Grand Cayman and Stingray City had always been on our "to dive" list, and last summer we got there. (July '06.) Wow, what a fabulous time we had. The diving was great, the travel was adventurous and the people were wonderful. One of the things I love most about diving is how many surprises are always just around the corner, waiting to become great memories.
Let me start with a compliment for Expedia.com. I booked 6 people from Philly to Miami to Grand Cayman, back in January. We scheduled a 2 hour layover in Miami. In February I got an email telling me to check my itinerary, a flight had changed. Indeed it had! The new flight out of Miami was now leaving an hour before the flight from Philly arrived in Miami. Duh, what's wrong with this picture?! So I called and talked with a wonderfully competent travel advisor. In no time she says, "Here's a flight that will work. Let's put you on this non-stop flight directly from Philly to Grand Cayman." "But that's $300 more per ticket" I say. "No problem" she says, "it won't cost you anything!" Wow! I was a very happy camper.
Since Iím talking about the flight, let me start with this picture, taken on our return. The planeís climbing flight path took it directly over Stingray City!
There are two ways to visit Stingray City. Diving, in 12' of water, or snorkelling, in 3' of water on a sandbar. Boats are visible in both of those locations, and if you look closely, you can actually see tiny gray dots that are the stingrays on the sandbar. Iím guessing that this view is from around 5,000' or more.
Now here is a picture from a little closer. :-) I had done all my homework to prepare myself for this dive, reading all the books and talking to anyone I could find who had been there. But as you might guess, nothing prepares you, really, for this kind of thing!
Itís a little like getting mugged by 100 pounds of wet happy leather in a sand storm. There, that pretty well sums it up. (With sincere apologies to Steve Irwin's family.)
The boat operator buys a small box of squid, and puts it in a plastic bottle and gives it to the biggest, toughest diver on the boat, figuring that he can keep the swarm of rays from eating it all at once. Underwater, when a stingray isnít looking, our ďfeed master DaveĒ let his dive buddies dip into the bottle for a morsel of squid.
Initially, the six of us are in a whirling dervish of sand, stingrays, fins, fish and bubbles! The pictures pretty much give you the idea!
And if youíre wondering who was in charge, it was the stingrays! After a while, we managed to spread out a little, the sand settled, and we got a little more accustomed to this unique experience.
It was truly awesome. The stingrays actually seemed to like to be touched, and we continually stroked their soft, supple and powerful bodies.
These stingrays know the drill, and as soon as your boat shows up, they pass the word - ďparty time!Ē
One diver I talked to before our trip, told me, ďDonít wear a snorkel. The stingrays have learned to push down on your snorkel to dislodge your mask. You drop the squid to deal with your flooded mask, and bingo, the ray gets your squid!"
Well, we didnít wear snorkels, and I couldnít tell if the rays were that smart, but the way they swam all over us, even if it happened by accident, it would sure look like a learned behaviour.
The stingrays have a very keen sense of smell, and they know if youíve got squid in your hand! Believe me, they know! They will follow your hand anywhere, until they get it from you.
The trick is to keep your hand moving, and let them follow you around. If they catch up to your hand, they have a very strong sucking action from their mouths that can be a little scary. They donít have any teeth, (or Iím sure Stingray City wouldnít be such a hit, at least not to divers) but they do have two hard cartilage plates that they use to grind up mollusks and the like.
I was busy taking pictures of my wife doing the feeding, and all of a sudden she grabs her thumb and her eyes are as big as saucers! For a moment Iím thinking our dive vacation is ruined because a stingray just broke her thumb! While Iím wishing my camera was a spear gun, she gives me the OK sign, and shakes her thumb, indicating that it was just a really hard pinch. I know for sure sheís OK when she glides over to Dave for some more squid!
My wife offered to take some pictures of me, and I think she got some of the best shots!
The bar jacks were always hanging around for the leftovers, and being so nimble, they got their share of squid.
I tried to manoeuver this ray so she could get a shot of itís ventral side.
