I am honored that one of the most luxurious diving magazine in the world, Scuba Life Magazine, published one of my underwater photograph on the cover page along with the full article across fourteen pages inside with my images. The story describes the location with the highest number of scuba divers in the world, and one of my favorite scuba diving places – the Cayman Islands.
HEADLINE: CAYMAN ISLANDS, LOCATION WITH THE HIGHEST NUMBER OF SCUBA DIVERS IN THE WORLD
TAGLINE: Stingray City, Kittiwake Devil’s Grotto and others are some of the most famous Caribbean locations that thousands of tourists, mostly American divers, visit on daily basis. At first that number may sound unattractive, but nonetheles Cayman Islands are unavoidable spot of every scuba diving globetrotter.
Author: Goran Butajla
Photo: Predrag Vuckovic
Cayman Islands are definitely one of the most interesting places on the globe. Although this is a very small territory with small population, almost everyone have heard of Caymans, whether you want to see spectacular scenery and fascinating underwater world, whether it’s about its specific tax system that for years became the largest “safe haven” of American non-taxed money, although with the United States does not have a seemingly solid relationship. Politicaly speaking Caymans are also very interesting, and is even questionable whether they can be treated as a State. The movie industry has also “firmly” set the Cayman Islands in the focus of attention because many American films that were shot in a tropical environment were filmed right here. Remember the movie “The Firm” from the nineties with Tom Cruise, that displayed even the underwater world of Caymans, or the movie “Into the Blue” which was filmed several years ago, with Jessica Alba and recently deceased Paul Walker in the lead roles. The archipelago is very well connected by air mainly from America, and even Europe, so it undoubtedly profiled in the most important tourist center in the Caribbean. Caymans are also unavoidable point on the route of cruise ships, huge floating hotels that arrive here almost every day. At the beginning we will bring you a little more familiar with the islands in general and you will see that they are in many ways unique. The Cayman Islands are a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea and overseas possession of the United Kingdom, therefore, have the status very similar to Gibraltar or the British Virgin Islands, which are also British estates. The islands were named after a type of lizard that Europeans initially mistakenly thought were Caymans, subfamily of the family of alligators. The island group is made up of three islands: Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, and lies about 750 km south of Miami in Florida (even southern of Cuba), or about 300 km northwest of Jamaica. The islands are spreading over an area of about 260 square kilometers where the largest part of the 198 km² goes on Grand Cayman. The islands are actually the tips of underwater ridge that extends all the way to Cuba. You’ve probably at least once heard about the big “Cayman ditch” (the original “Cayman trench,” a giant submarine notch of almost 7 kilometers depth, which is the border between the American and Caribbean tectonic plates), and Cayman Islands lies on the northern edge of the ditch. Caribbean here offer the best opportunities for diving, heavenly beaches and fishing on the high seas at the highest level. All of the three islands have airports. About 90% of the residents live on the largest island, Grand Cayman (around 27,000). Centuries of common life in the islands gave life to the colorful people, very proud of the coexistence of good life quality regardless of the different origins of particular groups of islanders. The customs and habits of the local population are still strongly influenced by immigrants from the 18th century, who came from the British island. The islanders are Christians.
The islands were discovered back in the 16th century, when Columbus’ ships on 10th May in 1503 deviated from the desired course and stumbled upon them. They were called “Las Tortugas” by one type of turtle that lived on the islands. However, the islands were inhabited in the 17th century, from Jamaica. When the large neighboring island became independent, the people of the Cayman Islands decided differently: they became a colony of the British crown and got the governor. Since 1962 the Cayman Islands have the status of Crown Colony with internal self-government. Cayman Islands are also called the “Caribbean Switzerland” and all the world’s banks have here at least their outposts. They gained that status as a tax-free area. As a result of such a liberal fiscal policy, financial market of the capital George Town became the fifth largest in the world, and today the Caymans and best known as tax havens. The capital city is George Town and all its attractions can be visited in one afternoon walk. Among them are the Bell Tower of King George V, Courthouse and main Post Office. On the promenade along the coast there are the Cayman Maritime and Treasure Museum and the various exhibits. In McKee Museum are exposed many different objects surfaced from the ships sunk in the 16th and 17th centuries. George Town is also a favorite place for duty-free shopping: expensive goods and jewelry of all the world famous brands, as well as jewelry from local materials, such as black corals, can be purchased here for very low prices. Inevitably you need to visit a jewelry store “Black Coral”, which is, as the name suggests, specialized in jewelry made of black coral which can only be found in Cuba. Nearby is the Cayman Turtle Farm, the only one of its kind with green turtles. In Bodden Town, the former capital, there is a system of underground caves that served as a pirate hideout in the 18th century. Certainly the most famous attractions of Grand Cayman, and the