The Cayman Islands: an underwater adventure

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.

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The old fishermen now take tourists and buckets of squid bits instead of fishing nets. I only objected when the boat captain encouraged the tourists to lift the rays up and kiss them for good luck.

 
On dry land
 
Don’t visit the Caymans and spend all your time in the water, though. The islands are covered with dry tropical forests that are rich in birds, butterflies, beetles and reptiles from September through to the following spring – as well as fabulous plantlife at its vibrant best towards the end of the wet season.
 
While Grand Cayman is striving to recover from Hurricane Ivan and is by far the most developed of the islands, its smaller siblings escaped much damage and throng with fauna and flora.
 
Wherever you go, you won’t escape the Greater Antillean grackle. Known as the ‘ching-ching’ because of its cash register call, this small, black bird has a bright eye and a vertically held tail so that it resembles a tiny helicopter. Also look out for rare Caribbean doves and the delightful tricolored herons that hunt fish in the shallows on the beach.
 
The islands lie on a migratory flightpath between North and South America, so a visit to coincide with the peak of migrants in the autumn (September to November) and then in spring (March and April) will be worthwhile.
 
Boobys galore
 
The greatest bird spectacle occurs over Booby Pond Reserve and the nearby beaches on Little Cayman. Every morning a huge colony of red-footed boobies heads out to sea to fish.
 

Towards the evening, as you’re lounging in your hammock with a rum punch in hand (to steady your binoculars, of course), you can watch the boobies return – but this time they have to run the gauntlet of magnificent frigatebirds with piracy on their minds.

 
The aerial battles as the frigatebirds attempt to force the boobies to regurgitate their lunch are a stark contrast to the serene, white beach below. Yet as night falls, the two species roost together in the same trees, the day’s warfare forgotten.
 
Ancient survivors
 
Grand Cayman is a world away and can feel a little over-developed by comparison, with fortress-like hotels sprouting along the famous Seven Mile Beach. However, the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, deep within the island’s forested interior, offers welcome relief.
 
The trees here mostly survived the hurricane – these natives, such as red birch, mahogany and cabbage, have evolved to lose their outer twigs and branches in a storm, making them more streamlined and less likely to be destroyed by strong winds. Non-native trees, however, were flattened in thousands.
 
Depending on who you speak to, between 70 and 90 per cent of Grand Cayman’s birdlife was lost in the hurricane, but in the Botanic Park, it has recovered strongly. Mockingbirds provide a soothing melodic relief from the grackles, while argumentative Grand Cayman parrots follow you everywhere.
 
Lifeline for the lizards
 
The park’s wildlife gem is the endemic Grand Cayman blue iguana. Bright turquoise in sunshine, this giant lizard almost went extinct, and it was only a last-ditch effort by local naturalist Fred Burton that prevented disaster. After discovering there were fewer than 20 or 30 left in the wild, Fred set up a captive-breeding programme for the Islands’ National Trust.
 
You can visit the breeding pens and see iguanas in every stage of development, from finger-long hatchlings to giant adults. Once they are large enough to evade predation by feral cats and dogs, they are released into the park, where you can watch them fighting over mates and territories.
 
Fred has a team of volunteers to help him, but he’s also aided by the iguanas’ strong survival instincts. The captive-breeding pens were swamped by sea water during the hurricane, and when Fred was finally able to get through to check his charges he expected disaster. But he needn’t have worried. The iguanas simply climbed the trees and waited for the water to subside. None were lost.

 

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