One of the world's leading dive destinations, Grand Cayman has dramatic underwater topography that features plunging walls, soaring skyscraper pinnacles, grottoes, arches, swim-throughs adorned with vibrant sponges, coral-encrusted caverns, and canyons patrolled by lilliputian grunts to gargantuan groupers, darting jacks to jewfish, moray eels to eagle rays. Gorgonians and sea fans wave like come-hither courtesans. Pyrotechnic reefs provide homes for all manner of marine life, ecosystems encased within each other like an intricate series of Chinese boxes.
There are more than 200 pristine dive sites, many less than a half mile from the island and easily accessible, including wreck, wall, and shore options. Add exceptional visibility from 80 to 150 feet (no rivers deposit silt) and calm, current-free water at a constant bathlike 80°F. Cayman is serious about conservation, with stringently enforced laws to protect the fragile, endangered marine environment (fines up to $500,000 and a year in prison for damaging living coral, which can take years to regrow), protected by the creation of Marine Park, Replenishment, and Environmental Park Zones. Local water-sports operators enthusiastically cooperate: Most boats use biodegradable cleansers and environmentally friendly drinking cups. Moorings at all popular dive sites prevent coral and sponge damage due to continual anchoring; in addition, diving with gloves is prohibited to reduce the temptation to touch.
Pristine water, breathtaking coral formations, and plentiful marine life including hammerheads and hawksbill turtles mark the North Wall —a world-renowned dive area along the North Side of Grand Cayman.
Trinity Caves, in West Bay, is a deep dive with numerous canyons starting at about 60 feet and sloping to the wall at 130 feet. The South Side is the deepest, with the top of its wall starting 80 feet deep before plummeting, though its shallows offer a lovely labyrinth of caverns and tunnels in such sites as Japanese Gardens and Della's Delight.
The less-visited, virgin East End is less varied geographically beyond the magnificent Ironshore Caves and Babylon Hanging Gardens (trees of black coral plunging 100 feet), but it teems with "Swiss-cheese" swim-throughs and exotic life in such renowned gathering spots as The Maze (a hangout for reef, burse, and occasional hammerhead sharks), Snapper Hole, and Grouper Grotto.
The Cayman Islands government acquired the 251-foot, decommissioned USS Kittiwake ( www.kittiwakecayman.com). Sunk in January 2011, it has already become an exciting new dive attraction, while providing necessary relief for some of the most frequently visited dive sites. The top of the bridge is just 15 feet down, making it accessible to snorkelers. There’s a single-use entry fee of $10 ($5 for snorkelers).
Stingray City. Most dive operators offer scuba trips to Stingray City in the North Sound. Widely considered the best 12-foot dive in the world, it's a must-see for adventurous souls. Here dozens of stingrays congregate—tame enough to suction squid from your outstretched palm. You can stand in 3 feet of water at Stingray City Sandbar as the gentle stingrays glide around your legs looking for a handout. Don't worry—these stingrays are so acclimated to tourist encounters that they pose no danger; the experience is often a highlight of a Grand Cayman trip. Near West Bay, North Sound, Grand Cayman.
Shore diving around the island provides easy access to kaleidoscopic reefs, fanciful rock formations, and enthralling shipwrecks. The areas are well marked by buoys to facilitate navigation. If the water looks rough where you are, there's usually a side of the island that's wonderfully calm.
Eden Rock. If someone tells you that the silverside minnows are in at Eden Rock, drop everything and dive here. The schools swarm around you as you glide through the grottoes, forming quivering curtains of liquid silver as shafts of sunlight pierce the sandy bottom. The grottoes themselves are safe—not complex caves—and the entries and exits are clearly visible at all times. Snorkelers can enjoy the outside of the grottoes as the reef rises and falls from 10 to 30 feet deep. Avoid carrying fish food unless you know how not to get bitten by eager yellowtail snappers. S.Church St., across from Harbour Place Mall by Paradise Restaurant, George Town, Grand Cayman.
Devil's Grotto. Its neighbor, Devil's Grotto, resembles an abstract painting of anemones, tangs, parrotfish, and bright purple Pederson cleaner shrimp (nicknamed the dentists of the reef, as they gorge on whatever they scrape off fish teeth and gills). Extensive coral heads and fingers teem with blue wrasse, horse-eyed jacks, butterfly fish, Indigo hamlets, and more. The cathedral-like caves are phenomenal, but tunnel entries here aren't clearly marked, so you're best off with a dive master. George Town, Grand Cayman.
Turtle Reef. Turtle Reef begins 20 feet out and gradually descends to a 60-foot mini-wall pulsing with sea life and corals of every variety. From there it's just another 15 feet to the dramatic main wall. Ladders provide easy entrance to a shallow cover perfect for pre-dive checks, and since the area isn't buoyed for boats, it's quite pristine. West Bay, Grand Cayman.
