10 Awesome Things About Night Diving in Grand Cayman

Guest blog for http://www.idivecayman.com

If I was given a dollar every time a diver asked me the question, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever seen underwater?” I’d probably still be broke, but I’d have lots more stories to tell!

It’s a fair question though, I’ve done a lot of dives and who knows what I might have seen down there; mermaids, treasure chests, guys dressed up as unicorns…… the possibilities are endless. For me, it’s a tough question to answer because I’ve seen tons of cool stuff underwater, from sunken ships to caves to sharks to trains to, believe it or not, a man dressed up as a unicorn. What was the best? I couldn’t judge, they’re all just different kinds of awesome.

Having said that, if you want to ramp up the chances of seeing something truly mind blowing, you have to try diving at night. The excitement of putting on the gear and getting into a moonlit ocean still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. In addition to the thrill of the activity itself, you never know what you might find, as all kinds of beasties come out to play at night.

Ten things I love about night diving in Grand Cayman are:

1) Bioluminescence

How does being inside a cosmic, underwater snow globe sound? The trick with this stuff is for everybody to turn their lights off (no, I’m not joking) and wave their arms around like crazy. The effect of the electrically-coloured pixie dust that darts around is bioluminescence; a kind of plankton that when disturbed, lights up like a firefly. Try it for a while then turn your light back on, hopefully there are still as many people in the group as when you turned it off!

2) Sleeping Turtles

What’s more cool than finding a turtle? Finding a sleeping turtle! Turtles work on the principle that if they can’t see you, then you can’t see them. So when it’s time to hit the hay, turtles take a big breath of air before swimming down to a ledge or rock to wedge their head under. Typically when you find one sleeping at night, the first thing you’ll see is their big turtle butt hanging out in the water. In order to make their breath last longer, turtles drop their heart rate down as low as one beat every nine minutes.

3) Basket Stars

By day, these guys wrap themselves up into a tight ball and attach themselves to coral. After sunset, they open up and spread out in the water column to feed. When fully open they can look like the skeleton of a big satellite dish, as their arms reach into the ocean. They eat by catching waterborne food such as algae or plankton then recoil their arms in order to bring the catch to their mouth.

4) Lobsters

I have a vivid imagination, but even so I am sure that spiny lobsters are in some way related to the face huggers from the Aliens movies. At night, it is far more common to see lobsters scampering around looking for food. This means you get to see the whole creature, you’ll be surprised as to how much bigger they look than when hiding under a rock in the day. A real treat which is more likely under the cover of darkness, is to find a slipper lobster. These guys look like they just crawled out of a 50’s B movie and can often be found wandering around in the shallows.

5) Brain coral

Before I started diving, I thought that hard coral was a kind of pretty rock, apparently they are classed as animals, who knew huh? Coral has mobility, but you won’t catch a piece going for a pleasant stroll across the reef. In fact you won’t see much movement out of brain coral at all, until night that is. At night, the coral catches food from the surrounding water by firing their tentacles with surprising speed. When they catch something like a blood worm, they pull the struggling victim in and suck the insides of the worm out leaving just its sizzling empty carcass, it’s an impressive sight indeed!

6) Tarpon

Depending on where you dive, you could find yourself being surrounded by a school of tarpon. Creatures of habit, it only takes a little local knowledge to find a dive site where these night time feeders hang out. Some shore dive sites attract tarpon, as they like to use nearby lights from the land to find their food. And what’s the big attraction? Well, they grow up to lengths of four feet, have a mouth that makes them look impossibly down in the dumps and have silvery, armour like skin that reflects the light. It’s a really cool feeling to be in the water surrounded by 15 or so big, shiny, depressed fish munching on whatever gets caught in the flash-light.

7) Hunting

One of the reasons why things can look so different at night, apart from the lack of light of course, is that the marine life behaves differently. Many species that hide throughout the day, come out at night, often to hunt. Schoolmaster snappers have managed to catch on to the fact that divers at night have lights with them and that if they hang around just behind the diver then they can use the light to their advantage when hunting. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have been swimming along and noticed something like an angel fish, before I’d even had a chance to fully focus on it, a snapper has appeared from nowhere and gobbled it up. It always makes me a little paranoid as to what I shine my light on “Wow, cool, it’s a…… oops, oh dear.”

