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May 2004 Vol. 19, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cobalt Coast Resort: Divetech

hopefully, a different Grand Cayman experience

from the May, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

When people ask my favorite dive destination, I usually say "the next one." You see, I had never returned to the same place ... until a chance to reunite with an old friend took me back to Grand Cayman this February. It had been 30 years since I last dived here, and I was looking for something beyond the well-known dive experience typically designed for the swarms of novice and occasional divers who visit Cayman. So, before meeting my old pal, I booked into the Cobalt Coast Resort on the north shore, north of Seven Mile Beach, where I looked forward to diving the nearby north wall.

After settling into my oceanfront one-bedroom, I enjoyed a jerk pork tenderloin dinner sitting by the pool, overlooking the sea, where the warm balmy breeze kept the bugs at bay. But the next morning it was blowing like stink. When I reported to the onsite Divetech shop at 8 a.m., I was told there'd be no trip to the north wall. Instead, I was taken by van to a boat dock a few miles south, where I climbed on one of Divetech's two boats for a trip to good old reliable Seven Mile Beach.

Once they had tied to a buoy at Little Tunnels, our British dive guides, Gary and Sebastian, gave us a briefing that lived up to Cayman's reputation for strict rules: 100 feet for 15 minutes, up to 60 feet for another 15 minutes, and a five-minute safety stop. I strode off the swim step and joined the other six divers at the bow to descend on the mooring line. The coral was profuse and diverse, but uncolorful, even in 100-foot visibility. Water was 79oF, whatever the depth. With Gary leading and Sebastian trailing, we swam through a short tunnel and then a coral passage, which we negotiated in each direction. Cobalt Coast Resort: DivetechA 20-inch mutton snapper resting on the sand was the largest fish I saw, with lots of black durgons, parrots, and basslets. At the stern of the boat I handed up my fins and climbed up.

During our surface interval, they offered ice water and fresh orange slices. About half the 20 tank stations are under the cover of the bridge, so we seven divers could spread out comfortably. A camera table in the center of the dive deck was used by the sole photographer in our group. Despite the boat size, it has no head.

We then headed to the Oro Verde, more rubble than wreck. Though the depth was only 50 feet, they restricted us to 40 minutes. Sunk in the early '80s as an artificial reef, a series of storms has tumbled the Oro Verde closer to shore, scattering it along the way. The only penetration is into the wheelhouse. I swam through a window, and Sebastian guided me to an air pocket where I could stick my head out of the water. Fun for some, I guess. Leaving the wheelhouse, I spotted a small grouper under an overhang with a mouthful of cleaner wrasse, and then two flashy French angels accompanied me wherever I went. Their attention flattered me, but when Sebastian fed them orange slices, I realized they had only been mooching a handout.

Although I was surprised that an outfit calling itself "Divetech" would insist on such rigid profiles, my Oceanic computer's bar graph went to the edge of the green safety zone on both dives. While that's of no consequence to experienced divers who know that by the time they surface they'll have unlimited computer time left, some novices fear the "red zone." We were a mixed bag of divers, some of whom hadn't been in the water in more than two years. Nonetheless, they told us that buddy teams with computers could set their own profiles, up to the limits of their certifications (see sidebar, Cayman Eases Diving Restrictions). When we got back, I rinsed my gear and hung it on handy drying pegs outside the Divetech facility. Before sundown, I secured everything in a nearby locker.

Cobalt Coast is a pleasant, secluded 18-room resort, about as close as you can come to a full-scale dive resort on Grand Cayman. There are no stores or restaurants within walking distance. I didn't rent a car so as to avoid the traffic jams on the drag along Seven Mile Beach, so I had arranged an all-inclusive meal package. My air-conditioned, one-bedroom suite had a king-size bed and a sitting room with a convertible sofa, refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, direct dial phone, and cable TV. The less expensive "garden view" rooms overlook the landscaped parking lot. I had a view of the pool, an ironshore beach too treacherous to walk on, and a long pier. On the Cobalt Coast website, the pier looks like a boat dock, but the water is too shallow for anything bigger than an inflatable. There's a mini wall (depth about 70 fsw) some 200 yards offshore and beyond that a deep drop off. One can scuba or snorkel from the pier, conditions permitting. Divetech advertises water taxi rides to either wall but not during the stormy winter months. In fact, one staff member wondered aloud whether they would ever offer the service again, due to low demand and high operating costs.

