February 2001 Grand Cayman Trip Report
Text and images Copyright (C) 2001 David M. Read
All pictures are hyperlinks. Click on any picture to see a larger version.
Be sure to check out the full trip report Photo
The original name for the Caymans was Las Tortugas--and
a week of diving there will show you why!
|January and February 2001 were tough months for me
at work, as I logged over 400 working hours in just 6 weeks. We
were ready for a vacation , and two weeks on Grand Cayman fit the
We actually looked into many other places before settling on
Grand Cayman. Airfare to Cozumel was outrageously expensive at the
time, as was airfare to Roatan. We were looking for a destination
we could reach in one day, as we were traveling with our young
son. A friendly D2D board member clued us in on a sale at Cayman
Airways, and that was all we needed. We managed to dig up a condo
that was available for two weeks from a private lessor, and a few
calls set us up with diving.
Getting There & Back
Getting there and back just about couldn't be easier. We flew
non-stop from Houston Intercontinental, a 2.5-hour flight with no
hiccups. Cayman Airways didn't even charge extra fees for the huge
amount of gear we brought, well over 175 lbs worth of stuff. The flight
back to Houston was uneventful as well, other than a 1-hour delay due to a late
flight from Jamaica.
We stayed at a condo rented out by a private individual. If you're
interested in contact info, feel free to email
me and I'll shoot you the information.
Basically, we lived the life of a native for two weeks. That means we
had a car (rented from Andy's), we bought most of our food at the local
grocery stores, and we ate most of our meals at home. To be sure, we ate
out a few times, but mostly we ate in the condo. Grand Cayman is one of
the most expensive places I have ever visited, especially the
restaurants. But by cooking our own meals, we were able to keep costs
down to a reasonable level. Since we were traveling with our
14-month-old son, being able to cook our own meals and serve him what he
likes was a major benefit.
Grand Cayman's grocery stores are well-stocked with modern goodies.
The big Foster's over by the airport was our favorite place to shop, as
it had the best selection of food. The Foster's on Seven Mile Beach (SMB
from here on) in the Strand shopping center was a much nicer store, but
it was also smaller and much more crowded with shoppers. The various
Hurley's stores were the most expensive and the least-stocked, but we
were staying within a mile of one, so we shopped there for incidentals.
Overall, we loved this experience. We ate on our schedule,
comfortably, and weren't stressed out about the costs. We also had
several excellent meals after purchasing fresh fish at the
local fisherman's "wharf." Downtown in George Town, just south of Don
Foster's, is a small sand patch near the harbor. Every day around 3pm,
local fishermen pull up their boats and sell their catch. What they
have to sell varies, but we were able to buy a couple of nice pieces
of grouper for CI$4 per pound, which comes out to US$5/pound. That's
pretty good for the freshest fish you'll ever taste. We watched
wistfully on two different occasions as they sold the last remaining
tuna or jack steaks to a customer in line ahead of us...I guess the
moral of the story is to get there early!
We also liked the size of the condo. With two bedrooms, 2.5
bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a diving room (plus a back
yard and a pool!), we felt much less cramped than we might have in a
hotel. Since I travel with two boxes of camera gear, space to spread
out is important!
We did our diving in three ways. First, we did
most of our dives with Danny Kupkowski of Off
The Wall Divers. We also did a significant amount of shore
diving from the Blue Parrot restaurant, which is south of town
at the back of Coconut Harbor hotel. For these dives, we rented
tanks from Treasure Island
Divers, which has a dive op right by Coconut Harbor's pool.
Our third dive mode was East End diving, which we did with Cayman
Diving Lodge. Mostly we were satisfied with all the
We did all but two days of boat diving with Danny & OTW,
so I got a really good feel for his operation. Danny is a
one-man, one-boat operation, and as such he's super flexible. He
also pretty much requires you to be flexible, because,
well, one man gets tired eventually. Danny will pick you up just
about anywhere on the west end, sometimes by boat or sometimes
in his truck. All in all, we had a great time diving with Danny.
Danny checks out a sponge at Orange Canyon.
We did only shore diving with Treasure Island, and we did a trip to
Stingray City with them. Thus, I can't tell you much about their
operation. The Stingray City trip was a little rushed, but otherwise
it was OK.
Cayman Diving Lodge's operation was pretty good. The day we dove
with them, there were only 4 divers on the boat, so it was a hands-on
sort of day from the crew. We drove out to East End to the lodge for a
9:30 boat, did two dives, and drove back. The East End diving wasn't
as fantastic as I had been led to believe, but it's quite possible
that I had overly inflated expectations.
