The bow of the Cayman Mariner crewboat wreck, East Chute


Getting a handle on the visibility was bothering me. Some days the local gurus would say gloomily that it was a bit down, whipped up by offshore storms. Those were days on which you could see a mere 20 or 30m.
On others they would claim viz in the 50-60m bracket, which I didn't believe until I later dived on the Russian destroyer, because it was difficult to get the scale until then.
Some people who might be expected to know were even more extravagant, swearing that 100m was not out of the question - in other words, a full overview of the destroyer from bow to stern. That's one hell of a view by any standards - could it be that a Cayman Island metre is twice the size of a British one?
Today the visibility was in the nothing-special category at about 30m, and that meant that on starting our descent it was possible to enjoy a panoramic preview of the terrain before getting stuck into its intricacies. Spread below was a typical layout of sandy channels running out from Cayman Brac between spurs of coral.
Some of these channels were as wide as rivers, others narrow grooves. Between them the coral thrust towards the sky in wild shapes that had a touch of Gormenghast about them. Elkhorn and star corals abounded, with here and there pillar corals towering towards the surface in search of sustenance.
A natural archway beckoned. It was the entrance to one of the wider channels, formed where the coral towered high above. I swam through to find, as if barring my way, one of the large fish that gives Tarpon Reef its name. It hovered indifferently just off the bottom, jaw jutting, silver sides shimmering. Beyond it, I could see three or four of its mates enjoying what had been a quiet afternoon.

All divers enjoy seeing sharks, but I also find very appealing other pelagics that choose to adopt certain reefs, such as tarpon, barracuda or even tuna. It's their torpedo-like mobility, their impassivity and their highly polished armour-plating.
Tarpon are mainly of interest to anglers, not because they're good to eat but because they fight like Lennox Lewis and jump like Jonathan Edwards. This bunch, left to grow in the safety of a marine reserve, were probably about 1.5m long and arrogant.
I watched the tarpon for a while, but they didn't do much so I moseyed on down
the channel and stopped to watch a grouper cruising about under an overhang.
The next thing I knew, I had been shoulder-barged aside as a keen photographer moved in to capture the fish on film. It was Bill, one of the visiting divers on our boat. He had replaced his cheroot temporarily with a regulator mouthpiece and was in full-on paparazzi mode.
I moved away, wandered down to the end of the channel and rounded the spur, following a medium-sized nurse shark which headed for another overhang and flopped down dramatically as if it had been shot. Possibly it was embarrassed to have been caught in the open, exerting itself - bad for the image.
Hovering over the shark, this time I must have jumped when I felt my elbow gripped urgently. "I guess I must have startled you," Bill told me later. "I just wanted to show you the nurse shark!" Yes, thanks, very good of you.

Diving around Cayman Brac is not, mercifully, carried out in orderly groups unless that is specifically requested. You are treated as much like grown-ups as you ever are in the Caribbean and can do your own thing, subject to the usual 30m depth rule and advised time limits. The ever-helpful guides accompany you only if you need help, want things pointed out or need a photographic model. Otherwise they simply shout: "The pool is open!" after their briefing and get on with their own thing
On this occasion my own photographer buddy Zac and I meandered up and down the sandy grooves, looking for suitable subjects large or small, but wherever we went Bill always seemed to be there too, chasing the marine life down. When a green turtle appeared and we stopped to watch it, he was off like a cowboy at home on the range, harrying and hustling it until the flustered creature managed to give him the slip.
Bill could be a touch heavy-handed but he was the exception. You could hardly have wished for a more affable and competent bunch of divers among the largely American clientele favouring Cayman Brac.
I have noticed a tendency among some divers in the UK to shun destinations favoured by our transatlantic cousins. "They only go where the diving's soft," they say. My reply is this: a) for reasons of population size there are far more experienced-in-depth American divers than there are British ones, and they're often great company; and b) what's wrong with soft diving anyway - bring it on!
Welcome to the world of "valet-diving", where "making an effort" means having to raise your own elbow so that the divemaster can slip you into your BC more easily. In Cayman Brac you leave your kit outside your room when you check in at the hotel, and find it again later on one of the spacious dive boats.
When you reach the site you sit on the platform at the back of the boat while your aides prepare you, and do the same in reverse after the dive. They wash the kit later, too. I was mildly disturbed to learn that I would have to put on my own fins, but supposed that the exercise would be good for me.