While I was having a Cayman Mama cocktail at the rectangular open-air bar, owner Arie Barendrecht told me he'd built the resort just three years ago. A Dutchman with an extensive background in the hospitality industry, Arie presides over the resort and restaurant with old world charm and efficiency. The dinner menu included meat, fowl, fish, and pasta dishes. Even on the full meal plan, I had to pay a premium for pricier entres (steak or lobster). Recipes were sophisticated for a dive resort (Chilean sea bass in a mango glaze for instance), and everything was cooked to perfection, including the rack of lamb that I ordered medium rare. The wine list included a nice mix of Californian and foreign vintages, some available by the glass. Lunches were mostly sandwiches or salads. Full breakfasts were served starting at 7 a.m.

On the second morning the wind died, but I still didn't get to the north wall. I had booked three specialty dives, to be conducted out of Divetech's main facility at Turtle Reef, about halfway between Cobalt Coast and the dive boat dock. Ken, a British Columbian, gave us three divers a brief orientation to the battery-powered Dacor Sea Sprint scooter. We followed him out a short dock and climbed down a ladder to put our fins on in a shallow, surgey cove. Then, we scootered out on the surface to a marker buoy, where we descended and turned right into a negligible current, along the mini-wall. The scooter carried me a little faster than I could comfortably swim. The onespeed accelerator had a dead-man switch, so any time I wanted to stop, all I had to do was lift my thumb. The unit was a half-pound negative, so I added air to my BC while hovering. Though I tucked my scooter under my chest, as instructed, it had a tendency to force my head up, and I found myself using my fins more than necessary to keep my head down and to steer. Twice I felt some sharp thumps in my chest when I let the shielded propeller get too close to my body. A little practice would have solved those problems, I'm sure. Turtle Reef boasted a wider array of fish than either of the previous dives off Seven Mile Beach. I saw lobster, hawksbill turtles, a barracuda in the blue, the business end of 6-foot green moray, a smaller black and white mosaic moray, and a stingray buried in the sand.The scooter proved a good tool to increase my range, although the Sea Sprints are limited by a 30-40 minute battery life. It was great fun, but I prefer finning.

After lunch I traveled the same route using a Drager Dolphin semi-closed circuit rebreather with 43% Nitrox (Nitrox certification isn't necessary). After a 45-minute onshore orientation, Nat (one of the few Americans on the Divetech staff) led us leisurely along the mini wall. At first my Dolphin was so quiet I wondered if it was working, but then I got water in the loop while fidgeting with the uncomfortable mouthpiece. I couldn't fully purge it (the exhaust hose on the twohose rebreather came over my right shoulder -- opposite of open-circuit two-hose regulators -- so a new set of purging gyrations was required). After that my exhalations gurgled for the rest of the dive.

Nat had warned that I wouldn't be able to adjust my buoyancy by breathing, since my exhalations would stay in the breathing loop. I spent much of the dive fiddling with my BCD, so I didn't see as much as on the morning scooter dive. A large green sea turtle kept a wary distance, but I hovered and observed a scrawled filefish grazing the wall. Cobalt Coast Resort: DivetechEmerald-green with bright blue spots, it looked like a refugee from a George Town tattoo parlor. At our safety stop, a blue spotted peacock flounder broke cover to gobble down a snack, signaling his satisfaction by raising his showy pectoral fin. During this 88-minute dive I could not get any closer to the fish than with a scooter, though experienced rebreather users can move into those Cocos Island hammerhead schools without spooking them.

