Tara Bradley
Sunrise at Brac Reef Beach Resort.
By
updated 5/1/2007 6:21:23 PM ET 2007-05-01T22:21:23

It’s finally here — the week I’ve been waiting for. I have left behind e-mails and meetings and returned to the real reason I work for a dive magazine — the water. The second I hit the hotel room, swing open the door to the balcony and breathe in the fresh ocean air I feel my feet reject my shoes. All I want to do is dive. By day’s end, I am giant-striding off a swim platform, my eyes on a watercolor horizon. When I’m finally submerged, my gear fits like a favorite pair of jeans and the coral looks brighter and bigger than ever. Sharks, eels, barracudas and rays all come out to say hello. After a few dives, I’ve officially turned “blue.” I have dive fever and if there is a cure for the condition, I don’t want to know about it.

In no time I’m sporting a bronze glow and a lazy stroll. Life would be perfect if we could do this every month. Luckily, the three islands that make up this Caribbean nation are a short flight from most U.S. gateways — and in my case, the drive to the airport takes longer than the flight. When I want to make the most of those precious diving days away from work, the Cayman Islands are my go-to destination. And it is always a trip to remember. 

Shoeless Shores
Cayman Brac
“When the road ends you’ll find a rocky beach spreading out to the end of the island,” the sunny lady at the front desk of Brac Reef Beach Resort tells me. “That’s where it is: Shoe Rock.” She then explains the legend of Shoe Rock. Along the shoreline are shoes. If you find one, make a wish and throw it at the rock (which shouldn’t be hard to find as it is covered in shoes). If the shoe sticks, your wish will come true — yet why the shoes actually stick seems to be as much a mystery as why they are there in the first place.

Never one to pass up a chance to make a wish (or to look for shoes), I drive toward the southeast corner of Cayman Brac.

My bare feet stumble on the rocky shore until I find the perfect walking stick — just my size. The sun peeks from behind a cloud and exposes mismatched shoes scattered along the beach. I wonder how far they have traveled and whose feet they have adorned. I think how amazed I would be to find the single red flip-flop I lost a few years ago on Grand Cayman. I look up and a few yards away, decorated like a Christmas tree, is Shoe Rock. Just then, I see it — a lone sun-bleached red flip-flop hidden by the shade of a large rock, and just my size. I gape in disbelief and pick it up. As I make my wish, I throw it to the top of the rock and watch as it tumbles down, joining the pile of rejected aspirations at the bottom. Sadly, its luck must have worn out. It did travel all the way from Grand Cayman, 90 miles away.

Cayman Brac is not the smallest or the largest of the Cayman Islands, but the middle child. It is one of the Sister Islands and less than a five-minute flight from Little Cayman. Like many middle children, it shares the manners of its siblings, having the calm of Little and the lights of Grand. And although the islands may be different, their common thread is the water that surrounds them.

That water is why I’m here. Divers in the know have flocked to the Brac for years — evident from the high rate of return customers found on the dock of PADI Dive Center Reef Divers the next morning. We watch as the melon-colored sun climbs up the horizon and divemasters Donnie and Chris prep the morning boat. To the sound of clanging tanks, we board their 46-foot Newton called Little Sister and take our places next to our gear — already set up. Gear is the last of our worries as Reef Divers provides what they call a “valet diving experience” — perfect for divers who don’t like carrying their gear, or cleaning it … or setting it up. Basically they do everything for you but breathe.

At our first dive site, Public Beach, my dive buddy Scott and I have already figured out our dive plan: a deep wall followed by a search for swim-throughs. On our way to the wall, a small purple anemone pulses inside a crevice of the coral, like a wind-snatched scarf. Ahead I see the dark secret of a swim-through and the promise of the wall. As Scott and I fin through the passage, a hermit crab couple slowly moves, giving away their disguise. We slip out onto the wall and hover wide-eyed in the open abyss. Making our way down, we find light at the end of a crevice, calling us to shallower water. As we make our way through, holes in the coral give fleeting glimpses of fish and sea fans — making me wonder what I’m missing on the other side of the underwater fence.

Ty Sawyer
A large barrel sponge forms the figurehead on the prowl of a Cayman wall.