For the most part, I thought Grand Cayman diving was superb. The
West Bay and North Wall sites we dove were generally excellent,
although the 2nd-dive shallow sites got a little dull after two weeks.
Dive Log Excerpts
One of Cayman's many turtles at Blue Parrot.
|Dive 1: Jackson Point ("Blue Parrot"): A shore
dive from the Blue Parrot, and a great introduction to Grand Cayman's
waters. The five started off right, with a peacock flounder right at
the entry point, followed by a large puffer, some blue tangs, and a
bunch of sergeant majors & juvenile parrotfish. Over the dropoff,
the reef turned much more "reefy," with lots of sponges,
soft corals, and tons of fish: harlequin bass, hamlets, tilefish,
fairy basslets, a huge green moray, and several large tarpon.
Dive 2: Jacky's Hole: Pretty good dive, although not
awesome. The reef is basically a flat top at ~50 feet, then a miniwall
that drops down to ~85. The top of the reef is covered with soft
coral, including giant plumes and some huge sea fans. Fish were
plentiful, including schools of creole wrasse and brown chromis, along
with what looked like a nursery for black durgons.
Dive 3: Oro Verde: Generally dull dive, although there were
some highlights. Specifically, discovering a colony of garden eels in
the sand at ~45 feet. Very cool.
Dive 4: Blue Parrot: Another good dive. The moray and the
tarpon were gone, but a large turtle swam by to ham it up for my
Dive 5: Round Rock Caves: Now I start to see why Grand
Cayman is popular with so many divers. This site is graced with an
awesome wall, along with towering pinnacles that expand slightly at
the top. This gives the effect of creating arches, mostly-open
tunnels, and small caves. Add to this fabulous visibility and tons of
fish, and you get a site worth re-visiting.
Dive 6: Eagle Ray Pass: Another great dive, this one on
Grand Cayman's famous North Wall. The reef starts out as deep sand
flats (65 feet), but then as you swim outward the coral builds up to
as shallow as ~40 feet, creating a coral ridge maybe 100 feet across.
Then it drops off precipitously, with a sheer vertical wall that
descends into invisibility and the Cayman Trench. the top of the reef
is covered with star coral, sponges, gorgonians, plumes, etc. The wall
is all sponges, whips, and fans--and mind-numbing blue water for half
of your field of view.
Dive 7: Sunset House & Blue Parrot: The surf was up, so
I guessed I'd find a little current--and I was right. I walked up to
Sunset House and made my entry there, with intentions of locating
their "new" mermaid statue. That was no problem--it's hard
to miss an 8-foot bronze statue sitting in the 50 feet of crystal
clear water. After photographing the mermaid, I availed myself of the
current & drifted south towards the Blue Parrot and my exit point.
Along the way I ran across a large green moray getting cleaned by
shrimp, a young turtle (~12 inches across), and a spotted eagle ray.
Dive 8: La Mesa: Pretty cool shallow dive, with lots of
fish. As you might imagine, La Mesa has a flat top...it rises up maybe
30 or 40 feet above the surrounding reef, in a "mostly"
circle about 100 feet in diameter. The north 'side' of the circle is a
miniwall that drops with an overhang. Under the 'hang, a sand chute
curves in either direction. Schoolmasters and horse-eye jacks swim in
the shade there.
Dive 9: Shark Hole: Very shallow site, with not much to
offer in terms of terrain. Sponge life was excellent, though. The site
is basically spur-and-groove, with the spurs petering out into the
sand at ~50 feet. The best action is on top of the spurs, where huge
sponges provide shade for schools of bluestriped grunts,
schoolmasters, and yellow goatfish. Yellow tube sponges abounded on
this dive, as did sea plumes and star coral.
OTW's dive boat hangs over the reef at La Mesa.
Dive 10: Trinity Caves: Awesome dive; another look at the
"Round Rock" dive site, although a couple of buoys over.
This buoy was situated at the entrance to the reef formations for
which this site is named. The Trinity caves are actually three long
swimthroughs that are mostly open at the top. There are some
overheads, to be sure, but open water and daylight are just a couple
of fin kicks away.
Dive 11: Doc Poulson: A varied dive site that offers
something for everyone. The site is named for the wreck of a
cable-laying boat, which sits intact at 50 feet. "Intact" is
a relative term, as this boat has gaping holes in it that allow easy
penetration and plenty of light. A large snapper inhabits the
wheelhouse, which is a photogenic swimthrough. Just north and inshore
from the wreck is a large patch reef that bristles with sponges, fans
and plumes. Chromis--both blue and brown--inhabit this reef by the
thousands. As if all that wasn't enough, when/if you get bored with
the wreck, you can swim away from shore to Marty's Wall, which sports
a great wall and a brass plaque commemorating the Caymanian native for
whom that site is named.
