CAYMAN ISLANDS - Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson

Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)


by Lawson Wood

ORIGINALLY CONNECTED TO CUBA TO THE northeast by a now submerged mountain range, the Cayman Islands were discovered in 1503 by Christopher Columbus during his second Caribbean voyage of discovery. Located in the central Caribbean, the three coral-topped former mountains are Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Still a British crown colony, the islands are subject to British laws and customs, although they have their own national currency, the Cayman dollar, used alongside the American dollar.

Each island has its own atmosphere and, of course, great diving and snorkelling. Grand Cayman is 35km (22 miles) long and the largest of the three islands. It is also known for ‘the best 3½m (12ft) dive worldwide’ at Stingray City where, for many years now, thousands of tourists have experienced the thrill of hand-feeding stingrays. One section of the area is known as The Sandbar and, with the water as shallow as 1m (3ft), this makes a perfect location for interaction with these amazing creatures which have ‘trained humans’ to feed them tasty morsels. The famous Cayman Trench can be explored here to a depth of 300m (1000ft) by a deep submersible.

Cayman Brac, 120km (75 miles) to the northwest, is home to a Russian frigate which was sunk deliberately in September 1996 to serve as an artificial reef. Just 11km (7 miles) away is Little Cayman Island, reputed to have the best wall diving in the Caribbean.

The Caribbean’s deepest oceanic valley, the Cayman Trench, comes close to the southern shores of these islands. The Cayman Trench is responsible for the better-than-average clarity of water, because all suspended particulate matter quickly drops into the deep, leaving the shallow waters perfect for snorkelling and diving. Grand Cayman is on all Caribbean cruise ships’ routes and hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world are discovering these magical islands for scuba diving, snorkelling, swimming, banking, shopping and just plain relaxing in a safe country where the locals are welcoming.

Once considered a top scuba diving destination, the Cayman Islands have been declining in diver popularity due to damage from hurricane Ivan in 2004 and a series of ill-advised decisions by local officials and tourism promoters that turned off some divers and forced several popular dive centres to close down. Some divers prefer destinations that are more affordable and less developed.

The Department of the Environment maintains the Marine Parks and has introduced over 280 permanent mooring buoys around the islands. The moorings for dive boats and yachts are changed every year to allow coral regeneration and to spread the load of diver pollution. The department was also responsible for the survey and cleanup work on the former Russian frigate, which was sunk off Greenhouse Reef to the north of Cayman Brac, and is involved in continuous monitoring of marine habitats around the islands. The majority of the diving and snorkelling on all three islands is from day boats, which usually entail a 10-20 minute ride to the site. Moorings are only equipped for one dive boat at a time and the principle of first come, first served applies. However, qualified divers can hire equipment and shore-dive in a number of specific locations without the time limits imposed by dive centres.


Located inside the sheltered lagoon and protected by Grand Cayman Island’s famous North Wall, are two of the world’s legendary dive locations. Stingray City 1 and its counterpart, The Sandbar 2, have been featured in National Geographic and promoted throughout the world in film, video and magazine articles. The Sandbar is the most popular with tourists, because it makes it possible for those unable or unwilling to dive to enjoy the spectacular stingray feeding in waters only 1m (3ft) deep.


The stingrays here are the Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana). There are several large groups of these rays, totalling about 250, that have become habituated over many years to hand-feeding. They are able to detect the scent of food in the water and also associate the sound of boat engines with food. Stingrays do not have teeth; instead they have a pair of bony rasping plates. You feed them like a horse, with fish bait held in the open palm. When feeding, it is not uncommon for a ray to envelop you in its ‘wings.’ Free meal over, the stingrays quickly revert to their normal feeding behaviour of foraging on the sand flats for small crustaceans and molluscs. This curious mix of nature and enterprise has been enjoyed by several hundred thousand tourists attracted by the interaction with one of nature’s amazing phenomena.


Orange Ball Corallimorph (Pseudocorynactis caribbeorum) have bright orange ball tips to each tentacle. They are often misnamed the Orange Ball Anemone due to the resemblance.


Bigeye Scad (Selar crumenophthalmus) often come in huge schools in April and May when they are rounded up by Dolphin Fish and tuna and ferociously attacked.



Bluestriped Lizardfish (Synodus saurus) are common around the shallow reefs, but hide under the sand to ambush prey.


During early summer, Balloonfish (Diodon holocanthus) can often be found in pairs or groups of three or four as they pursue the age old mating ritual.


Bloody Bay Wall 3 and Jackson Bight 4 to the north of Little Cayman are both highly regarded. In the southwest, the reef crest is only 6m (20ft) deep and the wall drops vertically for several hundred metres, well beyond the safe diving limit. The top of the reef is made up of hard pan - the ancient coralline shoreline topped by sparse gorgonian and stony corals, but is home to huge quantities and varieties of reef fish.

