Do you enjoy being smothered? A southern sting ray will give divers plenty of TLC in the hope of being fed.

I DECIDED TO TREAT IT AS AN EXTENDED LUNCH-BREAK. The BA flight out of Gatwick doesn't connect with the inter-island hop to Little Cayman, so I was bound to spend one night on Grand Cayman. Why not make it two nights, and go feed the sting rays, like a good little tourist?
The beast in question is the southern sting ray. It's a rhomboid shape with no recognisable head, and with eyes and mouth on opposite surfaces, so it can't see what it's eating (unlike the eagle ray, which has a distinctive pointy face, like a light aircraft.) It roots about in the sand for crabs and shellfish, then sucks them dry with one powerful slurp. A mouth like that can do a lot of mischief, and most of us on the boat collected hickeys.

You need to be positively weighted, rest firmly on the seabed, and clutch the bait of chopped squid at arms' length. That way, when the rays come flapping out of the green gloom, there's a chance of controlling the interaction, instead of being hustled or wrapped around like the chicken nugget in a roti.
The other fish hunt by sight and will snap at any visible bait and adjacent fingers, but the sting ray has to sniff.
Be careful what else you touch: any hint of squid on your backside and you'll gain a new understanding of the term "bottom-feeder."
And they'll bully, given the chance. If the rays perceive anyone as the weakest link in the circle of divers, giving up the bait too readily, they'll gang up on that person. Snorkels, they have learned, are a lever to release food - give it a crank, the person's mask floods, and out pops the goody.
A great laugh, but half an hour of this is enough, like feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

Next day it is onwards to Little Cayman, via Island Airways, which flies two planes: the big one and the little one. As it was Saturday, with a lot of tourists
transferring, they flew both and put me in the big plane. This seats 20, or would have done if the rear wasn't piled with luggage. I doubt whether the little one fits eight.
The airport has a fire truck that looks box-new and is bigger than the rest of the terminal shack; an iguana lives beneath it and crawls out to greet arrivals.
Little Cayman inland is mostly swamp and boondocks, with a scattering of properties along the coastal lane (think North Uist with mangroves instead of peat). In the evenings the midges can be a pest, so air-conditioning is essential.
By night, various critters slide out of the swamp towards your sleeping body, but usually the cats get them before they can take up residence in your dive boots.
I stayed at Little Cayman Beach Resort, on half-board (more than enough food: I don't know how anyone ate lunch) and three dives a day.
The hotel is of a good standard. The clientele were virtually all from the USA; I seemed to be in a deprived minority, in that I hadn't flown over in my own private plane.
However, the airstrip is in rough condition and some of these aircraft sustained damage; indeed, one was grounded and its owners had to return home by scheduled flight. Guys, I feel your pain.

Mornings the boats head for the north side of the island into Bloody Bay, for a two-tank dive along the wall. The term "wall" is so freely applied to any vertical underwater surface that the first-timer is quite unprepared for the enormity of the Great Wall of the Caymans.
From the edge of the reef at about 10m depth, it plummets for over a mile into the ocean abyss. Imagine a walking tour of the Grand Canyon where you were free to stroll over the edge, and soar across ledges and pinnacles. Various beasties cling to the wall, waving their stingy bits, or swim in a cloud near its top, gulping little bits of gloop.
The "signature" beastie here is the barrel sponge, like a cement-mixer that has taken LSD, turned purple-pink and gone a bit woozy.
Sharks and groupers come swooping out of the blue to carry the smaller fry away, while barracuda lurk beneath the boats and look criminal.
The reef edge is eroded into gullies, sand chutes and tunnels where you can swim through and bob out onto the wall face. Closer to shore are boulevards of shallow coral, sand and hard pan where we would find lobsters, sting rays and turtles: ideal for off-gassing and the afternoon one-tank dives.

I particularly enjoyed the hard pan areas for their surreal New Mexico vistas of sea fans, feathers and whips, as if global warming had suddenly inundated the High Chaparral.
Indeed the terrain strongly suggested a drowned beach, formed in the last Ice Age when sea levels were much lower.
Formerly, boat trips were run across to Cayman Brac island to dive the former Soviet warship Keith Tibbetts, but alas, this deliberate (and expensive) sinking has gone sour. The mainly aluminium structure of this former Soviet warship is fast-corroding and unstable, and hasn't exactly enhanced the reef as hoped.
The wreck is unsightly, unstable, and dive boats don't visit. There could be a lesson here for similar projects.
I had five days of diving on Cayman Brac, plus a non-diving day midweek when I cycled round the island. It's great if you like obscure birds standing in muddy lagoons. Otherwise, little to see, just boondocks and overgrown lots with optimistic realtors' signs.

Many of the shallow dive areas are good for snorkelling from a boat, but areas accessible from shore tended to be sandy with little coral or fish life (one exception is at the north end of Olivine Kirk Road; this would also make a good shore dive.)
The area fronting the hotel is typical, shallow sandy terrain with eel-grass.
So I waded in one evening with low expectations and no camera, and immediately two big tarpon came up to investigate. And then, by the jetty, in barely a metre of water, three sharks turned up, attracted by discarded bait. The largest was about my size and his buddies not much smaller.
We orbited each other, trying to remember who outranked whom in the food chain, and which one of us was the bottom-feeder.


The miniature airport at Little Cayman


Barracuda


Cayman Brac's Wilderness Reef


Snapper and grunt


A Nassau grouper on Bloody Bay Wall

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE BA flies from Gatwick via Nassau and several US airlines fly via Miami to Grand Cayman. There is a strict 20kg baggage limit on the inter-island hop.

DIVING & ACCOMODATION:Harlequin Worldwide Travel can arrange trips, with one night on Grand Cayman and the rest staying at Little Cayman Beach Resort. Seven nights costs £1019, 14 nights £1431. These prices are room only - add £30 a day for half-board. You pay £58 a day for a two-tank morning and a single afternoon dive. Call 01708 850330, or visit www.harlequin-worldwide.co.uk

WHEN TO GO:Diving is year-round but summer is considered low season and autumn carries a hurricane risk. A 3mm suit is OK but a semi-dry longjohn could be handy.

FURTHER INFORMATION:Cayman Islands Dept of Tourism, 020 7491 7771, www.divecayman.ky