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September 2001 Vol. 16, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Grand Cayman, the East End

the best of the class

from the September, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Divers agree on one thing about Grand Cayman: its expensive. Most also agree that the best diving is on the East End, the opposite side of the island from that Miami- Beach Wannabe, Seven Mile Beach. In 1988 Hurricane Gilbert destroyed Ben Davisons favorite hangout, the funky Tortuga Club. That opened the way for Mr. Morritt to build a new high-rise Tortuga Club, kicking off development. The Royal Reef Resort is the latest addition to what only a decade ago was the Caribbeans best kept secret.

At the airport, my wife and I grabbed a cab and 50 minutes later we arrived at the Royal Reef, out $70 for the trip. Welcome to the land of the rich and famous, of which I am neither. For $20K to $60K, you can spend a week at the Royal Reef for the next 50 years. I prefer the day rate. In the lobby, Im instructed to introduce myself to my concierge, a Mexican fellow who will arrange for my comfort. They offer maid service once a week. Additional days are $50 a pop. I learned to play Century 21 Dodge, to keep out of the Orientation and away from pitch-meisters selling a weeks slice of paradise.

There are tennis courts. Free bikes and kayaks. A nice beach. Three landscaped pools. A huge dock used exclusively for everyones after-dinner strolls. A gym, a spa, even hair braiding -- something Caucasian women should have given up two decades ago, when Bo set the bar at unreachable heights. Theres a little grocery store and an Ocean Frontier satellite shop, which serves as Royal Reefs dispensary for pool towels and kayak paddles. A young Englishman punched us into his computer, checked us in for the next days dive, checked c-cards, and handed me release forms. Nice guy, well-oiled operation. The theme for the week.

Grand Cayman, the East EndThe next day my wife and I are picked up by a cheerful Divemaster promptly at 8:00 a.m. and driven a couple miles down the road, where Ocean Frontiers (OF) has converted a house into a dive shop and office. The sale and rental inventory is huge. They process film overnight. A deep swimming pool permits all kinds of certifications and training. The dock accommodates their three boats. Yet, while the operation is big, its personal, and soon we were all on a first name basis. The routine was flawless. After the first day, my gear was always on the bench in a big plastic milk crate marked with my name. The boat left at 8:30 a.m., returning before noon. A DM took my crate, dipped it in fresh water, and stored it in a secured area. Next day, it was in front of two 3000+ psi aluminum 80s (air or Nitrox).

Every DM had the uncanny ability to teach, correct, recite the rules, and manage divers with a soft touch. No bossing around, no condescension, none of that rot. Bad divers were cared for, instructed and corrected perfectly. Good divers were given information and guidelines with friendliness and respect. Two friendly and competent guys ran our boat on different days; David, a Canadian, and Colin, a Brit. The staff was great -- good workers who displayed none of the internal political/ economic whining Ive heard at other large operations. It was almost spooky. These were the Stepford Divemasters.

If the operation suffered at all, it was based on the Mussolini Railroad thing. There was always a clock ticking. Dive profiles were short: 100 feet for 30 minutes, and 60 feet for 40 minutes, with a 40-45 minute surface interval. There was never a rush, but it was organized and disciplined.

We were assigned to the big work horse boat, the Nauti-Cat, a 39-foot aluminum catamaran. While it easily smoothed the modest 2-3 foot waves, even this low chop moved several landlubbers on board to lose breakfast to and from the dock! For the 12 diver max, theres a huge amount of space, half of which was covered. Benches ran down both sides with tanks in racks behind. (They always bring gear to your station, you set it up). Nauti-Cat has a head, a freshwater shower, drinking water and lemonade, pineapple slices between dives, a big camera/computer-only rinse tank, and even clean dry towels. To hit the water (which, during my June trip, was 82oF), step off the exits at midship or the dive platform. For exit, they deployed two ladders, two 15-foot hang lines, one with a regulator, and two 40-foot hang lines. After David or Colin offered a detailed site map, they split divers into two groups. All first dives were escorted, but I soon learned I was free to be somewhere in the vicinity.

Two of the best sites were almost straight in front of the dock. At Pats Wall, which has particularly brilliant coral colors, I followed David into a big deep crevice that runs out to the wall, emerging into the blue. Visibility oscillated between 75 and 100 feet, thanks to plankton and remnants of thimble jellyfish larvae, I was told. Sheer and beautiful, Pats Wall meanders and twists and turns, providing lots of dramatic relief. As I admired the wall, a 7-foot reef shark materialized out of the blue, swam in to say hello, then hung around. Sporting a name tag, he had been marked as one of Davids friends from the Shark Awareness Program.

