AS I PEERED OVER THE PRECIPICE INTO the abyss, for a split-second I felt like dumping my air and disappearing down into the darkness.
For me, wall-diving is a mixture of fear and exhilaration. It’s the ultimate feeling of “flying” under water. My plan was to see whether the classy Cayman Islands lived up to its reputation as a top wall-diving destination.
I was joined by fellow-divers Laura, Bex and Katy on my island-hopping round tour. We spent the first few days on Grand Cayman, then flew to Cayman Brac before ending up on Little Cayman.
Laura had booked us into the Westin Casuarina Resort, located on Seven Mile Beach in George Town. This was a nice central location for most of the local attractions.
We were diving with Dive Tech, located at the north end of Grand Cayman and not named by chance, because it was heavily into tekkie stuff, including rebreathers. Most of the dive-guides seemed to be middle-aged women, or was I just imagining it
Dive Tech had two custom dive-boats and offered the standard two-tank morning and one-tank afternoon dive schedule. There was also a nice shore dive right off the jetty.
Our dive-guide, Brit Sally Caslow, claimed that there were was a dive-site for every day of the year around the islands, so divers rarely had to do the same one twice.
Predatory lionfish are a public enemy in the Caribbean these days, and Art Hintze from Australia took me on a lionfish hunt at a new site called Dungeons Delight. She managed to bag a couple of fair-sized specimens hiding under the deeper overhangs.
The guides didn’t seem to venture far from the moorings. They just did a wide circle, ending back under the boat after 30 minutes. We could then swim around the mooring line for 15 minutes before they called time.
The morning two-tanker normally consisted of a deeper wall followed by a shallow reef. After Dungeon’s Delight the second site, Roundabout, yielded a turtle, an eagle ray and a shoal of jack.
Arie Barendrecht, owner of Cobalt Coast Resort (part of the same complex as Dive Tech) had organised a lionfish cook-out. We were all shown how to clean and prepare a lionfish, and I was surprised at the size of the two “steaks” that came from one medium-sized fish.
Arie’s chef prepared a whole meal from lionfish, and it did taste very good.

HIRING A CAR turned out to be a wise move (driving is on the left, as in the UK) because Grand Cayman has hundreds of high-quality bars and restaurants. I didn’t have a bad meal throughout my 10-day trip.
The Lighthouse restaurant at the east end of the island is the perfect venue for a romantic candlelit evening. The staff wear nautical uniforms, and the tables look out over the sea.
There are plenty of excursions to enjoy on non-diving days, including the Turtle Farm, Blue Iguanas and a place called Hell. At Cathy Church’s photo centre I was amazed to see hundreds of new compact cameras and expensive DSLRs stacked on the helves. Underwater photography is a booming business!
The next day, we headed to the east end of the island to dive with Ocean Frontiers at Stingray City. Debbie briefed us on the dos and don’ts on our way out. Feeding was restricted to two small pots of squid-bits per dive.
Only two other boats were tied up at the moorings, but during peak cruise-ship season more than 300 people can be snorkelling around the rays.
I followed Debbie to the seabed, just a few metres below. We were instantly mobbed by eight or nine sting rays (some with tails missing) and a blind green moray eel, as hundreds of stripy sergeant-majors and yellow-tail snapper fought for the tidbits. Apparently on a good day there can be hundreds of circling sting rays.
Debbie had told us to be careful, as the boisterous rays have been known to latch on and give divers a nasty “hickey”. I found the experience highly over-rated – nothing like what I expected. While I enjoyed seeing the sting rays, it all seemed very plastic.
Within minutes of landing on the Brac we had cleared customs, retrieved our bags and were itching to set off into the wild.
Laura had commandeered an SUV from the local hire-car company. It looked uncannily like the Mystery Machine in Scooby-Doo. With our gear stowed aboard, we made tracks for the Brac Reef Resort, just five minutes down the road. On an island only 14 miles long and two miles wide, nothing is very far away.