8) Octopus

As far as I’m concerned, the absolute highlight of a night dive is the chance to find an octopus. If you ever needed proof that aliens exist and are living amongst us then come find an octopus at night and you’ll never have a doubt in your mind again. Octopus change colour right in front of your eyes. Often when you first find them, they are a kind of blue/green colour which is good for camouflage against the reef. When they realise they have been spotted they seemingly flick through an entire spectrum of colour in an attempt to communicate. I don’t speak octopus, but I guess they’re saying something along the lines of “get that damn light out of my eyes!” Our 8 legged buddies are curious creatures, so may well hang out for a while or even extend a tentacle in order to investigate a diver. If one does that and you stretch a finger out to have a kind of ET moment then believe me, if it makes contact with you, the feeling will make you jump out of your skin.

9)Critters

I love the little dudes! At night, like many other things, tiny shrimp and crabs venture out to see what they can find, banded coral shrimp are a great example. My little tip for finding these guys is to watch where you shine your light and look for small reflections. Shrimps’ eyes are like the reflectors in the road that help guide cars in the fog. If you see a little dot winking back at you, go check it out, you could be in for a nice surprise.

10) The Kittiwake

Even Caymans wrecks take on a new persona by night. Swimming through the Kittiwake in the dark can give a more eerie feel to it as you move from room to room with no ambient light breaking through. Exploring the corridors of this sunken vessel with just your flash-light to show you the way is one of the most exciting ways to dive this wreck. At night, the floors of this ex USS navy ship become covered in peppermint shrimp. If you have doubts about whether you will be comfortable diving at night then my suggestion is to avoid this dive until you have built a little confidence. It can be pretty spooky, especially when you turn a corner into a room only to come face to face with a huge grouper, they aren’t too pretty at the best of times!

Some of the most fun I’ve ever had has been at night, trust me, the stories are endless! But this is a dive blog, so all that rock n roll stuff is gonna get parked for now, those stories are best told over a beer anyway. If you’re coming to dive in Grand Cayman then you need to check out a night dive. Either talk to your dive operator for a boat dive or take a look on Idive for some options from the shore. You don’t need extra training but if you want to be taught about diving at night, most dive centres will offer a course in it. Any extra equipment that is required (lights) should be provided by the facility you get your tanks from.

Grand Cayman has some of the most convenient diving in the world, heading out at night is no exception. Whether you’re a seasoned night diver or trying it for the first time, you’re gonna love discovering its hidden treasures in the dark.

Dive safe and have fun out there!

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Grand Cayman, From the Bottom to the Top

Guest blog for Idive – www.idivecayman.com

I’ve had a startling revelation that I want to share with the dive community, just promise me one thing in return – remember you heard it here first!

OK, strap yourself in, here goes….. Grand Cayman has some phenomenal diving!

Did that send a shock wave of surprise around the world and blow you off your chair? Well, probably not. It’s no secret that the Cayman Islands have some awesome diving on offer. There have been libraries of words written and a gazillion photos proving this, so creating another account of this underwater paradise seems a tad redundant. Instead, I am going to try to paint a little picture of the island as it looks below sea level, metaphorically of course. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be entertained by watching me fumbling with watercolours and brushes to create a mess that not even my mum would want to put up on the fridge door!

But why would you be interested in such a blog? Well, start by thinking of the dive sites around Grand Cayman as being pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. With a bit of time on the island you can become familiar with the detail on some of the pieces , but the complete image remains a mystery. The more pieces you are able to become familiar with, the greater your vision of the wider picture becomes. Hopefully, this account will help you save some time by filling in the blanks.

So where does the island come from…. Sorry, was that a silly question? Let me explain! Imagine an ocean a mile deep (more or less). Now make a mountain with sharp cliffs that rise straight out of the ocean floor. The mountain climbs all the way up to the surface with just the very tip poking out to make dry land. All around the mountain is the deep blue Caribbean sea.

