Grand Cayman is well known for diving with its spectacular walls and eerie wrecks but now there is even more reason to visit, as the USS Kittiwake has been sunk there, creating an artificial reef
Hundreds of reef creatures have already moved in to take residence in Grand Cayman’s newest diving attraction, the USS Kittewake. The sinking of the former submarine rescue vessel in January 2011 was the first time the US have sold a vessel to another country for this reason – and it’s taken over seven years to happen.
Just four metres from the surface off Seven Mile Beach, divers and snorkelers can already see creatures from the juvenile blue tangs, sergeant majors, and squirrelfish, to the massive barracuda making their home at the ship's stern, to the ever-present school of horse-eyed jacks. Lately a school of Caribbean reef squid were also seen contemplating making Kittiwake their permanent home.
It’s hoped the Kittewake will help the long-term protection of Cayman’s marine environment by reducing the environmental impact on Stingray City and other reefs that are frequently visited by cruise ship traffic. It also preserves the vessel's maritime history – prolonging her life rather than scrapping it as a decommissioned ship.
The ideal place to stay with easy access to the Kittewake is the Westin Casuarina Resort and Spa with its on-site dive shop, then the chance to get pampered at the spa afterwards.
Just a ten-minute drive from the busy attraction of a seven-mile beach, is Boatswains Bay on the Northwest side of the island. The Bay feels a little off the beaten track, but just a short distance from its shore is the North Wall, a deep drop-off surrounding Grand Cayman that's loaded with marine life.
I'm diving at the Cobalt Coast Dive Resort, a Green Globe certified facility with on-site dive operators, Dive Tech. The resort offers ocean side dining, with modern facilities and fully air conditioned ocean rooms and suites. My dive instructor, Andy, has just come to work there after a stint in Fiji, but is actually from West London. He takes me out for a couple of refresher shore dives right off their private dock. Afterwards, we spend a good hour trying to remember all the fish we have seen for my log book. The session leaves me confident enough the following day to jump off a boat and explore some dramatic walls and the famous Stingray City. We start at a new site called Roundabout where we swim along the North Wall.
The wall generally starts at about 18 metres deep and slopes off to over 600 meters in some places. I sink to about 30 metres; an Eagle Ray ripples on a sandy bank, whilst an olive-green turtle nibbles the coral and a black-and-white zebra stripped fish peers out from a small cave, its spines fanning out against the sway of the tide. This pretty looking creature is the venomous and invasive Lion fish. Not native to the Caribbean, local divemasters will try to catch them or tag the area they are spotted.
After lunch, we head to Stingray City on the North Side of Grand Cayman. Sinking to my knees on the sandy seafloor, just four metres below the surface, a large stingray pulses past me, its skirts gently rippling through the sea. But it’s not interested in me, as it senses the squid is elsewhere. Instead I am approached by a green moray eel, who’s suffering from cataracts after overindulging in squid for too many years. Its muscular, scaleless body glides towards me, mouth gaping and its tube-like nostrils flaring, as it begs me for some dinner, sensing it is nearby. I flap about for a few minutes trying to back away, but the tide keeps drawing us together. Then over my head pulses another stingray who allows me to stroke its sandpaper textured head, and tickle is silky smooth belly.
Anyone visiting Grand Cayman shouldn’t miss out on the East End of the island. It’s much more laid back and less developed and feels like the ‘Caribbean side’ of the island. The diving is different too. In the west the dives are easy access, the weather is stable and the dive operations are nearby. In the east, a boat trip is needed to take you out to the barrier reef which extends to its tip. Only a small fraction of divers visit the East End and you’re unlikely to see another dive boat – but the trip is well worth the effort. We set off from the Compass Point Dive resort on a very rocky boat ride.
Compass Point compromises of 28 luxurious one, two and three bedroom oceanfront or oceanview condos, each with their own private patio or balcony. Their dive operators, Ocean Frontiers run a ‘valet’-style service; almost everything is done for us apart from pulling on our wetsuits. Our kit is loaded onto the boat for us, they fix our BCD’s to our tanks, log our dives and rinse out the gear at the end of the day.
As we head off to the first of four dives that day, a kite surfer is making the most of the high surf caused by the north east winds that frequently hit the East End. He jumps and swoops around the boat, as I try to snap an action shot of him. Today we dive at the Valley of the Dolls, Fish Tank, Old Number 12 and Black Rock Reef. But it’s almost not enough to explore the craggy canyon walls with its enormous sponges, and bushes of black coral forming a canopy over the narrow sandy channels. Throughout most of the East End, the top of the wall is deep, dropping off at about 18-24 metres, but the canyon like terrain makes even the shallow reefs exciting.
A rest day has to happen every so often, so it’s the ideal opportunity to explore what else Grand Cayman has to offer. Take the opportunity to visit Blue Iguana Recovery Programme ( http://www.blueiguana.ky/) at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park. (http://www.botanic-park.ky/) The common Green Iguana run around freely – tripping up golfers on the islands' courses – but the Blue Iguana is one of the most endangered of the species on earth. So those working at the captive breeding facility feel passionate about what they do.
Warden Alberto sold up his bar in Costa Rica to work with the reptiles that can reach 5ft long and 70 years old. As he gently strokes the bluish tinted head of Steve, he tells us of the love triangle going on between Bibi, Stanley and Archie. Blue Iguanas have to have a new partner every two years to broaden the gene pool, and Bibi is already feeling it's time for a change.
For some relaxation, finish the day at Rum Point on the north side. Legend has it that a ship was wrecked here in the 18th century, spilling its barrels of rum across the bay and bringing an early Christmas present to the islanders that December. And the crew must have felt most fortunate to have been washed up here, on its sandy white beach, with shallow clear waters and shady palm trees. Now there are hammocks and picnic tables and a cluster of small bars along the beach.
Try the Wreck Bar for a frothy mudslide – a potent mixture of coffee vodka and Irish cream and watch the sun sink into the Caribbean sea.