May 12, 2019
Before Jamaica, the Cayman Islands had never been on our radar.
Located in the Caribbean, apparently world class diving, offshore banking haven for rich people and corporations looking to hide money from the taxman… pretty slim pickins as far as comprehensive information goes.
As it turns out, the Caymans has ended up being one of the most intriguing places we’ve visited aboard Exit after leaving the States.
Comprised of three islands, this British Overseas Territory has a total population of less than 55,000 people. Grand Cayman is the main population center, with the population of Cayman Brac (pronounced “Brack”) around 1,500 and Little Cayman a mere 150 residents.
One of our biggest disappointments with both the Bahamas and Jamaica had been that, despite an undeniable beauty above water, below the surface the amazing topography was diminished by the amount of dead coral and remarkably few numbers of fish and other marine life. To us, this appeared to be the direct result of a rather lax view towards environmental conservation.
One of the truly unique aspects we encountered upon arriving at Cayman Brac was the strictly enforced anchoring policy universal throughout the Caymans… YOU CAN’T.
All three islands have gone to extraordinary lengths to provide what must be hundreds of free public mooring balls that boats are required to use. There are only a few areas within all three islands in which anchoring is allowed. And we were warned by the Customs Officer that failure to comply could result in a $100,000 fine… yikes!
Good for them.
Though the Cayman Islands are a major cruise ship destination, a surprisingly few number of cruisers visit the Caymans (the Customs Officer informed us that only two other sailboats had passed through recently). Hence, the dozens of Cayman dive boats are the primary beneficiaries of these mooring balls, which are largely located at the specific dive sites.
Our concerns were twofold: 1) are the dive shops going to be pissed off if they arrive at a dive site and we’re on the mooring ball, and 2) are the mooring balls maintained well enough to be trustworthy?
The answers: 1) no, the dive shops know we are required to use the mooring balls also and will adjust accordingly, and 2) the mooring balls are regularly maintained. Though many of them have too small of tackle to be adequate to sit on overnight, there are larger mooring balls with tackle sufficient for the Cayman Aggressor liveaboard boat scattered about. If the Aggressor showed up, we might need to move to a different mooring ball to give them access to the dive site. Otherwise, we were instructed not to worry.
Another unique aspect we encountered in the Caymans was their policy regarding the use of spear guns and Bahamian slings for spearfishing… YOU CAN’T.
Upon arrival at Cayman Brac, the Customs Officer politely and promptly confiscated all “spears, slings, gaffe hooks, and things meant for poking, jabbing, or sticking.” We were informed they would be returned to us when we cleared out.
Though I was becoming quite comfortable with the idea of occasionally and responsibly partaking in the bounty of the sea, my reaction was the same as the mooring ball policy… good for them.
It would not take long to see the wisdom of these policies from an environmental standpoint.
A large cement dock provided shore access for us to wander around the island a bit where we found the people to be exceptionally friendly. As it would turn out, this would be the only access point to the shore for us between both Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.
We were in the water within an hour of clearing in. It just so happened that we were moored nearly on top of the M/V Captain Keith Tibbetts, a Soviet Union 330 foot long Koni II class frigate built in 1984 for the Cuban Navy. The Cayman Islands government purchased it for tourism, scuttled it off the shore of Cayman Brac in 1996, and renamed the vessel M/V Captain Keith Tibbetts after a local businessman and politician.
Resting at at depth of between sixty feet at the stern and eighty-five feet at the stern, with what had to be around one hundred foot visibility, we could still see everything clearly snorkeling at the surface. But it was even better diving…
After a couple of days we decided to make the fifteen mile move to Little Cayman so we could check things out there.
Our hope was to be able to stay in a bay that appeared to have excellent protection provided by a reef that fringed the entire side facing the ocean. However, the only entrance to the bay, which stretched over two miles, was a channel with breaking waves that dropped in depth to no more than five feet as soon as it entered the bay.
We needed either calm conditions at the channel or much better information before we would attempt that.
So we opted to pick up a mooring ball on the west side of Little Cayman at Bloody Bay, which also just so happened to be the location of the world famous dive site at Bloody Bay Wall. The island also blocked the worst of the swell coming from the east.
