September 23, 2020

Cayman Islands offer some of Caribbean’s best diving

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By Brian E. Clark, From Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

The Cayman Islands are best known in financial circles as an offshore banking haven where the super wealthy park their millions to avoid paying taxes.

But for scuba divers, it’s the underwater walls, reefs and sand spits off the shores of these tropical Caribbean islands that make a visit highly attractive. This British overseas territory, located south of Cuba, is home to sting and eagle rays, to say nothing of sharks, turtles, barracuda, tiny cleaner shrimp, large schools of tarpon, moray eels, lobsters and the dreaded lionfish.

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.23.36 AM In other words, it’s a divers paradise that attracts thousands of underwater explorers every year. I first dove here in the 1980s and recall being astounded by the abundance of marine life, huge barrel sponges and wonderful coral formations.

So I was excited to plan a return trip this October with my family, which now includes two young divers. When my 14-year-old daughter, Maddie, earned her scuba certification two years ago, we celebrated with a vacation to the Turks and Caicos Islands. In October, after 12-year-old Anders finished his diving course, we decided that another outing to the Caribbean was in order. And this time, he wouldn’t just be a snorkeler, he’d get to descend into the deep, too.

Floating in “inner space”

For this adventure, we chose the Compass Point Dive Resort, home to the Ocean Frontiers dive outfitter. Founded almost 20 years ago by three diving buddies, Ocean Frontiers has four boats, a staff of mostly British dive masters with a few Yanks, Canadians and a Scots thrown in for good measure. The resort is on the unpopulated East End of the island, far from the hustle and bustle of popular Seven Mile Beach. That was just fine with us, because it put us closer to much of the island’s best dive sites.

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.23.50 AMBest of all — after the underwater delights — was the gregarious staff who not only took care of all our gear and educated us about the flora and fauna of the local waters, but entertained the kids. Anders and Maddie became especially attached to Kevin Mounsor, a friendly (and sometimes goofy) dive master and boat pilot from England.

As we motored out to sea the first morning, Paul Kirby, another Englishman, went over the dive plan on a big whiteboard and told us what kinds of fish, coral reefs and underwater formations — including a couple of tunnels — we should expect to see. He also told us how deep we would be diving and gave us tips on currents and other things that were specific to that area to make it as safe as possible.

Then, we took what scuba enthusiasts call “giant strides” and jumped into the water off the back of the boat. Anders and I teamed up and began our descent. Or at least we tried to descend. As a novice, it took him a few tries to get his buoyancy under control so he could float down with the rest of the group.

Initially, he and I floated away in a current near the surface before he began to drop. Then we were falling, ever so gently, into what some call “inner space,” heading down around 60 feet to the bottom among staghorn coral and myriad colorful fish.

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.24.01 AMAllie Pittendreigh, a young Scottish woman with a lilting brogue, led us on a tour along the ocean reef for about 40 minutes, pointing out various critters, including rainbow-hued parrotfish, blue-and-gold angelfish and some big groupers.

Then we circled back underneath our dive boat, where we spent the next 20 minutes exploring on our own — keeping an eye on our gauges to make sure we had enough air to ascend safely. It was a pattern we’d repeat over the next few days on at least 16 dives, as Anders became more and more accustomed to the patterns of Ocean Frontiers’ dives.

2,000 feet under the sea

On another dive, Lo Hatcher — who grew up in British Columbia — led us out to a wall that dropped more than 2,000 feet down into a deep trench. As we floated above the precipice, I held Anders’ hand. Not that he would have tumbled into the abyss, but I still didn’t want to take any chances. Then we kicked slowly along a coral- and sponge-covered wall, where we spotted a big loggerhead turtle that we followed for a few minutes.

As we swam back along the sea floor to the dive boat, Hatcher showed Maddie a 4-foot-long nurse shark slumbering on the sand, a huge red king crab, a green moray eel and some tiny, delicate Pederson “cleaner” shrimp and pistol shrimp hidden in coral crannies that made clicking sounds. The cleaner shrimp chewed on our cuticles when we let them crawl on our fingers. It tickled.

Hatcher is Ocean Frontiers’ staff photographer, and one of the evenings during our visit — after a dinner that included tasty fish tacos made of lionfish, an invasive and unwanted species that has few predators — she put on a stunning slide show of marine creatures. One of the photos featured a purplish cuddle fish that looked like a swimming football with squid-like arms.

But our trip wasn’t all about scuba diving. One afternoon we went to the Blue Iguana Recovery Program not far from Compass Point, where we met Warden Alberto Estevanovich. He told us how these big iguanas had been hunted to near extinction. Then he showed us the pens where the prehistoric-looking creatures — which can grow to more than 5 feet long — are kept before they are released into the wild.

On another day, we drove out to Rum Point on the north side of the island to snorkel above a shallow sandbar called Stingray City with a small herd of rays. Though these animals — some of them 5 feet across from wing to wing — are ostensibly wild, they’ve been trained over the years to come to the humans who feed them bits of fish. Their skin felt a bit like neoprene as they rubbed up against us, prompting giggles of delight from our group.

All too soon, it seemed, our dive trip was over and we were flying north again to autumn and what is now a bitterly cold winter. But when I daydream, I’m back on the East End of Grand Cayman, the temperature is in the mid-80s and I’m swimming, 60 feet down with a school of tarpon at my side.

And one of these years, I plan to return to this corner of the Caribbean for more diving. Only this time, I’ll go even further afield to the smaller islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, where scuba veterans say the diving is even better.

More information

For more information on Compass Point Resort see compasspointdiveresort.com. And for the Ocean Frontiers diving outfitter, see oceanfrontiers.com.

For details on other things to see and do on Grand Cayman, see the Cayman Islands Tourism Department at www.caymanislands.ky. To learn more about the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, see www.blueiguana.ky.

IMAGES:

A scuba diver follows a turtle in the Caribbean off the coast of Grand Cayman. The area includes abundant marine life, including sharks, barracuda, shrimp and eels. Lo Hatcher

Dive master guide Paul Kirby goes over tips for diving off Grand Cayman. Brian E. Clark

Brian and Anders Clark descend into the warm waters of the Caribbean for a diving trip off the coast of Grand Cayman. Kathleen Maginot

A Pedersen “cleaner” shrimp spotted off the coast of Grand Cayman. Lo Hatcher

For more on this story go to: http://www.jsonline.com/features/travel/cayman-islands-offer-some-of-caribbeans-best-diving-b99424603z1-288824721.html?ipad=y

ADD IMAGE: www.compasspointbeachresort.com

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