The tip at its highest point is only 60′ above sea level meaning Grand Cayman has very little altitude. Deep down where the krakens lurk, east of the island, the Cayman Trench cuts into the ocean floor reaching depths of over 25,000 feet (there aren’t any recorded dive sites down there by the way, but if you manage to check the place out please do let me know what it looks like!)

OK, good to know, but what does this mean for us divers? Well, firstly the very low altitude of the island means no rivers and very little run off. This lack of detritus being washed in to the ocean helps the island’s dive sites maintain fantastic visibility all year round. Next up, the plummet to the abyss that is right on our doorstep means that we are close to all kinds of oceanic beasties . Appearances from hammerheads, tuna, marlin and even the odd tiger shark have been made in the short time that I have been here.

Beyond all that, the drop itself is an awesome sight to behold. In some places, diving on the wall around Grand Cayman is like taking a running jump off a cliff so high that it’s impossible to see the floor below. Just as gravity is about to pull you to your demise, time somehow stops leaving you just hanging there to take it all in.

My passion is tech diving so having this drop so close to the shore makes this island about the best kind of playground I can imagine. Fortunately, the conditions are such that the wall and its scenery can be enjoyed by recreational divers just as easily.

Oops, there I go waffling on about how phenomenal it is here again, lets get back on track. So as I mentioned, we have these sharp cliffs that rise from the ocean floor towards the surface, but that’s not how they emerge from the water. The steep mountain walls stop around 40′-80′ short of the surface and upon the top, surrounding the island, sits a crown of coral reef.

Fixed boat moorings have been built into the reef at the top of the main wall, often only tens of feet away from the edge . To give you a point of reference, some of these deep wall dive sites are so close to the shore that a 5 minute surface swim is all it takes to get there. From such sites, divers can find swim-throughs, pinnacles, overhangs, ledges, grottos and all kinds of cool things living in the nooks and crannies.

But we’re still not up to the surface yet…

Swim towards land a little, just a short way from the big drop and you’ll notice that the coral crown nestles into a sandy bottom at around 50′-90′. This sand belt is like a shelf ranging in width from 40′-300′ and also orbits the island, dividing the coral reefs of the main wall from those of the mini wall.

How impressive does a sandy shelf sound? Well, not very I guess but actually there is a ton of cool stuff to find there. The little coral heads that pop up intermittently have marine life just exploding out of them making you feel like you are in an aquarium. Garden eels live in the sand and to me it looks like they are having a big party, all dancing to the same beat. Cool as they are, the garden eels attract spotted eagle rays who come in close enough to suck them right out of the sand. Southern stingrays patrol the flats searching for their next bite and dotted around all over, it’s easy to find conch laboriously dragging themselves through life.

So, we have deep blue, then the wall, then the sand flat and then what?

Another coral belt runs around the island which I briefly mentioned earlier. This stretch however is not as black and white as the other perimeters. The mini wall looks different depending on where you are on the island. In places it can be like a definite, visible step that drops from 35′(ish) down to the sand at around 60′ more or less. It is common to find fingers of coral that jut out of the mini wall clawing their way in to the sand channel, and coral heads that exist in between these fingers make for some really cool routes to swim through. In other parts of the island, the depth range of the mini wall is not anywhere near as noticeable without looking at your gauge. An example of this could be the shallow sites off seven mile beach which are typically more like sprawling fields of coral heads than a neat step.

The top of the mini wall brings us up to 20′-40′ and following this contour is another dot-to-dot outline made up of mooring buoys that mark the islands shallow dive sites. The final stretch between this and the waterline is either sand, hardpan or ironshore depending on where you are. These shallow spots are often dismissed by divers but are in fact goldmines for macro photographers who may find sailfin blennies, fingerprint cythomas, gaudy clown crabs and bristled fireworms to name a few. It’s not all small stuff either, flying gurnard, peacock flounders, tarpon and giant barracuda are amongst the bigger boys that can be found lurking in the shallows.

To get a better visual representation of this, why not check out the “idive maps” tab on the website, zoom in a little you’ll kinda see the 2 surrounding bands of dive sites from shallow to deep. Click on the thumb-tack and you’ll get your own virtual tour of the site, pretty cool huh?

