Incredibly clear waters, striking reefs and breath-taking drop-offs, have earned the Cayman Islands a top spot on the list of best dive destinations in the world. While visitors come to enjoy historic dive sites, local divemasters say Cayman’s reef critters entertain and thrill too and are also a reason to dive Cayman. These engaging creatures most often include sea turtles, green morays, spotted eagle rays, tarpon, stingrays, octopus and all types of reef fish, including reef sharks. On Grand Cayman’s remote East End, reef sharks are spotted so often that they’ve earned names and affection from the local dive community.
“Through the south channel, aptly named The Corner, in front of Compass Point Dive Resort and Ocean Frontiers, are 5 deep dive sites and 2 shallow sites where shark sightings are the norm and due to the frequency of sightings, several of them have been named,” said divemaster James Dudley of Tortuga Divers at East End. “‘Smudge’ has a birth mark on her right gill slit; ‘Scarlett’ has mating scars on her flank; and there’s ‘Big Bertha’ and several flighty males. The two sharks most often seen at Black Rock Drop Off are two males who have been aptly named “Bert and Ernie!”
“It is always exciting to see the sharks, and we are so lucky to see them regularly at East End,” said photo pro Lois Hatcher. “My favorite one is Scarlett. She’s a big, fat female that cruises by and gives us all a lot of great photo ops!”
“Scarlett is a very curious shark!” adds local diver John Buckley. “We can see from 5 to 7 different sharks on the same dive, and there’s never a guarantee that they will show up, but it’s awesome when they do!”
“Divers get to encounter sharks in their natural habitat, cruising over the Cayman reefs, rather than being hand-fed by some guy in a chainmail suit,” added Steve Broadbelt co-owner of Ocean Frontiers. “These kinds of experiences with sharks are authentic interactions with wild animals on their terms.”
Red Sail Sports Dive Manager Clive Webb says friendly and curious nurse sharks are regularly spotted on Grand Cayman’s West side as well, where most of the island’s best-known dive sites are located.
“Two Nurse Sharks nicknamed ‘Kiki and Dory’ run between the shallow sites on the West side, and probably because at some point they were fed Lionfish by divers,” he said.
Webb adds that divers can count on spotting marine creatures at specific dive sites. Green Morays can usually be spotted at Darwin’s Theory, a wall dive site, and at Three Trees a Green Moray hangs out in the same hole. The Kittiwake Wreck has a resident turtle and divers can often see an Eagle Ray grazing the sand around the wreck. A large Nassau Grouper is sometimes spotted at the Kittiwake wreck too.
“Even right off Seven Mile Beach interesting creatures can often be seen,” said Webb. “Juvenile Stingrays and Eagle Rays are frequently spotted in the shallow waters off the Westin Grand Cayman and Ritz Carlton resorts.”
And Cayman’s tiny marine life is also an exhilarating experience. A colony of seahorses used to live at the base of the Guardian of the Reef statue in the shallow waters off Northwest Point. Every summer, caves and caverns swell with schools of tiny silversides that migrate to the coastal waters and Tarpon feed on them in an experience known as the “Silver Rush.” Cayman’s coral nurseries, being cultivated in shallow waters around the island, are also attracting sea life: crabs, shrimp and curious squid, who often watch divers at work.
“Once they got used to us working on the trees, the squid would come right over and ‘work with us’” said Lois Hatcher. “Another critter that always makes me smile is a huge barracuda that I named ‘Puff.’ He would appear and disappear like a Puff of smoke.”
The world famous and friendly stingrays at the Stingray Sandbar and Stingray City are one of Cayman’s most popular attractions, and visitors go home with exciting memories of their interaction with the rays. James Dudley and fellow divemasters want visitors to know that there are plenty of critter encounters to be enjoyed in Cayman, if they know where to look.
“Tortuga Divers is blessed with a boat dock teeming with fish life just a few yards from guest rooms,” he said. “Shoals of Bermuda chub frequent the dock as well as a school of tarpon who enjoy the shade that the dock provides. A resident green moray eel lives under the dock and there are frequent sightings of juvenile Caribbean reef sharks which patrol in the shallow waters just off the dock. Juvenile eagle rays play in the sand suggesting that the area inside the reef is an eagle ray nursery as there are several sightings of eagle rays each day.”