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Grand Cayman - Aug 31-Sept. 4
My wife and I are writing this trip report in the hope that this will enlighten future visitors to the Caymans. First of all, as long-time divers we LOVE the Caymans! For us, this trip was intended to be a terrific dive adventure, and we used a lot of previous trip reports posted online to help us find some great restaurants, dive sites and more.
Our trip began with a really dismal weather forecast. Rain all week. Not just rain, but thunderstorms, were forecast every day of our trip! Not cool! We each took a rainjacket and prepared to be waterlogged...but the weather service was wrong
Also, this is the beginning of the "hurricane" season, the "rainy season" and the tourist "off-season."
In fact, the Caymans are rarely hit by hurricanes, historically. The last one, in 199X was devastating but rare. I have to be honest - I have had some of my very best vacations during the so-called hurricane season. Sure, it's like making a bet but there are lots of travel bargains.
The "rainy" season for the Caymans more often than not consists of thunderheads sweeping over the islands punctuated by periods of sun. We don't mind diving in the rain. We're wet anyway, and they always heat up the rain for us! During our trip the daytime temp was 88-90 degrees and 80 at night.
Labor Day signals a slowdown in tourism and some of the restaurants do slow down and a few close down for renovations (the Reef Grill for example was closed when we were there). HOWEVER...the slow season means smaller dive groups and less crowded restaurants.
After a long day diving, we like to come back, shower, relax, then eat very early, around 5:30 or 6 so we can see the sun set. We seldom need reservations when we eat early. Then we have time to watch TV and plan the next day's adventure.
Here's a quick summary of our trip:
Accommodations: We stayed at the Westin Casuarina, strategically situated in the middle of the prime West Wall dive region. Our oceanfront room was reasonable and overlooked the pool, which wasn't too crowded or noisy this time of year.
Dive Service: Redsail Divers has a kiosk on the beach, and the dive boat picked us up right on the beach. The boat rolls up, beaches on the sand. We jump on, wash our feet in a tray of freshwater, stow our gear and get ready. I rented a camera every dive and the price was cheaper than Aruba or Cancun and included multi-dive discounts.
More experienced divers and beginners are generally grouped into separate dives, although often as we all know, once-a-year divers can be a little clumsy and awkward gearing up the first dive, then settle into the routine after that. Kim and I fall into that category, even though I have been diving since 1976! (I started beachdiving in southern California and spent 2 years diving almost every weekend).
The boat goes straight out to the wall, or to one of the dozens of other sites along the shore, from 5 to 10 minutes ride.
We did a 2 tank dive every morning, 3 days in a row. The 2 tank dive in the morning includes a 100 ft. dive and a shallow dive.
The deep dive is along the "wall" and the shallow dive is typically 50-60 feet over reef "fingers" that stretch out from the shore.
The deep dive is guided closely by experienced divers who make sure no one slips between the magic "100 foot" depth. There is a decompression stop at 15 feet for 3 to 5 minutes so monitoring your air consumption is important and divers are asked to tell the guides when air consumption reaches 1500 and 1000 psi.
The shallow dive is a "team dive" and the teams are allowed to dive the area unescorted. Some novice or once a year divers may feel intimidated diving on a strange reef, trying to remember where the boat is, especially if there are other boats in the area, and so on. Keep in mind that certified divers are supposed to know how to dive in a 2 person team, and also to navigate from the boat and back, and to keep track of depth and air consumption.
We prefer morning dives because the crews are fresher, more alert and (we think) more safety conscious. Here's a quick recap:
The first night we ate at Decker's and ordered entrees - saving the "all you can eat lobster" for the end of the trip. We didn't want to gorge ourselves any night before major dives. It rained that night but was warm and we just had rainjackets which were all we needed to walk a mile back to our hotel.
Day 1: The first day it didn't rain as expected and we had sun the whole dive (so much for weather reports!) We visited Great house Wall, where I shot a photo of a large sea turtle, and lots of brain coral. The section we saw was not particularly spectacular or dramatic, and there wasn't much sea life but this varies from dive to dive. Very large barrel sponges made for some dramatic photos, not only here but at many of the dive spots described in this report.
The second dive at Angelfish was TERRIFIC. We saw 3 species of angels (Queen, Black and Grey). We spent 10 minutes feeding a particularly friendly grey angelfish more than 1 foot in diameter. Also got a photo of a banded coral shrimp, and saw a nurse shark sitting in a hole under a coral head.