So there you have it – from the ocean floor to the shoreline of Grand Cayman in just a few paragraphs! Of course there is an absolute bucket-load of (not so fine) detail that I have missed out and my crude descriptions far from cover every inch, but you get the idea. The best way to see the underwater world here is to get on a plane and come see for yourself. That said, I like to read up as much on a dive location as I can before I go there in order to get the most out of the experience. If that sounds like something you like to do too then I hope this account has helped a little.

Safe diving!

Deadly Invasion

Divers in the waters of the western Atlantic are on a killing spree. Armed with spears and containment devices, they take to the water in order to cull as much as possible. Tournaments are held with cash prizes awarded for the biggest, smallest and heaviest haul. There is one specific species targeted, but no discrimination between age, size or gender. Environmentalists, scientists and even governments actively support the culling. But exactly what are they hunting and why?

The target is the lionfish and the reason they are being culled with such ferocity is due to the devastation they are inflicting on a beautiful habitat. Such is their appetite, that their stomach can stretch up to thirty times to accommodate prey over half their own size. A study in the Bahamas found them to cause an 80 percent reduction in native fish in just five weeks. They breed and spread at an astonishing rate and have been found to hold up to 60 dead fish and crustaceans in their gut at one time. Native species now struggle as they compete with this newcomer, and immense strain is being put on the food chain. Simply put, the lionfish are literally eating the reef population in to extinction.

fish and diver

The problem stems from the fact that these fish are not native to the east coast of America. Their arrival has caused chaos within this ecosystem. Lionfish are referred to as an “invasive species” due to the fact that, since their introduction in the mid 1980’s, their population has simply exploded. They have found a utopia in this new habitat as they feed gluttonously without the threat of any natural predators. Dr. James Morris from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has said that: “Lionfish may prove to be one of the greatest threats of this century to tropical Atlantic reefs.”

The exact story behind how they arrived in the Americas is unknown, but there has been much speculation. A popular theory was that an ocean front aquarium containing lionfish was damaged in 1992 during hurricane Andrew causing its contents to spill in to the sea. While this may well have happened, it cannot be the sole cause of the problem as the first reported sighting in Florida, USA, 1985 predates the hurricane. Scientists believe that the earliest recorded sightings were of fish that were released in to the ocean by private aquarium owners. It is also believed that the present situation results from multiple releases as opposed to one careless owner.

To call the lionfish invasive as a species is, I think, unfair. These fish made no conscious decision to uproot themselves from their native waters and venture in to new territories with grand plans of domination. The truth is that they are more a victim of their own extraordinary beauty. Lionfish have a unique, majestic appearance that, unfortunately for them, makes for a good commodity in the aquarium trade. It is this attraction that has resulted in them being plucked from their indigenous Indo-Pacific seas. Aquarium owners who bought lionfish have been known to struggle to keep up with the demands of their appetite. In these cases instead of killing them or rehoming them in another aquarium, they were dumped in the ocean.

Divers who have been lucky enough to encounter the lionfish in both their Asian and American habitats have noticed that there are differences between old and new. A common observation is that the new arrivals are much bigger in size than their cousins in their natural habitat. Their behaviour is also different; they are far less timid than their relatives, due to the absence of any kind of threat from other marine life, and they congregate in larger groups. Photographers notice that the more defensive lionfish in Asia will point their venom-filled dorsal spines at anyone who gets too close, a survival instinct that is far less common in their Atlantic relatives.

What is incredible about this translocation is the speed at which this species has conquered such a huge amount of territory. Since the first recording in Florida, lionfish have now been reported as far north as New York and as far south as Venezuela. They spread at such an alarming rate because the females are capable of releasing up to 30,000 eggs every 4 days. The egg sacks float in the water columns, where currents transport them to their new location. Previously uninvaded reef areas become affected when the current washes large numbers of eggs on to them starting a population boom.

