With some of the world’s finest and most accessible coral reefs, the Cayman Islands offer spectacular encounters with wildlife that are undimmed by the damage caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
“If you call these flippers, I’ll fine you a four-pack. Flipper is a dolphin.” So warned Steve, my dive instructor, as he handed me a pair of fins prior to the scuba-diving lesson that would set me free to explore the Caymans’ coral kingdoms.
These extensive, unspoilt reefs are the best reason to visit this corner of the Caribbean – and even a complete novice can dive among them after just a morning’s lesson.
The three islands, Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, are the peaks of mountains with coral reefs on their submerged ‘shoulders’. So, instead of taking costly boat trips to a distant reef, divers need only step off a jetty to discover a vast array of corals, sponges, fish and other sealife a few metres below the surface of some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen.
The added bonus is that the sea bed drops away suddenly beyond the reefs to a depth of some 2,000 metres, creating an epic underwater cliff known as ‘the Wall’.
Here, cold, nutrient-rich waters well up from the depths, attracting a cast of creatures that changes every few metres of your descent.
Theatre of dreams
The moment you submerge, everything changes. The only sounds you hear are the long, hollow rasps as you breathe in and the bubbling roar as you exhale through your regulator. But what you lose in hearing you gain in mobility. Effectively weightless, you can swoop over the fan corals with a shoal of angelfish or hover over a spiny lobster in its lair.
The Cayman reefs are home to a bewildering 500 species of fish – some sneak in and out of coral crevices, others surge up against you in great shoals. I found it too much to try to identify them all, and it was much better to simply enjoy the grand theatre being played out around me.
Fish of every hue darted and weaved over the reefs, while molluscs, urchins and electric blue shrimps picked their way between forests of billowing anemones.
I followed Steve into a rocky chasm where I was surprised by a shoal of 40 tarpons resting beneath the lip of the ravine – each a metre-long, silver bar of pent-up energy. Schools of colourful groupers emerged to investigate me, as did a snaggle-toothed barracuda.
Later, in the bar, I was out-bragged by other divers who’d “gone over the Wall” to see rays, reef sharks, nurse sharks, green turtles and barrel sponges “as big as a bear”.
As this was my first-ever dive, I was not permitted to explore these thrilling depths – but my experience will stay with me for life. And I was able to see sharks during a relatively inexpensive helicopter trip over the reefs. From 500 metres up, two-metre-long nurse sharks looked like tadpoles.
You don’t have to dive to appreciate life beneath the waves in the Cayman Islands. Snorkelling can be just as rewarding. I swam among rays and shoals of needlefish off Rum Point on Grand Cayman, and planed over great conches grazing on eelgrass, which strangely resembled a herd of triceratops lumbering over a Cretaceous plain.
On Little Cayman, I cycled to deserted beaches and explored shallow water coral reefs and their fish. Just don’t forget your suncream – the consequences of an unprotected snorkelling session cannot be numbed with rum punch.
Feed the stingrays
The unmissable Cayman wildlife experience is Stingray City, a sandbar at the mouth of the North Sound, near Rum Point, where southern stingrays gather for handouts of chopped squid. The area is reached by a small boat and comprises two sites – one a shallow dive, the other a waist-deep wade.
Drawn by the smell of fish, metre-wide female rays (males are far smaller and shyer, it seems) swarm around the boat. Once you’re in the water, they brush their smooth wings against you in their keenness to hoover up food from your hands. Four or five can buffet you at once.
While it’s tempting to frown at hand-feeding wild animals, this experience was not created for tourists. The rays were drawn to the spot years ago when fishermen used to clean their nets here and there were fishy scraps to be had.