Wall Diving in Grand Cayman
A Spectacular Scene
If you have never done a wall dive before then you might be wondering what all the fuss is about, we are surrounded by walls in day to day life but few have any significance other than stopping a roof falling on our heads. The easiest way to picture a wall dive is to think of a mountain that has perilously steep sides. If you were stood at the top of one of these sides, looking down would be much like peering over the edge of a cliff. Now simply add water to the imaginary picture and instead of peering over the edge of the cliff you can throw your gear on, swim over the edge then drop down the sides of the wall a little. Typically you have the wall to your one side and then nothing else below, above or on the opposite side, pretty cool huh? The wall that surrounds Grand Cayman starts at about 60’ beneath the surface and drops down a mile. Depending on where you are, each section of wall offers a different appearance, features and attractions. Though the north is often touted as having the most dramatic scenery on account of its direct drop, I personally think that no matter where you are on the island, the surrounding wall will be home to something that will blow you away.
The Lay of the Land
The world famous wall that surrounds Grand Cayman is packed with attractions. A big favorite for divers are areas where, over centuries, coral has formed in such a way as to create passages that cut through under the reef. Sites like Big Tunnels, Orange Canyon and Trinity Caves are some famous examples of these passages or swim throughs as they are known.
As well as the thrill of swimming though such a structure, while in the confines of an underwater passageway, divers are able to find all kinds of cool things. Spotted lobsters tend to enjoy hanging out there, they can often be found in the little holes just watching the world pass by. Schools of fish like silversides can totally obscure the way forward and larger slivery dudes like tarpon or horse eyed jacks can often be found loitering in these passageways. A particular favorite of mine is a little used site on the west end of the great North Wall called Alex’s Alley. The alley itself is like a chimney that starts on the top of the wall at 60’ and drops straight down to 100’ before making a right angle turn that cuts out onto the main wall, it’s a pretty cool way to break into a bottomless dive, especially when it’s crammed with silversides.
Dotted around the perimeter of Grand Cayman at random intervals are pinnacles that rise up from the depths like giant crusty fingers pointing towards the sky. The pinnacles are a sight to behold in their own right, but these formations that jut out into the deep blue sea are festooned with vibrant coral. On sites like the infamous Ghost Mountain and Sentinel Rock, divers can find colossal clumps of gorgonian sea fans that span out into the blue to catch food from the nutrient rich water in the passing currents. Other famous pinnacles like Princess Penny’s & Babylon are set so close to the wall itself that it is only possible to swim between the two at certain depths. The close proximity lends a more adventurous feel to the dive as you pass through what feels like a chasm until the pinnacle rounds off back out into the blue. Pinnacles and swim throughs are favorite features that keep people coming back to dive on them time and again. Out of the hundreds of wall dive sites in the Cayman Islands, the mounds, hills, shelves, valleys, cuts and chutes are among other characteristics that ensure no two will be the same.
Many of the lifeforms that inhabit the ocean tend to be happiest within a specific depth range. If you imagine cutting out a cross section of the wall from its shallowest point down to the ocean floor, just like slicing a cake, then you’d find yourself with a living depth chart showing who lives where.
On the top of the wall where the divers gather before ascending towards their boat, the light and warm water makes the perfect environment for most coral types to live in. Angel fish, drums, sergeant majors, damsels and cornet fish are amongst the characters that hustle and bustle throughout the rich tapestry of the reef. Over the edge, down at around 100’ the coral starts to become sparse. It continues to dissipate further down until you reach the sponge belt at around 200’. What is this “sponge belt” that I’m talking about? This is the name given locally to the ring of sponges that surround the island at a depth of around 200’. Now then, I know that barrel sponges might not trigger an overwhelming feeling of awe amongst the majority of the diving community but trust me, these things are colossal! Below the sponge belt, life diminishes with the light but in no way does it stop, in fact, this is where things get really interesting. The occasional sights we get in shallower waters of hammerheads, tigers and reef sharks are a teaser of what lurks in the depths below. One type of fish who likes to span quite an impressive range is unfortunately the lionfish. Buddies of mine who have been down there tell me that the venomous pest can be seen at 500’ where they reside in confidence having never seen divers with spears before. The main difference with finding them up at say 80’ is that down in the depths, there are less of them, perhaps due to a lack of food there but the deeper ones often get the opportunity to grow to their full capacity without ending up on someone’s plate.