Dinner at Smuggler's Cove featured delicious seafood with an Italian flare. Kim had Sea Bass and I had Lobster and Ravioli. Excellent food but some pesky mosquitoes after dark. All meals are around $90 to $130 for 2 people including a drink and/or hors d'ouevre and entree. We chose the best restaurants but there are more economical alternatives.
Day 2: The second day our first dive was at Little Tunnels. It was sunny throughout the dive and only rained when the boat came in at the end of the morning! This was a more dramatic dive, visually. I photographed a large turtle that was munching on "reef salad" on the wall, and obligingly posed for me. Back at the buoy I saw a large mahi-mahi swimming leisurely past, just out of camera range.
The "shallow dive" on Aquarium featured the largest parrot fish I've ever seen outside of Hawaii. HUGE. I got a good photo. Also, a friendly barracuda posed for several pix. Another parrotfish was munching coral and we could hear the sound.
The second afternoon we dove at Stingray City, one of the top 10 dive experiences in the world. We've done it ton a previous trip and that time we had a custom video shot by a photographer we hired to film us - a SUPERB video memory. This time we took still photos of each other playing with the rays, a spotted eel and other sea creatures.
For those of you who haven't done this before, you can snorkel or dive the site. The rays don't have teeth, but "raspers" - one bit me hard when I put a piece of squid in his mouth, but it didn't hurt or even leave a mark. These rays are so tame, you can play with them like dogs, hold them over your head, look them close in the eye, and so on, depending how bold and friendly you want to be with them.
Dinner at the Wharf was the best meal of the trip. Kim had sea bass (which tends to be universally great on Grand Cayman). I had blackened catch of the day (Grouper) which was superb. We had conch fritters and escargot for appetizers, and European style desserts. Also 3 tropical drinks (I recommend the Blue Hawaiian). Cost: $130 US.
Day 3: The third day was sunny the whole day! Dozens of small flying fish exploded from the water as we rode to the site on totally calm water At the site there was a giant sea turtle basking on the surface.
We had a smaller boat with Paul and James on the crew. Paul tried to take us to Hepp's Wall (Northwest, off the shore in front of the turtle farm - lots of turtles were washed offshore by the hurricane and there are a lot still hanging around off-shore) but the current was too strong. So we went to Orange Canyon, which just happened to be featured in one of the Cayman tourist magazines.
This was the most dramatic wall dive of the trip, with VERY dramatic scenery, tunnels, etc. - but not much sea life on this dive. Please don't rate these dives on the sea creatures we did or didn't see, because this varies a LOT from dive to dive!
Orange Canyon is characterized by huge orange sponges, and even at 100 feet you can see the vivid orange color. The brain and "cup" coral are enormous.
James was our guide and this was the first wall dive where we were aware of the "abyss" that drops away. It's SO dramatic! For some reason, going through the tunnels was unlike any tunnel dives we've been on.
Our second and last dive was the best of the trip! We went to Great House Wall and dove the finger reefs between the wall and the shore. This was a deeper than usual second dive and required a deompression stop. The "coral fingers" that characterize much of the intermediate shorelines were especially deep and dramatic.
I got pictures of a ray cruising over the coral, a large grey angelfish, grouper and rockfish, and a turtle. Then I dropped into a crevice and suddenly a turtle came swimming out right next to me. I got several nice photos. Then I looked down and saw a HUGE lobster, almost 3 feet long! He came out from under the rock, sat in the sand and looked at me! This creature stayed there for more than 5 minutes, while I snapped half a dozen really nice photos, and he wasn't in the least jittery or afraid. It was a rare experience to find such a large lobster right out in the open, as curious about me as I was about it! I relished the chance to photograph a lobster in the open instead of peering out from a rocky hole!
The trip back to the boat and decompression was really fun, knowig I had "banked" that picture of the lobster.
The last night we ate at Decker's and both had all we can eat lobster, served with garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables. This is the famous lobster special everyone raves about and it's worth the rave reviews. I had four portions, but one of the tails was enormous. That left room for a caramel chocolate pie and fried ice cream. Decadent but delicious! The lobster special is a bit pricier than mentioned in other trip reports, about $38 CI.
We came to Grand Cayman in the "off-season" looking for great diving, dramatic underwater scenery, exotic reefs, sea creatures to photograph and interact with, and wonderful memories to treasure.
There is no way to put a price on this experience, but the value is priceless. We'll be back to Cayman again, that's for sure.
Thanks to Michael for this trip report ...