall onto the bow and the other to the stern. Due to the clear water and bright sun, it’s very easy to get a colorful, nicely exposed picture of the wreck in all its glory. Perfect for the ‘big shot’ type external photo.
The wreck is privately owned, and as such a dive permit is needed to dive it costing US$10 per visit. It’s filled with marine life, such as jacks, barracudas and many macro subjects, like garden eels and mantis shrimps.
Grand Cayman Diving Hidden Gems
Over the coming days we continued to a mixture of famous sites, such as Babylon and some more unknown ones. One of my favorite ones among them being Iron Shore Gardens, where we were lucky enough to have quite a few sightings of Caribbean reef sharks. Caribbean reef sharks are doing well in the area and it was not uncommon to see specimens around eight foot long swimming on the reef edge in the blue water. This area is also home to a nice school of jacks hanging around in the shallow water on top of the reef. The top of the reef is also where you will find some of the finest examples of Acropora Palamata in the Caribbean, if not on the planet. Some of the specimens are well over ten feet wide and offer an amazing place for small schooling fish to hide from the passing predators.
Another personal favorite of Grand Cayman dive sites was Chubb Hole. At this dive site there are some very nice coral caves and overhangs, similar to Iron Shore Gardens. These create lovely spaces that look dark and mysterious, but where natural light shines through creating wonderful spaces. Also hiding within the coral caves are often tarpon, they are large silvery fish with a menacing face. They often sit relaxing in the caves and are very calm – if you are nice and relaxed they will allow you to approach them very closely.
Overall, I can’t recommend Grand Cayman diving enough. The island is home to quite a few famous underwater photographers and now I can see why.
There is a large variety of diving on offer in benign conditions, with great visibility and warm water. I had previously dived in the Caribbean quite a lot and it had not lived up to my expectations of the ‘dream destination’ I remember growing up with as a child, but diving Grand Cayman gave me the feelings I had always dreamt of when thinking of the Caribbean.
Sunset House has been welcoming divers to the Cayman Islands for more than 60 years. It is the only resort in the Cayman Islands designed and operated by divers, for divers. It’s one of the only resorts on Grand Cayman that has its own coral reef, with the wreck of the Nicholson and coral nursery in shallow water right offshore. Underwater visibility on Sunset House’s reef can exceed 200 feet, and a remarkable variety of marine life can be seen there. The spectacular nine-foot bronze sculpture of the mermaid Amphitrite is one of the most-popular shore dive sites in the world.
The resort is set on a coastal road about 3/4 of a mile south of George Town. The guest rooms are spread out among a quintet of two-story buildings, including a restaurant, dive shop and thatch-roofed outdoor bar. Accommodations are spacious and comfortable. Divers and snorkelers alike favor Sunset House, appreciate the rocky (ironshore) shoreline and the extensive diving programs available at Sunset Divers. Located a quick ten minutes away from Owen Roberts International Airport, you can be in your room and out for a dive within an hour of leaving the airport!
You’re given a number of options for accommodations ranging from courtyard rooms – a unit opening onto the courtyard – or more appropriate for families, a roomy apartment that provides extras such as private balconies, two double beds, a full kitchen, and a living room. The most popular are the ocean view rooms, which open onto views of the sea and contain more space than the courtyard rooms. Last on the list is a spacious suite with a sofa and two queen size beds. All rooms come equipped with TV, WI-FI, air-conditioning, private bathrooms, fridge, coffee-making facilities, patio or balcony and daily maid service. Ocean view rooms have an added extra of a microwave.
Sea Harvest restaurant is located on-property beside the pool and boasts a beautiful outdoor patio for evening dining. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. Sea Harvest is located conveniently next to the dive shop and adjacent to the complimentary dive lockers, so you can easily move from breakfast to the boats in the morning.
Lunch and dinner is also offered at the popular island hang out, My Bar. Capturing the essence of the tropics, My Bar is a huge open-sided cabana, standing on the water’s edge at Sunset House. Looking west, it’s the best vantage point imaginable to watch the sun setting in a blaze of glory at the end of the day. My Bar is one of those places that you ‘cannot miss’! An island favorite. Go early to get a good spot. Order an infamous ‘mudslide’ or your favorite libation. Then sit back, relax and prepare to be overwhelmed by Mother Nature’s beauty.
Visit Sunset House Grand Cayman’s Hotel for Divers by Divers for more information.