Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sister Islands Sojourn

While staring down at my passport, the customs agent at Grand Cayman (airport code GCM) asked, "What is the purpose of your visit?"  "Vacation" I replied.  "Did you bring any of your cares and troubles with you?"  A smile crept onto his face.  "No, sir." said I.  He stamped my passport, snapped it closed and returning it to me said, "Welcome back to the Cayman Islands!"  On my previous three visits at this point in the trip I stepped outside of this delightfully small airport and headed to my hotel but not this trip.  I was heading deeper into this small island chain.  I was heading to the "Sister Islands".
The Caymans are a British overseas territory located west-northwest of Jamaica and south of Cuba.  The islands were colonized by the British from Jamaica in the 18th and 19th centuries and were administered from Jamaica.  They gained their independence in 1962.  The three islands in the chain are Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac (airport code CYB) and Little Cayman (airport code LYB).  Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are known as the Sister Islands and are located about 100 miles and 85 miles respectively from Grand Cayman.  Virtually all tourist movement between Grand Cayman and the Sister Islands is via air transit so I turned from the customs booth back into the airport and checked in for my inter island flights.

Cayman Airways Express
Cayman Airways inter island flights are via De Havilland 6 Twin Otter turboprop aircraft
Aboard Cayman Airways Express KX 4424 for the 40 minute flight from Grand Cayman to Cayman Brac with continuing service to Little Cayman, I enjoyed a wonderful view of the crystal blue water from our 7,500-foot altitude.  I could easily determine our altitude because from my seat I could plainly read the altimeter in the cockpit through the open door.  I had checked in online and selected a seat on the right side of the aircraft since I knew that would offer a southward view as we flew east.  However, as I boarded the aircraft, all thought of using one's reserved seat were abandoned as individuals seemed to take whichever seat they wished and none of the 17 seats were marked anyway.  Looking south from altitude, you could see a distinct line where the lighter blue sea gave way to inky dark blue waters.

Ask divers why they come to the Caymans and most will say just two words: "the walls."  Like most islands, the depths increase at a predictable rate as you head out to sea from shore but in the Caymans the bottom then drops off very sharply to almost unimaginable depths.  These sudden and dramatic drop-offs are in the form of virtually vertical coral and sponge covered walls that plunge thousands of feet.  In addition to being fascinating geography for underwater explorers, these areas between the deep sea and shallower reefs are zones where reefs featuring life on a smaller scale give way to deep waters inhabited by some of the sea's larger critters.

About 15 minutes into the flight the pilot addressed the passengers to advise that there was a minor schedule change.  We would be stopping first at Little Cayman and then the flight would continue on to Cayman Brac.  Those of us on the flight who were heading to Little Cayman would be arriving a little ahead of schedule.

As I had watched my fellow passengers board in Grand Cayman and as I looked around the cabin of the Twin Otter, it was plain that virtually all the passengers were traveling for a dive vacation.  The porous nature of the limestone and basalt rocks forming the uppermost layers of the Caymans and the lack of mountains or even hills mean that the Caymans do not feature any rivers, the drainage of which would add particulate to the surrounding sea.  This lack of runoff means that the waters surrounding the Caymans are very clear.

Walls + interesting marine life + clear water = happy scuba divers

The Caymans are the tops of a massive underwater mountain range associated with what is called the Cayman Ridge.  This mountain range stretches from Cuba's Sierra Maestra to the Gulf of Honduras and the Misteriosa Bank near Belize.  This area of the earth's crust has been pushed up as the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates grind against one another.  South of the Cayman chain lies an underwater feature known as the Cayman Trough the maximum depth of which is 25,217 feet (7,686 meters).  You won't find deeper water anywhere else in the Caribbean Sea.

