One of the world's leading dive destinations, Grand Cayman has dramatic underwater topography that 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, darting jacks to jewfish, moray eels to eagle rays. Gorgonians and sea fans wave like come-hither courtesans. Pyrotechnic reefs provide homes for all manner of marine life, ecosystems encased within each other like an intricate series of Chinese boxes.
Reef Watch. This progressive program, a partnership between the Department of the Environment and Cayman Islands Tourism Association, debuted in 1997 during Earth Day activities. The DOE designed a field survey to involve diving and snorkeling tourists in counting and cataloging marine life. To date, more than 1,000 surveys have been completed, helping to estimate species' populations and travel patterns based on sightings and their distance from buoys and other markers, as well as gauging how often equipment touches the fragile reefs. Though not scientifically sound, it does enhance awareness through interaction.
There are more than 200 pristine dive sites, many less than a half mile from the island and easily accessible, including wreck, wall, and shore options. Add exceptional visibility from 80 to 150 feet (no rivers deposit silt) and calm, current-free water at a constant bathlike 80°F. Cayman is serious about conservation, with stringently enforced laws to protect the fragile, endangered marine environment (fines up to $500,000 and a year in prison for damaging living coral, which can take years to regrow), protected by the creation of Marine Park, Replenishment, and Environmental Park Zones. Local water-sports operators enthusiastically cooperate: Most boats use biodegradable cleansers and environmentally friendly drinking cups. Moorings at all popular dive sites prevent coral and sponge damage due to continual anchoring; in addition, diving with gloves is prohibited to reduce the temptation to touch.
Pristine water, breathtaking coral formations, and plentiful marine life including hammerheads and hawksbill turtles 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, with the top of 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 and Della's Delight.
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 it teems with "Swiss-cheese" swim-throughs and exotic life in such renowned gathering spots as The Maze (a hangout for reef, burse, and occasional hammerhead sharks), Snapper Hole, and Grouper Grotto.
The Cayman Islands government acquired the 251-foot, decommissioned USSKittiwake (www.kittiwakecayman.com). Sunk in January 2011, it has already become an exciting new dive attraction, while providing necessary relief for some of the most frequently visited dive sites. The top of the bridge is just 15 feet down, making it accessible to snorkelers. There’s a single-use entry fee of $10 ($5 for snorkelers).
The Cayman Dive 365 (www.caymanislands.ky/divecayman/dive-sites/dive365.aspx) initiative is part of a commitment to protect reefs from environmental overuse. New dive sites will be introduced while certain existing sites are "retired" to be rested and refreshed. Visitors are encouraged to sponsor and name a new dive site from the list of selected coordinates.
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.
Shore diving around the island provides easy access to kaleidoscopic reefs, fanciful rock formations, and enthralling shipwrecks. The areas are well marked by buoys to facilitate navigation. If the water looks rough where you are, there's usually a side of the island that's wonderfully calm.
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.
Devil's Grotto. This site resembles an abstract painting of anemones, tangs, parrot fish, 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.
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.
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 (with discounts for multiday 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 holiday 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.
When choosing a dive operator, here are a few things to ask: Do they require that you stay with the group? Do they include towels? camera rinse water? protection from inclement weather? tank-change service? beach or resort pickup? snacks between dives? Ask what dive options they have during a winter storm (called a nor'wester here). What kind of boat do they have? (Don't assume that a small, less crowded boat is better. Some large boats are more comfortable, even when full, than a tiny, uncovered boat without a marine toilet. Small boats, however, offer more personal service and less-crowded dives.)
Strict marine protection laws prohibit you from taking any marine life from many areas around the island. Always check with the Department of Environment (345/949–8469) before diving, snorkeling, and fishing. To report violations, call Marine Enforcement (345/948–6002).
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; 345/949–4530; 844/507–0441; 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 $2,695 to $3,295 double occupancy for the week. Grand Cayman. 345/949–5551; 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, KY1-1008. 345/916–1293; www.deepbluediverscayman.com.
DiveTech. With comfortable boats and quick access to West Bay, DiveTech offers shore diving at its northwest-coast location, providing loads of interesting creatures, a mini-wall, and the North Wall. 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. Lighthouse Point, near Boatswain's Beach, 571 Northwest Point Rd., West Bay, Grand Cayman. 345/949–1700; www.divetech.com.
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; 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; 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 is 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; 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 5 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; 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; 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; 800/854–4767; www.sunsethouse.com.
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.