Grand Cayman

A bit out of sequence, but here's the last in a series of dive trip reports (for now). We took a long weekend to the Grand Cayman last summer, prompted in part by cheap flights, and in part by an unusually frigid season on Cape Ann that left us shivering violently after every dive... Plus, we'd read that shoals of silversides frequent this area every summer. We were a few weeks late, but still hoped to catch some of the action.

We flew into GCM on a Saturday just after noon. After spending a while getting a rental car and checking in at Cobalt Coast Resort, we finally sat down for a late lunch. But we were hardly halfway through the food when we realized that the dive shop at Eden Rock was closing sooner than we thought (at 5pm!). A mad scramble followed, and we made it to the shop barely in the nick of time. They were wrapping up for the day, but after some pleading were willing to let us hang on to the rental tanks overnight for a hefty deposit. We entered the water just as the last of the day divers emerged: no silversides :-(.

As we geared up a squall washed over the otherwise very flat seas.

Saturday evening dives 1 and 2, Eden Rock/Devil’s Grotto, ~40ft, 60min each: We entered by the pier, and the ocean was tepid warm! The corals here aren’t in the best shape here, but the macro-structures are present and we can clearly see why these sites are named grotto/rock. There are fairy basslets everywhere, and they're so good at hanging upside down and perfectly motionless until one gets close enough to take a picture... then a blur of yellow and purple and they're gone.

Twenty minutes in, we’ve almost reached the end of a series of coral outcrops and saw a large-ish cavernous structure. A flash of light. What’s that? There’s a tarpon or two hanging out inside. Another flash, and a giant, silvery Hershey’s Kiss materialized out of the dark recesses! Umm there’s a MASSIVE school of silversides hiding deep inside. We’re going in!

We never thought that fish could create a “silt”-out, no-viz situation, but it was sometimes impossible to see ahead through this massive swarm. We weren’t sure if we’d entered a cavern or a swim-through, and moved along cautiously. Around us a mesmerizing hunt was taking place: every time the tarpons closed in, the silversides would scatter and regroup around us. At last, a faint blue bounced through the thousands of fish bodies, and we found our exit.

Ann was pleasantly surprised that her video turned out okay here. It's truly a spectacular sight:

After a long day of traveling/diving, we stayed in for the night. None of the shops were still open for an unplanned night dive anyways...

Sunday morning dive 3, Monet's Garden, 59ft, 51min. It’s Sunday morning, and we joined eight other newly arrived guests for the first dive of the resort’s weekly cycle. There’s not too much to write about this site. It’s a fine place for a check-out dive. There are lots of fish and sea fans but the corals are so-so.

Dive 4, Ocean Point Reef, 58ft, 55min. The house reef of Ocean Point Resort is in better condition than Monet, but still there were lots of half-bleached staghorn corals. It’s sad to see but not too surprising given that the water is a whopping 86F!

The highlight of the dive according to Ann: me getting attacked by a chub

Sunday afternoon dive 5, Kittiwake, 60ft, 55min. Sunken just six years ago, the Kittiwake sits at only ~70ft and is kind of a cut-out, cleaned up playground for OW divers wanting to play pretend wreck diving. Even so it’s pretty neat: there are 3 layers, multiple rooms still with their chairs and gas cylinders (it was a research vessel), eerie windows, and a submechanophobe’s nightmare.

Less than a month after our visit Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept over this area and did untold damage to many of the Caribbean islands … It seems like GC escaped the worst of the winds but the Kittiwake is now tilted. We may have gotten some of the last few pictures of it standing upright.

Dive 6, Cobalt Coast House Reef, 58ft, 53min. As we were only here for a weekend of course we had to squeeze in an early evening dive. From the resort pier, it’s a moderately long swim (10-15min) out to the reef. And once there, it’s a very easy dive along a nice mini-wall, and there’s plenty of squirrelfish and fairy basslets. In the shallows the sea fans change color from purple to yellow?!

Monday morning dive 7, Tarpon Alley, 98ft, 42min. This is an absolutely gorgeous site, with vertical pillars and walls going down very, very deep. Along the reef are schools of durgons and snappers, and in the sand channels in between the occasional reef shark would go by. There were lots of chubs and cubera snappers here, but no tarpons!

Dive 8, Barkers Reef, 57ft, 61min. The reef is made up of mostly coral stands and islands, or bommies. We saw a beautiful queen angelfish as well as a few lionfish and drums here, but apparently others in our group saw a nurse shark.

Monday early afternoon dive 9 and 10, Turtle Reef (Macabuca), ~60ft, 65min each. Our last set of shore dives are at the house reef of Sun Divers, supposedly one of the nicer shore sites on the westside of Grand Cayman. And indeed it was quite nice. From the sunny decks of Macabuca Bar (awesome ice cream sandwiches) there’s a fool-proof set of stairs down to a shallow, protected lagoon from which one swims out to the reef. There are walls to the left and right (the one to the right is a bit longer and more impressive). And both are covered with gorgonians and fans, made more colorful and lively by fairy basslets, butterflyfish, and snappers.

To the left around 50ft, there’s a school of not at all shy tarpons and a nice big grouper. The only issue was that these were our third and fourth dives of the day, and the shop didn’t have nitrox ready (they need to be reserved ahead of time!), so on our way back, Ann's Cressi Leonardo helpfully informed her that she only had 13min of no-deco time left at 20ft (What?!). Though shallow as we were, we still saw an octopus, a lemon ray and a bigger stingray!

In the shallow lagoon, just behind an OW class, we ran into a huge squad of squids! I thought they were flashing colors at us, but no, there was a bar jack stalking them from behind us. A squirt of ink and a splash! One of the squids is no more... :-(

It was way too short of a trip, but we still managed to squeeze in 10 dives... A few general thoughts:

  • Compared to Bonaire, there’s less variety of fish here, though the sharks and groupers were nice to see!

  • The highlight was of course the silversides. Not having expected to encounter them at all we wondered how many other grottos/swim-throughs we’d missed earlier.

  • The corals in the shallows are suffering a lot from bleaching and careless divers and the deeper ones look much better. There are some really nice structures.

  • Flights and car rental are cheap, but food is not!

  • About Cobalt Coast: it’s a nice resort with good amenities and very friendly hosts. The accommodations are stellar though the food could probably be a bit better...

  • Depending on the vacation/cruise season, you may be trailing behind a couple of vacation divers who aren’t very careful with the reef and that can be a bit frustrating.

  • Overall the diving was pretty nice (the shore dives weren't half bad!), but we’d like to try the east side or Cayman brac next time.

  • This is Ann's first trip with a real underwater camera (Canon G7x Mark II with FantaSea housing). First impressions: kinda grainy. It wasn't until Raja Ampat, seven months later, that she realized it came with the digital "ND filter" setting ON by default....