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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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November 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Compass Point Dive Resort, Grand Cayman

an East End dive resort for serious divers

from the November, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

What I like most about diving is the full, 24-hour experience: Being on the boat with a small group of interesting divers, sharing happy-hour stories and travel tales, being awakened by the bright clang of tanks, having a short walk to the dive boat and finding my gear ready to go, being around guides who enjoy their work and their guests, a local area with a little local culture remaining. In reality, more than just the isolated experience underwater.

There was a day when the Caribbean had plenty of those resorts, and the East End of Grand Cayman itself had two. There was Cayman Divers' Lodge, now the site of a for-sale sign, advertising it was once a resort site. The other was the 14-room Tortuga Club, destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert in 1989, the very week I was there (I spent two nights hunkered down in the East End Community Center). But today, there is just one. Compass Point Dive Resort, built by the owners of the Ocean Frontiers dive shop, sports much of the camaraderie of those intimate, little dive resorts but with 28 one-, two- and threebedroom condos that are up to 21st century standards.

Eagleray's Upstairs, The Dive Shop BelowI've probably dived the East End of Cayman more than any other Caribbean venue, so when I was about to leave for a North Carolina hiking trip in mid-October and had a few extra days, I made last-minute reservations and headed south on a twohour nonstop flight from Charlotte. I've always carried my own gear, but with my bag stuffed with hiking boots and fleece jackets, I only had room for my wetsuit and mask. Because many Undercurrent readers now opt not to carry a heavy extra bag and pay stiff baggage fees, I figured I'd travel light, renting gear on the spot. It had been well more than a year since I've been wet, so Ocean Frontiers, the dive shop at COmpass Point, has a rule for people like me: hire an instructor for your first dive. Being no rule breaker, I would go along with it.

Zara Dyer, a Brit in her late 20s (mostly Brits work there) who got her chops in Malta, Thailand, and Fiji, became my instructor. While I expected to be put through paces such as mask clearing, a hand signal review and God knows what else, there was none of that. She had me verify my nitrox mix, set up my gear and helped me into it, pointed out the basics of my Subgear computer (which gave simple information but seemed pretty useless after that), steadied me as I shuffled up to the side transom in gnarly seas, and jumped in first to save my ass in case I was so overweighted I would plummet to hell. But the eight pounds I had ordered up weren't quite enough, so she handed me another two and down we went. After exchanging OK signs on the bottom, Zara kicked away slowly, pointing out creatures here and there, while navigating like she had dived Lighthouse Wall forever, though she had been on Grand Cayman less than three months.

Compass Point Dive Resort, Grand CaymanThe sheer wall had plenty of nice hard and soft corals, a fair share of tropicals and a meandering four-foot reef shark. I watched a pair of banded butterflyfish poke at the reef, marveled at the sparkling diamonds on the back of a juvenile yellowtail damsel, and watched a couple basslets dance under a rock cropping, while being eyed by a stoic, blood-red lionfish. A single goby inhabiting a large star coral would have made a fine macro shot had I bothered to pack my camera. It was indeed a pleasant first dive -- 104 feet for 49 minutes. When I returned to the boat, one diver was staring at his computer and shaking his head. He had gone into deco and he was grounded for the next 24 hours, another rule. While going into deco is no big thing -- you do come out of it as you rise, of course -- I suppose the penalty is more to say, "This will teach you to pay attention, pal."

To avoid a surface interval on the choppy seas, we motored back for a short spell, then returned to Playing Fields, a much fishier site, where Creole fish, chubs, chromis, black durgon and sergeant majors swam in loose aggregation. I followed Zara over and between coral mesas, watching sand tilefish hovering over the sand, jawfish tidying up their holes, a spotted moray eyeing me from a crevice, and large conch dragging itself along. Two barracuda sashayed over to size me up. Under a ledge, a lobster ballerina stood en pointe. Near a cluster of three symmetrical yellow tube sponges, a Pederson shrimp danced on the tentacles of a corkscrew anemone. Though the sky was overcast and dark, visibility was about 80 feet.

