What they lack in nightlife, the Cayman Islands make up for in watersports activities, especially scuba diving and snorkeling. Coral reefs and coral formations encircle each island and are filled with marine life, which scuba divers and snorkelers are forbidden by law to disturb (so enjoy the underwater views, but don't touch the coral).
The full diving scene in the Cayman Islands could fill a book, or several. If you're a serious diver, pick up one of the comprehensive divers' guidebooks. The best one we've seen is a paperback, The Dive Sites of the Cayman Islands: Over 260 Top Dive and Snorkel Sites by Lawson Wood.
It's easy to dive close to shore, so boats aren't necessary, although plenty of diving boats are available. For certain excursions, we recommend a trip with a qualified dive master. Many dive shops offer rentals, but they won't rent you scuba gear or supply air unless you have a card from one of the international diving schools, such as NAUI or PADI. Hotels also rent diving equipment to their guests who are certified divers, and will arrange snorkeling and scuba-diving trips.
Universally regarded as the most up-to-date and best-equipped watersports facility in the Cayman Islands, Red Sail Sports maintains its administrative headquarters at Coconut Place (PO Box 31473, Grand Cayman KY1-1206; tel. 877/REDSAIL [733-7245] in the U.S., or 345/945-5965; www.redsailcayman.com) and its largest, best-accessorized branch at the Grand Cayman Beach Suites, West Bay Road (tel. 345/949-8745). Other locations are at the Westin Casuarina (tel. 345/949-8732); at Rum Point (tel. 345/947-9203); at the Marriott Beach Resort (tel. 345/949-6343); at the Courtyard by Marriott (tel. 345/946-5481); and at Morritt's Tortuga Club (tel. 345/947-2097).
Red Sail has the most comprehensive watersports program on the island, including all equipment rentals for everything from banana-boat tube rides to kayaking and water-skiing. Certified divers can choose from a variety of boat dives each day. A two-tank morning or afternoon dive goes for US$120, with a one-tank afternoon boat dive costing US$75. Special dives include a one-tank Stingray City dive for US$75 and a one-tank night dive for the same price. Full PADI open-water certification costs US$450 to US$550. All types of scuba gear can be rented.
The company also offers boat trips, including parasailing excursions. Catamaran sails are provided, the most popular being a 4 1/2-hour jaunt to Stingray City, with lunch and snorkeling included, that goes for US$88 for adults or half-price for children 12 and under. Two-hour sunset sails along the North Sound cost US$40 for adults or half-price for children 12 and under, and you can also book a dinner catamaran cruise for US$75 for adults or half-price for children 12 and under. Catamaran snorkeling trips cost US$55 or half-price for children.
Divetech, Cobalt Coast Resort & Suites, 18 Sea Fan Dr., Boatswains Bay (tel. 888/946-5656 or 345/946-5658; www.divetech.com), is one of the best organized and most attentive outfitters, with a fine reputation and a location near deep marine walls and drop-offs that divers find superb, if not the best shore-diving spot in the islands. The operation is headquartered in a clapboard-covered cottage on the grounds of the recommended Cobalt Coast Resort and Suites, on Grand Cayman's most northwestern tip, far from the hubbub of Seven Mile Beach. The coastline is treacherously jagged, covered with bruising rocks that can puncture the side of any watercraft that ventures too close. Consequently, Divetech boats moor at a massive 36m (118-ft.) concrete pier that juts seaward. From here, within a relatively short distance, divers have access to a cornucopia of dive options that are difficult to duplicate anywhere else.
Many, but not all, of Divetech's clients opt to stay at its well-recommended associated hotel, Cobalt Coast Resort and Suites. Those who don't stay at Cobalt Coast must either drive or make special arrangements for transportation from hotels on other parts of the island. Activity prices are invariably cheaper when they're clustered within one of the resort's many dive packages. If you choose not to purchase a package, a two-tank dive for certified divers costs US$110, and a 3 1/2-hour resort course for a first-timer goes for US$125. Open-water certification costs US$450. Guided shore dives are US$55.
