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May 2000 Vol. 15, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Grand Cayman's East End

bargain basement diving at Cayman Diving Lodge

from the May, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Back in the 80's when I was newly certified, I was a single guy who traveled alone. Those trips were full of salty, new-diver adventures: checking my equipment sixtytwo times on the way out, diving with my nose on my console. Everything was an adventure; everything was spectacular. One of those sweet early trips was to the funky Cayman Diving Lodge on Grand Caymans East End: phenomenal walls, schools of tarpon, cool swimthroughs and tunnels -- all great memories. Since then, as Ive explored scores of other places, Ive often wanted to return to yesteryear to see how a decade affected my perception of the place. Furthermore, it has about the least expensive dive package in the Caymans, and that alone is worth revisiting.

While these days I travel with my diving wife, this was to be a guys night out, so I booked a second-story oceanfront room for my brother and me. Included in the forms the Texas office sent was a medical form that seemed a study in paranoia. I had a condition included in the bold-faced type -- hypertension well-controlled by medication -- so I called them to explain that Id taken this medication for 15 years and had 500 dives on it. They insisted on a release from my doctor, an annoyance, but I did it.

I arrived on a late November Saturday under cloudy skies and spent the week under a stationary storm that organized itself into Hurricane Lenny right after I left. The wind blew; it rained cats and dogs, but, as any serious diver knows, its always wet underwater, so what the hey?

The East End of Grand Cayman, contrasted with the popular West End/Georgetown area, is undeveloped, sparsely populated, almost entirely residential. The Lodge sits on the main coastal road, and the office backs onto it. Grand Cayman's East EndAfter a 45- minute ride in from the airport (gratis with a 7-day package), I was greeted by Tim, a deep-diving Lodge staffer and assistant chef who turned out to be a great spinner of tales, including some about stints as a safety diver at free-diving contests. The place was running at capacity, each of its twelve rooms full of U.S. divers plus one English couple. My roomy quarters had two double beds, lots of drawer space, plenty of outlets, a nicesized closet with a safe inside, and a generously sized vanity table where I spread stuff out. It was a bit down at the heels: a ripped lamp shade, broken floor tiles, and old, dirty window shades. The room passed the if my wife were here test, but she would have called it depressing. Still, it was about what I expected from a place that markets itself as a Spartan, land-based live-aboard and charged me $170/night for the full Megillah, including diving and food. (Since these were the high-end accommodations, best always go for the upgrade.)

Double doors framed a nice view of the lagoon and opened onto a deck that led from my building (which contained most of the rooms) toward the dining room and office, where there were piles of books and a computer for guest e-mail. Nearby were the teeshirt/ dive-accessory boutique and the equipment room, with rental cameras, gear, and enough staff talent to fix most broken stuff. From there the deck led to the large dock, recently rebuilt after the last hurricane. Like my room, the Lodge itself was comfortable and adequate, though frankly, the girls getting old.

But I hadnt returned to the Lodge for luxury. I was here for East End diving. Unlike Seven Mile Beach to the west, the East End gets some surf, and this wave action has carved swimthroughs and cuts that make the diving dramatic. The walls are beautiful, with plenty of nooks and crannies. My first dive was No Name Corner near the Lodge. We motored out and split our 12 divers into two groups. After I stepped to the stern, the staff helped me gear up, then I strode off thep latform -- ah, 80-100' viz, 82 water, despite the weather.

Here were the walls I remembered: consistently steep, peppered with relief features, and chock full of beautifully colored coral. While I had few chances to see the sun playing on sculpted and healthy coral, the spectacular wall, big schools of fish, and cool little tunnels and cuts rank among the best in the Caribbean -- even without sun. While ten years ago these swimthroughs left me breathless, Ive become a bit jaded by the walls of Puerto Rico, Little Cayman, and the Turks and Caicos. Theyre in the same league, maybe a little more equal than Grand Cayman.

Dives during the early part of the week included Jack McKenneys Canyon, a beautiful hunk-of-a-wall with fantastic relief features and an array of colors. The shallow dives near the Lodge were good, too. At High Rocks, I spent about 5 minutes floating a few feet from a school of 20 silvery tarpon. At Playground, another shallow dive, I was impressed by big schools of the usual Caribbean suspects and a real honker of a Jewfish, 4-foot plus. Maggies Maze was a labyrinth of cuts and swimthroughs -- trademark East End diving -- sprinkled with fish to witness my boyish enthusiasm. Here and there I saw a few spotted and green eels and an occasional crab.

The Lodges half-covered Pro-48 East Ender, with three big engines, proved to be more than up to East End/Pre-Lenny conditions. The interior cabin is huge (belowdeck engines mean no center hump), and, given the rain, I was glad for the space. It was very comfortable: a large dive platform with 2 ladders, head, freshwater showers (which probably come in handy during weeks when Mother Nature isnt providing that service), and lots of storage space, some near the aluminum 80s and more in the cabin. A full complement of safety equipment and photo amenities, including a good-sized camera table and rinse bucket, hadnt been overlooked. Stable in the rough seas, it was a splendid boat. For backup, the Lodge has another 45' craft.

The Lodges dive operation deserves accolades; its well thought-out and well executed. We had our own number-coordinated dive bags matched to the dive lockers near the boat, from which the staff retrieved our gear each morning so they could haul it to the boat and set it up. Departures were on time and briefings were consistently good, with all the details for swimming a site and what to look for. Grand Cayman's East EndDivemasters were always in the water, leading but not controlling, guiding without insisting. Everyone dove computers, experienced divers were given respect and latitude, and the usual Cayman rules were in effect: 100'-110' first dive (usually 30-35 minutes); 60-70' for the 45-minute second and third dive, back on the boat with 500 psi. We headed back to the dock for lunch after the second dive, and there was always fruit and fresh water between dives.

