My son and his three friends campaigned for Cayman Brac to be the destination of our spring trip this year. Knowing that this was likely the last time the boys would have this quality time of leisure together before perusing their various post high school dreams, my husband and I decided to go “Brac” again. This is the third time I’ve been to Cayman Brac and my trip was as thrilling and wonderful as the first time I was here. I don’t usually like to go to the same dive destination year after year for fear I will get stuck in a rut, but with the variety of topside offerings and the number of lovely dive sites that the Brac has to offer, every day is a new adventure. The Brac, as the locals call it, is a little out of the way, but truly worth the effort it takes to get there.
The Cayman Islands are an overseas territory of the UK, situated about 150 miles south of Cuba. Cayman Brac is the second largest of the Caymans, with about 14 square miles of land and a population just over 1,800. Direct flights to the Brac are few and far between. Travelers usually need to first fly to Grand Cayman, and then take one of the flights to the Brac or Little Cayman. In the past, we flew out of Chicago O’Hare on the 6am flight, landed on Grand at noon (after a stop in Miami or someplace), then had a long lay over (4hrs.) until we made our connection to the Brac. The long lay over was not all bad, though, since it is easy to hire a cab to visit the turtle farm and Hell and to see some Grand Cayman sites or shop. Just a word of caution, though, be sure to establish the price before you get in the cab! The trip back can be worse. Last time we left the Brac at 7am, landed on Grand at 7:30am, and our flight to Chicago didn’t leave until 4:30pm! This trip, we were luck to get a later flight out of Chicago and a very short lay over on Grand. We took the commuter flight to Brac. The trade off was that we were restricted to one bag weighing no more than 55lbs. and a carry on weighing no more than 15lbs. They were very strict about it, too, so we had to do a bit of weight shifting between members of the group to make it work.
We arrived at the Cayman Brac Airport at 5:40pm and were taken to the Brac Reef Beach resort by cab. At check in, we were each given a mesh bag and instructed to place our dive equipment in it and place it outside our room by 7:30am the next morning. Dive staff picked up our equipment and we didn’t touch it again until we did our final wash out on our last day. Our rooms were comfortable and clean, with a small patio area outside the sliding door that faced the pool area. We were just a short stroll from the bar and dining room. All areas of the resort were connected by a boardwalk, so you didn’t have sand tracked all over. In addition to the gift shop and full service dive shop, the resort had a spa. I enjoyed a very nice massage there one afternoon. (I am always willing to make the sacrifice for research purposes.)
The food at Brac Reef Beach is outstanding. Every meal was unique and more on par with a fine dining establishment than a diving resort cafeteria. They featured salads and grilled marinated vegetables, some really inventive vegetable dishes, calamari, prime rib, a variety of shrimp dishes, to mention a few things. They actually employ a pastry chef who makes some out-of-this-world cheesecakes, pies and cakes.
There were plenty of things to do, even if you didn’t dive. They have a movie night, karaoke night, and an afternoon manager’s party. They even had a speaker come in and talk about the wrecks of the Cayman Islands. It was very interesting. The name Brac comes from the Gaelic word for bluff. Cayman Brac is rated as one of the top ten exotic climbing sites in the world, so if you are a climber you will find plenty of challenge here. There is also great hiking, kayaking, and bird watching. You may want to take a trip to see the bat caves, Peter’s cave, once used as a refuge from hurricanes, or the boobies (the red footed and brown varieties).
As if all of these things I mentioned are not enough to give you your money’s worth for your vacation, the diving in Cayman is great! I cannot say enough about the beauty of the reefs here. The people here are very protective of the reefs and do not allow divers to wear gloves. The dive briefings always included tips and reminders to take care of the environment while diving. I appreciate this and all divers benefit from the vigilance of these professionals. All of the divemasters were caring and attentive to the needs of the divers and went the extra mile to make each dive wondrous, but Vicki, Jay and Flip were outstanding. I felt that they did a really great job before, during and after the dives. All divers had to do was get on their mask, carry their fins to the back of the boat and the dive staff brought them their BC. When we got back to the boat, they grabbed our fins and cameras, we walked up the ladder, sat down and they removed our BC and rerigged our tanks for the next dive. Everyone on our boat was cheerful and we had a lot of laughs. In fact, the patrons at the outdoor bar at the resort commented that they could hear our group laughing off shore before the night dive.
Signs of spring were everywhere on the reef. There were many sizable lobsters strutting around and if you looked carefully you could sometimes catch a glimpse of a mother lobster aerating her roe, tucked inside a coral crack. I saw some of the tiniest drums and juvenile queen angelfish. The visibility was not the greatest due in part to the mating barrel sponges. On one of the dives, the barrel sponges were erupting like Mt. St. Helen! It was quite a spectacle and I wondered why the ocean floor is not covered with barrel sponges. Dropping to infinity, Cayman’s famous walls, such as Wilderness Reef, Public Beach, and Cemetery Reef, were breathtaking. I especially liked sites with cracks that sloped gradually to an opening on the wall. Most of the deepest dives had a planned max depth of 110ft., and then the second dive was 60 to 80ft. We tried to attract sharks by crunching a plastic bottle, but, alas, we had no luck there. Instead, we floated along, observing turtles, searching for eels, (spotted, green, golden tip, viper, chain, brown), and looking out for the rare eagle ray. The shallow dives at 40 to 50ft. were fantastic in the number of fish that inhabited these sites. My favorites were Charlie’s Reef, Green House and Lobster pot. We spotted many southern rays, yellow rays, squids, butterfly fish (four eye, banded, spotfin) and hamlets (indigo, butter, masked, shy). We even saw two flying gurnards off in the sand.
We spent one day diving Little Cayman’s Bloody wall at Paul’s Anchors and Great Wall. It was an enjoyable boat ride and it was also the day that Ed, Reef Divers’ resident photographer accompanied us to document the dives for souvenirs. Divers who purchased a six day dive package got a complimentary VHS copy. An excellent photographer and videographer, Ed also proved to be a great resource when divers needed to know the name of a fish. Paul’s Anchors was so named because of the number of anchors stuck in the coral. Since the sea has claimed them for coral and marine habitat, they are hard to pick out. The tip off was any time you spotted an unnaturally straight hunk of coral. If you followed the straight line, it would lead you either to the eye or the fluke of the anchor, then you would recognize it.
Cayman Brac is great for practicing natural navigation. The reefs run perpendicular to the island, in a north-south direction. They were often arranged like fingers pointing toward the island. Divers could either swim up and down them or across them, just remembering how many they went over so they could go back the same number of fingers to get back to the boat. If you prefer to simply follow the divemaster, of course that is always an option. Cayman Brac also has a few cool wrecks, the Tibbets being the most famous. The mostly intact Russian Frigate purposefully sunk in 1996, allows a bit of penetration in her top three decks. The Sponges are taking up residence on her and growing in some really wild looking forms. Along the ship’s bow, we played with a peacock flounder and some garden eels that were in the sloping sand.
Although our trip to Cayman Brac was a repeat, it certainly was not a predictable same old same old. I am glad my boys campaigned to return to this diver’s paradise for their last hurrah before graduation and their leap into college life. Maybe we’ll go again next spring!