Little Cayman's Edward Bodden Airport is located at the south end of the island and is comprised of a small, 2-room building adjacent to the island's fire station.  The 3,311 foot paved runway (4 feet above sea level) runs parallel to one of the island's roads with nothing more than a strip of grass separating the runway and road.  Airport usage is restricted to daytime since it is not lighted.  After we landed, a number of happy divers including yours truly deplaned to begin a diving holiday and a few glum looking folks boarded as their holiday was evidently ending.  I plucked my luggage off of the cart that brought it over to the terminal and found a patch of shade.  The airport attendant asked me where I was staying and I replied, "Pirate's Point."  He was kind enough to give them a call and in less than five minutes Michelle was there to greet me and to drive me to the resort.  This whole trip came about when my dive shop, DJ's Scuba Locker, offered a trip to Cayman Brac.  I was eager to explore the diving surrounding both of the Sister Islands but all trips I had seen offered a week on one or the other.  My solution was to arrange a week on my own on Little Cayman and then to join the DJ's trip to Cayman Brac.

I'm a dedicated reader of Undercurrent, a newsletter and online review of diving and diving destinations, resorts, scuba charters and live-aboard scuba boats.  When the prospect of visiting Little Cayman came up, there was really only one place I contemplated staying and that was Pirate's Point Resort.  Texan Gladys Howard bought the place a little more than 25 years ago and has carefully spent the interim years building it into a place that carries near legend status among divers, many of whom return year after year.  She is an award winning cookbook author and has studied with renowned chefs.  This is no loosey-goosey dive resort staffed by interns and college kids.  Many of her staff of about 9 have been with her for years and Gladys runs the place her way.

Michelle and I pulled into the resort and she walked me to my room (#2) located in one of a few small one-floor buildings on the property.  The room had a ceramic tile floor, queen size bed, a glass-topped table with two side chairs, a chest of drawers and a place to hang items.  The bathroom had a tiny shower stall.  Running the air conditioning is something you do while in the room, not while you are away.  Some of the resort's 11 rooms are closer to the water and catch more of the ocean breezes and are consequently not air conditioned.  Consider whether you want to reserve an air conditioned unit if you go.  I was there in early June and temperatures were in the mid to high 80's with high humidity.  As I learned over the next few days, a couple of the guests in non-air conditioned rooms had some uncomfortable nights, despite ocean breezes and strategically placed fans.  The rooms do not feature TVs or telephones.  You might think that the screen in the bar is a TV.  Nope, it's a monitor for playing movies or for watching divers' videos or viewing pictures.  My Verizon phone had no cell coverage here.  There is free wi-fi in the bar area and a computer for those who wish to check e-mail.

Michelle explained to me that they misplaced the keys to the rooms years ago.  There was a knob lock on the inside of my room and I locked the door the first night but the lock would not open the following morning without plenty of finesse on my part so I maintained an unlocked door policy for the balance of my stay and never had a problem.  I kicked off my Keens and left the sandals on a mat by the door.  After settling in I walked a short distance to the main building for the resort that consists of the front office, kitchen, dining room and bar.

When I made my reservation eight months before my arrival, I had sent a check for half the amount of the stay to the resort's business office in Texas.  I received a receipt along with a handwritten note from Gladys saying how wonderful the diving was in June and thanking me for making the booking.  When I heard nothing more regarding the payment of the balance, I e-mailed the resort a few weeks before my arrival.  I received a speedy reply confirming my stay and advising that the balance of the cost would be collected at the conclusion of my stay.  I could pay by credit card but they preferred a check if possible.  I arrived with a check in my luggage and they happily accepted it just before I departed without ever asking for credit card information.
Entrance to Pirate's Point office

As I explored this 7-acre property, I met Jeff the resort's chef.  He welcomed me, thanked me for coming and asked about any food allergies or concerns I might have.  The place is rather renowned for the food but I had no idea just what great dishes awaited me.  Michelle showed me the bar with its unique artwork supplied by guests over the years.  An annual contest is held where flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the beach is used to create art.  Winning entries adorn every space in the bar.  All beverages were included in the cost of my stay since I had booked the dive package for a week.  The bar was self-service and appeared well stocked.  There are many flowering plants throughout the property.
The Pirate's Point bar, featuring artwork made by guests over the years
Fellow guests David & Sheila from England showed me how to mix a proper gin & tonic

The shoreline at Pirate's Point as viewed from the resort
Curly-tailed lizards were a common sight at Pirate's Point
Young land hermit crabs like this one will use a discarded snail shell for a home and switch to a whelk shell from the sea during the later phase of its life

Just outside the bar and dining room area there is a patio space under shade trees where guests may enjoy their breakfast or lunch out of doors.  Michell let me know that appetizers appeared on the bar at 6:30 each evening as guests gathered for cocktails and that dinner was served at 7:30.  After dinner, guests who had arrived that day were asked to gather in the bar for a discussion of diving arrangements.  Owner Gladys Howard had been in Texas for a number of weeks undergoing some medical treatments but was expected on island Tuesday.  I did some quick paperwork and was given a plastic bottle emblazoned with the Pirate's Point logo.  The resort does not use disposable cups or dishware in an effort to be more "green".

