Grand Cayman Travel Guide

Diving

One of the world's leading dive destinations, Grand Cayman's dramatic underwater topography features plunging walls, soaring skyscraper pinnacles, grottoes, arches, swim-throughs adorned with vibrant sponges, coral-encrusted caverns, and canyons patrolled by Lilliputian grunts to gargantuan groupers, hammerheads to hawksbill turtles.

There are more than 200 pristine dive sites, many less than half a mile from land and easily accessible, including wreck, wall, and shore options. Add exceptional visibility from 80 to 150 feet and calm, current-free water at a constant bathlike 80°F. Cayman is serious about conservation, with Marine Park, Replenishment, and Environmental Park Zones and stringently enforced laws to protect the fragile, endangered marine environment (fines of up to $500,000 and a year in prison are the price for damaging living coral, which can take years to regrow). Most boats use biodegradable cleansers and environmentally friendly drinking cups; moorings at popular sites prevent coral and sponge damage caused by continual anchoring, and diving with gloves is prohibited to reduce the temptation to touch.

Pristine clear water, breathtaking coral formations, and plentiful marine life mark the North Wall —a world-renowned dive area along the North Side of Grand Cayman. Trinity Caves, in West Bay, is a deep dive with numerous canyons starting at about 60 feet and sloping to the wall at 130 feet. The South Side is the deepest, its wall starting 80-feet deep before plummeting, though its shallows offer a lovely labyrinth of caverns and tunnels in such sites as Japanese Gardens. The less-visited, virgin East End is less varied geographically beyond the magnificent Ironshore Caves and Babylon Hanging Gardens ("trees" of black coral plunging 100 feet) but teems with "Swiss-cheese" swim-throughs and exotic life in such renowned gathering spots as the Maze.

Other good shore-entry snorkeling spots include West Bay Cemetery, north of Seven Mile Beach, and the reef-protected shallows of the island's north and south coasts. Ask for directions to the shallow wreck of the Cali in the George Town harbor area; there are several places to enter the water, including a ladder at Rackam's Pub. Among the wreckage you'll recognize the winch and, of course, lots of friendly fish.

Devil's Grotto. This site resembles an abstract painting of anemones, tangs, parrotfish, and bright purple Pederson cleaner shrimp (nicknamed the dentists of the reef, as they gorge on whatever they scrape off fish teeth and gills). Extensive coral heads and fingers teem with blue wrasse, horse-eyed jacks, butterfly fish, and Indigo hamlets. The cathedral-like caves are phenomenal, but tunnel entries aren't clearly marked, so you're best off with a dive master. George Town, Grand Cayman.

Eden Rock. If someone tells you that the silverside minnows are in at Eden Rock, drop everything and dive here. The schools swarm around you as you glide through the grottoes, forming quivering curtains of liquid silver as shafts of sunlight pierce the sandy bottom. The grottoes themselves are safe—not complex caves—and the entries and exits are clearly visible at all times. Snorkelers can enjoy the outside of the grottoes as the reef rises and falls from 10 to 30 feet deep. Avoid carrying fish food unless you know how not to get bitten by eager yellowtail snappers. S. Church St., across from Harbour Place Mall by Paradise Restaurant, George Town, Grand Cayman.

Stingray City. Most dive operators offer scuba trips to Stingray City in the North Sound. Widely considered the best 12-foot dive in the world, it's a must-see for adventurous souls. Here dozens of stingrays congregate—tame enough to suction squid from your outstretched palm. You can stand in 3 feet of water at Stingray City Sandbar as the gentle stingrays glide around your legs looking for a handout. Don't worry—these stingrays are so acclimated to tourist encounters that they pose no danger; the experience is often a highlight of a Grand Cayman trip. Near West Bay, North Sound, Grand Cayman.

Turtle Reef. The reef begins 20 feet out and gradually descends to a 60-foot mini-wall pulsing with sea life and corals of every variety. From there it's just another 15 feet to the dramatic main wall. Ladders provide easy entrance to a shallow cover perfect for pre-dive checks, and since the area isn't buoyed for boats, it's quite pristine. West Bay, Grand Cayman.

Learn to Dive in the Caymans

Diving is an exciting experience that does not have to be strenuous or stressful. Almost anyone can enjoy scuba, and it's easy to test the waters via a three-hour resort course costing $120 to $150, including one or two dives. After a quick rundown of dos and don'ts, you stand in the shallow end of a pool, learning how to use the mask and fins and breathe underwater with a regulator. The instructor then explains some basic safety skills, and before you know it, you're in the drink. The instructor hovers as you float above the reef, watching fish react to you. Don't worry—there are no dangerous fish in Cayman, and they don't bite (as long as you're not "chumming," or handling fish food). You can see corals and sponges, maybe even a turtle or ray. It's an amazing world that you can enter with very little effort.

