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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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October 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 34, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Pirates Point Resort, Little Cayman

still the best of Cayman diving

from the October, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

When I arrived at Pirates Point at 7 p.m., my first stop was proprietor Gladys Howardís home, the venue for a hurricane party with her guests celebrating the passage of Hurricane Fay. It had stirred up the waters enough to keep the dive boat docked for a day, but nothing like Gustav would do 11 days later (more about that later).

All rooms at Pirates Point were taken, so that night I slept in Gladysí pleasant guest bedroom, which she opens to an overflow crowd if it isnít taken by a friend or relative. After that, I had the choice between one of four sizeable oceanfront duplex rooms, but they are not air-conditioned, a lacking amenity during 80-degree nights with little ocean breeze. I opted for what isnít much more than a bedroom with a table in the octagonal-shaped fourplex: comfortable and air-conditioned but viewless and without much charm.

A Lionfish Sculpture Made from Beachcombing

A Lionfish Sculpture Made from Beachcombing

Next day, while boats from Little Cayman Beach Resort rocked and rolled in Bloody Bay, we Pirates Point divers made a single, very ordinary, beach dive. Divemaster Michelle, a Londoner, told me she had heard other resortsí boat captains talking about how the rough seas had beaten up their passengers. And besides, she allowed, ďWe have an older clientele.Ē With clear skies, divers at most resorts would have been complaining about missed dives, but savvy Pirates Point divers figured management knew best. My group included an adventurous 72-yearold with a spanking new, megabuck housed SLR and dual strobes, and a teenage diver as well.

Pirates Point Resort, Little CaymanThe rest of the week? Flat and calm. Each day we loaded our gear into vans at 9 a.m. to be motored five minutes near the Little Cayman Beach Resort, where Pirates Point docks its 42-foot Newton, the Yellow Rose. However, for that first beach dive (Jackson Wall and Cumberís Cove), we drove to the west side, geared up, then trekked 50 yards north to craggy, iron stone and coral shallows before kicking out maybe 100 yards to a small reef with a few tropicals Ė black durgeons, chromis, snappers -- and plenty of sea fans. The sand bottom was covered with swaying garden eels dodging a solitary sting ray; four lobster congregated in a hole. I slipped through a large chute to the wall. At 94 feet, I looked up to see a small reef shark slip by. The wall was covered with silt, few fish, and little color even when the sun peeked through. That was not the Bloody Bay I remembered from even a decade ago.

But when we returned for lunch, the kitchen produced that same fine cuisine it had from my visit 15 years before. Today it was a lentil salad, cucumber salad, chicken minestrone, great chewy foccacia, and brownies. Dinner was marvelous roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and gravy, asparagus, sweet potato, a green salad. Gladys Howard, who has created a following like, well, a diving Julia Child, bought this little resort in 1984 because she was a diver and a well-trained chef. Larry Smith, the celebrity Texan dive guide who died last year, told her about PP and she turned it into an immediate hit because of the superb wall diving and her scrumptious cooking. Little has changed. She still serves fresh vegetables for every meal, travels to Houston and Whole Foods to bring back the latest in grains or other discoveries, and scored fresh tuna steaks for one dinner, all the while entertaining you with local gossip (some divers return year after year just to catch up).

The bar is little changed, just more clutter from artwork fashioned by guests from flotsam and jetsam they collect; some pieces are true folk art. The bar is tight when 20 or so guests are mixing their own drinks (the dive packages are all-inclusive) or checking their computers (there is WiFi, although in Gladysí resort notes she tells people that if they insist on going online, donít report the news, and there is no TV or newspapers). The dining room is cheery and comfortable. Meals are buffet; you sit at a table with five others until Gladys calls you to be served. The waiters-cum-divemasters keep your goblets filled with passable wines.