Appetizers did indeed appear on the bar at 6:30 and I met my fellow guests, most of whom were returning to Pirate's Point.  Quite a few of them had been coming for years.  We enjoyed cocktails and talked diving and travel.  One couple was from Canada, one couple was from England and the balance of the crowd was from the U.S.  We adjourned to the dining room for dinner and enjoyed a delicious meal.  The main course was accompanied by several very nice side items and it was all followed by dessert.  Several wines were available with dinner.  This set the pattern for future meals: one main course, lots of side dishes that often included fruits, breads and salads followed by dessert and coffee.  You could eat breakfast and lunch in the dining room which was not air conditioned during the day or you could enjoy the meals out doors in the shade.  Dinner was served in the dining room with the air conditioning on for the evening.

At 8:00 the next morning we all heard the bell that serves to alert guests to a meal or the pending departure of the van for the short ride to the dock.  We had a great breakfast outdoors and then brought our scuba gear to the vans in front of the resort.  The ride to the dock may have been as long as 5 minutes.  Our gear was brought down the dock to the boat and we stepped aboard for our first day of diving.

Their boat is a 42-foot Newton Dive Special built in Slidell, Louisiana called the Yellow Rose III.  We could see large waves outside of the reef structure protecting the harbor.  We were asked to rig our dive gear onto one of the two tanks we were each given.  Pirate's Point offers Nitrox (for an extra charge) to divers certified to use it.  Nitrox is air, the oxygen portion of which is increased above the 21 percent level of the atmosphere.  We were doing two dives a day at Pirate's Point so I did not elect to use Nitrox.  South Hole Sound where the Yellow Rose is docked has an entrance to the Caribbean Sea that can be a bit dicey.  Before leaving the dock the captain read each of our names to make sure all were aboard.  We motored across the harbor and lined up for our exit with all passengers seated.  The Pirate's Point captains have done this a million times and in just a few minutes we were motoring westward around the tip of the island and into much calmer waters.

Dive masters divided us up into two teams and we donned our gear.  We walked across the deck holding our fins and then slipped them on before jumping into the clear blue water.  We had been given a thorough dive briefing and advised that we were to accompany the dive master on the escorted part of the dive but that after we had been led back to the area under the boat we could then move about in teams of two or three.  We were asked to signal the dive master when we had used up half of our breathing gas and advised that we should return to the boat with a 500 pound reserve still in our tanks and that we should not dive so long that we had to make mandatory decompression stops as we ascended.  When returning, divers removed their fins in the water, handed them up to a crew member and then ascended the boat ladder.  The crew member held the top of your tank as you made your way back to your seat and saw to it that you were safely seated.  It was then up to you to swap your scuba equipment onto the next tank for the second dive of the day.  After each dive, attendance was taken to make very certain that all divers were back aboard.
A Nassau grouper welcomes me as I move from my world into his  (photo by Dave G.)

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, an English private navy battled to loosen the Spanish hold on the Caribbean.  These privateers were essentially legal pirates, sanctioned by the English government.  Peace was declared early in the 18th century and the English moved to halt the piracy.  A battle ensued along the northern coast of what is now Little Cayman and the area acquired the name Bloody Bay.
This shot of Pirate's Point dive master Gay gives you some idea of how tiny these massive
walls make you feel (photo by Dave G.)
Pirate's Point owner Gladys Howard hosts guests to a cocktail party each Friday.  During my week sushi was served

During my week I made 13 dives off of Little Cayman, six of which were to depths of between 75 and 100 feet.  All of them were in the Jackson's Bight and Bloody Bay Wall marine park area and each site featured a buoy to which the boat was tied to avoid the use of an anchor that can damage or destroy coral.  Phillipe Cousteau is purported to have named Bloody Bay the best dive area in the Caribbean.  It is difficult to locate an actual documented quote by the son of the late Jacques Cousteau but what is not in contention is that countless big names in scuba diving and underwater photography have lauded the underwater beauty here.