As one of the Caribbean's top diving destinations, Grand Cayman is blessed with many top-notch dive operations offering diving, instruction, and equipment for sale and rent. A single-tank boat dive averages $75, a two-tank dive about $100. Snorkel-equipment rental is about $15 a day. Divers are required to be certified and possess a "C" card. If you're getting certified, to save time during your limited holiday you can start the book and pool work at home and finish the open-water portion in warm, clear Cayman waters. Certifying agencies offer this referral service all around the world.
When choosing a dive operator, here are a few things to ask: Do they require that you stay with the group? Do they include towels? camera rinse water? protection from inclement weather? tank-change service? beach or resort pickup? snacks between dives? Ask what dive options they have during a winter storm (called a nor'wester here). What kind of boat do they have? (Don't assume that a small, less crowded boat is better. Some large boats are more comfortable, even when full, than a tiny, uncovered boat without a marine toilet. Small boats, however, offer more personal service and less-crowded dives.)
Strict marine protection laws prohibit you from taking any marine life from many areas around the island. Always check with the Department of Environment (345/949–8469) before diving, snorkeling, and fishing. To report violations, call Marine Enforcement (345/948–6002).
Ambassador Divers. Ambassador Divers is an on-call, guided scuba-diving operation offering dive trips to parties of two to eight persons. Co-owner Jason Washington's favorite spots include the excellent dive sites on the West Side and South and North Wall. Ambassador offers three boats, a 28-foot custom Parker (maximum six divers), a 46-foot completely custom overhauled boat, and a 26-footer primarily for snorkeling. They are available around the clock, and interested divers can be picked up from their hotels or condos. The price for a two-tank boat dive is $105 ($90 for two or more days). Comfort Suites, 22 Piper Way, West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1106. 345/743–5513 or 345/949–4530. www.ambassadordivers.com.
Cayman Aggressor IV. Cayman Aggressor IV, a 110-foot live-aboard dive boat, offers one-week cruises for divers who want to get serious bottom time, as many as five dives daily. Nine staterooms with en suite bathrooms sleep 18. The fresh food is basic but bountiful (three meals, two in-between snacks), and the crew offers a great mix of diving, especially when weather allows the crossing to Little Cayman. Digital photography and video courses are also offered (there's an E-6 film-processing lab aboard) as well as Nitrox certification. The price is $2,595 to $2,995 double occupancy for the week. Grand Cayman. 345/949–5551 or 800/348–2628. www.aggressor.com.
Deep Blue Divers. Deep Blue Divers has two custom-designed 27-foot outward driven Dusky boats, which ensure a smooth, speedy ride and can access sites that much larger boats can't. They accept a maximum of eight guests, under the watchful eyes of Patrick Weir and Nick Buckley, who joke that diving is "relaxing under pressure." Personalized valet attention and flexibility have ensured a high repeat clientele; Nick's particularly good with kids and has taught three generations of families. He's often asked by happy customers to join them on dive trips around the world. He and his crew delight in telling stories about Cayman culture and history, including pirate tales and often hilarious anecdotes about life in the Cayman Islands. He offers underwater photo–video services and a range of PADI-certified courses; beach pickup is included. 245 N. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1104. 345/916–1293. www.deepbluediverscayman.com.
DiveTech. DiveTech has opportunities for shore diving at its two north-coast locations, which provide loads of interesting creatures, a mini-wall, and the North Wall. With quick access to West Bay, the boats are quite comfortable. Technical training (a specialty of owner Nancy Easterbrook) is unparalleled, and the company offers good, personable service as well as the latest gadgetry such as underwater DPV scooters and rebreathing equipment. They even mix their own gases, and there are multiple dive instructors for different specialties, with everything from extended cross-training Ranger packages to Dive and Art workshop weeks, popular photography–video seminars with Courtney Platt, deep diving, less disruptive free diving, search and recovery, stingray interaction, reef awareness, and underwater naturalist. Snorkel and diving programs are available year-round for children ages eight and up, SASY (supplied-air snorkeling, which keeps the unit on a personal flotation device) for five and up. Excellent multiday discounts are a bonus. Cobalt Coast Resort & Suites, 18-A Sea Fan Dr., West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/946–5658 or 888/946–5656. www.divetech.com. Lighthouse Point, near Boatswain's Beach, 571 N.W. Point Rd. 345/949–1700.
DiveTech (Lighthouse Point, near Boatswain's Beach, 571 N.W. Point Rd. 345/949–1700.)