BRAC REEF BEACH resort is a chilled diver hang-out. On first glance, the newly refurbished resort reminded me of a military barracks. The rectangular accommodation blocks were fronted by a swimming pool, open-sided bar and a white sandy beach. The “eat as much as you want” buffet was pretty good, though don’t expect Michelin standard.
My room was a nice comfy size, with fridge, TV, air-con, shower big enough for four, and a balcony.
Depending on the time of the year, the dive centre can get very busy, and it’s not unusual to have two full boats every day. The set-up worked extremely well, and was very slick and professional.
Most people were there to eat, sleep, dive and perhaps have a beer or two in the evening – there’s not much else to do on the island.
Most of the clientele seemed to be middle-aged-to-elderly Americans and I thought the dive centre was overly anal about dive profiles and safety standards, but I guess this is understandable and has to be tolerated.
Brit dive guide Ian Fox said that our first dive-site was 15 minutes’ boat-ride away, but it took all of a minute to get there by my watch – in fact, I could still see the dive centre.
Just for a change, we went for a scenic wall dive. There was a nice swimthrough at 30m (or should I say 100ft), its entrance covered in huge barrel sponges.
On the way back up we paused by an overhang crowded with lionfish. Some, it seemed, had managed to survive the ongoing “cleansing” operation.

LATER I BUMPED INTO PHOTO-JOURNALIST Lawson Wood at the bar. Lawson owns a house on Cayman Brac and often spends winter holed up on the island. He knows the dive-sites very well.
I had been a little disappointed with the amount of marine life on show, but according to Lawson there were plenty of sites at the lesser-dived north-east point that were full of fish.
My main reason for visiting the Brac was to see the mv Keith Tibbetts (formerly Patrol Boat 356), the 100m Russian missile frigate sunk as a diver attraction in 1996.
I was hoping to get some “clean” underwater shots, but the popular wreck site reminded me of Piccadilly Circus on a Monday morning.
Divers were flitting everywhere, and no one gave diddly-squat about anyone else, especially photographers.
I had just set up a wide-angle shot by the bow and was taking the picture when a guy swam in front of me, kicking up sand with his fins. Unbelievably rude.
The bow-deck gun made a nice composition, with plenty of yellow tube sponges encrusted over the barrels. Having been told that there were two swim-through routes, I found the first through a doorway behind the bow gun. This led down a 30m-long corridor and opened out onto a debris field.
A number of major hurricanes over the years have eventually broken the wreck in two.
I never did find the second swim-through by the bridge that led down into the engine-room. The bow is the deepest point at 25m, and then it gets gradually shallower towards the stern.
I finished my dive around the stern-deck gun and by the comms tower.
There was plenty of resident fish life, including queen angelfish and a turtle.
I noticed that a hookah-type system (cylinder onboard with a 5m hose dangling under water and held down by a lead weight) was used as an emergency air supply by all the Cayman island dive operators. Watch out, because the weight bobs up and down in choppy weather.
I managed to get smacked on the top of my head while on a safety stop.
When I went back to the Tibbetts with operations manager Mick Maher and Brac-born divemaster Darryl Walton, we virtually had it to ourselves.
What a difference! Darryl posed for me by the bow and both deck guns.
I understand that Brac Reef has a business to run, so thanks very much for making the extra effort on my behalf.
According to Lawson, “most of the dive sites, including the wreck, are accessible as shore dives”.
Little Cayman is just a five-minute flight from the Brac. Unfortunately, there is no ferry service covering the five-mile stretch between the islands, as this would really help with divers’ fly/no fly obligations.
At 10 miles long and one mile wide, Little Cayman is the smallest and least inhabited of the three islands, with some 180 residents. Strange but true: the first two cars to be imported had a head-on collision. Work that out!
Four dives centres and six dive-boats operate on the island. We stayed at the Little Cayman Beach Resort which, with 30 rooms and a number of beachside condominiums, is far the biggest resort.
It has a small swimming pool and an open-sided bar inside the “courtyard” area facing the beach. Food again is buffet-style. The bar had a pleasant atmosphere, and karaoke night seemed to bring in the crowds.
We were booked into one of the palatial condos, with three bedrooms and en-suites, a big kitchen/diner/living room with balcony and a swimming pool – ideal for groups.
As expected, the dive centre and staff were very professional. Checking in, kit distribution, briefings, guiding and overall service couldn’t be faulted. Laura from York made sure we all understood the ropes before jumping aboard.
Again, the clientele seemed to be on the mature side.