All of the dives were beautiful but a typical one might have been the dive we made at a site called "Mike's Mount" in the Jackson's Bight area. This was our 2nd dive of June 3rd. We descended onto the sandy bottom and as we did, Michelle spotted a tuna quickly moving through the area. It is the first time I have seen one of these big ocean fish on a dive and sighting creatures like this that occasionally move in over reefs from the deep ocean is why many people come to this part of the world. The reef formation loomed above us like a ten foot high hedge as we looked north from the white sand beneath the Yellow Rose. We swam over the top of the reef and then descended over the wall to a depth of just over 60 feet where we cruised along the coral and sponge that cover the wall.  We felt like we were flying along the wall with nothing but thousands of feet of water beneath us.  A spotted eagle ray soared above our heads while we moved past the wall. Any dive from a boat can be a challenge when surface conditions are rough and/or when currents move divers horizontally or up and down the face of the wall but this was not the case during my entire Sister Islands trip. Diving conditions were near ideal.
Yellow Rose III prepares to depart for a day of diving

For those guests who wish to do a night dive while at Pirate's Point, one is offered on Tuesday or Thursday evening.  The dive is done from shore, typically from a dock.  However, during my visit the dock would be in use by a barge that delivers supplies to the island so we elected to enter from the beach near a dive site called "Cumber's Caves".  I let the staff know that I did not have dive boots since I use full-foot fins when diving in the tropics which fit over my bare foot.  One of the dive masters said that he would get me a pair of dive boots to use but unfortunately they were forgotten so when we got to the beach, he gave me his flip-flops to use.  Instead of wearing them as I waded into the water (among a cloud of very hungry mosquitoes) I left them on the beach.  That was a mistake.  The beach was soft sand and so were the first few feet past the waterline as I waded in but the substrate quickly turned into rock.  While the rock did not do any damage, I did get a few very small spines in my feet as I waded in and then waded out after the dive was over.  No serious damage was done but things could have been much worse.  If I had more seriously cut my foot on coral or gotten stuck with bigger spines, my dive vacation could have been over.  Sometimes we do something that defies common sense and get away with it.  Luck was on my side but a little more reasonable caution and smarter thinking would have been better.
We did not see an abundance of sharks during our dives but Dave G. got this nice shot of a nurse shark
This reef shark did pay us a visit early on in my trip (photo by Sy H.)

During the week I passed a milestone. On June 5th I made my 300th career dive at a site called "Sarah's Set". That evening one of my fellow divers was kind enough to celebrate the occasion by making a toast after we sat down to dinner. I appreciated the good will while being mindful that at least one other fellow guest had been certified to dive at my current age of 54 and has logged well over 1,200 dives! Now that's a dedicated diver who gave me something to shoot for.
Lettuce sea slugs could be spotted on most dives (both photos by Patty S.)

This green moray eel found himself a colorful home in the reef (photo by Sy H.)
Ever see the film "Alien"?  It is easy to imagine the multi-jawed monster from the movie was inspired by moray eels.  Although not typically a threat to humans, unless molested, morays do actually have a set of pharyngeal jaws in their throats in addition to their toothy main jaws.  Their poor vision makes them less than perfect hunters but when they do get ahold of a victim, it is seldom lost (photo credit Rita Mehta & Candi Stafford of Univ. California in Davis).
This beautiful portrait of a longsnout seahorse was taken by one of my fellow Pirate's Point guests.  In more than 300 dives I had never seen a seahorse until this day (photo by Dave G.).