If you haven't been to Stingray City, let me highly recommend it! It was an awesome experience. :-)
Since our group consisted of some new divers, I was looking for a dive boat that didnít have 15 divers packed onto it, so our group wouldnít feel intimidated by a bunch of hard core pros. Doing my web browsing before the trip, it seemed that there are quite a few boats that advertise a maximum of 8 divers.
Then I found ďAbsolute DiversĒ a single boat run by Mark Sahagian, and he advertised a morning or afternoon two-tank dive for a party of 6 for $500. Since most of the dive-ops on Grand Cayman seemed to be charging $85 for a two-tank dive, Markís boat was $83, and we had Markís full attention for our ďprivate charterĒ! It was perfect.
Mark also taught us something interesting. He suggested taking a one minute ďsafetyĒ stop, at the beginning of the dive! Not really for safety, but to just slow yourself down, relax, and prepare yourself for the dive. Often we are so anxious to get going, weíre all hyped up, and with a choppy surface or the slightest gear problem, your heart is racing and the stress level is way up. Not exactly the way to improve you air consumption! Since entering and exiting the water is always the most difficult part of any dive, taking a minute to compose yourself on the bottom, actually sitting down (on sand, of course) and closing your eyes, was a great idea. I now call it my ďzen minuteĒ! Hereís a picture of Mark practising what he preaches.
We loved the Cayman diving. The walls were awesome, and the underwater coral topography was magnificent. However, I have to admit that my favourite dive was the shore dive at Turtle Reef. Iím always amazed at how much fun some shore dives are, and this one was just awesome.
Turtle Reef is up past the north end of Seven Mile Beach, just a 15 minute drive from Georgetown. Dive Tech is the dive shop there, and the setup is perfect. Nice little dive-op, parking, tanks and weights all within 30 yards of the water. You surface swim 100 yards out to the buoy, drop down the line 30' and you are at the top of a mini-wall.
There's lots of marine life, lots of coral topography, and a sand bottom at 60'.
We were swimming along the wall, enjoying the sights, and as we rounded the next corner, I was stunned by a most wonderful sight.
In a large grotto, in the side of the wall, there where close to a hundred silver tarpon, slowly circling in lazy unison. The sunlight streamed down in brilliant, glittering rays and illuminated these majestic fish as they cruised out of the shadows of their grotto and into the open water.
And all around this awe inspiring scene where thousands and thousands of silversides! At times these tiny fish made a moving curtain that seemed solid and impenetrable.
But as we approached, a hole would magically appear and we would seem to melt into this marine ballet of grace and beauty.
Being in the middle of this combination of delicate, miniature fish, a shimmering cloud surrounding this large school of dreadful, mighty tarpon, was truly a breathtaking moment.
As I watched the tarpon I couldnít take my eyes off these huge shining creatures. Their thrust out lower jaw seemed to shower scorn upon me. They circled in and out of their grotto with a smooth self-confidence born of the arrogance that befits a creature that sits near the top of its food chain.
Breathing as shallow as possible to minimize my bubbles, I glided into the grotto to join them. Accepting my presence, they continued to circle, and I tried to act like a Tarpon.
As I swam among these magnificent fish, I sensed their disdain for me as they moved far enough away to indicate my presence was tolerated, but not welcome.
Leaving their day haunt, I swam through another magic opening in the silverside ballet, and their curtain shrouded the tarpon. Looking back, I strained to watch the dark outlines of their solid bodies through the gossamer glittering of the untold numbers of silversides.
Let me quote Paul Humannís book about tarpon:
"Habitat - Drift in canyons and secluded areas. Normally school during the day. Large schools may inhabit a specific area on a reef for years where they can reliably be observed.
Reaction to divers - Apparently unafraid, a non-threatening diver can slowly swim through a school."
Indeed, this is the case, and they are there waiting for you. Donít miss a chance to swim with these gleaming monsters. Not wanting this dive to end, I looked for spiny lobster as I headed back to shore.