Dive 12: Orange Canyon: Awesome dive! We drifted this
dive, starting at orange canyon and going west, past Dolphin Point and
on to Northwest Point. The current varied from light to heavy, so we
got to spend more time at some parts of the dive than at others. At
Orange Canyon the current was pretty light, so we got a nice long look
at this great dive site. Orange Canyon starts with a steep slope down
to a depth of around 70 feet, where the wall starts in earnest. It's a
weird spur-and-groove sort of slope and wall, though. The sides of the
spurs are covered in the orange encrusting sponges that give the site
its name. Dolphin Point delivered the strongest currents of the
dive, a 2+ knot sled ride through forests of giant black fans.
No dive is complete without some big creatures, and this dive was
complete. The "creature of the week" is the turtle, so of
course we saw one. We also saw some lobsters crawling in the sand. But
the most memorable big creatures on this dive were the giant supermale
parrotfish all over the place. We saw many groups of them cruising the
reef, 2 or 3 at a time. 3-4 feet long, dusky orange with green beards,
they were an awesome sight.
The orange sponges for which Orange
Canyon is named abound at this dive site.
Dive 15: Sand Chute: This dive is very reminiscent of
Cozumel, and is easily comparable to Palancar Caves in terms of
structure and visibility. The reef towers upwards from a sandy bottom,
with many swimthroughs perforating the dropoff. Some of the
swimthroughs are wide and partially open, while some are narrow and
closed. The site derives its name from a giant sand chute that
separates two sections of the reef, starting at 60 feet and continuing
down into the depths. The reef structure on either side is completely
vertical, with a small overhang at the bottom. Schoolmasters, grunts,
and snappers patrol the shadows in these areas, while sponges sample
the waters for chow. As always on Grand Cayman, trumpetfish are
common, along with GC's strangely common spotted trunkfish, diamond
blennies and harlequin bass.
Dive 16: Three Trees: Pretty good shallow dive, very typical
of the West Bay shallow sites. Coral spurs extend outward from shore,
sloping down to sand flats. We went looking for a large green moray
that had been spotted there previously, but had no luck on that front.
We did see a ton of small stuff, including more diamond blennies, some
arrow blennies, a mantis shrimp (!) and some flamingo tongues. The
mantis shrimp was cool, a 3-inch cross between a shrimp and a lobster.
It was pea-soup green, and I found it wedged between two tubes of a
yellow tube sponge.
Dive 17: Big Tunnel: Super dive, one of my favorites from
this trip. Big Tunnel's major feature is just that: a big tunnel that
reaches through the reef, exiting on the wall at about 130 feet. That
one tunnel isn't all the site offer, though; it has many other tunnels
and swimthroughs, including one extremely wide arch at ~100. As if
that weren't enough, all of the pinnacles have sheer walls that are
rife with sponges, big black gorgonians, and the occasional sprig of
black coral. The dive also started off great, with an eagle ray off in
Reef scene plus our dive boat.
Dive 18: Lone Star: Quite possibly the best shallow dive of
the trip. This site has similar topography to the other shallow sites,
although it has some small overhangs that simulate swimthroughs. We
saw a ton of small stuff, including a small brown moray with gold
spots. Anne found a yellow stingray hiding in a tiny hole, half buried
in the sand.
A friendly gray angelfish from Lone Star.
Northwest Point Dropoff sports large and impressive
coral fan formations.
Dive 19: Blue Parrot: Back to the well, but this was
one of my top 10 dives of all time. I can't remember any other dive
with as much stuff to see. I went looking for tarpon to photography
with my B&W film, and found 7 or 8 of them hovering over the sand
at the edge of the inner reef. Then I found a small turtle, more
tarpon, a large nurse shark, and another 5 or 6 tarpon in the shade.
Out of the "cave", turn right, pass the anchor, and I found
a huge green moray. On the way back to the buoy, I ran across a couple
of adult spotted drum. But the most memorable part of the dive was the
exit, where I encountered dozens of reef squid at ~10 feet. Once I got
perfectly neutral & started hovering ~1 foot off the bottom, the
squid moved in for a closer look. I got to watch their spots &
color changes, their eyes, and the group movement. Watching the entire
group change direction 180 degrees was mesmerizing!
Dive 20: Northwest Point Dropoff: Really awesome dive. More
of the big wall-and-chute stuff. Deep dive, with the shallowest parts
running around 70+ feet. The swimthroughs were great, as were the
pinnacles. The last of the swimthroughs had an incredible exit that
was mostly blocked by a huge fan of black coral. The fan was a vibrant
green with dark green stems. It was unbelievably frilly and lace-like.