Ocean Frontiers Shark Awareness Program requires classroom work on the basics of shark behavior, species, etc. While youre in class, the staff is out feeding sharks low-protein food (keeps them calmer, they claim). When you get to the site, the feeding is over, but a few sharks remain. The tagging is done, in part, to aid future satellite migration tagging. The Cayman government is monitoring the program. If theres a big upswing in shark population, the program stops. If it continues, it might help rid the planet of the circus- like shark feeding frenzy dives.

Jack McKenneys Wall also has a trench, this leading to a tunnel that popped us out on the wall. I floated at 110 feet, looming over thousands of feet of water. At my safety stop, a large turtle came by and two reef sharks ambled in the distance. When I did McKenneys again, David took me through more swim-throughs and tunnels, past beautiful swirl and plate coral, huge tube and barrel sponges. I swam with a turtle, ran into a free-swimming green eel, and watched a gray reef shark cruise the top of the wall.

Based on the tons of press it gets, I requested Babylon. After the weeks longest run (50 minutes, versus the usual 15-25 minutes), I headed down the sheer wall covered with lots of black coral, then circled the pinnacle that stands in front of the wall. A large turtle glided past slowly, while plenty of the usual tropicals, grunts, snappers, jacks and butterflies -- went about their business. After seeing Babylon, seems to me that Pats Wall and Jack McKenneys deserve equal billing.

In the fledgling days of scuba, turtles were rare around Grand Cayman. While Columbus reported they were so thick one could walk ashore across their backs, fishermen virtually eliminated them. (The fine novel, Far Tortuga, by Peter Matthiessen, details the dying days of Cayman turtle fishing.) Thanks to a ban on turtle fishing and a turtle farm that raises them for shells and meat while releasing plenty into the wild, I saw turtles on most dives. At Split Rock, I was drifting in a slight current, when a turtle came over the wall and drifted alongside me for at least five minutes. I stroked his shell before he slowly finned away.

I enjoyed the second, shallow dives, though on five of six the surge was strong. There was always a DM in the water, but these dives were escort-optional. At Kellys Cavern, the huge surge carried lots of stuff, including thimble larvae that left me with a bit of a neck rash. My wife played with a couple of squid and there were groupers, grunts, jacks, and two lobsters. I saw no large schools of fish during the week, but there were lots of species, though not in great numbers. Surprises like pairs of butterfly fish swimming in tight circles kept it interesting. At Chub Hole, I floated next to several serene and silver tarpon. A huge barracuda shot after a meal, redefining quick. At Playing Field, two big and beautiful coral heads teemed with little fish. Tons of wrasse, lots of damsels, a slew of brightly colored juveniles, all swimming on top of the brilliantly colored and healthy coral, as is more common in the South Pacific.

Ocean Frontiers rents underwater scooters for $35/dive. David gave me five minutes of instruction. Hold the scooter this way. Push this button. Grand Cayman, the East EndWatch the stuff on your BC so it doesnt go into the prop (which has a clutch that kept it from eating an inflater hose). Dont aim straight up or down. Within a few minutes, I could steer and decided I was probably not a danger to anyone. David took the lead and off we sped. Zooming around, I had a ball. I got accurate enough so that I could follow him through big arches. I drag-raced a spotted eagle ray and ruined the day for a school of tarpon. A real James Bond adventure. I buzzed Maria, the photo pro. She got pictures -- $40 for three slides.

Because OF serves divers from around the island, there were plenty of new faces each day, especially day trippers from Seven Mile Beach. The cameo appearances dampened the usual tomfoolery that goes on between week-long dive-pals-for-life, making it a quiet, however cheerful boat. Royal Reef Resort, too, is without the ambiance of a dive resort, where you sit around telling dive tales with the folks youve been diving with all day. Instead, its populated by lots of families, many of whom spent hours snorkeling off the beach (where there was little more than several flounders, a few squid, and a couple of tropical fish on the sandy bottom). I met only a few divers at Royal Reef, and those included three preteen girls who were getting certified.

So, I kicked back on the enormous balcony of my room to enjoy the pool and ocean view. Our good-sized B unit had a little kitchenette with a small refrigerator, microwave, tiny bar sink, a coffee maker, plates and bowls, mugs and silverware. The room had beaucoup storage in a big dresser, night tables with drawers, a big closet with a safe in it, a big bathroom vanity, cable TV and a comfy chair, and a Jacuzzi by the bed! B units are the master bedrooms of full-sized condos; the other half -- the A unit -- is a big one-bedroom unit with a regular kitchen, living room/dining room, and separate bedroom.

The Royal Reef, unlike Ocean Frontiers, was no well-oiled machine. I could get clean towels by calling the front desk, but they were such a long time comin that I learned to catch staff people near the laundry room to scarf up towels or toilet paper. I became expert at pillaging maids carts. I found the Royal Reef staff either dazed and confused or under-motivated. A request to cash a $50 travelers check was met with a shrug. Questions about the restaurant invited I dont knows. When I asked the front desk to arrange for a van to the airport, the lady said she couldnt because my concierge had to do it. My concierge said hed call the van folks after he gave us information about Royal Reef. I told him that there was only one right answer to my request.

