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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 Gallery!

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 bill perfectly.

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.

The Accommodations

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!

The Diving

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 operations. 

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 camera.

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.

Annemarie swims through the Doc Poulson's wheelhouse.

Inside the cargo hold of the Doc Poulson

The spotlight on top of the Doc Poulson's wheelhouse.

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 the distance.

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

Dive Site Depth Time Comments
1 Blue Parrot 63 0:56  
2 Jacky's Hole 86 0:53  
3 Oro Verde 52 0:52  
4 Blue Parrot 62 0:49  
5 Round Rock Caves 107 0:41  
6 Eagle Ray Pass 83 0:49  
7 Sunset House + Blue Parrot 53 0:45  
8 La Mesa 58 0:39  
9 Shark Hole 48 0:58  
10 Trinity Caves 100 0:46  
11 Doc Poulson 56 1:00  
12 Orange Canyon 104 0:32  
13 Aquarium 56 1:05  
14 Blue Parrot 63 0:39  
15 Sand Chute 84 0:51  
16 Three Trees 55 1:02  
17 Big Tunnel 108 0:35  
18 Lone Star 48 1:01  
19 Blue Parrot 63 1:06  
20 Northwest Point Dropoff 91 0:43  
21 Aquarium 55 1:03  
22 Blue Parrot 60 0:46  
23 Blue Parrot 63 0:45 Night Dive!
24 Stingray City 15 0:42  
25 The Maze (East End) 101 0:38  
26 Kelly's (East End) 53 0:46  
27 Dolphin Point Dropoff 93 0:44  
28 Eagle's Nest 79 0:50  

Last modified: June 27, 2001

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