The resort course permits only shallow, instructor-guided dives in Cayman's calm, clear waters. The next step is full open-water certification (generally three or four days, including several dives, for around $450, less as part of a hotel package). This earns you a C-card, your passport to the underwater world anywhere you travel. From there, addicts will discover dozens of specialty courses. The leading teaching organizations, both with their adherents, are PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) and NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors), affectionately nicknamed "Pay and Dive Immediately" and "Not Another Underwater Idiot" (those are the polite versions in scuba's colorful slang). Worry not: Cayman's instructors are among the world's best. And the water conditions just might spoil you.

Dive Operators

As one of the Caribbean's top diving destinations, Grand Cayman is blessed with many top-notch dive operations offering diving, instruction, and equipment for sale and rent. A single-tank boat dive averages $80, a two-tank dive about $105 (discounts for multidive packages). Snorkel-equipment rental is about $15 a day. Divers are required to be certified and possess a C-card. If you're getting certified, to save time during your limited vacation, you can start the book and pool work at home and finish the open-water portion in warm, clear Cayman waters. Certifying agencies offer this referral service all around the world.

Strict marine-protection laws prohibit you from taking any marine life from many areas around the island.

Department of Environment. Always check with the Department of Environment before diving, snorkeling, and fishing. 345/949–8469. www.doe.ky.

Marine Enforcement. To report violations, call Marine Enforcement. 345/916–4271.

Ambassador Divers. This on-call (around the clock), guided scuba-diving operation offers trips for two–eight persons. Co-owner Jason Washington's favorite spots include sites on the West Side and South and North Wall. Ambassador offers three boats: a 28-foot custom Parker (maximum six divers), a 46-foot completely custom overhauled boat, and a 26-footer primarily for snorkeling. Divers can be picked up from their lodgings. A two-tank boat dive is $105 ($90 for four or more days). Comfort Suites, 22 Piper Way, West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1106. 345/743–5513 or 345/949–4530. www.ambassadordivers.com.

Cayman Aggressor IV. This 110-foot live-aboard dive boat offers one-week cruises for divers who want to get serious bottom time, as many as five dives daily. Nine staterooms with en suite bathrooms sleep 18. The fresh food is basic but bountiful (three meals, two in-between snacks), and the crew offers a great mix of diving, especially when weather allows the crossing to Little Cayman. Digital photography and video courses are also offered (there's an E-6 film-processing lab aboard) as well as Nitrox certification. The price is $2,595 to $2,995 double occupancy for the week. Grand Cayman. 345/949–5551 or 800/348–2628. www.aggressor.com.

Deep Blue Divers. Two custom-designed 27-foot outward-driven Dusky boats ensure a smooth, speedy ride and can access sites that much larger boats can't. They accept a maximum of eight guests, under the watchful eyes of Patrick Weir and Nick Buckley, who joke that diving is "relaxing under pressure." Personalized valet attention and flexibility bring a high repeat clientele; Nick's particularly good with kids and has taught three generations of families. He's often asked by happy customers to join them on dive trips around the world. He and his crew delight in telling stories about Cayman culture and history, including pirate tales and often hilarious anecdotes about life in the Cayman Islands. He offers underwater photo–video services and a range of PADI-certified courses; beach pickup is included. 245 N. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1104. 345/916–1293. www.deepbluediverscayman.com.

DiveTech. This outfit offers shore diving at its two north-coast locations, providing loads of interesting creatures, a mini-wall, and the North Wall, and comfortable boats with quick access to West Bay. Technical training (a specialty of owner Nancy Easterbrook) is unparalleled, and the company offers good, personable service as well as the latest gadgetry such as underwater DPV scooters and rebreathing equipment. They even mix their own gases. Options include extended cross-training Ranger packages, Dive and Art workshop weeks, photography-video seminars with Courtney Platt, deep diving, less disruptive free diving, search and recovery, stingray interaction, reef awareness, and underwater naturalist. Snorkel and diving programs are available for children eight and up, SASY (supplied-air snorkeling, with the unit on a personal flotation device) for five and up. Multiday discounts are a bonus. Cobalt Coast Resort and Suites, 18-A Sea Fan Dr., West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/946–5658 or 888/946–5656. www.divetech.com. Lighthouse Point, near Boatswain's Beach, 571 Northwest Point Rd. 345/949–1700.