The Yellow Rose is suited well to the 20-plus divers it can carry. After I set up my gear, one of the well-trained instructors helped me stand by pulling the tank from the bench holster. At the stern transom, Iíd slip on my fins and jump in. As this was late August and the last week before Pirates Point closed for hurricane season, the number of divers eventually dwindled to 10, but we were always in two groups, each with one leader. The mature and expert staff always kept an eye out for stragglers, and offered a hand with buoyancy. As I studied a pipefish on the reef, I was sinking too close to the coral and Gay Morse, who has been at the resort for years, pointed at my fin so I could stop myself. Gay used a slate to alert divers to critters. ďGiant Tunicate!!Ē On another dive, guide Bob wrote ďanenome shrimp.Ē (I didnít have the heart to correct his spelling, otherwise he might send back a copy of Undercurrent, pointing out my typos.)

Little Cayman is noted for its sheer wall, rimmed with vivid coral shallows, varying from 20 to 50 feet in depth, all contrasting with flat patches of brilliant white sand. We dived Mixing Bowl twice. I rolled through a fair number of tropicals at the wall rim at 30 feet, then floated slowly down past schools of chromis interspersed with yellowtails. In a hole, I looked at the gnarly claws of a large crab, then entered a cut at 90 feet, where a free-swimming spotted moray wiggled along, oblivious to a solo French angel mingling with fairy basslets. After 15 minutes, I worked up to the shallows, where guide Martha Feinhagen pointed out a dime-sized crab burying itself in the sand, then a disguised stingray covered with sand, rising and falling to its gill beats. A conch crossed the bottom, inching ahead every five seconds, the time it took for it to dig its claw in the sand and push forward. On a large coral mound, grunts were stacked like cordwood. Pleasant dive, as were all of them. The viz ran about 70 feet. The water was 85 degrees at all depths on every dive. Like at Jackson Mooring -- first a mini-wall, then a sand plateau, then down through a chute, where a four-foot reef shark shot by with what seemed to be a snapper nipping at it.

Ian Stewart, who was running a photo workshop for the week, told me that Sarahís Set was named after a divemaster of days past who resembled the topography below. I dropped to the sand, then down to 70 feet and that vertical wall. Less than 20 percent was covered with live coral, and there were lots of algae, but the sheer wall contrasted dramatically with the deep blue abyss. Schooling chromis and snappers swirled just above me among tube sponges, a throaty barrel sponge and wire coral. As I stopped to marvel at the sparkling eyes of a large pufferfish, I spotted a beautiful lettuce slug, then a tiger tail extending from beneath a coral head like a giant night crawler. Then up to a celebration, where Gay had tracked down an orange seahorse she frequently encountered. In the shallows were endless and unusual blennies, which caught the eye of most photographers, while I watched a silvery permit poke around.

Down deep at Bus Top, named because one could once see the top of an old bus from the boat, a reef shark meandered slowly and a turtle floated in the blue, as I watched both a queen trigger and an ocean trigger flutter around. In the sand flat, two thumbnail-sized flounders chased each other. Then I crossed to the colorful reef, where at 15 feet a long, flat seascape lay, filled with beautiful, undulating blue and green and beige pastel seafans. As I approached the boat, a school of jacks, with a black durgeon running with them, stayed in the boatís shadow as it drifted on its mooring. On the way back, glistening flying fish skipped off the gunwales.

Itís only two dives a day at Pirates Point, but you can take as much time as you want(no one seemed to go beyond an hour but there was no limit). It was an easy climb back into the boat and a staffer always walked everyone to the bench with a steady hand on the tank. After a roll call to ensure everyone had returned (a lost diver would have little problem kicking the couple of hundred yards to shore) we scarfed down individual packs of junk food or smeared peanut butter on crackers, washed down with juice or soda.

Little Cayman is a flat, scrubby island, 11 miles long and a mile wide. Each day, I hopped on a serviceable, fat-tired bike to peddle about for an hour, maybe out to the Blue Lagoon bar for a cold beer or a stop at the Little Cayman National Trust building and a view of nesting booby birds, slowing along the way to watch chunky iguanas waddle down the road or see ducks and egrets in the pond. Counting the people who work at the few hotels and condos, there arenít much more than a couple of hundred people living on Little Cayman, so other than going to the little market, the Blue Iguana Restaurant or getting a massage, thereís not much left to do with your down time but snooze and read.