OUR FIRST DIVE ON BLOODY BAY Wall lived up to all my expectations. This was the most spectacular and dramatic wall I have ever dived.
The wall was absolutely vertical, no slight slope or deviation, just a straight cut going all the way down 1.3 miles or so into the blue and beyond. We went east, following the wall on our left. At least navigation is pretty simple – it’s difficult to get lost on a wall dive.
A 2- or 3-year-old hawksbill turtle appeared from the blue and swam straight at us. We spent the next few minutes swimming in circles, making eyes at each other. Within forearm distance, the turtle seemed totally unfazed by our noisy bubbles.
There seem to be conflicting stories about how the wall was named.
Gladys Howard, owner of Pirates Point Resort, said that a number of buccaneering ships had been ambushed by the British, and that the sea had turned red with their blood.
A less exciting theory is that rainwater running off the clay soil turned the sea a reddish-brown colour. Whatever the truth, it’s a great name.
Gladys, still diving at 78, is a character. Her cosy 11-room hotel (mostly no air-con) always seemed to be full, and 80% of the guests were repeaters.
I loved her restaurant theme nights, especially the Tex-Mex and Sushi/Tuna. Gladys focuses on customer service, and there were normally six instructor/ guides to every 20 divers on her boat.

OUR FAREWELL DIVE was at Laura’s favourite site, Grand Wall West,
where National Geographic did its latest panoramic photo-shoot (most resorts had this shot hanging in their lobbies).
The sponges were the best I had seen. I turned to find a Nassau grouper staring me right in the face. In fact it was almost touching my nose, and for a minute I was too taken aback to take its picture.
When I did react, the grouper was so close that I couldn’t get my wide-angle lens to autofocus. Eventually it became more interested in my buddy Bex, so I had time to fire off a few shots.
Dottie, our dive guide, said that this particular grouper was a little crazy, and had recently bitten a diver on the ear. But we had no problems, and I also saw another couple of divers interacting with the grouper, and they were fine.
Looked at overall, there was more marine-life interaction in the Cayman Islands than I had experienced anywhere else in the Caribbean.
Turtle, grouper and sting ray encounters were extremely upfront and personal. The sheer vertical drop-offs were awash with colourful sponges of different shapes and sizes, and there is always the possibility of sighting big predators patrolling in the outer blue.
Most of the time, I managed to stay away from the circus. If they went right, I took evasive action and went left.
Without excess bubbling, we saw a lot more marine life swimming by – which made my wall-to-wall experience even more enjoyable.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: BA flights from UK.
DIVING: GRAND CAYMAN: Deep Blue Divers, www.deepbluediverscayman.com; Dive Tech, www.divetech.com; Ocean Frontiers, www.oceanfrontiers.com; Red Sail Sports, www.redsailcayman. com; CAYMAN BRAC: Brac Reef Divers, www.bracreef.com. LITTLE CAYMAN: Reef Divers, www.littlecayman.com
ACCOMMODATION: GRAND CAYMAN: Cobalt Coast,
www.cobaltcoast.com. Westin Casuarina Resort, www.westin.com/casuarina. CAYMAN BRAC: Brac Reef Resort, www. bracreef.com. LITTLE CAYMAN: Little Cayman Beach Resort, www.littlecayman.com. Pirates Point, www.piratespointresort.com
WHEN TO GO: Stuart visited in July (wet season), which was busy, and this January (dry season), when it was very quiet!
MONEY: Cayman islands dollars or US dollars.
PRICES: Barefoot Traveller offers a two-week package this summer including flights, transfers, six nights with breakfast and 10 dives on Grand Cayman, and four nights’ half-board with six dives each on both Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, all two sharing, for £2668, www. barefoot-traveller.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.caymanislands.ky