MY FIRST REACTION is one of annoyance. It doesn’t really come across in hand signals, but my buddy gets the gist of my frustrated thoughts: “Patrick, I am not interested in a black coral bush. I am shooting macro!”
“Bush“ seems to be underselling it – this is a mighty black coral tree. But its impressive size makes it even less suited to my lens.
I am diving a site called the Hanging Gardens Of Babylon with the vastly experienced Patrick Weir of Deep Blue Divers. The site is in a remote area of Grand Cayman’s precipitous north wall, but we’ve raced out here in its small, speedy Boston Whaler dive-boat.
Deep Blue Divers specialises in small groups; there are just four of us today.
For some, Cayman still has a reputation for monster dive-boats, crowding 20 divers or more on the same site. This misconception is a relic of the 1980s and ’90s. Smaller companies dominate today, with groups usually maxed out at a dozen, and many operators setting a limit in single figures.
Babylon is one of my choice spots when weather permits the long boat ride.
The vertical wall reaches up to just 9m from the surface, and a large pinnacle sits alongside the drop-off, but my favourite spot is a little deeper, in the canyon between pinnacle and wall.
Here light streams down from above, picking out colourful sponges or silhouetting the intricate shapes of black coral bushes and wire corals that hang from both sides as you glide between them.
Patrick is still beckoning me to the black coral. There are loads of black coral bushes in here. “Why is he so keen on that one” I wonder.
As I approach, it dawns on me that I should not have doubted him. He had spotted my camera’s flat port and has come up trumps with a pair of tiny wire coral shrimps nestled in this huge bush.
Photographers usually undertake the convoluted travel to South-east Asia for critters like these, rather than the shorter, baggage-friendly and direct BA flight that brought me to Cayman.
The Caribbean’s underwater scenery is widely lauded, but this dive is showing me that it offers many analogous critter species to the exotic East.

WE GO ON TO FIND a dozen of these tiny shrimps, plus five other shrimp species, including the rarely seen whitefoot shrimp. This makes its home in the aptly named touch-me-not sponge.
We also find several colonies of the reef’s cheekiest chappies, the secretary blennies, waggling about from their holes as if someone inside is tickling them. But for me, the highlight is a pair of rare red clingfish living together on a deepwater seafan.
Babylon is rightly celebrated as a breathtaking wide-angle dive, with impressive formations of corals, seafans and sponges hanging out from the wall into brilliantly blue water.
Down the years, from this exact spot I have seen squadrons of eagle rays and several Caribbean reef sharks, been buzzed by a great hammerhead and, on every dive I can remember here, at least someone has been befriended by a hawksbill turtle.
But rather like a microcosm of the entire Grand Cayman diving experience, it is wise not to be too hasty in categorising the place.
Today, I’m left in no doubt that one of Grand Cayman’s most famous wall dives is also a first-class macro dive. Our critter list would be considered a healthy haul in remote Indonesia.
As a reader of DIVER, it’s probably safe to assume that you’ve heard of Grand Cayman, so I’ll merely skim the basics: it’s a British Overseas Territory and offshore banking centre, a 22-mile-long island in the open Caribbean south of Cuba, with year-round clear, warm waters and benign diving conditions.
For most people, Grand Cayman’s underwater genetic code is most evident when visiting famous sites on the west side. Names like Big Tunnels, Aquarium, Royal Palm’s Ledge, Little Tunnels, Trinity Caves and many more seem as well known to divers as those of Hass, Cousteau, Eaton and the others who have been inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall Of Fame – which is also based here.

TODAY I AM AT ORANGE CANYON with Off The Wall Divers. The top of the wall is at 15m and is cut with deep grooves. The sides of these gullies are plastered with colour, including many impressive orange elephant ear sponges, which give the site its name.
As I drop through the clear water I marvel as the colour and life intensifies, reaching a crescendo as the gullies meet the wall. A beautiful queen angelfish is browsing on the sponges and, dare I say it, looks a little dowdy by comparison to the surroundings.
The fish scurries off at my approach, clearly not in the mood to pose today.
Orange Canyon is a famous site, but the next day Captain Tom Shropshire takes us to a nearby spot called Inbetween, a name I’ve not logged before, but I enjoy it just as much.
The edge of the wall is a similar riot of sponges and seafans, and we encounter two hawksbill turtles.
The island has long had the policy of putting in new moorings regularly and resting classic sites. Both new and established have their appeal, but I often find that a virgin site can be more impressive than its famous neighbours.