After a couple of dives, it was lunch above the dive shop at Eagleray's -- burgers, fish and chips, good fries and salads, chicken curry, barbecued ribs -- and while I could have joined the afternoon dive, I typically use the first few days to check out the environs to fill in my story. Because Compass Point includes a compact Avis car in its dive package, it was easy to do that.

A View of the Nauticat from my Condo DeckIn many ways, Cayman's East End remains the old Cayman, even though at the northeastern point, there's the large, family-oriented Tortuga Club condo complex, with the Reef Resort next door. A few big-buck tourist homes have been built, but the feeling of old Cayman remains -- tourists can join in a Sunday church fish fry or, a few blocks north, partake in a lawn barbecue several days a week. However, be careful to drive on the left-hand side of the road (traffic is minimal here, but horrendous near Georgetown) and avoid the feral chickens and occasional iguanas. A car is important to get to nearby restaurants. Tukka is perhaps the best, with a nice bar boasting an ocean balcony. Owned by an Aussie who also owns Eagleray's (the interchangeable staff is Indian and Filipino), Tukka serves rubbed tuna, big steaks, jerked chicken, mahi mahi, lobster, linguini and burgers. The conch/crocodile burger seemed like a winner -- but it wasn't. Nearby is Vivine's Kitchen, essentially her home, with such local favorites as turtle (raised on Cayman) stew and goat stew. Chopsticks has Chinese fare and pizzas. Down the road are restaurants in the big hotels, a few miles farther are the Lighthouse and Over the Edge. Everyone serves lionfish, a mild and somewhat tasteless but firm whitefish. I had lionfish tacos, lionfish ceviche, and lionfish and chips to do my share for the reefs. For breakfast, one can stock up on cereals, milk, eggs, bread and fruit at Foster's supermarket, a couple miles down the road.

A 3 a.m. thunderstorm didn't bode well for the next morning's diving. While there was no rain, the strong wind made it tough to walk a straight line down the dock. The Nauticat headed south and around the island to High Rock Dropoff, which had heavy wave action. His English accent sometimes impenetrable, Kevin hammed it through the briefing, which was illustrated by hand drawings of the reef, and then led the dive. The rule: Buddy up or follow him, and 25 minutes into the dive, he'll be near the boat and wave good-bye, and you can stay down until you come out, with 500 psi or so.

He led us through two separate swim-throughs. The first, perhaps 80 feet long, was no place for claustrophobes -- my regulator hose twice got hung up on the walls -- and there were few spots one could escape upwards. I eventually exited on the wall, where I rose past a lionfish patiently awaiting an unsuspecting meal. The second cave ended at a manicured sand wall, where I cruised up 10 feet to emerge onto the reef. I watched a French angel and a couple of parrotfish, (there were few of them on the reefs), then moved upward to the reef top, active with tropicals. I was perferctly warm in a 3-mm wetsuit in 83-degree water, but then hit a patch that felt 10 degrees cooler, followed by another warm patch, then a cold patch again, a perplexing pattern that marked the rest of the dive. I followed schooling chubs and chromis, speculating that they might be preferring one temperature over another, but my theory didn't hold. After a climb up one of two good sturdy ladders, I was assisted back to my bench seat to disrobe, and orange slices and lollipops were handed out. I refused the lollipop -- I imagined the bucking boat face-planting me onto the floor and jamming it down my throat. Zara led the second dive, taking my group of seven over spur and groove formations. A large stingray shot from the sand; another diver found a well-camouflaged scorpionfish. I followed a porcupine puffer in and out of hiding places until he took up residence near a brittle star. Twice, a large porgy swam up to study me. On the reef top, elkhorn coral stood proud while below, plenty of orange, yellow and red corals provided plenty of color, even under gray skies.

