Pirates stopped of in Cayman Brac to replenish their supplies, with the abundance of turtles supplying fresh meat for the crews. But now the turtles are drawing divers to the Caribbean island
When Christopher Columbus’s ship was blown off course during a trip between Hispaniola and Panama in May 1503, on his fourth and final voyage to the New World, he discovered three islands full of sea turtles and small crocodiles and named them Las Tortugas after the turtles.
It wasn’t until 1585 when the first Englishman to visit the Cayman Islands gave them their current name. Sir Francis Drake saw the Caribbean crocodiles, or "Caymanas", and reported home that they were edible. But it was the turtles which attracted ships in search of a supply of fresh meat for their hungry crews.
Found just to the south of Cuba and to the north-west of Jamaica, the Cayman Islands now draw visitors to their warm waters, soft, white pepper sands and spectacular coastlines. And divers come to see the turtles swim, and explore the variety of dive sites.
Cayman Brac was named after its “Bluff “( Brac in Gaelic.) The large limestone wedge-shaped ridge runs along the spine of the 14-mile long island and, for a long time, pirates like Blackbeard and Morgan found the Bluff’s caves a great place to hide their booty.
I am diving in the Brac’s turquoise waters and, as I sink slowly down, the Russian Frigate; the MV Capt Keith Tibbetts comes into view. Underwater its metal has been transformed, submerged for almost 15 years; it has been covered in marine life, red and purple sponges, fat white tunicates and bulbous clumps of hard red and yellow coral.
Tiny creatures make their home on this artificial reef that was brought to Cayman Brac in 1996 from Cuba to finish its days as a diving attraction. It’s also a good spot for snorkelers, as its stern is in shallow water and it’s within swimming distance of the defunct Buccaneer Hotel.
Cayman Brac is an unspoilt, rustic island, and a short drive takes us to the Cayman Brac Reef Resort. After Hurrican Paloma hit in 2008, it underwent a multi-million dollar rebuild and is now the only dive resort on the island.
Because of its torpedo-like shape, the Brac has two separate diving environments: north and south. There are about 45 moored dive sites, and most are just minutes away from the beach on the south-west shore. Here it is better for marine life and big walls, such as Anchor Wall, with its deep swim throughs and crevices and an old anchor wedged into the wall.
The north-east sites, where the wreck of the MV Capt Tibbets is found, have longer boat rides and are best for deep dives and wrecks. The Tibbets is the only Russian warship that can be dived in the western hemisphere. We are taken there by Reef Divers who operate through the Cayman Brac Reef Resort. Their ‘valet’ style diving operation means almost everything is done for us apart from putting on our own wetsuits! They load our “goodies” (dive watches, masks, fins, tanks etc) onto the boat, fix our BCD’s to our tanks and even log our dives details.
As I glide underwater through the frigate's 100meter pilot house, I see, nestled amongst the debris of the toppled over cooling tower, a well-camouflaged scorpion fish. I nearly missed him until his shining black eyes flashed at me, warning me not to come close, or his poisonous dorsal spines wiil let me know whose boss. I retreat and float up to the twin turret guns which, covered in coral, look fluffy and cartoon-like. Peering towards the sandy plain surrounding the ship, I see garden eels, like strings of seaweed swaying in the tide. Later, we dive at Eden Wall, and I’m lucky enough to see an olive-green turtle cruising past at very close quarters, feeding on the reef slope. A large stingray also pulses past me, its skirts rippling gently.
On the way back to our resort, I spot large terracotta coloured sculptures, like Russian matryoshka dolls, by the beach at a dive site called Radar Reef on the north shore. They are soon to join over 300,000lbs of sculptures to become part of the large, underwater, multi-piece creation called the Lost City of Atlantis, created by a local artist, simply known as “Foots”. (www.atlantiscaymanbrac.com)
You can dive in Cayman Brac all year round, but the best time to visit is from January through to March. Water temperatures range from 78 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit and as summer is the rainy season, it’s dry enough to sunbath, making it the perfect winter sun destination.
The main passenger airport in the Cayman Islands, Owen Roberts International Airport, is on Grand Cayman. Cayman Brac also has its own airport, 'Gerrard Smith Airport'. These two airports serve as the Cayman Islands main ports of entry for visitors.
Travellers have two options for getting to the Brac; fly into Grand Cayman by a variety of carriers and connect with a late afternoon Cayman Airways flight. These are 40 minutes to an hour long depending on whether there is a stop on Little Cayman. Or Cayman Express provides four services a day to both islands from Grand Cayman.
Where to stay:
The Brac Reef Resort offers four and a half acres of beach front property on a private beach on the southwest end of Cayman Brac. It has 27 standard rooms air conditioned room, 10 junior suites and three accessible rooms. Fine dining is offered there at the Grand Palm Restaurant, a buffet -tyle dinner is available at the Palms Caribbean Restaurant which serves American and continental cuisine. There is also a poolside bar, the Tipsy Turtle Pub.