They offer night dives Tuesday and Friday, so I tacked one onto my pre-booked package. It turned out to be a dusk dive, starting about 6:15 p.m. with a shore entry out of the Turtle Bay cove. Our Australian divemaster, Sharon, lent us backup lights, because Cyalumes are not allowed -- turtles like to bite them. A large lobster stalked the sand. Brittle stars draped themselves on brilliant orange elephant ear sponges. In a cavern, my light illuminated an anemone whose tentacles shone with bright orange polyps. Moorish idols and shrimps I hadn't seen during the day came out to play. Sharon lit up several file clams that looked like small beaded purses on the outside, but glowed red inside. Things got crowded as seven divers jockeyed for position whenever Sharon pointed out a subject. I didn't see any turtles, octopi, or free swimming eels as advertised, but the corals and sponges blazed with far more color than in daylight. We finished the dive in darkness under a full moon and surfaced to the lights of an outdoor bar just above the cove where off-duty Divetechers were partying. Some divers had been able to take advantage of the windless conditions that day to make a boat trip to the north wall, where they reported seeing a few reef sharks. But all I saw was Turtle Reef.

Divetech offers more than 30 specialty courses, plus a full range of rec and tech certifications. They stock 63, 80, and 100 cu.ft. tanks, and they carry a full line of gear for rent and purchase. Nitrox and trimix are available, and Turtle Reef has a full photo and video center. At either location, buddies may shore dive any time. Weights and tanks are included in packages, but otherwise tanks of air are $7.50, while Nitrox 32 goes for $10 a tank.

One of Divetech's unique features is free diving instruction. As a Northern California abalone diver, I'm always interested in increasing my free diving range, so I enrolled in the two-day advanced class. A businessman from Trinidad and I were Sharon's only students. Our first morning was spent on classwork from the IANTD manual coauthored by Divetech owner Nancy Eastbrook and two other experts. After demonstrating breathing exercises, Sharon supplied me with a low volume mask, a short basic snorkel (to reduce drag), and long, stiff-bladed, full-pocket Sporosub free diving fins. She put me through several in-water drills including a 60-foot kick at a depth of l8 feet. I practiced a breathing cycle designed to fully ventilate my lungs without hyperventilating, as well as techniques for saving energy and preserving air, such as raising only one leg to begin a surface dive. After a couple of "recreational dives" to 30 fsw, we finished the day with a rescue drill in case of shallow water blackout. This phenomenon, in which free divers lose consciousness with no warning, is the basis of free diving's cardinal rule: never dive alone.

The following morning Cobalt Coast looked more like a surfing resort, with white-capped waves crashing over the pier. So Sharon, Chris, and I climbed on the boat for a trip to Big Tunnels off Seven Mile Beach. Suddenly, the scuba divers onboard looked silly fumbling with all that gear, when all we had to deal with were mask, snorkel, fins, and weights. Choppy surface conditions caused Sharon to do a bit of improvising. After completing a buoyancy check (free divers should be neutral at 33 fsw), she told us to make a dive to the 53-foot mark, a requirement for passing the course. This seemed bass-ackward because we still hadn't covered proper equalizing procedures. But both of us made the depth. Before the next dive, I asked Sharon's advice on ear clearing, began gently equalizing toward the end of my breathe-up, and then constantly all the way down. I passed the 53-foot mark and reached the bottom at 67 feet. On my ascent my diaphragm was wracked with spasms (free divers call this "the tugs"), but with proper buoyancy I could kick leisurely to the surface. My dive lasted 46 seconds.

The surface was now boiling, so Sharon decided we'd finish our in-water, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation exercises back at the Cobalt Coast pool. The course ended with an open-book exam. I celebrated passing the course with a cold beer in the hot tub.