Don Foster's Dive Cayman Islands. Don Foster's Dive Cayman Islands has a pool with a shower as well as snorkeling along the ironshore at Casuarina Point, easily accessed starting at 20 feet, extending to depths of 55 feet. There's an underwater photo center, and there are night dives and Stingray City trips with divers and snorkelers in the same boat (perfect for families). Specialties include Nitrox, Wreck, and Peak Performance Buoyancy courses. Rates are competitive, and there's free shuttle pickup–drop-off along Seven Mile Beach. If you go out with Don, he might recount stories of his wild times as a drummer in the islands, but all the crews are personable and efficient. The drawback is larger boats and groups. 218 S. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/949–5679 or 345/945–5132. www.donfosters.com.
Eden Rock Diving Center. Eden Rock Diving Center, south of George Town, provides easy access to Eden Rock and Devil's Grotto. It features full equipment rental, lockers, shower facilities, and a full range of PADI courses from a helpful, cheerful staff on its Pro 42 jet boat. 124 S. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1110. 345/949–7243. www.edenrockdive.com.
Indigo Divers. Indigo Divers is a full-service, mobile PADI teaching facility specializing in exclusive guided dives from its 28-foot Sea Ray Bow Rider or 32-foot Donzi Express Cruiser, the Cats Meow and the Cats Pyjamas. Comfort and safety are paramount, and the attention to detail is superior. Luxury transfers in a Chevy Avalanche are included, and the boat is stocked with goodies like fresh fruit and homemade cookies. Captain Chris Alpers has impeccable credentials: a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain, PADI master scuba diver trainer, and Cayman Islands Marine Park officer. Katie Alpers specializes in wreck, DPV, dry suit, boat, and deep diving, but her primary role is resident videographer, and she edits superlative DVDs of your adventures, complete with music and titles. They guarantee a maximum of six divers. The individual attention is a bit pricier, but the larger your group, the more you save. Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1202. 345/946–7279 or 345/525–3932. www.indigodivers.com.
Neptune's Divers. Neptune's Divers offers competitive package rates, in addition to free shuttle service along Seven Mile Beach. It's also one of the best companies for physically challenged divers. Captain Keith Keller and his staff try to customize trips as best they can, taking no more than eight divers out on their 30-foot custom Island Hopper and 36-foot Crusader. A wide range of PADI courses are available; the instructors are patient and knowledgeable about reef life; Casey Keller can offer helpful tips on your underwater photography. The operation is computer-friendly to permit longer bottom time. West Bay Rd., Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, KY1-1203. 345/945–3990. www.neptunesdivers.com.
Ocean Frontiers. Ocean Frontiers is an excellent ecocentric operation, offering friendly small-group diving and a technical training facility, exploring the less trammeled, trafficked East End. The company provides valet service, personalized attention, a complimentary courtesy shuttle, and an emphasis on green initiatives and specialized diving, including unguided computer, Technical, Nitrox Instructor, underwater naturalist, and cave diving for advanced participants. You can even participate in lionfish culls. But even beginners and rusty divers (there's a wonderful Skills Review and Tune-Up course) won't feel over their heads. Special touches include hot chocolate and homemade muffins on night dives; the owner, Steve, will arrange for a minister to conduct weddings in full face masks. Compass Point, 346 Austin Connelly Dr., East End, Grand Cayman, KY1-1801. 345/640–7500, 800/348–6096, or 345/947–0000. www.oceanfrontiers.com.
Red Sail Sports. Red Sail Sports offers daily trips from most of the major hotels. Dives are often run as guided tours, a perfect option for beginners. If you're experienced and your air lasts a long time, consult the boat captain to see if he requires that you come up with the group (determined by the first person who runs low on air). There is a full range of kids' dive options for ages 5 to 15, including SASY and Bubblemakers. The company also operates Stingray City tours, dinner and sunset sails, and just about every major water sport from Wave Runners to windsurfing. Grand Cayman, KY1-1206. 345/949–8745, 345/623–5965, or 877/506–6368. www.redsailcayman.com.
Sundivers. Sundivers, owned by Ollen Miller, one of Cayman's first dive masters, has the on-site dive shop at the Cracked Conch restaurant next to Boatswain's Beach, offering competitive rates for air, lessons, and rentals; shore access to Turtle Reef; and such amenities as showers, rinse tanks, and storage. The Cracked Conch, N.W. Point Rd., West Bay, Grand Cayman, KY1-1201. 345/916–1064 or 345/949–6606.
Sunset Divers. Sunset Divers, a full-service PADI teaching facility at the George Town hostelry catering to the scuba set, has great shore diving and six dive boats to hit all sides of the island. Divers can be independent on their boats as long as they abide by the maximum time and depth standards. Instruction and packages are comparatively inexpensive. Though the company is not directly affiliated with acclaimed underwater shutterbug Cathy Church (whose shop is also at the hotel), she'll often work with the instructors on special courses. Sunset House, 390 S. Church St., George Town, Grand Cayman, KY1-1106. 345/949–7111 or 800/854–4767. www.sunsethouse.com.