In a way, I get to find out. A short boat ride takes us to Sergeant Major, our second dive site. This time Scott and I have decided to focus strictly on the little stuff … and the swim-throughs. Peterson cleaning shrimp frantically clean an anemone as the first of what will be three stingrays skirt my peripheral vision. A hogfish rises over the peak of a giant coral head while below a massive lobster reaches its antenna out of its small lair. Sponges with the intricate designs of fine linen decorate the sea floor, and nearby a large grouper and a few parrotfish primp at a cleaning station as if preparing for a night on the town. When I stare long enough at the bright yellow tube sponges, their wrinkles and ripples start to resemble faces like the trees in The Wizard of Oz. And as we ascend, the top of the reef is clouded by a school of horse-eye jacks blissfully circling each other — the perfect safety stop.

Before the sun goes down on my last day, I take a final drive around the island. Caves and flowers line the roads like topside swim-throughs and colorful coral. And like the dark recesses I’ve found so plentiful on the dives here, the caves have the same draw — begging me to enter.

Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground Along the way I stop to see Garlon — a born and bred Bracker — whom I met my first day on-island. He is blessed with a face drawn by decades of good stories, lots of laughter and Cayman sunshine. As I take a seat next to him, I have the feeling I’m sitting next to my grandfather — a man filled with stories from “back when.” Upon talking with a local woman, I have discovered Garlon’s former profession — which he conveniently has repeatedly forgotten to mention. And when I tease him about it, the former district commissioner for the Sister Islands, answers with a feeble smile. As with many Caymanians, boasting is not part of his repertoire.

As the day comes to an end, I say goodbye to Garlon and make my final way westward toward BRBR. Neighbors visit on front porches as their faithful pets nap at their shoeless feet. As the sun falls, the dust slowly settles on the empty road. A young girl in a pale pink shirt sits alone on the front step of her similarly colored pink house. The shades of dusk emphasize the warm hues as she looks down the road. She notices me in the distance and in Caymanian style gives a friendly wave. Smiling, I wave back — a simple way to end a simple day. As I drive down the road, I can see her in the distance, still waving goodbye — just like an old friend.

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Wall Magic
Little Cayman
It is evening and the beach at Little Cayman Beach Resort is empty. Lazy palms sway above empty hammocks. The water laps toward me luring me to jump in for an impromptu night dive. I walk toward the shore, and with each sandy step I anticipate a chill. To my surprise, the water wrapping around my ankles is warm. When I look up, the bright stars shine like a spotlight on the sea. Then I notice I am not alone. From the glow of the occasional torch, I can make out the silhouettes of divers moving up the dock. They have returned from a night dive and from the sound of their laughter, it must have been a good one.

Good dives aren’t hard to come by on Little Cayman. Measuring a mere one by 10 miles, the smallest of the three islands is known for its simple life and dynamic diving. Columbus sighted the islands in May 1503 when his ship blew off course on his last trip to the New World. And the island hasn’t strayed far from the way he found it — people and cars are scarce compared to the iguanas and bikes that make up the small amount of daily traffic.

My first morning I take advantage of the unspoken bike-sharing policy and peddle my way down the main — and only — road, which leads to the local market, museum and Red Footed Booby Bird Sanctuary — all of which close at dusk. Along the way, small gravel paths lead from the road to the beach, a reminder of the water just a short walk away. And almost metaphorically, at the end of the main road is the sandy doorstep to the airport. Topside I have already discovered Little Cayman’s simplicity. And underwater, I’m looking to discover Bloody Bay Wall.

The story goes that a diver named Lea Lea saw a hammerhead and wanted to return to the same site every day to see it. Sadly, it didn’t give her an encore. But the divemasters ended up naming the site after her. So here we are at Lea Lea’s Lookout on Bloody Bay Wall. As I glide through the swim-through that will throw me into the abyss, I look up — something every diver should do at least a half dozen times on a wall dive. As the sunlight pierces down, the basket sponges and sea fans exude a ghostly glow. A large crab hides in a crevice as his super-sized counterpart takes cover in a dark cove farther down the way. The misunderstood spotted eel opens his mouth like a playful puppet — mimicking a friendly hello. Barrel sponges stand tall like vases in a grand dining room. Not until we surface do I realize that we never saw a hammerhead, but I don’t mind.