But the wind made it chilly, so a warm shower back in my beachfront one-bedroom condo (they're privately owned) was very welcome. It was a nice second-floor unit with a small, modestly equipped kitchen, washer/dryer, comfortable couch, chairs and bed, and a flat-screen TV with cable. After I toted my wetsuit to the balcony to dry, I slipped twice on the wet tile floor. I should have accepted the dive shop staff's offer to rinse out and dry my rubber.

I had paid in advance for four days, expecting to stay even longer, maybe somewhere else, but circumstances required me to cut the trip short. I try to avoid paying in advance, because like so many dive resorts, Compass Point has a no-refund policy. But when I noticed that few units were occupied, I realized I would have had no problem extending, though the rental car might have been an issue. When I checked out, explaining my need for an early departure, I was reminded of the no-refund policy, but was told I wouldn't be charged for my rental gear.

Compass Point Dive Resort, Grand CaymanI think the East End still remains one of the best destinations for Caribbean divers. It has dramatic, unique and interesting topography, with plenty of healthy coral, thanks to limited development. While I didn't get to see the full range of fish life, given the weather-limited dive sites, I made it a point to talk with other divers who saw some of the bigger stuff. And Undercurrent subscriber John Keith (Logan, UT), who was there a few weeks before me, reports that he saw "several nurse and reef sharks, a few turtles, a couple of eagle rays, large groups of tarpon, eels and some good-sized groupers," typical of what I've seen over scores of tanks there and what one what you can expect over a week's diving, unless you get stuck in bad weather on the south side, typical in November and December.

Best of all, Compass Point carries that dive resort feeling, though it could use a common room, where divers could gather. The substitue is a small, predinner bar, where a divemaster or two will likely be hanging out, and divers who stay elsewhere or have second homes in the area. (I watched the San Francisco Giants beat up the Royals, jawing a bit with three Kansas City divers who had just arrived). Over a week, there is plenty of dive variety at 53 sites they visit and plenty of opporunity to dive -- two-tank afternoon dives, a threetank dive on one day, a dive in search of big fish, glow dives, lionfish hunts, a dive on the purposely sunk Kittiwake -- but they've been known to book up, so so cruise the website and plan ahead. It's clear that Ocean Frontiers caters to experienced divers, exercising limited control and letting you do your own thing underwater, with no tut-tutting for staying down a bit too long. And depending upon the time of year and day of the week, there's nonstop service to Grand Cayman from at least 15 American cities, Toronto and London, making it an easyto- reach destination. With the West End all the way to Bodden Town looking like Miami these days, head to the East End, where there's a real dive resort, and a little bit of old Cayman -- and its friendly people -- lingers.

P.S.: When I arrived home, an old diving buddy asked me how much Cayman had changed. I told him about the time 25 years ago when I was in the old Tortuga Club bar at 9 p.m. and in stumbled five drunk men, one a police officer. They had set out that day to have a drink in every bar on the island (there were 22) and they had achieved their goal -- the Tortuga Club was the last bar on the island, at the end of the road. Today, the road goes all around Grand Cayman, there are more than 22 bars on Seven Mile Beach alone, and those guys would be arrested by a sober policeman long before they drove out of town.

-- Ben Davison

Compass Point Dive Resort, Grand CaymanDivers Compass: Compass Point's winter rates are $1,715 per person for a one-bedroom oceanfront penthouse, double occupancy, with six days of two-tank diving and a rental car (expect to pay about $100 in additional rental car fees) . . . rush hour traffic means giving yourself an hour minimum to drive to the airport . . . Ocean Frontiers' only rental fins were Mares pocket fins, uncomfortable and difficult to pull off in the water . . . two-tank afternoon trips are $129; the single-tank Kittiwake dive is $95 . . . the American dollar is readily usable currency; prices are a little higher than "home" . . . Websites: www.compasspoint.com ; www.oceanfrontiers.com

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