Canadian-born Nancy Romanica is Divetech's founder and creative force. She's also an authority on the curious pastime known as free-diving, recommended only for very experienced divers, where aficionados reach alarming depths using only their carefully trained lung capacities (as in, without scuba tanks). The cost for a guided free-dive and a lesson (usually taught by Nancy herself) is US$110 per person for a half-day and US$220 per person for a full day.
Eden Rock Diving Center, 124 S. Church St., in George Town (tel. 345/949-7243; www.edenrockdive.com), specializes in dives to Eden Rock and Devil's Grotto, hailed as two of the best dive sites in the Caribbean. A full line of scuba and snorkeling equipment is available for rent, with a two-tank dive going for US$90 to US$100. Snorkeling trips cost US$30.
Ocean Frontiers Reef Resort, Austin Connelly Drive, East End (tel. 800/348-6096 or 345/947-7500; www.oceanfrontiers.com), is a well-run outfitter highlighting underwater attractions in the East End, where pristine reefs and easy access to wall diving are just offshore. This tends to be a less crowded dive center than around the West End. Its specialty is PADI-certified open-water dive instruction priced at US$399. A half-day program, which includes classroom instruction and pool practice, followed by a shallow reef dive, goes for US$149.
Oh Boy Charters (tel. 345/949-6341; www.ohboycharters.com) will pick you up and take you out on a motorboat to a sandbar where stingrays gather, and will also provide snorkeling equipment. The crew will help you on and off the boat on the sandbar, where you'll be surrounded by these graceful creatures that look as if they are flying in the water. The stingrays will even "kiss" you. If you kiss one of them back, it will supposedly bring good luck. At least we hope so.
Although many guests "kiss" the stingrays, they are wild animals and you should do so at your own risk. In addition to allowing you to frolic with the rays, the boat also stops off at Coral Gardens, where you can snorkel and take in a preview of underwater life. Including the pickup, the whole trip costs US$40 for adults or US$28 for kids ages 4 to 11. From start to finish, the tour takes more than 3 hours. You can also book a full-day tour, including a beach lunch and snorkeling.
Don Foster's Dive, 218 S. Church St., George Town (tel. 345/949-5679; www.donfosters.com), operates from the waterfront at Casuarina Point in George Town. At its headquarters, there's also a pool with a shower. Boat dives are featured as well as offshore snorkeling. A two-tank dive costs US$95, and night dives go for US$55.
Seven Mile Watersports, West Bay Road (tel. 345/949-0332; www.7milediver.com), operates from the Seven Mile Beach Resort and Club and is particularly sensitive to the requests of individual divers. The outfitter takes out only 15 divers at a time in its 12m (39-ft.) boat. Most jaunts are to the north wall. A one-tank boat dive costs US$65, and a two-tank dive goes for US$100. A snorkel trip to Stingray City costs US$40 per person.
Off the Wall Divers, West Bay Road (tel. 345/945-7525; www.otwdivers.com), also caters to the individual diver as it specializes in custom dive trips for groups of 2 to 10, but no more. The outfitter offers resort training courses, as well as full and Nitrox certifications. A one-tank dive goes for US$70, two tanks for US$99. A PADI open-water certification course costs US$600 per person in a group of three or more. Resort scuba courses cost US$120, and equipment rentals, including dive computers, are available for rent.
Another good dive outfitter, Tortuga Divers (tel. 345/947-2097; www.tortugadivers.com), operates out of Morritt's Tortuga Club and Resort at East End, site of what are described as the best windsurfing conditions in the Cayman Islands, with easy access to the rich marine life. This outfitter caters to both experienced and novice divers, offering dives, whenever business justifies it, at 9am and 2pm. Half-day or full-day snorkeling adventures can also be arranged at the same time, and all types of gear are available for rent. The morning two-tank scuba dive costs US$120, and the afternoon one-tank dive goes for US$75. A half-day's snorkeling costs US$40.
Although nearly every scuba outfitter also offers snorkeling tours, the best outfitter just for snorkeling is Captain Marvin's Watersports, Cayman Falls Shopping Center, Seven Mile Beach (tel. 345/945-6975; www.captainmarvins.com). Captain Marvin, who launched his tours with a borrowed sailboat in the 1950s, is now one of the leading charter-boat operators in Grand Cayman. A 2 1/2-hour trip, including stops at Stingray City and the Barrier Reef, costs US$35 for participants 12 and over, and US$27 for ages 4 to 11. A 3-hour trip goes for US$40 for ages 12 and over, and US$27 for ages 4 to 11. The full-day excursion, including lunch, costs US$65 for ages 12 and over, and US$45 for ages 4 to 11. All prices include snorkel gear and instruction if required and food for feeding the stingrays.