We were in the water within an hour of being secure on the mooring ball; this time just a bit of snorkeling. Nevertheless, we immediately realized Cayman Brac had been just the warm-up act for the bigger show.
After only a short time in the water, we had already seen turtles (green, hawksbill, and even our first loggerhead), an eagle ray, stingrays, barracudas, and a plethora of the most hunted and now least found marine life in the Bahamas – mature conch everywhere, large Nassau Groupers, Lane Snappers, lobsters… it went on and on. In addition, not only was there the amazing topography that we found in Jamaica, but also diverse and healthy coral covering it. It wasn’t the Coral Triangle in Southeast Asia, but it was still mighty impressive.
And what do you do if you are a conch less than a foot long with only one foot to move and you fall into a three foot deep hole? Wait for a snorkeler to come rescue you!
In the interest of full disclosure, it must be confessed that having Exit sitting directly above a clearly visible coral reef (even if on a mooring ball) while we slept took some getting used to. But it also made for a spectacular view during the day.
We also now had the opportunity to do something, which up to this point, had been a bit too intimidating and logistically difficult for us to accomplish… scuba diving directly from the Mothership.
[Technical difficulties prevented us from posting this video immediately, but stay tuned]
The amazing dive also brought about a situation which needed immediate rectification. We needed air refills. And this meant we needed to get ashore. Not a simple task where we currently were, as the water approaching the shore was shallow and strewn with rocks and coral.
Every day we saw locals doing dives from the shore, so we decided to approach one pair of guys who were just climbing out of the water to do some inquiring. We got the dinghy as close to shore as possible and then Kris swam in to talk to them (a bikini clad woman typically attracts more attention than a dude with a mustache).
Unexpectedly, they pointed to a dive boat in the distance and said, “Talk to them. They’re the one’s who’ll be filling the tanks.”
When we spoke to the dive staff on the boat he said, “Come around to the bay. They don’t deliver.”
Not quite the warm reception we received at Cayman Brac.
After three days, the wind had dropped to a level we hoped would make entering the bay on Little Cayman’s east side possible. At the mooring ball we were currently on, the water was flat.
As we set out, it seemed promising.
As we came around the south side of the island, though the wind was only around 12-13 knots, we were smashed by a six to ten foot swell.
It appeared that the breaking waves into Owen Island Bay were a constant, which took the bay off the table as an option for us. We summarily decided, screw it… let’s just go back to Cayman Brac and get the fills there.
This time we picked up the mooring directly directly above the M/V Captain Keith Tibbetts wreck.
Attached to a sunken warship at the edge of an underwater cliff that stretched down thousands of feet… if the Big Earthquake came and the wreck slid of the edge, we would be pulled down almost instantly. Dark… but unlikely.
Back at The Brac (as they call it), we once again found the friendly demeanor that we had first encountered. The very accommodating owner of Brac Scuba Shack would not only fill our tanks for $8 each, she would pick them up from the nearby dock and drop them back off for us. In addition, we could rent tanks for $10 each.
We decided to rent four tanks and head back to Little Cayman, which gave us the chance to dive Bloody Wall, and then return to pick up the full tanks before continuing on to Grand Cayman.
We never made it ashore on Little Cayman, but after our brief exchanges with the people we did talk to, we concluded we probably hadn’t missed anything.
Despite that, the fifteen days we spent between The Brac and Little Cayman were stellar. The days we weren’t diving, we were snorkeling. Amazing!
And, the entire time, we beamed at the fact that every time we got out of the water we could have a freshwater rinse for both us and our gear, thanks to our blessed watermaker.
In addition, though to us it was never in question, on May 11 we received an undeniable validation and absolute reinforcement that our commitment to install solar panels on Exit was a wise decision when our generation of electricity via solar power shattered the one million watt marker… crazy!
Though we couldn’t have been more impressed with the incredible success that the Cayman Islands policies of no anchoring or underwater hunting had contributed to the general health of the marine ecosystem, it was time for us to get moving again.
A Scuba Junkie reunion with our old dive colleague Nic awaited. And we had already booked flights for a return visit to see family and friends in Washington State in less than a week… the clock was ticking again.