They are a very versatile species, having the ability to live just below the surface or even at depths as great as 175 meters.

lionfish

Attempts have been made to incorporate this voracious carnivore in to the existing food chain, but so far there has been little success. Hunters have tried spearing the fish and then feeding them to predators such as snappers, groupers, moray eels and sharks, who happily eat the dead or dying lionfish from a spear, but very rarely will actually attack or kill the lionfish. In Grand Cayman for example, feeding lionfish to other species has now been banned. Having tried this as a potential solution it was found that it only contributed towards the unbalance, as predators started to associate divers with food. Reports of moray eels swimming towards divers (often causing panic attacks) are one example of a negative impact on diver safety. Changes in the behaviour of fish such as groupers and snappers have been observed, for example in their closer proximity to divers who could be hunting illegally. These are just a couple of reasons why the Department of Environment concluded that feeding was not the answer.

As nature struggles to adjust to yet another blow from human intervention, there does not appear to be an overall solution in sight. Ideas along the lines of importing more species from Asia who already feed on lionfish have been written off as too risky. One lionfish culler jokingly suggested starting a rumour that lionfish are an aphrodisiac that stimulate weight loss.

In a desperate attempt to suppress the population growth, local communities are promoting the hunting and killing of both kinds of invasive lionfish – pterois volitans and pterois miles. Mass fishing techniques are not possible due to their inhabiting confined spaces like small tunnels or space under ledges. Currently, the most effective way to remove lionfish from the reef is for divers to spear them.

There is a misconception that lionfish are poisonous but in truth the white meat is perfectly edible. They are equipped with venomous spines which they have to defend themselves but once removed, the fish is very good to eat. As the lionfish venom is not heat stable, when subjected to high temperatures it is even possible to make dishes with the spines on creating quite a dramatic visual effect on the plate.

Lionfish culling has become a very popular activity throughout the tropical western Atlantic. Some kill the fish to eat, others to sell, some to try to offer relief to the struggling reefs, and then of course there are the gung-ho chest beaters who just want to kill something. Innovative entrepreneurs have established tradelines with companies specializing in catching, killing and exporting the fish to fine dining restaurants in the States. Lionfish now appear on menus throughout most of the Caribbean with specialities that range from lionfish ceviche to some very authentic tasting lionfish and chips. Many dive centres are actively assisting in the culling activities by providing spearfishing training and education. Cullers are made aware of how to hunt safely and responsibly in order to avoid injury to themselves or their surroundings. While on Caribbean holidays, divers can be trained in the use of spear guns, Hawaiian slings or even nets to catch the fish and then how to safely remove the spines before handing them over to the kitchen.

lfish

Culling lionfish is a risky business, being stung or “spiked” by a lionfish spine is not something to be brushed off. The venom causes intense pain and swelling and can cause necrosis of the flesh or even send the recipient in to anaphylactic shock. Most injuries are sustained to the divers hands and often occur when trying to put a lionfish in to a containment device underwater or when handling the dead fish back on land.

No -one knows yet how this story will unfold. It is speculated that we have not yet seen the worst of the invasion, and it is believed that their population will continue to rise. As the footprint of the lionfish upon the reef gets deeper, so the struggle becomes harder for native marine life. It is hoped that controlling species will develop a taste for lionfish but until such time the dive community accepts the responsibility to do what it can to keep numbers as low as possible. For now, the advice is to eat our way through this and given the taste of some of the fine dishes being cooked up, I for one am more than happy to do my bit.

Diving with Buzz Aldrin

Diving has taken me to some incredible places and enabled me to do things that would have once been unimaginable. There are a few experiences which will always stand out, some good, some bad and certainly some ugly. Recently I had the very distinct pleasure of not only meeting Buzz Aldrin, his son and his personal assistant but guiding them all on a DPV (underwater scooter) dive in the tropical waters of Grand Cayman.

When I started working for Divetech in 2013, I recall staring with amazement at the signed photos of the moon landing that were behind the counter. Boyish excitement rose within me as I recalled my childhood fascination with space. So when I was informed by my operations manager that I would be guiding Buzz Aldrin on a DPV dive I will not pretend that I was anything less than awestruck.