As you travel to the northeast along the reef crest, the wall becomes more convoluted and is deeply undercut in some sections, making it the perfect habitat for shade-loving creatures such as squirrelfish, Channel Clinging Crabs and lobsters. Towards the Jackson Bight section, the hard pan gives way to a wide, gently sloping sandy-bottomed lagoon protected by the outer reef. Here the reef is cut through by numerous caves, caverns, sand chutes and canyons connecting the sandy lagoon to the outer vertical cliff wall.

One of the greatest thrills in this area is the regular appearance of Eagle Rays that forage for crustaceans under the sand, their pointed snouts equipped for the purpose. Graceful in motion, their spotted backs and long whip-like tails distinguish them from the much smaller, bottom-hugging Southern Stingrays which are also common in these sand flats.

The shallower rubble-filled areas at the bottom of the inner mini-wall are home to Sailfin Blennies, which ferociously protect their old worm-cast burrows. Many of the smaller stones have attached corkscrew anemones and their attendant pistol shrimps. The name pistol shrimp comes from the sound that the larger of their two claws makes when striking out in defence or attack. The shallower coral canyons are also home to huge schools of silversides which congregate during July to September in large moving shoals for protection from the main hunters of the reef - the jacks, Tarpon and barracuda.


Renamed the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts 5 after a resident of Cayman Brac, the Russian frigate was built in 1984 at Nadhodka in the USSR at a cost of US$30 million. The 100m (330ft) ship had a beam of 13m (43ft), and weighed 1590 metric tons and had a ship’s complement of 11 officers and 99 enlisted personnel. Stationed in Cuba during the Cold War, she was never involved in any conflict. When the USSR dissolved in 1992, the newly created Russian Republic took over the operational control of the old Soviet base on Cuba. However, due to the economic upheaval in Russia, the base could not be supported financially and in 1993 the base and all the ships stationed in the Caribbean were removed from active duty.

When the ship was finally sunk in September 1996, Jean-Michel Cousteau, in full scuba gear, stayed on board as she went down. Later that night, after we had completed filming for the day, he said ‘...fear did not come into it, this is something that I have always wanted to do and the preparations, to ensure that there would be no accidents, were meticulous. What did cause a moment of anxiety was when the aluminium superstructure cracked open in two places, splitting the living quarters with a resounding crack...’


Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda) are seen on most dives. They are attracted to the shade offered by dive boats and are often the first fish divers encounter.


The classic view of the Channel Clinging Crab (Mithrax spinosissimus) at night when it climbs up onto the swaying sea fans. It grows to span over 1m (40 in) to the ends of its claws.

The main part of the hull lists only slightly to starboard and is perfectly placed in a sandchute that plunges over the wall off the north shore of Cayman Brac. On either side are healthy sections of coral reef carpeted with huge barrel sponges. The bow has now almost sheered off and lies at a much more acute angle, but now the ship looks much more like the wreck she has become, rather than an old ship sunk as a tourist attraction. Completely covered in marine growth, with some fine examples of gorgonian and stony corals and sponges, this former engine of war is now an extension of the healthy reef and home to a myriad of fish and invertebrates.



Until recently it was only members of the scientific community who had the opportunity to visit the depths of the ocean in the quest for knowledge. It was unthinkable that some day tourists would be able to enjoy the same freedom. The 6.6m (22ft) Atlantis Research Submersible, based in George Town on Grand Cayman can take two passengers down the Cayman Trench to a depth of 300m (1000ft). The adventure begins some 30 minutes before leaving shore, with a slide show of the dive you are about to undertake. The most disconcerting part of the experience is when the captain states: ‘If I die, hit this emergency button and breathe from this.’ The two passengers and captain sit in the forward compartment looking out of a window 6cm (2 in) thick and 1m (40 in) in diameter.

This twilight world hosts species of marine life only rarely seen. Due to its filtration by the water, the colour red is the first to disappear, gradually followed by the other colours in the ascending order of electromagnetic energy, until everything takes on shades of blue-grey. At the 100m (330ft) level the captain switches on his powerful 600 watt halogen lamps and the sponge belt’s colour is revealed in all its splendour, with brilliant reds and yellows. Many of the deeper sponges and some corals feed on the marine ‘snow’ which falls from shallow waters into the depths of the Cayman Trench. At 240m (800ft) the lights penetrate 100m (330ft). Huge boulders of ancient limestone are topped with curiously shaped crinoids, a distant cousin of prehistoric sea lilies and huge arrow crabs. Surprisingly there are quite a few fish hunting in these depths, taking advantage of our powerful lights. The debris on the slope is made up of sand and the skeletal remains of sea creatures over the millennia. This breathtaking experience should not be missed by anyone with a sense of adventure.


Not to scale - some of the smaller species have been enlarged for clarity.


Red Beach, known locally as Playa Caracas; part of Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.


San Juan is named after ‘San Juan Bautista’, ‘Saint John the Baptist’.