Talk up Cayman's East End diving and you get the Black Dot

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Warning to Cayman’s Rick the Pirate:
Talk up East End diving and you get the Black Dot.

By Stephen Weir
Diver Magazine November 2006

Rick the Pirate needs to be seriously bribed. The next diver to visit Georgetown, Grand Cayman owes it to the scuba community to slip a C-note to the official Caribbean island greeter and ask him not to tell people just how good the diving is on the Island’s remote East End.
Rick the Pirate is an American born, Cayman resident and works for a number of the fine shops in Georgetown. Every morning he puts on his hoop-earrings, knee high boots and sword and heads down to the waterfront. When he’s feeling particularly piratey he sticks a flintlock pistol into his wide black belt. His job is to “Ahoy” loudly at every “bilge rat” sporting an Hawaiian shirt and Tilley Hat that passes through the cruise ship gates. He posses for pictures with the Lubbers and recommends the best places to shop, to drink grog, to sunbathe and to dive.
“Arr Matey” said the 6ft something, sword-carrying pirate. “There are many days when we get over 6,000 cruise ship visitors, and the only scuba they ask for is the Seven Mile Beach and Sting Ray City. Don’t worry, it them takes too long to get out to the East End.”
When he isn’t downtown he is on VIBE FM, the local radio station, talking to Deon Matis, a famous Jamaican disc jockey who now holds down the morning drive show. Cruise numbers are a hot local talk topic since there is an inverse relationship between the number of tourists walking the streets and how quickly it takes to drive anywhere on the 35 kilometre (21 mile) long island.
“Six cruise ships in Georgetown,” said Neal Wallwork dive master with Ocean Frontiers. “ The roads will be jammed. No point in going into town. It is a beautiful day to go diving.”
In fact, almost every day is a perfect for diving off Cayman’s Eastern End. Grand Cayman is an oddly shaped island, looking somewhat like an open mouthed C-Clamp. The east end is a hook-shaped peninsula ringed by a healthy barrier reef.
You find the airport and Georgetown on the west coast. The small city is famed for its shopping, its highly secretive -- but very profitable -- banking community and the nearby Seven Mile Beach (which is actually six miles long and has some great dive sites).
While Seven Mile Beach never sleeps, the East End has trouble keeping its eyes open after sun down. There aren’t any malls, bars or miniature golf clubs here. Mother Nature rules while civilization drools.
Ocean Frontiers has the luxury of doing business in a section of the island that harkens back to the 70s, before divers discovered the three-island British colony. Aside from the laid-back ambiance they are blessed with having amazing scuba sites close to shore in a north, south and easterly directions.
Hardcore divers will have heard of, but probably not visited the top five sites that ring the eastern end – Babylon, Snapper Hole, Jack McKenny, River of Sand and the unforgettable Maze.
Local divers treat Babylon as a shore dive, in fact Shorediving.com ranks Babylon as having perfect reef conditions. However, it is a long swim and getting there by boat is so much easier! Because it is close to Sting Ray City – a shallow area where hundreds of sting rays congregate to be feed by an equal number of snorkellers and divers – Babylon is often the first stop on a 3-tank East End adventure.
The name of the site derives from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. While the HGB never made it into the A.Ds, the underwater version defies time and is still the biggest baddest dive site on the island. Here the hanging gardens are made up of dangling soft corals, massive sponges and thick forests of black coral. It is breathtaking to slide down through a deep dark canyon at the top of the reef and punch out at 33 meters on the wall gazing into the Big Blue. Pelagic fish abound, the visibility is incredible and not a signal sign of mans’ intrusion can be seen.
In Cayman there is an active underwater association that installs mooring balls, sets dive standards, and polices the dive operations. It is also establishes names for the sites that tourists visit. It is a real honour to have a dive site named after you. Even though former Diver Magazine photographer and filmmaker Jack McKenney has been dead for 20+ years, there is still a site in the East End that bears his name.
“This was a favourite dive of the famous filmmaker,” wrote Ocean Explorers’ co-owner Stephen Broadbelt. “ It is a site with deep vertical canyons leading to the deepest drop-off in the northern hemisphere -- 25,000 feet downwards. This is the East End's Number One dive site for sharks and eagle rays sightings.”
To the east and south of the island there are natural cuts through the reef. Sometimes the cuts are filled with sand, other times they are filled with life.
River of Sand is a section of the outer wall where the clean white sand tumbles from 15 metres down to a depth of 40 metres. The underwater dune looks so much like snow that some divers have taken skis down with them to capture truly bizarre Kodak moments.
The nearby Maze has similar cuts through the wall. Instead of sand filling the void, soft corals and sponges flourish. Divers get out onto the wall by swimming through a confusing network of caves and canyons. There are parts of the natural maze where stone pillars rise 30 metres towards the surface, looking like an underwater version of Jordan’s Petra canyon.
Snapper Hole isn’t as deep as the Maze but also has caves and canyons to swim through. Don’t tell Rick the Pirate but there is a 19th century anchor fused into the reef bed.
The Ocean Frontier one of only three full service operations at the far end of the island. They have Nitrox, well-maintained rental gear, a GUE instructor and underwater video / photography services (managed by British Columbia diver Justin Bongers). Ocean Frontier owners have been in the forefront of preserving Cayman’s underwater habitat, spearheading the mooring pin programme, a shark watch project and a new endeavour to sink an artificial reef off the Eastern End.
The shop, pool and air fill station is part of a small condo hotel called Compass Point Dive Resort. The units are full service, are luxurious and all balconies look down onto the dive dock. Ocean Frontier also has a shop at the nearby 110 room Reef Resort Hotel.
“Never have to go into town, we got it all here. “ said Mr. Broadbelt. “If you really crave entertainment beyond our star gazing and night dives, you can go down the road and see the Barefoot Man at the East End, Reef Resort Hotel.”
“Be it here or at the East End, Cayman Diving Lodge or Tortuga Divers,” he continued, “ we all tend to cater to repeat divers. It is not difficult diving, the East End is diving for people who live to get wet.”

Photos by Stephen Weir and Jim Kozmik
Top: East End Turtle
Second from top right: Vibe radio host Deon Matis
Third and Fourth from top: Checking out one of Cayman's East End Walls
Below: Rick the Pirate. Photo from Flickr

INFORMATION

Ocean Frontiers
Austin Connolly Drive
PO Box 200 EE
East End
US: 1-888-232-0541
Phone: 1-345-947-7500
Fax:1-345-947-7600
oceanfrontiers@cayman.org

Cayman Diving Lodge
East End
PO Box 11 EE
US: 1-800-TLC-DIVE
Phone: 1-345-947-7555
Fax: 1-345-947-7560
caymandivelodge@cayman.org

Tortuga Divers Ltd
Morritt's Tortuga Club
PO Box 496 EE
Phone: 1-345-947-7449
Fax: 1-345-947-9486
www.tortugadivers.com

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