The Lodges good-natured and friendly staff performed admirably, even during a tough week of rotten weather. They did everything save cooking and cleaning rooms; theyre on duty constantly, pumping tanks, clearing dishes, plugging leaks, confirming flights, manning the office, and serving as boat drivers and divemasters. They are advertised as the Lodge family, and all pulled their weight. Mickey, the manager and occasional divemaster, was constantly able to handle the routine and ridiculous. Hes a striking figure -- super-fit/bodybuilder physique, long hair in pony tail. Coming at you sideways he could look like a boxcar, but he had a quick and special smile. When in the water, he willingly shared his excitement. Other divemaster/instructors included Jayne, a graceful, charming British/Canadian beauty, Todd and Carol, lovebirds from the Midwest who radiate cheer and warmth, and Travis, a great guide and good-natured guy who had a mischievous sense of humor. Oddly enough, he reminded me of the liquid metal man in Terminator 2. A motley crew, for sure, but of the highest level of competence ... and a lot of fun.

Lodge life was simple but pleasant: three meals a day, three dives a day, evenings spent around the cable TV in the dining room/bar before heading to bed. In the open-air roofed-over dining room, plastic flaps cover huge window spaces. The bar had a good selection of beer, a modest selection of wines, soft drinks, and hard liquor -- help yourself, keep track of what you drink, pay at checkout. Under sunny skies, the chairs and loungers in the deck spaces and the lone hammock on the teeny-tiny beach would be inviting, though the beach itself was trashy.

Breakfast started at 7:30, but I could get coffee earlier, and my room had its own coffee maker. Breakfast was toaster-fare plus cold cereal and a ton of fruit occasionally relieved by soft-boiled eggs, French toast, or Egg McMuffin-type dishes. The buffet lunch came after two morning dives. Chef Felicia spread out salads a-plenty along with pasta or grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. We ate in groups at several large tables. Bakery breads and desserts were top-notch, and dinners, though not high cuisine, were good enough -- high points were Cornish game hen, spare ribs, and fresh fish, the not-so-low point fried shrimp. Food was a bit spicy, but given advance notice the kitchen tempered the heat.

Midweek the weather lightened enough for us to steam to the North Wall, the great stuff of East End diving. Babylon, a primo site, is a huge bold wall, wellpummeled by wave action. I remembered it since its one of the eyes-closed wall dives I do at home when I dream of diving. Sheer, full of cuts and curves and character, its crowned by a huge pinnacle. I was so anxious to revisit it that I was first off the boat, jumping in and heading to a sandy bottom, where I said hello to the small schools of chromis and wrasse. Viz was down to 80', and though I wished for more natural light, when I swam to the edge of the craggy wall and started down, it was an exciting reunion -- brilliantly colored flower and starlet coral, tube sponges, deep water gorgonia, barrel sponges, and a healthy profusion of black coral. I glanced up at the prominent overhang jutting from the top of the wall, then at the pinnacle, backlit by blue water. Beautiful! Three spirals around the pinnacle and down the massive wall and I was still in awe of the stunning relief features and colorful coral. Like the Sirens song, its a wall you dont want to come back from. But eventually I headed for a safety stop, hovering amid a few butterflyfish and damselfish, touched with their cute neon spots.

Group pressure brought us back to Babylon for a repeat performance, then, for a different perspective, we did Black Forest, a 60' site over the pinnacle at Babylon. The wall/pinnacle formation, healthy schools of fish, vivid colors on the wall, and lavish black coral made this a great dive. Cinderellas Castle, Jaynes favorite, is a graphic example of what makes East End diving special. The wave action at this 50-60' site has carved swimthroughs and little tunnels connecting big, room-like spaces -- ah, a great swim. Kellys Cavern, named for a keltie who was at the Lodge for my first trip, featured beautiful cuts and canyons. Other sites included Grouper Grotto, a grouper bust that yielded a school of tarpon (pretty much the only big fish around) and two dives where I swam with a turtle, Skinny Palm and Black Rock Drop Off, another beautiful and worth-wall dive.

While Stingray City and other northern sites were closed most of the week because of the weather, these closer sites were good, sometimes great, though all could have benefited from more sunlight. Still, despite the weather, we did 16 of the weeks 17 scheduled dives, including a couple at night. East End diving, especially at North Wall, should be on any Caribbean divers dance card. Though the Lodge facilities need sprucing up, it nevertheless offers a very pleasant way to dive the East End, and their dive operation is aces. If youre ready for a low-frills trip with Class A Caribbean diving, the Lodge is an excellent low-cost destination.

K.B.

Grand Cayman's East EndDivers Compass: Cayman Diving Lodge: 800-TLC-DIVE or 806-794- 3466; fax 806-798-7568; e-mail info@divecdl.com; website www.divecdl.com. My 8-day/7-night package ran $1,191; current prices for off-season weeks are $1,290, upgrade $154...other East End options include Morritts Tortuga Club (800-432-8894), a few miles away, which offers snazzy condo living with a first-class dive operation. An independent operation, Ocean Frontiers (800- 544-6576; website www.oceanfrontiers.com), gets good reviews from readers...Nitrox available...snorkeling available in the shallow lagoon off the dock; night snorkels there reportedly produce a thing or two...Delta Atlanta-Grand Cayman $471.50...nearest photo processing in Georgetown, 45 minutes away...bring bug juice...no TVs or phones in rooms, guest phone in office...smoking permitted throughout the Lodge.

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