Watersports buffs use Captain Bryan's, North Church Street, George Town (tel. 345/949-0038; www.captainbryans.com), for snorkeling, fishing, and sailing trips on 15m (49-ft.) boats. Sunset sails and private snorkeling charters are also available. A half-day trip costs US$35, US$27 for children 9 and under.
Captain Crosby's Watersports, Coconut Place, West Bay Road (tel. 345/916-1725; www.cayman.org/crosby), was a pioneer of snorkeling trips to Stingray City. The outfitter still conducts 3-hour trips to the site on a 12m (39-ft.) trimaran for US$450. A freshly prepared seafood lunch is part of the package. Bonefishing and reef-fishing trips can also be arranged.
Ambassador Divers, located in the Comfort Suites Resort on West Bay Road, Seven Mile Beach (tel. 345/743-5513; www.ambassadordivers.com), is a small dive operation that usually takes out no more than eight passengers at a time. Trips feature the North and South Wall diving areas. PADI certification courses are offered, and dive packages are available, a 2-day deal going for US$200 per person.
Cayman Aggressor IV (tel. 800/348-2628 or 706/993-2531; www.aggressor.com) was designed by divers for divers. Participants are taken out for weeklong cruises aboard a 34m (110-ft.) boat. The living is simple, and the chow is basic. The boat has private cabins and an onboard cook. An inclusive package ranges from US$2,495 to US$2,995.
In addition to the outfitters listed above, you will easily find dozens of kiosks along Seven Mile Beach renting snorkeling gear.
Further Outfitter Options -- The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism website, www.caymanislands.ky, has a comprehensive list of all diving and snorkeling outfitters on the islands. We've listed our favorites, but the options don't end here.
Wreck of the Ten Sails
On February 8, 1794, Captain William Martin was steering a lead ship, HMS Convert, when it hit a reef. The captain fired a cannon to signal a fleet of other merchant vessels about the treacherous reefs that lay ahead. The captains of the other ships mistook the signal for a warning of an impending pirate attack. One vessel after another in the convoy of 58 merchants ships, most of them square-rigged sailing vessels bound for Europe, met the same fate as the Convert in the rough, pitch-black seas.
In all, 10 ships were wrecked that disastrous night. By some miracle, villagers of the East End of Grand Cayman managed to save all 400 or so sailors and officers, bringing them ashore in canoes. Four of the ships were eventually salvaged, while the other vessels sank to the bottom of the sea. The ships' cannons were recovered and sent to England during World War II as scrap.
In the little community of Gun Bay in the East End, a monument can be seen commemorating that tragic maritime event. Queen Elizabeth II dedicated the statue on her visit to Grand Cayman in 1994. A local legend -- untrue -- claims that King George II gave the Caymanians tax-free status because of their heroic rescue. If you'd like to explore this shipwreck site, it is often included in the diving programs offered by Ocean Frontiers.
The Island's Newest Shipwreck . . . and Newest Reef
In January of 2011, the ex-USS Kittiwake, a 77m (253-ft.) World War II U.S. Navy submarine rescue ship, was sunk in 20m (66 ft.) of water off the northern end of Seven Mile Bridge. Its smokestack and bridge sit in a friendly 6m (20 ft.) of water, making this an ideal snorkeling site. The vessel was built in 1944 in the closing months of the war, and it has rested in mothballs for many years off the coast of Virginia. Now that it's an artificial reef, it has already attracted a great deal of marine life, including juvenile squirrel fish, goliath grouper, and even barracuda along with a school of horse-eye jacks.
Located across from the Great House next door to Governors Square, the site of the shipwreck is part of a private park managed by the Cayman Islands Tourism Association (tel. 345/949-8522; www.kittiwakecayman.com). It is open only Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm, charging an admission of US$5 for snorkelers, or US$10 for scuba divers.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.