islands as a whole, is the popular Stingray City, located in the northern part of the island. It is a rather large sandy plateau at only two to five meters depth, where numerous colonies of large stingrays are living. Stingrays are so tame that they approach people expecting food, and they allow to be held and pampered, and are always in great numbers. Therefore in the City an everyday sight is bunch of tourists who dive with the oxygen bottle or just snorkelling, and there are frequent tours with ships that have transparent bottoms. All visitors of Cayman Island must go on this kind of activity, because it is really a shame to miss. Unfortunately, the overall impression from Stingray City is still such that it is an excellent example of negative human interference in nature. Stingrays are fat and lazy, with a total lack of any instinct that should adorn the animals in the wild. The vast majority of rays is so heavy of “bulking” that they can not be separated from the sandy sea bottom. Grotesque are scenes where you see large groups of tourists of all ages swimming and playing in the shallow water, surrounded by numerically even larger groups of rays that are just expecting a few pieces of fish bite served by tourists. But, as we said, it’s too shame to miss it, even if you are an ardent supporter of ecology, at least to the spot you found what may be adverse human impact on the environment. However, the Cayman Islands has a lot more of those “positive” natural landmarks still relatively well-protected areas. Great Cayman is known for its exceptional coral reefs that have been legally protected since 1978. This beautiful underwater world, except scuba diving, can be seen from several submarines. Every hotel complex on Grand Cayman offers many other opportunities for an active holiday, not just swimming and sunbathing. For those who do not have diving on their priority list, Cayman offers many memorable scenes, and one of the most famous is Seven Mile Beach, the endless beach with palm trees, crystal white sand and turquoise sea, which lies to the west and northwest side of the largest island. Nature lovers should not miss going to the smallest island, Little Cayman. It is one of the last untouched places in the Caribbean, the resort of pelicans and cormorants. Little Cayman is also particularly suitable for walking because it reveals untouched nature. Near Little Cayman is the Cayman Brac, very similar to Little Cayman. Both of these islands are over a hundred kilometers away from the main island, which in each case has showed positive because a man’s impact, and especially the tourism impact on nature is significantly smaller. Cayman Brac, which is about 143 km away from Grand Cayman, is particularly attractive for scuba diving. It is flat island with 46 meter high cliff, a lot of famous aerial and underwater caves and spectacular underwater world. Near Cayman Brac is located the sunken Russian warship from year 1996, named the MV Capt. Keith Tibbetts, with four cannons on the deck. In addition to the Cuban locations, it is the only Russian warship in the Western Hemisphere to which you can dive, which adds to the already fantastic underwater world of Cayman Brac.
But the main reason for the large number of tourist arrivals to the archipelago is scuba diving, even if it were a simple snorkeling. As we hinted in the introduction, the Cayman Islands is extremely well connected with America, and everyday scenes are crowds at the local airport with dozens of landings and take-offs and numerous large cruising boats anchored around the islands. Thousands of Americans (and increasingly tourists of other nationalities) visit Cayman Islands throughout the year, so it is hard to run into any “real” residents. Whether you are just a beginner diver with just a one degree course, or experienced technician eager for “serious” dive, you will leave Cayman Islands with a big smile of satisfaction on your face, even though you would like to stay here forever. As it is to be expected, however, there is a large number of those divers who are just starting their “life adventure”. And it’s not hard to understand why this is so. Cayman Islands seem to be created just to provide endless diving pleasures, and in a very simple and safe way, without any difficulty. Of course this is most prominent on the main island, where the concentration of tourists is the largest. Vast stretches of sandy beaches with endless shallow coral formations are found literally everywhere, and are easily accessible. Combined with the still very clear water (in the Caymans there are no rivers that could rile the sea), always a pleasant temperature of at least 27 degrees Celsius (even up to 32 degrees), and generally favorable weather, Caymans are a real diving magnet, even for complete beginners. Occasional tropical hurricanes that form in the summer for a few days may terminate this idle situation, but thankfully only for a short period of time. The vast majority of locations on the main island is available from the coast, so the unlimited “shore diving” is very popular and almost everybody practice it, something similar to Malta that we have described in previous issues. In addition, Cayman proudly presents to the world some really popular diving sites that can be described similar to saying of Rome and the Pope, so it is clear that they are not to be missed, but you will need an organized boat tour. Except on Grand Cayman, well-known and popular sites are also found on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, so if you are able, neither of them shouldn’t be missed. All of these sites are relatively easily available, because on all islands operate countless diving centers, either within the hotel resort, or on the “street”. Prices for diving excursions generally does not differ too much from those in Europe or if you preffer in Croatia (although it would be on the American-Croatian