I'm sure you noted the spotted moray eel but did you see the arrow crab beneath the moray's chin? (photo by Patty S.)
At a site called "Randy's Gazebo" you could return from a trip to the wall through this tunnel (photo by Dave G.)
Divers relax on the upper deck as the Yellow Rose III heads back to port
Divers get hungry but with lunches like this it's a wonder you can even waddle back for dinner (but we always did)

It is a tribute to the staff at Pirate's Point and to Gladys that the place was run beautifully in her absence.  On Tuesday she returned to the island and everyone was very happy to see her and encouraged by the positive medical reports she had received.  As far as I could tell, only one thing changed when she returned.  At 7:30 she promptly moved from the bar to the dining room entrance and announced that dinner was served.  She then sat guests in different configurations each evening so that you spent at least one dinner during the week at her table and were seated with other guests through the balance of the week.  By Tuesday we were all friends anyway and had already been rotating through different dining seating arrangements.  After the dessert plates were cleared, Gladys made an announcement that is evidently such a routine that several guests said the words with her, "There's coffee in the bar.  It's decaf!"  Diners moved to the bar and some then went to the dominoes table.  Newcomers to the game are welcome but be warned, Gladys will beat your brains out at this game.  The owner of the worst score is compelled to wear a necklace at breakfast the next morning from which a plastic rat dangles.
Gladys (foreground) holds sway over another great dinner

One evening I strolled through the resort snapping pictures of the flowers I saw...

The critically endangered Sister Isles Iguana is making its last substantial stand on Little Cayman where about 1,500 animals are known to exist. Their greatest threat is from road accidents that kill up to about 100 animals per year and from feral dogs and cats. It is estimated that less than 50 of the species exist on Cayman Brac. This creature is a subspecies of the more commonly seen Cuban Iguana. In addition to being a dive master at Pirate's Point, Mike Vallee is the local iguana expert and does extensive conservation work on Little Cayman. It was volunteer work on behalf of the iguana that brought him to the island. On Friday afternoons he presents his "Iguana Tour" where he takes guests to an area of the island that features many of the iguanas.  This was a very worthwhile tour done at no cost.
A resident iguana at Pirate's Point takes an interest in dive gear we left by the rinse tank while we enjoyed lunch

(photo by Dave G.)
Mike brought Lucky, a three-legged iguana he rescued, to his "iguana tour" presentation on Friday afternoon

As my week neared its end, Pirate's Point staff checked the air arrangements in place for all guests and discovered that evidently maintenance issues had caused the airline to make substantial schedule changes. I had hoped to make the brief flight over to Cayman Brac early on Saturday morning but my flight was changed to an early afternoon flight. This frustrated my plans to take an afternoon dive as soon as I arrived on Cayman Brac and no amount of speaking with the airline would get me on an earlier flight. The participants in the trip offered by my dive shop had their flight arrangements disrupted and they would not arrive until Saturday evening. Chef Dianne made me a great lunch and Gladys again thanked me for coming to Pirate's Point.  As I slipped on my Keens, I realized that I had not touched them since arriving a week earlier.  I spent the whole week in bare feet, flip-flops or fins.  Now that's livin'!
Little Cayman's airport (note the sign)
After landing, the Cayman Airways turboprop crosses Little Cayman's main road before coming to rest next to the sole airport structure to pick up passengers

Ed drove the the short distance to the airport and as we approached he smiled a bit and asked me, "What terminal?"   What a comedian!   Someone has put a small sign on the tiny building next to the runway that reads "Terminal A, Gate1".  The Twin Otter aircraft arrived on time and I jumped aboard for the 7-minute flight over to Cayman Brac.   I was the only tourist on the flight and one of only two people who had actually checked a bag.   After landing I jumped in a cab for the short ride to the Brac Reef Beach Resort.

Since I had arrived ahead of the 20 or so others on the trip I was part of, after checking in I did a load of laundry in the resort's coin laundry facility.   One washer and one dryer are available for guests.  I also stopped in at the dive shop on the property and did my paperwork to avoid the rush when our group and everyone else coming into the resort for a week of diving would certainly mob the place.  For the week's diving, most of the trip participants would be breathing Nitrox.  The oxygen portion of the Nitrox would be about 32 percent so the amount of nitrogen that would accumulate in our tissues while we breathed underwater would be reduced since the Nitrox's greater oxygen percentage offset some of the nitrogen in our breathing gas.  Safety practices dictate that each diver personally analyze the breathing gas in each of his/her tanks.  Knowing the composition of your breathing gas is critical to your underwater safety.  I took the opportunity to analyze four tanks of Nitrox right away. I was instructed to write my name and the boat I would be diving from on a piece of tape affixed to each tank. Additionally, I was issued a bag and asked to place it, filled with my scuba gear, outside my hotel door by 7:30 the next morning. The bags and tanks would be delivered to the boat.
Beach at Brac Reef Beach Resort (photo by Patty S.)