THERE ARE FEW BETTER places to watch the sunset than on Seven Mile Beach, which faces due west. Except, perhaps, for the dive-boat on which I’m standing, moored up a few hundred metres offshore. I drink in the last warm rays and pull on my wetsuit for a night dive on the Oro Verde wreck.
Contrary to the stories you may hear in dive briefings, the OV was sunk as an attraction for divers. That doesn’t stop Colin, the English dive-guide, teasing the mainly American divers by telling them that she was running marijuana (or green gold) and caught fire and
sank, but not before engulfing the beach in thick smoke and creating lots of happy tourists. Pizza sales were up 200% that evening!
It’s almost completely broken up now, and for a wreck dive most people bypass it and head straight to the younger, much larger Kittiwake. But don’t discount the OV, it still thrills with marine life, especially at night.
A lobster is already scrambling over the wreck as I descend. I’m not sure why it wants to climb so high. Then I find a pair of banded cleaner shrimps, beneath a fold of metal. The wreckage creates so many hiding holes that it always seems to have far more invertebrate life than the nearby reef.
I see a diver’s torch flashing wildly from side to side and swim towards it.
I find Colin playing with a bright blue octopus, which he tells me afterwards was attracted out of its den by the warmth of his hands.
The end of the dive holds a final treat as, tucked beneath a large sheet of metal, two large rainbow parrotfish are revealed. I take a couple of pictures and leave them snoozing.

THE EAST END OF THE ISLAND is much less developed, and has true Caribbean character. I am out with Ocean Frontiers, and we start off at Jack Mckenny’s Canyons, a dramatic wall site less than five minutes’ boat ride from the shop.
Cayman is famed for beautiful blue water and dramatic walls, but this site adds a twist. The top of the wall is criss-crossed with deep canyons, which mean that you get three times as much vertical surface to enjoy.
The highlight of our dive are a pair of Caribbean reef sharks that circle the group. I duck behind a small buddy and try to breathe as lightly as possible, and I am rewarded by a close pass.
For our second dive we’re sampling the classic three-dimensional delight that is Snapper Hole. Like most dive-site names, it’s something of a misnomer.
Not for the snappers, because there are loads of schoolmaster snappers here, but for the reef. This site isn’t just one hole; the reef is more like a chunk of Swiss cheese with seemingly inexhaustible swimthroughs to explore.
Our experienced captain, Sean Crowthers from Canada, reminds us that the result is three dives in one: a mini-wall from 4-20m, caverns and canyons, and a shallow reef-top covered in shoals of fish.

GRAND CAYMAN HAS ALWAYS been an innovator on the diving scene, ever since Bob Soto opened his recreational dive centre in 1957, one of the first in the world.
And ever since, diving has been big business, with dive shops keen to adopt and often set the trends, something that keeps the dive experience cutting edge.
For many years I dived on nitrox in Grand Cayman when it just wasn’t available anywhere else on my travels, and very sparsely at home in the UK.
Today there is excellent support for technical and rebreather diving, and there are even professional freediving courses. Many people come here to train, with courses running from Open Water Diver right up to instructor and technical specialities. Dive centres continue to innovate.
But perhaps the best example of the reinvestment and reinvention of Cayman diving is my final dive site.
The USS Kittiwake is an ex-submarine rescue vessel, and is the only US navy ship to have been sunk outside US waters as an artificial reef.
It is the perfect length for a dive, yet its interesting interior provides more than enough entertainment for many dives of exploration. It has quickly become a hugely popular dive attraction, and is maturing nicely.
I dived the Kittiwake when it first went down in January 2011, but now after two years under water I am really surprised how much it’s changed. It feels like a real wreck now, and a much better dive.
The marine life has really moved in. Almost immediately it attracted a large school of horse-eye jack, but now the decks are a great place to see giant hogfish, which always seem common on the wreck.
Squirrelfish and soldierfish are moving in inside and snappers hang in the shadows. A school of silversides has been resident since last summer and is usually being worked by a gang of predatory bar jack.
The covered winches on the rear deck have become a cleaning station, and you’ll regularly see a large grouper in residence enjoying a brush-up.
And this is what keeps me coming back to Cayman. The dive industry is always looking for ways to improve what it offers to its customers, both in and out of the water.
So while the DNA of clear, blue water, dramatic walls and plentiful marine life endures, thanks to the innovation of the island’s dive industry the Grand Cayman diving experience remains as diverse and fresh as ever.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Fly direct from London Heathrow with BA.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Deep Blue Divers, www.deepbluedivers cayman.com. Off The Wall Divers, www.grandcaymandive.com. Ocean Frontiers, www.oceanfrontiers.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round, but bear in mind that April-June is the rainy season.
MONEY Cayman Islands dollar.
PRICES Ultimate Diving offers a package including flights, seven nights room-only at Compass Point Dive Resort, daily two-tank dives with Ocean Frontiers, car hire, a one-night buffet and tour of Stingray City from £1699 for April/May departures. In these months it is offering 10% off Cayman Islands holidays, www.ultimatediving.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION www.caymanislands.co.uk