I'm just back from a fantastic vacation in Grand Cayman. We did a lot of scuba diving during our stay and also some busy visiting and heavy drinking and eating. Here are a few notes.
The currency in Grand Cayman is the Cayman Island dollar (CI$) which has a fixed rate of 1.25: CI$ 1 = US$ 1.25. Prices displayed in shops and restaurants don't follow any particular rule, so always be watchful of the currency being used. Also, keep in mind that restaurants practice "automatic tipping", which means that the gratuity will automatically be added to your bill. Make sure you don't tip twice, and be careful that prices can look deceptively cheap but end up quite expensive in the final bill (CI$ 20 becomes 20 * 1.25 * 1.15 = US$ 28.75).
The official language is English, which is spoken in widely varied accents, from American (mostly from Canadian immigrants, who seem to abound) to British, and everything in-between.
Diving in Grand Cayman is absolutely fantastic, but not really different from other Caribbean places that I've dived before (Cozumel and Belize).
We were staying on Seven Mile beach in the first half of our trip, which is a long beach that makes up the entire West side of the island. The main dive site is usually in the middle of the bay, also called the North Sound. Boats typically head north and stop just as they hit the reef. The North Wall is an abyss that plunges in the excess of 6000 feet past the reef and offers a few beautiful wall dives. It's also in this area that you can find the famous Sting Ray City, a sand bar with 3-5 feet of water where you can play with entire schools of sting rays (more details below).
I've only dived in two different locations of the island (North Wall and East Side) but I hear that the remaining two sides of the island has some fantastic diving to offer as well. Each of these locations features dozens of different dive sites, so you're pretty much guaranteed never to dive the same site twice during your stay.
The North Wall offers a typical wall experience. Boats moor above a sandy/rocky bottom between 30-50 feet, and from there, you go over the wall, dive along the wall progressively down as far as the dive master tells you (typically no more than 100 feet) and then head back, either along the wall or above the bottom. Like all wall dives, keep a sharp look at your gauge or, easier, make sure you stay above the dive guide at all times. Also, keep an eye out for the area above the abyss, since it is usually where you will spot eagle rays and other more unusual animals.
We moved to the East side of the island for the second part of our trip, and the experience changed radically. Diving there is also fairly different with a bottom landscape that is much more varied: canyons, crevices and swimthroughs abound there, which makes for a very fun diving experience.
The diving crews were overall extremely friendly and competent, and I particularly appreciated the professionalism and kindness shown by Ocean Frontiers, which operate on the East Side. They're all very kind, do everything by the book, including an illustrated and colored dive briefing beforehand, and they were all very helpful and quick to show us tips and tricks without making us look like complete idiots (something a few dive masters should practice).
They are also the first dive operator I came across that ends each briefing asking each diver if they want a "guided" or "unguided" dive. "Guided" means that you will follow the dive master around and "unguided" means that you and your buddy will just dive around on your own, sticking to the dive profile (of course), which was always very clearly explained ("100 feet for 15mn, 60 feet for 20mn, then head up, unless you have a dive computer, in which case you are welcome to extend your dive time as long as you don't enter deco"). Be aware that if you go on your own, the feeling of being the last one in the water is not always the most pleasant. As always, make yourself known on the boat by chatting up with the crew: it never hurts to leave an impression.
One of the dive masters had been diving for over thirty years and logged about 10,000 dives. He was also the first diver I met who used no weights, "only breathing", as he put it. I also have to give him credit for the most dry-humor remark overheard during the stay... When asked how he "did it", he stared down my friend for a long, pregnant second and finally answered "There is no easy way to say this, but... in short... muscle sinks".
As for myself, I have become fairly comfortable with my 4 lbs and diving in my bathing suit alone. It definitely makes safety stops interesting but sinking and moving along the bottom is really easy and feels particularly good when you are not wearing any exposure suit or skin. I am planning to try 2 lbs for my future dives, and then maybe, one day, I'll be able to tell someone that "muscle sinks" as well.
This trip was also the first time that I took my digital camera down with a housing. It's a bit unnerving at first but my camera came out dry of all my dives, including those at 100+ feet, so I became more confident with my abilities to keep the housing in good shape. The pictures look great but, unsurprisingly, present very distinct blue-green hues. It's a well-known problem that can be corrected with some color histogram alterations, but the ultimate solution is to use a strobe light. Maybe for my next trip...
I recommend renting a car in Grand Cayman, since the island is fairly big compared to Belize. It will take you about 45 minutes to travel from West to East, and at least an hour if you want to go from one tip to the other. George Town is located in the Southwest part of the island, not far from the airport. The West side of the island is bordered by the beautiful Seven Mile Beach, where you will find most of the luxury resorts (they become more sparse in the Northern part). The middle of Grand Cayman is one giant marsh that is partially protected as a marine park, but other than that, mostly untapped as the island is still busy rebuilding from the devastating hurricane Ivan, which flooded most of the island under five feet of water a year ago.
Grand Cayman has recovered amazingly fast in certain areas but a lot of buildings, roads and shops are still complete ruins, as you will see if you drive along South Church street, which runs along the South border of the island.
Here are a few places to visit and things to do for non scuba-divers:
Snorkelers have an embarrassment of riches in Grand Cayman, starting with pretty much anywhere along Seven Mile Beach (and more specifically, the beach across the cemetery and around the Meridian). Beach accesses abound, so just drive for a bit, park when you see a sign, grab your gear and from the shore, a quick fifty yard swim will bring you right on top of the corals. Another interesting spot for snorkelers is Eden Rock, which is, surprisingly, downtown. Eden Rock is a scuba shop that gives free access to its swimming spot. No sand here, just rocks, a short ladder for a smooth entry and off you go. The bottom drops to 30-40 feet within a hundred yards or so, but until then, you will have plenty to see. This place also struck me as a good spot for those of you who need to take their open water certification.
Don't miss organized tours to Sting Ray City, which is in the Northwest corner of the North Sound (there are actually two Sting Ray Cities, one is for snorkeling and the other one scuba diving. I hear the latter is very fun as well, but I didn't do it). Boats will charge you anywhere between $40 and $80 to take you there and might feature additional stops. We had a good experience with our operator, which made three stops (Sting Ray City, a snorkeling spot not far and the Coral Gardens) for about $40 each. Very much recommended for divers and non-divers alike.
By the way, this is not me touching this Green Moray, but one of the guides, and I have to report an incident that really pissed me off on that trip: one of tour guides brought back a lobster on the boat.
I couldn't believe it. I had to confront him (a native Caymanian, to
make matter worse). It went a bit like that:
"Isn't it illegal to touch animals?"
"Yes, but we're throwing it back in the water"
"Still, isn't it illegal to even touch them?"
"There are no cops around", he said with a smug smile.
I wanted to strangle him. Needless to say he got no tip from me.
It's quite interesting to see how few restaurants there are (either that, or even locals were reluctant to disclose some of the places they eat at). Here are some of the restaurants we sampled during our stay:
On the last day, I couldn't resist getting in the water one last time, so I decided to do some night snorkeling by the pier next to our hotel. We didn't get a chance to do a night dive on that trip, so I felt the need to get a short glimpse of Grand Cayman's aquatic night life. Of course, the snorkeling experience can't rival what you see when you scuba dive, but I spotted two things that made this short excursion worthwhile:
A fitting way to conclude my stay in Grand Cayman.
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