The cost of the dive trip included hotel, three dives per day plus a night dive, Nitrox, all meals and three bar drinks per day.  As I stepped into the dining room, Omar, one of the staff members, promptly introduced himself and let me know the dining arrangements. Although we could certainly sit anywhere, a couple of large tables had been set aside for our group. The dinner buffet offered breads, at least two salads, a number of side dishes and at least two main dishes. Water, iced tea and lemonade or punch and coffee were included with the meals but soft drinks or bar drinks were part of the 3 beverages per day package we had reserved. I enjoyed my meal and certainly never had to wait in any line for the buffet but this food was not quite up to the level of the fare offered at Pirate's Point.
At 8:00 that evening, I heard the Cayman Airways jet landing at the nearby airport and shortly thereafter people began arriving at the resort. I found my brothers John and Rob and the rest of the group having a late dinner since the resort had arranged for the dining room to remain open because so many guests were on the last flight. Some travelers prefer the jet service to Cayman Brac from Grand Cayman since it takes a bit less time than the Twin Otters and since the baggage weight restrictions for the Twin Otters do not apply to the jet.
After breakfast Sunday morning our group reported aboard the "Little Sister", a 42-foot Newton just like the Yellow Rose I had been on the previous week.  Reef Divers Cayman Brac is the dive operator at the resort and in addition to the "Little Sister", they have two other boats, both of them are 46-foot Newtons.  "Little Sister" was to be our boat for the week and it was reserved for our group exclusively.  There were at least two other large groups at the resort for the week.  If you and a dive buddy elect to go, keep in mind that many groups go here so be prepared to perhaps be out-numbered by your shipmates who may all be there as a group.
Mick Maher the Dive Operation Manager would be our captain for the week.  Darryl Bud Walton, Jr. (call him BJ) would be our dive master.  BJ was born on Cayman Brac.  Mick gave us a thorough boat safety presentation.  The dive experience Reef Divers offers could be described as "valet diving".  Our equipment was already on the boat and rigged to our tanks.  We simply walked to the back of the boat and sat on one of two aluminum benches mounted over the stern or on the deck in the middle of the stern.  Mick or BJ then brought our scuba rigs to us and after buckling ourselves in, we simply stood up and jumped off the boat.  When we returned after our dives we handed our fins up to BJ or Mick and climbed one of the two stern ladders and sat on one of the benches where the scuba gear was removed and then they lugged the gear back to where we sat on the boat and switched it to our next tank.  As on Little Cayman, attendance was taken as the boat prepared to depart the dock and after each dive to make sure all divers were aboard.
Cayman Brac features plenty of wall dive sites but lots of the more common reefs situated on the shallow seafloor closer to shore before the depths plunge off into the Cayman Trough described above. 

"Brac" in Gaelic is the word for "bluff" and the bluffs on the east end of the island at 43 meters are the highest point above sea level on the islands.

The rugged bluffs that give Cayman Brac its name are found along the northeastern side of the island
Aboard Little Sister each dive site is illustrated with a whiteboard drawing.  The boat at anchor is drawn in green in the middle of the board and the shallows are on the right with the abyss noted on the left.

Another seahorse!  This one is a lined seahorse (photo by Cindy H.)

A superb shot of a foureye butterfly fish (photo by Cindy H.)
I have found this one tough to identify but I think it is a saddled blenny (photo by Patty S)

A diamond blenny, one of more than 35 blenny species in the Caribbean (photo by Patty S.)
Here's a fabulous shot of an inch long Pederson cleaner shrimp.  The curlicue structures in the lower-right quadrant of the photo are tentacles of a corkscrew anemone (photo by Cindy H.)
Divers cruise along the top of the wall off of Cayman Brac (photo by John F.)

Divers wait at the stern of the Little Sister for their scuba rigs to be brought to them (photo by John F.)
At the conclusion of a dive, divers prepare to climb the ladder to get back aboard (photo by John F.)
Caribbean reef squid were spotted on about three of our dives (photo by Patty S.)