The resort at Cobalt Coast is intimate and extremely lovely. Staying there would be pretty close to divers nirvana. Just look at this picture. Doesnít it make you want to book a week, right now?! :-) As a matter of fact, the ďDigital MadnessĒ last September on Grand Cayman was hosted by three resorts, and Cobalt Cost was one of them!
O.K. This is where I misplace my first $1,000 worth of gear. The six of us get out of the water, and start to de-gear, tell the post dive stories and grab some lunch. Now Iím the dive master of the group, and we have one rookie diver, and three that havenít been diving for over a year, so Iím trying to help everyone. I also organized the whole trip, so Iím the (sort-of) tour guide as well. Not only that, but my wife and I are in our early 60's, so I always get out of the water first, dump my gear and go back into the water to haul herís out. (Can you tell Iím laying the ground work for a good excuse here?)
The first thing I do is plop my camera rig in the rinse tank. Then Iím running around yaking and packing and then weíre off to the beach for lunch and a swim. Now we are all back at the next dive site, Turtle Reef, two hours later. We all start to gear up, and I suddenly realize I donít have my camera rig! It hits me like a ton of bricks; of course, itís in the rinse tank, thank God, (maybe) only ten minutes away. I jump in the car, my heart pounding, and race down the winding road, trying to remember the nine left and right turns to get to Cobalt Coast. I screech into the parking lot, dash around back to the dive shop and practically jump into the camera rinse tank. A wave of relief washes over me as I see the clear Ikelite housing and strobe, languishing in the water.
Almost delirious with happiness, I dash back to the car and zoom off on the return trip. Fortunately, Iím on a straight stretch of road when I see a black pick-up truck headed straight for me, on my side of the road! We're both doing about 40 mph, and I finally realize that Iím the one thatís supposed to be driving on the left, and quickly move over. In my camera tizzy, Iíd reverted to North American driving. Grand Cayman, as with several other Caribbean islands with British heritage, are all left hand drive! With a sheepish grin on my face, and a good-natured grin on his face, the pick-up driver hails me with ďother side mate!Ē His words carry forgiveness for my error, and now I am twice blessed!
I rejoin my friends, camera and car accounted for, both in good condition. I lift my camera like a trophy, won for surviving stupidity, and we all laugh and smile. We jump in the water, and have a great dive. My daughter had been hoping to see another turtle, and this being our last day dive, was our last chance. Sure enough, a cute little fellow comes swimming along, and stops to pose for pictures.
O.K. This is where I misplace my second set of gear, only this time itís $2,000 worth. And itís the damn rinse tank again. (Notice itís not my fault.) We finish the dive, rinse and pack our gear, and head off to eat supper at our condo. Two hours later, the sun has set, and weíre back at Turtle Reef getting all geared up for our night dive. The dive shop is locked up tight, and there are 15 tanks in four groups, neatly labelled with masking tape, waiting for the night divers who arranged for them earlier. Iíve got my tank, but I seem to be missing my regs, and my air integrated Oceanic Datamax Pro Plus dive computer! I instantly realize I never took it out of the rinse tank, after our afternoon dive, right here, at this very rinse tank. I frantically sweep my hands through the 5 feet long, 3 feet deep tank, and find nothing. Nothing. NOTHING! All I can think of is that itís gone. Gone for good. My full set of regs and my computer. I am completely crushed. Iím heart broken. How can such a good trip end on such a crummy note?
Valiantly, I try to put a better face on it. Itís only money. I can replace it. Quickly my friends talk some sense into me. ďSurely it wasnít stolen.Ē ďWhen we finished our afternoon dive at 5 pm, the shop was closed but two divers where just going into the water.Ē ďSurely they found it, have it in safekeeping and will call the shop in the morning.Ē ďThatís what weíd do.Ē ďThatís what any diver would do.Ē It made sense, and I hoped for the best. This was going to be the first night dive for my daughter and son-in-law, and my wife wanted me to take them, so she graciously gave me her regs, insisting that she sit out the dive.