"Nobody touches my kit but me," mutter some of my colleagues back at the Diver office, and of course valet-diving works only if you trust the dive crew. Here the mostly expat boys and girls from the two neighbouring dive centres were models of efficiency, though I would always check my gear anyway.
"This system helps us bigtime," said Mark, a Brit working at the Divi Tiara resort. "I've worked in different places but you don't get that thing here of everybody milling around trying to help and losing things in the process, or forgetting to turn their air on. We give everyone time to organise themselves, and they don't get in our way. It works."
If it works for him, the soft life is fine by me, though it hurts when you fall off the featherbed. As it happens, because it gets more weather Cayman Brac is seen as slightly "wild frontier" compared with Grand Cayman, where most visitors hang out. On a couple of occasions, when a surface current started running, some lazy divers were shocked at actually having to work hard to fin back to the boat. I was one of them.
If all the Earth's water ran away down some imaginary plughole, Cayman Brac would stand revealed as up there with the world's highest peaks. Out to the south it's possible to travel 3.5 miles down before hitting bottom!
There is no run-off from the island to muddy the water and damage the reef, anchoring is forbidden and fishing limited. With comparatively few divers basing themselves here, it is only the storms and occasionally horrendous hurricanes that threaten shallow coral and sometimes human well-being.

The island is ringed by white sand beaches and sharp-edged coral-limestone formations called ironshore. I had heard that when you drive around everybody waves cheerily, but when we did the tour we saw hardly a soul. It's a sleepy place with lots of guest workers to cater for visitors, and offers little of the festive culture you find elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Many of the island's inhabitants, who share only a handful of surnames, espouse stern Baptist beliefs, one of which is that dancing is the devil's work. For that reason you have to confine any post-dive merry-making pretty much to the hotels on the south-west. They are prepared to cater for the diabolical desires of tourists and organise such godless diversions as karaoke nights.
The dive centres are Divi Tiara at the hotel of the same name, and, a short walk west, Reef Divers attached to the Brac Reef Hotel. In such a small place any rivalry between the two seems friendly enough. Divi Tiara is very beach-oriented and has the best bar, while Brac Reef is a shade more sophisticated, has bigger boats and hosts the karaoke.
Diving takes place off both the north and south coasts, and when the weather is poor the leeward south side offers plenty of options, including Tarpon Reef.
Many of the guys were anxious to get out to Bloody Bay Wall whenever possible and would nag the divemasters about it. If conditions are unsettled, they are not always keen to make the 40-minute crossing to the north coast of neighbouring Little Cayman island, but we did it several times anyway.
Bloody Bay Wall's name has resonated down the centuries as the setting in which buccaneers like Blackbeard, Henry Morgan and Neal Walker (who sounds more like a college lecturer) plied their villainous trade. It sounds suitably tough and exciting and, because it offers a vertical drop of about a mile, has its own element of suspense.
Of course, Cayman Brac has its own perfectly good walls, and the actual height of a wall is academic when you're hanging out over it. But it is not so much Bloody Bay Wall itself as the quality of life in the marine park which shares its name that makes divers, and especially photographers, go a little moist.
We spent some happy dives meandering both east and west along the wall at various depths, taking it easy at Dagne's Reef and, despite its name, the Mixing Bowl.

Walls are places ripe with possibilities. Divers are torn between getting up close to examine the stuff that grows and swims on the wall itself, and keeping a look-out in the blue for those hammerheads the dive guide saw last week (why do I never arrive last week?). You always suspect that while you're busy studying a lobster in a crevice, a pod of wild dolphins is laughing behind your back.
Hawksbill turtles would amble along, not unduly disturbed by our presence (as long as Bill wasn't around). At Dagne's Reef we passed time with Ben and Jerry, a pair of groupers who clearly enjoy divers' company and gambolled around like playful puppies. Fat southern stingrays flapped across the sandy patches atop the wall as we made our way back to the boat.
But perhaps the best experience off Little Cayman was at the relatively infrequently dived Blacktip Tunnels, the most northerly site. It started with a drop onto a hardpan bottom and into the tunnel. Was that the rear end of a disturbed blacktip shark disappearing fast as I came through at about 30m, or a trick of the light? Trick, probably.
But following the dramatic wall round and gradually upwards, we came out on one of lushest expanses of coral forest I have seen, characterised by the big purple-veined sea fans seen everywhere, and here particularly bountiful. Up in the sunlight the rich colours of the soft corals and sponges were enhanced by shifting clouds of fairy basslets and anthias.
Cayman Brac's own dramatic drop-offs can hold their own with Bloody Bay Wall, however. A site on the north-west of the Brac called East Chute held special appeal, with as picturesque a little wreck as you're likely to find sitting upright on the sand in line with a coral ridge that leads down the canyon to the wall.
Small brain corals and yellow tube sponges grew on the rails of the intact crewboat, the Cayman Mariner, the result of about 16 years' undisturbed growth. Barracuda hovered overhead or patrolled the deck, while black durgons flitted like shadows inside a wheelhouse lined with brilliant red and golden sponges.

