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Diving in Grand Cayman

Updated on April 27, 2010

In 1957 on the island of Grand Cayman, a pioneer named Bob Soto had a vision of the future. A salvage diver for the U.S. Navy in World War II, Soto thought tourists might be interested in peeking beneath the clear blue sea of his native island. With a homemade plywood boat, a surplus compressor, and a handful of early scuba regulators, he went into business selling dives to tourists on Seven Mile Beach.
 
Back then, lounging on the long stretch of white sand that runs along Grand Cayman's leeward west shore was about all a tourist could find to do. But Soto's humble business — the first dive shop in the Caribbean — would forever change life on this island, located 490 miles south of Miami. As diving evolved from an elite macho hobby to a family-oriented vacation activity, Grand Cayman grew with it.

Stand on Seven Mile Beach today, in the capital city of George Town, amid the ritzy hotels and gleaming condominiums, and it's hard to imagine the early days. Where Soto once struggled to find customers, there are now almost 50 dive operators, including live-aboard dive boats, offering everything from snorkeling trips to advanced technical training. Grand Cayman, the once-quiet backwater, is now one of the most popular vacation islands in the Caribbean.
 
With water that's considered the Caribbean's clearest (average visibility is 100 feet) and diverse diving terrain found off each of its four shores, Grand Cayman is naturally well equipped for recreational diving stardom. Like her sister islands, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, Grand Cayman is a terrestrial speck, a dry afterthought in the deepest realm of the Caribbean. Twenty-two miles long and about eight miles wide, the island rises just high enough above the sea to form a convenient place to change tanks. Just beyond the shore, the ocean floor plunges almost straight down into the 25,000-foot depths of the Cayman Trench.
 
In the first 130 feet of that plunge, the reef doesn't just grow big, bold, and colorful; it builds things. Over thousands of years, coral, sand, rock, and sponges have together crafted tunnels, archways, pinnacles, and amphitheaters. If Atlantis ever did exist, surely it looked a lot like the reefs of Grand Cayman.

West Wall Wonders

More than 150 recognized dive sites ring the hook-shaped island. And with four distinct shores — the West Wall, North Wall, East End, and South Sound — divers are certain to find a protected diving venue in virtually all weather conditions.
 
The line where the water graduates from light to deep blue near Seven Mile Beach marks the point where the shallow reef suddenly plunges into the Cayman Trench. It was here that Soto brought his first customers to swim out over the coral lining of this drop-off and hang weightless, like a skydiver suspended in free fall. More than 40 years later, a new generation of Cayman divers are writing their own legends every day, every dive, at sites like Orange Canyon, Trinity Caves, and the breathtaking Bonnie's Arch.
 
Bonnie's is a great site for new divers. Channels of brilliant white sand cut through the coral as they slope down the wall to a novice-friendly depth of 70 feet. Turn a corner to find a thick coral archway spanning the entrance to a sand-floor amphitheater. The surrounding coral is also home to massive barrel sponges that can grow to the size of hot tubs by filtering nutrients from the water. Inside these sponges you'll find small gobies and tiny crabs seeking shelter. The entire reef swarms with colorful angelfish, filefish, and triggerfish.
 
Continued In: Diving in Grand Cayman - Part 2

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