The last night dive my wife and I did together was in Cozumel, and we had found an octopus and had watched it hunt and feed for twenty minutes. We were spell bound by itís fluid grace, and I had been hoping to repeat the experience. Sure enough, 15 minutes into the dive I hear my daughter scream through her regulator.
She spotted the octopus, and the spookiness of the environment got the best of her. Actually, her scream was only half surprise, the other half was delight.
Fascinated, we watched this deft creature change its color from gray-green to brown to dusky red.
The three of us watched our octopus hunt and feed, and were mesmerized by its behaviour. Tickling the tiny crevices with its tentacles, the octopus would explore for crustaceans as well as small fish and bivalves. Suddenly it would balloon out, stretching the skin between its legs to block all exits when it encountered its prey.
As we followed it along the coral fissures of the top of the wall, it eventually swam right off the edge, into the inky darkness of the open water. Spellbound by this bizarre creature, we watched as it danced with tentacles flailing the darkness, sometimes grotesque...
...sometimes poetic in its movements.
Do you know the Octopus poem, by Ogden Nash?
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I'd call me Us.
When we returned to the shore, my wife eagerly listened to our ebullient descriptions, and knew the joy of having followed a foraging octopus on a night dive. Now it was her turn to search for an octopus. As she waited for us, a diver from another group surfaced and had to abort his dive when he couldnít get enough air from his regulator, and his pressure gauge needle mysteriously ďfloated ď around on his dial. By coincidence, this very thing had happened to my wife on one of her earlier dives. Her pressure guage needle floated in an unusual way as well. (Although her supply was always adequate.) When she checked with the dive shop, they informed her that this was the tell-tale sign of a tank valve that simply hadnít been opened all the way! This diver who had aborted his dive was delighted to hear that this explanation meant that his equipment was fine after all, and offered my wife two full tanks of air that he had arranged from the shop for two friends who never showed to join his group that night.
So now, my wife and I had two more tanks, so we sent our friends home and I got to do a fourth dive! No sooner were we in the water 10 minutes than we came across another octopus, hunting his supper. I had sent my camera gear home, so I could now concentrate on enjoying the moment. I reached my finger out to say hello to this squirmy fellow, and tapped him on the arm. (Or was it his leg?) Well, I guess I scarred him as much as he scarred me, because now there was just a big brown cloud of ink where there had just been an octopus!
Continuing along the reef, we came across two more octopuses, and enjoyed the company of each. Wow, what a fabulous night dive. Next trip, Iím not going to leave it for the last night. :-)
Yes, the next day we called the shop, and indeed, the divers who had been there at the end of the day had found my regs and computer, and had them at their hotel. We connected, and although I missed meeting them, they left my gear at the front desk. Now, I was four times blessed!
I have a new desktop picture, here it is.
This vacation had turned out just about as perfect as this Grand Cayman beach scene.
And I promise, I'll double check all the rinse tanks, for the rest of my diving life! :-)
Below are the comments that were originally posted by users of the Trip Report section of the Rodale's Scuba Diving web site. (www.ScubaDiving.com) I've copied them from that section of the board, which is no longer functioning in the same format.
Rated: by OkieJeff
Excellent report. Very happy that you were able to recover all of that gear. I would have lost some sleep that night.
Rated: by thebes11
Great report, those pictures of Stingray City truly are worth a thousand words. I found a mask in a rinse tank once....was it yours?
Rated: by Dive_Cecil
Excellent report and picture. On a cruise we dove the turtle farm and Cobalt Coast, great people and resort.
About forgeting your gear, I call that BSM (Bonaire Stupid Mode). I go to Bonaire, I get stupid. My thinking is that happy and stupid are proportional.
Rated: by tel52
Very nice report and some great pics. My one trip to G. Cayman (east end) weather was such we couldn't get to Stingray City. Need to get back!
I worked in the tourism business for many years. We used to say that there's an unwritten law that the second you leave on vacation your IQ drops 25 points. It happens to all of us.
Rated: by Caymaniac
Excellent report. SH....stuff happens, is what I'd say with your gear incidents.