On our next dive, we hit the Meadows. Because the wall starts shallow, most of the dive sites have the benefit of the dramatic views of a wall dive in addition to the extended shallow-diving bottom time. For divers who enjoy exploring swim-throughs, Bloody Bay Wall is diver heaven. The reefs are “Swiss-cheesed” with every type of swim-through imaginable — from the drive-your-bus-through variety to the take-off-your-BC-and-go kind. As I enter another dark opening looking cautiously for the light at the end of the tunnel, I notice a flamingo tongue (my favorite) hiding under a fallen sea fan. Its pink and black skin is so smooth, it begs to be touched. But I know better and leave it in its secret spot. Nearby, a fireworm curls on a gorgonian fan like a sassy lady in a fancy fur. I watch as she fluffs her cotton-like trim giving me a spicy warning. And although I’m sure she is soft, I avoid the temptation and the burn that would likely follow from her fiery sting. As the boat makes its way back to the resort for lunch, we swap stories and share pictures. On the stern, a group takes their semiannual dive-club photo commemorating their last dive of the trip. When they claim the Meadows as their new favorite site on Little Cayman, the bubbly divemaster Annabelle gives them a laugh and a few teases. They’ve obviously said this after every dive she’s taken them on this week. Jokes then fly about an un-named diver who had a habit of losing things all week long — even his shoes. In typical diver fashion, they’ve turned their dive trip into a friendly affair.

Dining at the Bird of Paradise Restaurant is an event as well. The home-style setting feels like I’m in my best friend’s familiar kitchen — that is, if she lived on an exotic island and owned a dive boat. As the departing dive club continues teasing one of their members, the Pezze family is excitedly talking about how they are going to celebrate their 16th or 17th anniversary (depending on whom you’re asking). And amid it all, Denvil, one of the chefs, stands tall in his crisp white chef coat making sure everyone is enjoying the food they have so delicately laid out — the spread includes fresh grilled fish, cold iced tea and carrots so sweet they taste like candy. Off to the side an array of fluffy cakes — dark chocolate, Key lime and strawberry — tempt the guests. But I can’t help but give in when my eye catches a small sliver of the brightly colored strawberry cake.

Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground The sun is signaling the midday heat, and it is time to get back in the water. Before our dive at Coconut Walk, PADI Divemaster Ron draws the site on the whiteboard. We watch in awe as he draws a mess of squiggles suggesting what he says will be a “lot” of fish. While the rest of the group heads along the wall, I stay behind, and just as Ron predicted, a mass of confusion appears before me. Blue chromis, Bermuda chubs and yellowtail snappers dance around each other as if in a tremendous ballroom. Then for some reason, diver intuition hits — something is going to happen. I watch as a barracuda glides in with his long pointed nose held high, showing off his importance and utter power. The intruder attempts a few nibbles on the frantic fish, but with no success. And then just as quickly as he appeared, the barracuda is gone. I look to my right and at the Pezzes, who are excitedly cheering underwater. The dancing fish don’t miss a beat and calmly return to their routine. Just as the yellowtails seem to breathe a sigh of relief, a reef shark slowly starts to materialize from the deep blue below. First his outline is fuzzy, and then as he gets shallower, he comes into view. The fish disperse. I have to hold myself back from darting down to meet him, but I know it would only scare him away. I watch him slowly swim off as the fish cautiously move back into place and my dive comes to and end.

It is one hour before my departure off Little Cayman, and as I take the two-minute drive from LCBR to the airport I have just beaten the “traffic.” Little Cayman’s annual Mardi Gras parade is about to take place, and the excitement pulsates through the air. Both locals and vacationers are decorated in Mardi Gras beads, balloons and face paint. One float is even holding a wedding ceremony complete with a minister, pews and, of course, the happy couple. It is a big day for the little island. And although I am at the airport, I realize I’ve got one of the best seats for the show as the parade continues past the airport and down the runway. With only moments left on Little Cayman, I enjoy the perfect finale as the cast of characters disappears down the runway and into the horizon.

Down on Main Street
Grand Cayman
Rumors of a hammerhead stir the air. Divemasters in every bar down Seven Mile Beach are talking. I’m skeptical — as they say, “no pictures, no proof.” I have been on-island two weeks, and so far I’ve spotted stingrays, eagles rays and tons of turtles. Apparently the hammerhead isn’t as interested in being seen. So of course, my friends and I are on our way to Main Street — her supposed stomping grounds — to find her.

The water is surprisingly still for the North End. With visions of hammerheads dancing in our heads, we swim down the line. We weave through the coral to a swim-through that takes us down and out — ultimately opening into the deep. I stare at the open water for so long that a vision of a shark actually begins to materialize from the empty sea. A few times I almost bang on my tank to alert the others. Deciding it best not to cause any false alarms, I move on and slowly swim behind the rest of the group. Along the way, my eyes still seem to have trouble focusing. I blink a few times to make sure I am not imagining things … again. Then there she is — an 11-foot hammerhead gently gliding below me — a real one. As if coming to meet me, she makes her way up the wall. My heart is pounding so hard I can actually hear it. We get closer. Adrenaline is rushing through my veins almost causing me to shake. My mom would kill me if she saw me right now — chasing a hammerhead. And of course, I continue deeper to meet my new friend.