I then joined my friend Pete and his family at the Christopher Columbus Condos on Seven Mile Beach. He arranged a couple of outings with a very laidback outfit called Divers Down, which has one location downtown and another out on Seven Mile Beach. Our Australian boat captain and divemaster Stuey first anchored at Round Rock Canyon, off Seven Mile Beach. In comparatively murky water (80-foot visibility at 75 fsw), he led us through a nice swim-through. Near the end of the dive I encountered a large school of horseye jacks, but otherwise I saw mostly small reef fish. After a 45 minute surface interval, which Stuey borrowed my computer to calculate, we made our second dive nearby at Killer Puffer Fish Reef. The title character was on the lam, but we were met by a 4-foot 'cuda who hung under the boat for the whole dive. Stuey sat this dive out, so I led the group following his directions up one spur and back down the other, keeping the hull or anchor line in sight at almost all times. We paused to watch an eagle ray soaring over the sand about 50 feet down. A photographer from South Carolina who's a Diver Down regular did his own thing, despite a Cayman prohibition against solo diving.

While these dives were disappointing, Stuey redeemed himself at Stingray City. I had sharply mixed feelings about this dive (see sidebar, Cayman Controversies). While fish-feeding dives are an artificial experience, they do allow us to encounter sea creatures on a more intimate basis than any other way. Whether by dumb luck or clever planning, Stuey got four of us in the water just when a huge excursion boat had left and before other boats arrived. Overweighted and kneeling on the sandy bottom in 12 feet of water, we had as many as 17 rays swooping over us. Stuey used a piece of squid to lead the rays through graceful maneuvers. I teased one a little too long and was chastised with a hickey on my left calf, but I was so enthralled by the experience I hardly noticed. A highlight was the presence of several juveniles, who usually shy away from contact with divers. It looks like another generation is learning to accept handouts.

I also snorkled at Eden Rock in the heart of George Town, where the cruise ships moor. It's a real reef, topping out at 20 feet down. A barracuda worked the edge of the reef, which was populated by blue chromis and several yellowtail snappers up to 18 inches long. Using my new free diving skills, I logged some face time with a 4-foot tarpon that was sulking in a cut about 30 feet down. Eden Rock is a full dive center with parking -- a godsend in the congested heart of town. There's no charge to snorkel off their ladder, but for scuba divers there's a prohibition against "outside tanks."

Cayman is expensive. One evening we ordered takeout sushi for six -- and the tab came to US$169. But Cobalt Coast and Divetech are first class operations, with friendly, customer-oriented staffs. So I felt my money was well spent.

Still, experienced divers will not be happy with Cayman diving if all they can do is dive Seven Mile Beach reefs. Winter weather - December through February - makes it chancy. Expect a couple bad weeks during hurricane season: July into November. Sign up with operations listed in the Chapbook that cater to experienced recreational or technical divers, such as The Red Baron (www.cayman.org/redbaron or 345.945.4744); they pick up divers from Seven Mile Beach accommodations.

Stay on the East End and dive with Ocean Frontiers (www.oceanfrontiers.com or 888- 232-0541), where there are far fewer tourists and more pristine reefs. Consider Cayman Diving Lodge (800-TLC-DIVE or 345-947-7041; www.divelodge.com) as an inexpensive and basic alternative. And, it you sign up for the Cayman Aggressor during the winter time, don't be disappointed if all you do is dive Grand Cayman; frequently it can't make the passage to Little Cayman or Brac.

-- D.L.

Cobalt Coast Resort: DivetechDivers Compass: My package at Cobalt Coast (www.cobaltcoast.com or 866-622-9626) was $981/person (double occupancy) for five nights, including taxes and service charges, all meals, and round-trip airport transfers (I was even able to use the shuttle from my Seven Mile Beach Condo at the end of my stay). ... Cayman's Stingray beer was $3.50 each at the resort's Duppie's Bar. ... My dive package was $85 for a two-tank boat dive, $66.25 for the scooter dive, $156 for the rebreather experience, $45 for the night dive, and $250 for the advanced free-diver course. ... 866-622-9626 or www.divetech.com. ... The Christopher Columbus is near the north end of the strand (www.grandcaymans.com or 345-945-4354). ... Our two-bedroom-plus-den condo went for $450 a night. ... Divers Down (www.diversdown.net or 345-916-3751) was $75 for a two-tank dive.

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