I knew that Buzz participates in fundraising activities for the Astronaut Scholarship Fund (ASF) and that in the past he had been diving with us in order to raise money for that cause. My initial assumption that this visit was along the same lines turned out to be wrong, this time round Buzz was on vacation.

It goes without saying that life for an astronaut will be different to most other peoples, vacations, it turns out, are no exception. I was soon to learn that this would not be a relaxed affair where we had all afternoon to casually stroll in to the ocean like one of our normal gigs.  The dive was sandwiched in to a schedule involving activities like school visits and presentations, even on vacation it seems that the work never stops. This trip to Grand Cayman was certainly no vacation for his personal assistant. In the brief glimpse of their lives I had, I could see that she never switches off and the ability she demonstrates in keeping the tight schedule on track is an art form unto itself.

buzz cropped

When the day came, I made my introductions and tried to play down my excitement, after all, I was there to do a job. Underwater my focus would primarily have to be on safety as it is with any dive regardless of whether the people with me have been to space or not. Immediately I sensed that time was not to be wasted. The group as a whole were more than polite and pleasant but also keen to keep things moving in order to honor their next commitments. Knowing they were all experienced divers, I kept my briefing to a minimum, just covering what was required to make sure everyone was on the same page.

At first, it took the group a little while to get to grips with the scooters. All but one were tentative in their initial approach, trying the controls to see what did what. Buzz was the one who was not so interested in starting slow, he clearly wanted the thing to go as fast as possible as soon as possible. Before long, we were on our way, shooting through the water like a bunch of crazed maniacs. I love DPV dives. As soon as we got moving, this one proved to be as much fun as any I’ve been on before. Everybody held on tight with the scooters between their legs, occasionally swerving to avoid coral heads and other underwater obstacles.

As I looked around the group to make sure everyone (including the man who once walked on the moon) was OK and keeping up, my mask shuddered and my reg pulled at my mouth under the velocity. We flew through the water just a couple of feet from the sandy floor, the mini wall to our left hurtled by way too fast to pick out any detail.

Periodically, I checked in with each of the group to ensure that everything was good by giving the “OK?” signal. Although everyone responded, in truth this was one of those times when you don’t really need to see the confirmation as you can tell from their faces that OK is an understatement. Everyone was having an amazing time, me included.

As all good things must come to an end, constrained by air, decompression limits and battery power we had to start thinking about ending the dive. Following a decrease in speed while we did our safety stop we cruised on in to the exit point. Breaking the surface it was smiles all round. In the excitement of the dive, I had forgotten to be star struck, it was just so much fun that everything other than the thrill of the moment ceased to exist.

Back on dry land, opportunity to talk about the dive was minimal. Buzz said his good bye by giving me a “Get Your Ass to Mars” T shirt and mentioned that he hopes I see someone land on Mars in my lifetime as (in his words) he probably won’t get to see it in his.

buzzdd

Then they were gone, what a whirlwind of a morning! I slowly set about washing and packing up the gear, taking the opportunity to rest a little. I still was not fully able to digest what had just happened. As I made my way back home, I started thinking about the Mars project and wondered what it would be like to be the first person to go there. What would go through your mind to truly pioneer something like that?

It is my sense of adventure that attracted me to diving. This same attraction has kept me traveling the world in search of new and interesting underwater escapades. To meet a living legend who has had an adventure, the likes of which I can only dream of, was nothing short of inspirational. This encounter gave me an interesting perspective on what is achievable in life. From here on in, whenever I set my sights on something, I will never again worry about punching too high. As Buzz can tell you, not even the sky is the limit.

First Ever Blog

I must admit when I first heard of blogs I didn’t like the sound of them. I don’t know if it is because I don’t like the word “blog” itself or whether I had an idea that reading about other peoples lives would be boring, like an edited, public friendly version of their personal diary.

turtle

As the internet and how we use it continues to grow, so blogs have taken their shape and become what they now are. People use blogs in different ways, this one is mine and I will be using it to post stories that I write. The stories will mostly be on the theme of scuba, either journalistic or instructional. I will mention myself in these stories but this blog is not about me or my journey, it is about what I see in my life as a scuba professional.

I hope you enjoy what you find here