drastic differences in the quality of service in terms of the ratio of price and service could be widely discussed). One thing, however, is significantly different from Europe or elsewhere, and that is that diving centers almost without exception, over the issued invoice expect a tip, which is deeply rooted in the American culture of life, thus is reflected in all Caribbean locations or where American tourists are in the majority. So get ready to set aside another ten percent of the given amount even for the average service. Note that the absence of the tips represents almost an insult, at the very least reflects your dissatisfaction with what you have paid. While on the sociological aspect of the tipping in diving world we could widely duscuss (in world-wide proportions), this coverage is simply not the place for something like that. Therefore, we continue with the Cayman diving locations:
Stingray City is by far the most famous Cayman diving location, not only for scuba diving, but also for the ordinary tourist diving, or “family” snorkeling. It is a shallow sandy plateau long several kilometers, which is located on the north side of the main island. Although you will rarely come across a depth greater than five meters, the City is one of those sites that are simply not to be missed. Of course, the main magnet of this site are stingrays, which are generally very tame and are always in large groups, as we have already described in the introductory chapter. General note regarding this site should be to choose a good time when you go there, because if you notice a large number of boats in the area, you’d rather avoid it. Then it is quite likely that in the sea are hundreds of swimmers and curious snorkelers, and they all feed the stingrays, which is a little difficult to be described as true pleasure of scuba diving. So, you’d rather go a little earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon, when the throngs of tourists already coming back to the cruisers. Even during rush hours individual centers will take you to the edge portions of the plateau where you will be able to enjoy “your own” piece of this unusual attractions. Totally easy dive to a few meters of water in fantastic visibility, and a lot of stingrays becomes memorable moment. Many cover pages of scuba diving magazines were created right here, and beautiful photos of surreal turquoise sea can be captured even with basic cameras. Therefore, it’s not a bit strange that most divers coming back to this location, even within a single day. Even the waiter at the hotel or children selling souvenirs on the street will ask whether you’ve been to Stingray City.
The “youngest” diving locations in the Caymans that became one of the most popular in the Caribbean amazingly fast, surely deserved it. Decommissioned ship that served in the U.S. Army for submarine rescue, thanks to the donation was towed from Norfolk, Virginia to Grand Cayman, and in 2011 was sunken only for the sole purpose of diving tourism. Location of the wreck is on the west side of the main island, relatively close to the shore. Kittiwake was sunk on a sandy bottom and is in an upright position, and the bottom spot depth is only 22 meters. Therefore, the wreck is very attractive even for beginners, and there often can be seen groups of apnea divers. The highest parts of the wreck are at four meters of depth. Although the ship length is slightly more than eighty meters, very often it can be seen fully, which is really unusual experience. Entry is possible in almost every room of the wreck, and to us scuba divers particularly interesting is the pressure chambers in the womb. Today, the Kittiwake undoubtedly is the most attractive locations on Grand Cayman, but the regime of diving is relatively strict, so every diver must purchase a separate ticket for diving (10 $) and income goes to the preservation of the underwater environment of Cayman Islands, and only one dive boat can persist on the location at the moment, with the shortest possible anchoring time, so it is possible that you can not go to this location whenever you wish. Generally it requires careful planning and advanced announcement of departure schedule, but clearly this is one of the locations that should not be missed.
EDEN ROCK – DEVIL´S GROTTO
On the west side of Grand Cayman, almost in the George Town, there are several very interesting locations for diving, and they all have in common that are accessible from the shore. Almost every dive center has „its own“ pier, from where you can go to the diving site. One of them is the Eden Rock, which is located next to one of the oldest and most famous Caymans diving centers – Abanks Dive Center. Most of the sites on the west side, including the Eden Rock, are known by narrow sandy plateau upon which soon follows coral reef wall, larger or smaller in size, but in most cases does not exceed the depth of twenty meters. Eden Rock is a “classic” Cayman location with almost vertical wall, covered with sponges and gorgonians and richness of fish species, some of which are very popular tarpon, fish predators characteristic for the local sites (the shape is somewhat reminiscent of a barracuda, but have noticaby round head). Close to Eden Rock, and in fact in the same coral formation, there is one of the most beautiful system of caverns in Cayman – Devil’s Grotto. At depths between ten and twenty meters there are numerous channels, passages and tunnels, and due to numerous lateral and vertical openings they are almost always highlighted in daylight thus practically completely safe for diving. Caverns are almost always,and especially in the summer, full of silverside fishes, counterparts of the glass fishes from Egypt, who live in large schools, hiding from the daylight. Silversides attract tarpons and other predator fishes, and very often you are in a position to attend the hunt of stronger to weaker directed by Mother Nature.