As we get closer, I have the urge to turn around. How close is too close anyways? I slowly kick forward and try to make my breaths as few and far between as possible. Suddenly, she sees me. And with the flip of her tail, she darts down the wall and out of sight. Breathless, I look up to see if anyone else saw her. Then — as if to let me know they were with me all along — two eagle rays glide overhead. As I make my way to the boat, I give the camera in my hand an extra squeeze, thankful that I have the video to prove it.

I visit the Cayman Islands every chance I get. And Grand Cayman is usually my first stop. It is the biggest of the three islands, measuring a mere 22 by eight miles long. Also the most developed, Grand Cayman is perfect for those who want the island getaway with lots of topside options. You can find a hidden romantic restaurant like Papagallo’s, get your salsa on at Café Med, watch a quiet sunset on Seven Mile Beach or do nonstop diving just about anywhere. And if you choose the latter, it is a wall-dive lover’s piece of paradise.

Before I even open my eyes the next morning in my room at PADI Five-Star Gold Palm Dive Center Sunset House, I hear the chipper crow of a rooster parading in the courtyard below — the perfect reminder that yes, I’m in Cayman. As I tumble out of bed I am instantly excited. Today Sunset Divers is going to Sand Chute, a dive site resembling an underwater ski slope — and when I’m there, I always feel like I’m flying over a Colorado ski resort (minus the lodge).

Within minutes of waking up, I have to remind myself that I’m not dreaming as I float over the mountaintop. The peak of the sandy summit slopes endlessly into the darkness of the mysterious waters below. And below is the kind of deep water that holds unusual creatures with crazy anatomies — bodies built to withstand intense pressure and constant darkness. Critters with senses so sharp they can pinpoint the exact coordinates of their prey without ever being detected. And similarly, something in the deep below could be sensing my presence. I silently take in the thrill.

Although I might not know what lurks in the depths, from my view the sand sits like powder, and the sun hits my skin as if I were on an actual ski lift. I want to go down the hill and find out where the run ends. I descend the incline and feel the urge to find the bottom — to meet the mysterious creatures with no eyes and built-in headlamps. They can’t be too far away. The temptation of deep waters always gets me. Just then a school of horse-eye jacks circles above as a quick reminder of my limits. Thankfully, I slowly rise and join them. And after a motionless moment inside their dancing ring, I make my way back to the surface — even farther away from the unknown depths below.

That evening at My Bar — Sunset House’s answer to Cheers — expats, locals and divers enjoy end-of-day drinks with conch fritters and games of who-saw-what against a background of the blue-green lights of a night dive shining up from the house reef. With unlimited shore diving, it seems someone is always underwater here. And when they do dry off, they come to My Bar to eat, drink, and of course, brag. As the night starts to dwindle, I make my way to my room. And playing the opposing role to the morning’s rooster, the sound of the sea gently lulls me to sleep. 

Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground As on any trip’s last day, I go topside for my requisite drive around the island (and have a love/hate moment with my computer, which won’t let me dive before flying). I have made my way up and down Seven Mile Beach throughout the week, so to slow things down I head to the quiet side of Cayman — the East End. It is only a 45-minute drive from my pink corner at Sunset House, and I take my time. After a quick stop at Chester’s for their homemade sweet fried bread, I continue eastward. The blowholes on my left are a sure sign I’m close. Their sky-high spurts of seawater always lure me to play a quick game of cat and mouse, but no matter how many times I think I have their timing figured out, I usually end up going back to the car … drenched. This time is no exception. When I finally dry off and hit Rum Point, I contemplate staying for sunset. Since that particular area of the island wraps around to face the West End, you can watch as the sun falls behind the island. The serene silence of this side feels like a vacation from a vacation. I don’t think it could get any calmer than that, making it one of the best places to watch the sun go down. But then again, there really aren’t any bad places to watch it. So, I opt to head back toward the West End and make a stop at Smith’s Cove — one of my personal favorites. And as the sun starts to disappear, I think back to my new friend, the hammerhead, and wonder where she goes for her sunsets.

As the official publication of the PADI Diving Society, Sport Diver is the magazine divers turn to each month to find out what’s going on in their world. Sport Diver is the ultimate source for up to date information on dive culture, equipment, travel, training and PADI Diving Society activities.

© 2012 World Publications, LLC

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