The relative lack of shallow water surrounding the Caymans means that any ship unfortunate enough to sink in these waters will probably go down in water much too deep to be reached by sport divers, unless it is purposely sunk to act as an artificial reef and a dive attraction.  In September of 1996 a 330-foot long Russian Brigadier Type II Class frigate known as Russian Destroyer #356 was purchased from the Cuban navy and scuttled off of Cayman Brac for just that purpose.  It was built in 1984 in Nadhodka, U.S.S.R. and is a popular dive site.  She lies on her port side about 55 feet below the surface.

This scorpion fish was found resting on the Russian Destroyer
We found this octopus on our night dive (both photos by Patty S.)
Octopus mostly make their way along the bottom but they can swim as well
Lionfish (photo by John F.)
The lionfish is a species of fish that is native to Indo-Pacific waters.  How it was introduced into the Caribbean is a matter of debate but its negative effect on native fish populations is not.  It is a voracious hunter of native Caribbean fish and reproduces at a very rapid rate.  It has no known predators.  Some of its fins sport sharp spines that carry a venom.  A sting from a lionfish is something you won't forget for a long time and to those who might have an allergic reaction, a sting can be deadly.  Different diving communities are handling the invasion in different ways.  On Little Cayman the dive operators do not spear lionfish while guiding paying customers.  Some feel that the kills attract sharks and when I was diving on San Salvador in the Bahamas a few years ago I heard the same theory.  Instead, the Little Cayman charter operators all gather each Wednesday afternoon aboard a boat provided by one of their own.  They discuss where the largest populations of lionfish were spotted during the last week and then descend on that area as a group, spearing as many of the fish as they can.  On Cayman Brac they speared them while we were in the water.  On one dive BJ speared eight.  The groupers like the free meal and usually eat them after a cautious approach.  Some of the larger lionfish are kept and handed over to the kitchen staff after their stinging spines have been cut off.  I'm told they are very tasty.

Here's a sponge brittle star on the lip of a strawberry vase sponge (photo by Patty S.)


Yellowline arrow crabs will sometimes capture their tiny prey and store the meal on the pointed tip of their body (photo by Patty S.)

With one exception, all of our diving was done while the boat was moored to buoys fixed to the seafloor.  This practice prevents the use of boat anchors which can break coral and destroy reefs.  The one exception was a dive we did at a site called "Kinder's Kingdom" near the end of our time on Cayman Brac.  Mick carefully anchored in a sandy spot and we headed over the side.  He hoped to be able to find an unusually large field of pillar coral.  We came upon the area about halfway into our dive and it was truly Disneyesque.  There were dozens and dozens of pillars from a few inches in height to five or six feet tall.
A forest of pillar coral (photo by John F.)

Brothers Rob, John and me (photo by Cindy H.)

Our week on Cayman Brac flew by.  Before I knew it time was up and it was once again time to take off my sandals and slip into my Keens for the plane ride back home.  My flight back to Grand Cayman was uneventful but I knew that I had a close connection in Charlotte, North Carolina for the final leg of my trip but I had a secret up my sleeve.  I recently registered for the U.S. Customs Global Online Enrollment System (GOES) program.  I did not have to complete form 6059B, the blue customs form returning U.S. citizens are asked to fill out.  Once in the baggage area in Charlotte, I retrieved my bag and stepped up to the GOES kiosk and swiped my passport under the reader.  I then placed my hand on the fingerprint reader and the machine dispensed a ticket that I used to walk right past the long Customs line.  I rechecked my bag for O'Hare and dashed to the gate as the flight was boarding.  I would have missed my flight had it not been for this program.

I will return to the Caymans, of course.  As a matter of fact I already have a trip to the East End of Grand Cayman on the books for next year.  Contact me if you want in on that adventure.  But I imagine as my plane descends once more toward the tarmac on Grand Cayman next year, my gaze will wander over to Cayman Airways Express fleet of De Havillands parked and ready to take divers on to their destinations in the Sister Islands and perhaps a little part of me will wish that my journey would not end on Grand Cayman and that I could travel on once more to Grand Cayman's sisters.