I’ve had a startling revelation that I want to share with the dive community, just promise me one thing in return – remember you heard it here first!
Did that send a shock wave of surprise around the world and blow you off your chair? Well, probably not. It’s no secret that the Cayman Islands have some awesome diving on offer. There have been libraries of words written and a gazillion photos proving this, so creating another account of this underwater paradise seems a tad redundant. Instead, I am going to try to paint a little picture of the island as it looks below sea level, metaphorically of course. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be entertained by watching me fumbling with water colors and brushes to create a mess that not even my mum would want to put up on the fridge door!
But why would you be interested in such a blog? Well, start by thinking of the dive sites around Grand Cayman as being pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. With a bit of time on the island you can become familiar with the detail on some of the pieces , but the complete image remains a mystery. The more pieces you are able to become familiar with, the greater your vision of the wider picture becomes. Hopefully, this account will help you save some time by filling in the blanks.
So where does the island come from…. Sorry, was that a silly question? Let me explain! Imagine an ocean a mile deep (more or less). Now make a mountain with sharp cliffs that rise straight out of the ocean floor. The mountain climbs all the way up to the surface with just the very tip poking out to make dry land. All around the mountain is the deep blue Caribbean sea.
The tip at its highest point is only 60′ above sea level meaning Grand Cayman has very little altitude. Deep down where the krakens lurk, east of the island, the Cayman Trench cuts into the ocean floor reaching depths of over 25,000 feet (there aren’t any recorded dive sites down there by the way, but if you manage to check the place out please do let me know what it looks like!)
OK, good to know, but what does this mean for us divers? Well, firstly the very low altitude of the island means no rivers and very little run off. This lack of detritus being washed in to the ocean helps the island’s dive sites maintain fantastic visibility all year round. Next up, the plummet to the abyss that is right on our doorstep means that we are close to all kinds of oceanic beasties . Appearances from hammerheads, tuna, marlin and even the odd tiger shark have been made in the short time that I have been here.
Beyond all that, the drop itself is an awesome sight to behold. In some places, diving on the wall around Grand Cayman is like taking a running jump off a cliff so high that it’s impossible to see the floor below. Just as gravity is about to pull you to your demise, time somehow stops leaving you just hanging there to take it all in.
My passion is tech diving so having this drop so close to the shore makes this island about the best kind of playground I can imagine. Fortunately, the conditions are such that the wall and its scenery can be enjoyed by recreational divers just as easily.
Oops, there I go waffling on about how phenomenal it is here again, lets get back on track. So as I mentioned, we have these sharp cliffs that rise from the ocean floor towards the surface, but that’s not how they emerge from the water. The steep mountain walls stop around 40′-80′ short of the surface and upon the top, surrounding the island, sits a crown of coral reef.
Fixed boat moorings have been built into the reef at the top of the main wall, often only tens of feet away from the edge . To give you a point of reference, some of these deep wall dive sites are so close to the shore that a 5 minute surface swim is all it takes to get there. From such sites, divers can find swim-throughs, pinnacles, overhangs, ledges, grottos and all kinds of cool things living in the nooks and crannies.
But we’re still not up to the surface yet…
Swim towards land a little, just a short way from the big drop and you’ll notice that the coral crown nestles into a sandy bottom at around 50′-90′. This sand belt is like a shelf ranging in width from 40′-300′ and also orbits the island, dividing the coral reefs of the main wall from those of the mini wall.
How impressive does a sandy shelf sound? Well, not very I guess but actually there is a ton of cool stuff to find there. The little coral heads that pop up intermittently have marine life just exploding out of them making you feel like you are in an aquarium. Garden eels live in the sand and to me it looks like they are having a big party, all dancing to the same beat. Cool as they are, the garden eels attract spotted eagle rays who come in close enough to suck them right out of the sand. Southern stingrays patrol the flats searching for their next bite and dotted around all over, it’s easy to find conch laboriously dragging themselves through life.
So, we have deep blue, then the wall, then the sand flat and then what?
Another coral belt runs around the island which I briefly mentioned earlier. This stretch however is not as black and white as the other perimeters. The mini wall looks different depending on where you are on the island. In places it can be like a definite, visible step that drops from 35′(ish) down to the sand at around 60′ more or less. It is common to find fingers of coral that jut out of the mini wall clawing their way in to the sand channel, and coral heads that exist in between these fingers make for some really cool routes to swim through. In other parts of the island, the depth range of the mini wall is not anywhere near as noticeable without looking at your gauge. An example of this could be the shallow sites off seven mile beach which are typically more like sprawling fields of coral heads than a neat step.
The top of the mini wall brings us up to 20′-40′ and following this contour is another dot-to-dot outline made up of mooring buoys that mark the islands shallow dive sites. The final stretch between this and the waterline is either sand, hardpan or ironshore depending on where you are. These shallow spots are often dismissed by divers but are in fact goldmines for macro photographers who may find sailfin blennies, fingerprint cythomas, gaudy clown crabs and bristled fireworms to name a few. It’s not all small stuff either, flying gurnard, peacock flounders, tarpon and giant barracuda are amongst the bigger boys that can be found lurking in the shallows.
To get a better visual representation of this, why not check out the “idive maps” tab on the website, zoom in a little you’ll kinda see the 2 surrounding bands of dive sites from shallow to deep. Click on the thumb-tack and you’ll get your own virtual tour of the site, pretty cool huh?
So there you have it – from the ocean floor to the shoreline of Grand Cayman in just a few paragraphs! Of course there is an absolute bucket-load of (not so fine) detail that I have missed out and my crude descriptions far from cover every inch, but you get the idea. The best way to see the underwater world here is to get on a plane and come see for yourself. That said, I like to read up as much on a dive location as I can before I go there in order to get the most out of the experience. If that sounds like something you like to do too then I hope this account has helped a little.