And, of course, eat the delicious food from Gladysí kitchen. Lunches were conch fritters, gazpacho with fruit, barbecued chicken, slightly sweet and tender coleslaw, beans, snow peas, cornbread, and lots of good salads like beet or even radish salad. Pirates Point Resort, Little CaymanOne night, it was an Indian dinner with papadum; another night featured beef stroganoff and broccoli salad. And desserts: banana cream cake, fruit cobbler, brownies.

While Pirates Point has remained the same since my visit 15 years ago, the diving has changed. Scientists have found that Little Cayman has a coral cover loss of nearly 40 percent in five years (declining from 26.3 percent total coverage in 1999 to 15.8 percent in 2004), though it seems to have stabilized. The primary cause is white plague disease, which may have some association with humans. High water temperatures and coral bleaching have also taken their toll. Fish life isnít as prolific but just about every animal youíd expect to see in the Caribbean is there. As we all know, coral worldwide is disappearing, fish life is diminishing, diversity is waning. So while Little Cayman may still rank among the best diving in the Caribbean, itís not what it once was - - and may never be. It wasnít until just this August that spearing Nassau grouper had been banned in the Caymans; in marine parks, itís permissible to fish from shore or at depths greater than 80 feet (they better let the grouper live because itís about the only lionfish predator in Caribbean waters). Nonetheless, Little Cayman should be high on every diverís Caribbean list -- especially Pirates Point. Itís that unique and special.

On my final day at Pirates Point, I was the last to leave. Hurricane season was approaching and the staff was shuttering the windows and taking down the hammocks. And with good reason. Eleven days later, Gustav came through, breaking windows, ripping off corners of roofs and tearing up the foliage. Other resorts, such as the Conch Club and the Southern Cross Club, didnít fare nearly as well as Pirates Point. And every boat ended up in the mangroves, but Gay and her husband Ed Morse retrieved the Yellow Rose and took it to Grand Cayman for annual maintenance a few days later. By the way, Gladys was in Houston during Gustav, having a second knee replacement. By all accounts, she will be back for the October 25th opening.

Unfortunately, I canít report on what Hurricane Gustav did to the diving, but it came from the south, while Bloody Bay and Jackson Hole are on the north side. One can expect uprooted fans, sand on the reef, critters looking for new homes. For repeat visitors, diving after a hurricane opens up all sort of new things. While e-mails from people living on the island say diving hasnít changed, weíll see what our readers report and let you know in our monthly dive news e-mails to subscribers (sign up to receive them for free at Undercurrent).

-- Ben Davison

Pirates Point Resort, Little CaymanDiverís Compass: Rates for the coming year are $1,995 per person, plus a 15 percent service charge, for a seven-night, six-day, double occupancy package . . . I was a solo traveler who made reservations a week ahead of time so they waived the single supplement, a pricey $150 per day in the winter, without my even asking (and not because they knew who I was, because they didnít) . . . A warning to anyone with severe cat allergies: A few cats lounge around the main building and in Gladysí home . . . One can rent a car or a moped on Little Cayman but beware -- I was told by good authority that the proprietor makes his living from finding dents and scratches when you bring it back . . . At the far end of the island is a decaying home once owned by Burgess Meredith, where he sequestered himself, the story goes, to dry out between shoots . . . Cayman Air commuting cautions: You may be charged for overweight bags; you may have to send bags a day early if you want them to arrive home with you; flights may be canceled, combined or diverted, therefore mucking up plans as you arrive on or depart from Grand Cayman . . . Youíre required to go to Little Caymanís garage-sized airport building an hour before flight time and wait outside in scorching weather . . . Nitrox is available, but everyone stuck with air; a night dive wasnít offered, at least not to me . . . Web site:

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