On the west side of Grand Cayman, on the northwestern edge is one of the oldest and most famous locations – Orange Canyon. It is named after the vast fields of orange sponges that in form look like an elephant ear, and those are one of the trademarks of underwater world of Caymans. The attraction of the site is well-known underwater rip (canyon) which can be visited in the company of tarpons, barracudas and silverside fishes. The depth of the canyon reaches over thirty meters. Should I mention that this is also one of the locations that can not be missed? Location may not be as fascinating as the Kittiwake and Stingray City, but scuba diving at this site is also ode to the history of pioneering research of Cayman locations. Right here it all began forty years ago, and is now leading to the point that one of the most recognizable Cayman “products” is scuba diving.
In the northern part of the Grand Cayman, on the so-called North Wall, there is also a lot of famous diving sites, which are relatively less frequently visited, although the term “rare” is very questionable at the local diving sites. There are divings here almost every day, but to a lesser extent compared to the west side of the island. One of the reasons may be adverse weather conditions accompanied by stronger winds, although those are rare situations. One of the most famous locations is Babylon. Although you can dive from the coast, it is not advisable because of the need for diving on a sandy plateau wall 250 meters far, so it is still easier to dive from a boat from one of nearby centers. Wall begins on some ten to fifteen meters of depth, and then turns into a series of cascades to the depth of over thirty meters. The ground is covered with many orange sponges and the deeper parts with the real forest of black corals. This area is inhabited by many eagle rays – an eagle stingray that are even more beautiful than stingrays that we mentioned earlier. Apart from them, here are more frequent meetings with a number of pelagic species, so meetings with Caribbean reef sharks are not uncommon. You will probably encounter the occasional larger bass and nurse sharks.
LOCATIONS ON LITTLE CAYMAN AND CAYMAN BRAC
Apart from the Grand Cayman, to Cayman Islands archipelago also belongs Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, two small islands that are located more than one hundred kilometers to the east. Although seemingly somewhat less accessible, because it will be difficult to decide on one day trip, it is not so, because both islands possess their own airports for smaller planes, so it is possible to come directly from U.S. airports. Scuba diving here is also the most important tourist branch, though to a much lesser extent than on the Grand Cayman. This does not mean that the diving here is worse. On the contrary, the local diving sites here are extremely well known, although in a somewhat different way, which also leaves you breathless.
BLOODY BAY WALL, LITTLE CAYMAN
Although on Grand Cayman there are some very nice locations whose main characteristic are the walls, if you really want to see the underwater wall you have to go straight to the Bloody Bay on Little Cayman. At this location there is a wall that not only spreads for hundreds of meters horizontally, but after only five meters of depth in the proper vertical drops to nearly two kilometers deep. The entire wall is covered with a rich variety of sponge species, and most noticable are those like „elephant ears“. That is bit of a shame because we will be able to investigate only some 1-2 percent of the entire wall, right? What is particularly fascinating is look into an endless abyss, which is multiplied by excellent visibility, so you can really get a feel of the abyss, like nowhere else in the world. Almost every dive will be further spiced with more eagle rays, schools of barracuda and jacks, and quite possibly sharks and turtles. As in all other locations on Little Cayman, for scuba diving are necessary good weather conditions.
ANCHOR WALL, CAYMAN BRAC
Like locations on Little Cayman, the Cayman Brac offers spectacular dives on the walls of the vast abyss. One of these microlocation is Anchor Wall, where a huge admiralty anchor is literally grown into a gap in the coral reef. Anchor is about two hundred years old, so the corals over time “captured” it in the structure of the reef. Right next to the anchor is very interesting crag like vertical tunnel, which splits into two directions as it goes into the deep. This is a bit deeper dive since the end of the tunnel is at almost forty meters. It should be noted that this kind of dive in the Caymans are generally very rare, so in most diving centers it is considered extreme, and it takes experience and advanced diving categories. But translated into “our” diving terms, this is just one of the usual dive (of course, we mean the depth). Sharks, turtles and rays will fulfill the beauty of this extraordinary dive.
MV CAPTAIN KEITH TIBBETTS
If you’re already on Cayman Brac, it really would be a shame to miss the interesting scuba dive on the “Tibbetts”. The wreck today bears Americanized name in honor of one of the oldest native divers, but in reality it is rejected Russian warship redeemed by Caymans, the frigate which was deliberately flooded in 1996. It lies on the twenty meters of depth available to everyone, with the deepest point at thirty meters and shallowest parts reaching up to 6 meters below the surface. An impressive length of about one hundred meters makes it ideal for “full day” trip, with at least two dives. On board are still turrets with cannons, and particularly interesting is observatory in the most shallow part. Unfortunately, after the devastating hurricanes in 2004 the force of nature broke the ship in two halfs so now it is frequent situation with two independent divings. At several points, it can be relatively easy to enter in the interior of the ship, where you will most likely encounter two huge groupers that were domesticated in the shade of the deck. Although the wreck is still missing any significant growth of corals, you’ll surely encounter the occasional schools of smaller fishes, lobsters and moray eels.