The restaurant? Fine food, quirky, a little dressy. No knife strapped to my leg, or T-shirt and shorts at night. Many meals were served poolside, though in the 90-degree heat the dining room would have been a cooler, quieter alternative. Breakfast started at 7:30 a.m., if lucky, and the OF van came at 8:00 a.m., making coffee and rolls in the room imperative. There were extravaganzas like Mexican Night and Lobster Night, and there was always a regular menu. For lunch, a Monterey Jack Cheeseburger ran $10 US, plus a 15 percent automatic gratuity. Dinners for two ran $100-$150 depending on our antics with bottles of wine, which ran $35- $45 US for modest selections. My wife had a superb chicken curry on Indian Delight Night. Grilled snapper, grouper, tuna, and mahi-mahi, were excellent. The menu is dandy. There will be sticker shock, but the eatin is good.

It didnt get any cheaper next door at Morritts, where Davids restaurant had a menu similar to Royal Reefs, served with a bit more pretension. Morritts does have a good bar. But that could also mean a guy on a microphone exhorting everybody do the Macarena.

The East End has other options, Morritts being one of them. I once stayed there and though its a nice property, it was too big and its grown since. The prevailing spirit there is ya-ya party-time and lots of organized activities. Ive been to the Cayman Diving Lodge a couple of times and loved it. The rustic informality, three dives a day, and donothing late afternoons and evenings at the Cayman Diving Lodge are perfect for me or people on a budget. With my Sweet Potato in tow, I needed a place with more cush, a few diversions, a little comfort. The Royal Reef did just fine, if you ignore quirks and the lackadaisical staff. And the diving? Well, the reefs are beautiful, there are bigger fish than in most Caribbean locations, and for a big operation, Ocean Frontiers, if you ignore the short bottom time, is unmatched just about anyw here. But, so was the price. While the cost of lodging and diving was competitive with other destinations, its the food, the wine, the taxis or car -- the high living -- that make Grand Cayman expensive.

PS: On June 20, Mark Winje, OFs 40-year-old operations manager, died while diving. The e-mail I received said, in part, that Mark decided to go for a shore dive at Babylon. He was diving alone on 32 percent Nitrox in perfect conditions. When he failed to return, four OF staff members went to the shore entry point, only to find his car and some personal items. An exhaustive search was carried out along the shoreline and out at sea until the early hours of the morning. Underwater at dawn we were able to locate Marks body. Mark was wearing an Aladdin Pro computer, which has given us a lot of answers. It would appear that something along the lines of a stroke or seizure occurred. His maximum depth for the first 15 minutes of the dive was 105 feet. He then ascended to 70 feet and shortly after bolted to the surface with his weight belt still in place. Twenty feet from the surface he stopped, we assumed he went unconscious, and then his profile showed him sinking to his final resting place. He was found with 800 psi in his tank and equipment in place. Mark will be sadly missed and we will certainly be lost without him. Our thoughts are with him and the loved ones he has left behind.

- S.B.

Grand Cayman, the East EndDivers Compass: Royal Reef Resort: $877.80 (total) for our B room. Ocean Frontiers: $420/person for six days of a.m. two-tank dives. Book through oceanfrontiers.com, where you can also find info on Royal Reef. There is an 800# and e-mail links to the Florida booking office: Dottie (800-544-6576; dottie@oceanfrontiers. com) will handle most questions; for what remains, e-mail the island-based office or take a third look at the website ... Youll be shocked at the booking/refund policy. Pay 50 percent of the cost when you book, then youll be charged the other half closer in. At the 30-day mark, youre fully paid and the Royal Reef part is nonrefundable ... McCurleys (345-947-9626.) took us back to the airport for $47( US/total not including tip.) The ultimate McCurley deal: for $225 to $250 (depending on the season,) you get a van pickup at the airport and you stop for 20 minutes at a grocery store and liquor store before you arrive at your destination. Then, he drops off a rental car at your hotel. On departure day, you leave the car at the hotel and get whisked to the airport in a van. Call McCurleys in advance because he gets booked up. A car affords afternoon adventures, maybe a trip to Rum Point, and a dining alternative -- like The Lighthouse or Portofino ... There are several housing options easily arranged through OF. Lots of information on their website about small hotels and villa alternatives. OF keeps an updated list of Oceanfront Condos, Poolside Condos, Beach Villas, and Hotels. OF picks up divers almost anywhere on the island, so be careful, you could accidentally book yourself on the West End!

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