Don Foster's Dive Cayman Islands. This operation offers a pool with shower, an underwater photo center, and snorkeling along the ironshore at Casuarina Point, easily accessed starting at 20 feet and extending to 55 feet. Night dives and Stingray City trips take divers and snorkelers in the same boat (good for families). Specialties include Nitrox, Wreck, and Peak Performance Buoyancy courses. Rates are competitive, and there's free shuttle pickup–drop-off along Seven Mile Beach. If you go out with Don, he might recount stories of his wild times as a drummer, but all crews are personable and efficient. The drawback is larger boats and groups. 218 S. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/949–5679 or 345/945–5132. www.donfosters.com.

Eden Rock Diving Center. South of George Town, this outfit provides easy access to Eden Rock and Devil's Grotto. It features full equipment rental, lockers, shower facilities, and a full range of PADI courses from a helpful, cheerful staff on its Pro 42 jet boat. 124 S. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1110. 345/949–7243. www.edenrockdive.com.

Indigo Divers. This full-service, mobile PADI teaching facility specializes in exclusive guided dives from its 28-foot Sea Ray Bow Rider or 32-foot Donzi Express Cruiser, the Cats Meow and the Cats Pyjamas. Comfort and safety are paramount. Luxury transfers are included, and the boat is stocked with goodies like fresh fruit and homemade cookies. Captain Chris Alpers has impeccable credentials: a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain, PADI master scuba diver trainer, and Cayman Islands Marine Park officer. Katie Alpers specializes in wreck, DPV, dry suit, boat, and deep diving, but her primary role is videographer. She edits superlative DVDs of the adventures with music and titles. They guarantee a maximum of six divers. The individual attention is pricier, but the larger the group, the more you save. Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1202. 345/946–7279 or 345/525–3932. www.indigodivers.com.

Neptune's Divers. Offering competitive package rates and free shuttle service along Seven Mile Beach, this is one of the best companies for physically challenged divers. Captain Keith Keller and his staff try to customize trips as best they can, taking no more than eight divers on their 30-foot custom Island Hopper and 36-foot Crusader. A wide range of PADI courses are available. Instructors are patient and knowledgeable about reef life, and Casey Keller can offer helpful tips on underwater photography. The operation is computer-friendly to permit longer bottom time. West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1203. 345/945–3990. www.neptunesdivers.com.

Ocean Frontiers. This excellent ecocentric operation offers friendly small-group diving and a technical training facility, exploring the less trammeled, trafficked East End. The company provides valet service, personalized attention, a complimentary courtesy shuttle, and an emphasis on green initiatives and specialized diving, including unguided computer, Technical, Nitrox Instructor, underwater naturalist, and cave diving for advanced participants. You can even participate in lionfish culls. But even beginners and rusty divers (there's a wonderful Skills Review and Tune-Up course) won't feel over their heads. Special touches include hot chocolate and homemade muffins on night dives; the owner, Steve, will arrange for a minister to conduct weddings in full face masks. Compass Point, 346 Austin Connelly Dr., East End, Grand Cayman, KY1-1801. 345/640–7500; 800/348–6096; 345/947–0000; 954/727–5312 Vonage toll-free in U.S. www.oceanfrontiers.com.

Red Sail Sports. Daily trips leave from most major hotels, and dives are often run as guided tours, good for beginners. If you're experienced and your air lasts long, ask the captain if you must come up with the group (when the first person runs low on air). Kids' options, ages five to 15, include SASY and Bubblemakers. The company also operates Stingray City tours, dinner and sunset sails, and water sports from Wave Runners to windsurfing. Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/949–8745, 345/623–5965, or 877/506–6368. www.redsailcayman.com.

Sundivers. Owned by Ollen Miller, one of Cayman's first dive masters, the on-site dive shop at the Cracked Conch restaurant, next to Boatswain's Beach, offers competitive rates for air, lessons, and rentals; shore access to Turtle Reef; and such amenities as showers, rinse tanks, and storage. Cracked Conch, Northwest Point Rd., West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1201. 345/916–1064 or 345/949–6606.

Sunset Divers. At a hostelry that caters to the scuba set, this full-service PADI teaching facility has great shore diving and six dive boats that hit all sides of the island. Divers can be independent on boats as long as they abide by maximum time and depth standards. Instruction and packages are comparatively inexpensive. Though the company is not directly affiliated with acclaimed underwater shutterbug Cathy Church (whose shop is also at the hotel), she often works with the instructors on special courses. Sunset House, 390 S. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1106. 345/949–7111 or 800/854–4767. www.sunsethouse.com.

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