Fish-fanciers are well-served by Cayman Brac sites but the sheltered Grunt Valley seemed a particularly good place to be. Here the spur and groove pattern breaks down into something less symmetrical, with fantastically shaped heads providing refuges for squadrons of snappers, parrotfish, French angels, triggerfish and of course grunts.
Lobsters wave a cheery greeting, and macro-lovers can eyeball clownfish and gobies to their hearts' content.
I have saved till last Cayman Brac's bought-in claim to fame. Having dived a number of deliberately sunken wrecks in the past, I happily concede that at reef-dominated diving locations they can add an enjoyable extra dimension. However, deep down I still feel that you can't beat diving something that arrived by accident rather than design.
The 100m-long frigate mv Capt Keith Tibbetts was deliberately sunk not far from the East Chute drop-off as a diving attraction. Though its paint has since flaked off, generous layers of anti-fouling treatment seem to have proved only too effective, because six years later the hull and parts of the aluminium superstructure are only lightly fouled by algae and other marine growth. However, the wreck has now benefited from nature's intervention in the shape of a hurricane which last year crumpled it amidships.
The bow section lies to port and rears up over a sandbar towards the reef wall at about 25m, at an angle to the shallower stern section. It no longer looks like a Disney wreck so much as a casualty, and that's what we like to see!
I wasn't bothered about the relative lack of marine growth because there's hardly a shortage of that off Cayman Brac. As a spectacle and diver's playground, the Keith Tibbetts, generally referred to as the "365 Destroyer", is good stuff, and it's partly that extraordinary visibility that makes it so.
Just hang off the bow and look along the twisted line of this great frig-off frigate, with its foredeck guns pointing out towards the deep Caribbean.

The damage has not only made the wreck more picturesque but has opened up more entry and exit points around the bridge and into the upper decks, allowing access to places where penetration would previously have been discouraged, such as the lower decks and now-exposed engine room.
On our dive-boat was a tiny couple from America's Deep South, like Hollywood stars perfectly modelled in miniature and clearly designed by nature for wreck penetration. Theydisappeared into the 365 like rats up a drainpipe!
This is your chance to explore what was once part of the USSR's Atlantic Fleet, operating out of nearby Cuba. The 365 could nip about at more than 60 knots and bristled with weaponry. Its calling cards are the twin 76mm cannon protruding from the deck turrets, and treated by grouper, barracuda and sergeant-majors as home furnishings.
Between the various walls, the 365 and Cayman Brac's well-kept reef gardens, there should be enough to keep most divers happy here for at least a week, though most people combine a visit here with a stay on Grand Cayman.
This is partly because international flights to and from that island, 90 miles away, don't necessarily coincide with internal onward flights to the Brac. For that reason I had to catch the only flight back to Grand Cayman early one morning and spend a day there before boarding the plane back to London, effectively forfeiting a day's diving.
There's plenty to do on Grand Cayman - that's another story - and it certainly bustles after a week on the Brac, but bear in mind the business of connections when arranging your visit.


Typically intricate coral formations at Blacktip Tunnel and Greenhouse Reef




a nurse shark gets some grooming


the jetty at Divi Tiara





One of the fish that gives Tarpon Reef its name


characteristic yellow tube sponges


in the groove at Greenhouse Reef


A hawksbill turtle


the big guns on the foredeck of the Russian frigate 365


brain coral


Superstructure of the 365 wreck


schoolmaster snapper


whip corals


snappers and grunts at Grunt Valley

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE Flights from London Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic via Miami or BA to Grand Cayman, connecting to Cayman Brac with Cayman Airways. Either way, be prepared for long waits between connections.
DIVING & ACCOMODATION: Steve Weinman stayed at the Divi Tiara Beach Resort (www.diviresorts.com), diving with the Divi Tiara Dive Centre. He then moved to the Brac Reef Beach Resort (www.bracreef.com) and Reef Divers
WHEN TO GO: Water temperature is about 28°C all year round and in summer the air can get hot and humid, up to 40°C. Summer is low season and there is a hurricane risk in autumn.
MONEY: The Philippines peso, credit cards widely accepted.
COST: Boat hire costs around £20 per day.
COSTS: A seven-night trip to Cayman Brac including flights and accommodation at either resort costs £840 per person, plus £30 a day for half-board. Three dives a day cost £62.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Cayman Islands Tourism, 020 7491 7771, www.caymanislands.co.uk

FOREVER BLOWING BUBBLES


Craig Burhart (above), an old hand on the Reef Divers dive team in Cayman Brac and much involved with BSAC schools in the USA in the past, finds himself in demand among professional photographers for his underwater modelling skills.

Not least among Craig's talents is that he has elevated the art of bubble-ring blowing to new levels of refinement. And this talent, which has no useful purpose other than to entertain. seems to encapsulate the relaxed Brac approach to diving.

A lot of divemasters get good at bubble-rings, but Craig could write the book - he all but makes animal shapes. So what's the secret? "It's all in how you use your tongue," says Craig. Oh, yes? "The first one I saw was in Grand Cayman, blown by a old salty divemaster on my first trip down there as an Open Water diver.

"It took me about 2000 dives to get where I could blow them at will. It's an advanced skill and shouldn't be tried by anyone without precise buoyancy because of the risk of holding your breath while blowing the bubble. Don't try this at home, kids!" Nominations for other great bubble-blowers are welcome...