Dive 21: Aquarium: Alright, a macro dive for the macro lens.
Lots of fish portraits, blenny shots, etc. I ran across a shy hamlet
like the one on the front cover of Humann's book. Also shot fairy
basslets, garden eels, tiny yellow blennies, etc. A stingray cruised
by the sand while I was working the garden eels.
Dive 22: Blue Parrot: Warm up for the night dive. We took
the "usual" path and saw a giant spider crab, lots and lots
of tarpon (11 in one batch outside the "cave," and another 6
or 7 inside), a small turtle, shy hamlets, and a couple of puffers.
A shy hamlet from Aquarium
Stingrays glide above the sand at Stingray City.
A stingray and our dive boat.
Dive 23: Blue Parrot Night Dive: This one started out dull,
but it ended up well. We we swam the whole "course," up to
the pipeline, without seeing much of interest...a free-swimming
soapfish and a cooperative puffer were as good as it got. But
things got better after the turnaround. On our way back to the anchor,
we ran across an octopus. In the 'anchor canyon,' while looking for
the crab from the previous dive, we saw a little lobster crawling
around the rocks. We swam through the cave and discovered another
octopus as we exited the cave. On the swim back to the buoy, we
started attracting bloodworms so we fed a few coral heads.
Dive 24: Stingray City: We expected this to be cheesy,
but it was an absolute blast. Scads of stingrays, and divers, good vis,
and lots of film. I shot 24 exposures of black & white, got out,
reloaded, and shot 36 exposures of color film.
Dive 25: The Maze (East End): Cool dive site, with lots of
tunnel-like swimthroughs. Plenty of fun if you're a lab rat, but I
actually liked the rest of the site much better than the maze itself.
We saw a 6-foot reef shark at the beginning of the dive (and again at
the end), then we went into the maze. The tunnels are narrow, rocky,
vertical cuts in the reef that pass divers pretty much only in single
file. Light filters down into the catacombs because most of the maze
is open at the top.
Despite the name of this site, the best parts of the dive are
actually the exterior wall and the reef top. The wall is 100%
vertical, and covered with coral, fans, and sponges. Some of the
largest black fans I have ever seen were on that wall. The top of the
reef had plumes galore, along with yellow sponges and marine
life...that was where we spotted the shark.
Dive 26: Kelly's (East End): Incredible surge, but fun dive.
Lots & lots of swimthroughs are the signature of this site--not
the vertical slits of the maze, but overhangs, arches, and sand
chutes. In contrast to the maze, Kelly's is just as much fun in the
swimthroughs as on top, because Kelly's tunnels have airy dappled
light illuminating everything. Rippled sand lines the bottom of most
of the tunnels. The top of the reef is covered with Elkhorn coral in
various stages of growth, from tiny 6-inch tall young colonies to
mighty 5-foot-tall surface-scrapers. The usual assortment of juvenile
tenants of Elkhorn coral were in evidence everywhere: yellowtail
damselfish, angelfish, etc.
Dive 27: Dolphin Point Dropoff: One of West Bay's best dive
sites, and awesome combination of wall, sand chutes and swimthroughs.
This site also has tons of black fans and orange sponges, along with
azure vase sponges, lots of plumes & rods, etc.--and the largest
collection of morays on this trip. We saw one or two small spotted
morays and 3 large greens. A turtle completed the menagerie (of
course). Aside from the wildlife, I love the terrain and scenery. The
vis was excellent, too: upwards of 120 feet!
The first turtle from Eagle's Nest.
Dive 28: Eagle's Nest: Fantastic dive, although a bit on the
deep side for a second dive. But find me another site with black coral
as shallow as 75 feet, and I'll be there! The wall itself isn't as
steep as it is at some sites, but it's steep enough to be fun. There
are occasional ledges, too, with overhangs and huge barrel sponges.
Some of the overhangs have black coral growing underneath them.
The strongest memory from this dive was the three turtles I saw
over the course of the dive. One if them was very cooperative, letting
me swim next to him and shoot about a dozen slides. The second turtle
was a bit too far away to chase. I spotted the third one while I was
on my safety stop. I bailed out ton the stop & swam down to shoot
my last 5 frames...very cool!
Dive Log Details
||Round Rock Caves
||Eagle Ray Pass
||Sunset House + Blue Parrot
||Northwest Point Dropoff
||The Maze (East End)
||Kelly's (East End)
||Dolphin Point Dropoff
Last modified: June 27, 2001