Enjoy the Ride
This little part of the Caribbean is well reputed for having incredible visibility throughout the year and the walls, apart from being awesome to dive on, help the vis stay so good. As the islands’ edges plummet down to the abyss a mile below, it means that they are surrounded by deep blue sea which can easily absorb the small amount of rain run off from the land. Apart from the breath-taking scene, what else can these walls mean for us? Imagine the underwater mountain again, as it juts out of the ocean floor, it becomes an obstacle for the oceans currents. When the currents hit the side of the mountain, they are deflected, usually one way or the other and in many parts of the world, divers use these currents to enable drift dives which, if done safely, are tones of fun. The art of drift diving is to set your buoyancy, sit back, ride the current and let the scenery pass you by. Before starting my scuba adventures, I recall reading about the enjoyment that divers got from the feeling of weightlessness while underwater. For me, the appreciation of this particular pleasure took a while to arrive. My positive memories of open water training were mainly being happy to have made it out of the frigid quarry I did my course in. Any notion of weightlessness was lost in the murk of limited visibility, explosions of bubbles, confused divers and an ill-fitting cocoon of neoprene. It was years later when I finally got to appreciate weightlessness, I was 100’ beneath the surface of the red sea in Egypt, hanging effortlessly midwater. The current that carried me alongside a wall that disappeared out of sight below made me feel like I was being transported through a living underwater documentary. Hanging in the blue over the drop of the wall, I felt like I was flying, the experience was truly out of this world.
During my first dive on Grand Cayman’s north wall, I recall dropping down to 110’ which was the maximum depth my nitrox mix would allow. Hanging there in the blue, the adventurer within me was excited by the deepest part of the wall I could see – a protruding ledge at about 150 feet, I couldn’t help wondering what was below it. Six months later I returned to the site with twin sets and deco gases with a plan to drop to 160’, I was going to pass the frontier that was the ledge and then learn what was below it. The dive was awesome and as I dropped from the top of the wall, I felt like I had leapt off a cliff and was free falling into the unknown, the ledge getting ever closer. Upon reaching my target, I was so excited to finally peer over the protrusion and see what lay beneath, guess what I saw there? There was more wall dropping below which eventually flattened out into the shape of a ledge at around 200’, all I could think was “I wonder what’s underneath it?” Years later, I made it to the 200’ ledge, while breathing a cocktail of helium, oxygen & nitrogen, my excited self again peered over the edge of my universe only to find……. Yes, you guessed it, another ledge, this time down at around 300’. I’ll let you know about that one when I get there. When clambering out of a tek dive, nearby recreational divers who witness the effort it takes to lug 4 tanks and all the rest of the gear out of the water often ask questions along the lines of what we see down there. I’d like to say Krakens & mermaids but the truth is, apart from more sharks and the breath-taking image of looking skywards and seeing 150’ of wall above you, there isn’t a lot more to see at 200’ than 100’.
Personally, the reason I dive to these kinds of depths in Grand Cayman is not really to see different sights, it’s more down to a sense of adventure. I love to explore and I love to keep looking to see what is over those ledges in life. The depths on offer around the Cayman Islands are such that the ocean may as well be bottomless, a perfect playground for lovers of the deep.
Wall dives have something for everybody and offer a sensational environment for people to immerse themselves in. Whether you are excited by the depths, swim throughs, pinnacles, marine diversity or are simply content admiring the view from the top of the drop, the walls of the Cayman Islands guarantee to inspire awe. Those that are lucky enough to have dived this world famous region usually have a favorite, what was yours?
About the Author: Drew McArthur is a professional dive instructor and boat captain currently working at Divetech on Grand Cayman. Since his first dive over 20 years ago, he has found himself in all kinds of underwater environments from golf ponds on the side of a snowy Welsh mountain to the tropical paradise he has now become accustomed to. A fanatic of all things tech, one of the main things Drew loves about Grand Cayman is the accessibility of such premier dive sites. Check out Drew’s blog here.