You hesitate at the edge of the sheer cliff face, peer into the depths, then commit to a slow, gliding descent. A colorful patch of coral catches your eye. You arrest your controlled free fall with the touch of a button and hover weightless, suspended against a massive coral wall a mile above the ocean floor.
The Cayman Islands have earned a reputation not only as the Caribbean's premier dive destination, but also as one of the world's best locations for wall diving.
Indeed, these three small islands are actually the tips of underwater mountains that rise up from the abyssal plain, thousands of feet below. Nourished by clear ocean water, these undersea ramparts are covered in a rich carpet of life. They also offer some of the consistently best underwater visibility in the Caribbean.
A line of vertical walls of spectacular beauty rings each of the three Islands -- Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. With more than 100 named wall-diving sites, these islands offer a tremendous variety of drop-off diving experiences. And, thanks to favorable geography, divers usually can find calm, protected waters regardless of wind and sea conditions.
In addition to walls, Grand Cayman offers a number of unique attractions. One of the most exhilarating is an underwater encounter with spotted eagle rays. These elegant creatures have an extremely long tail and a distinctive pattern of bright spots on the top portion of their bodies.
Sightings are an almost daily occurrence along Grand Cayman's North Wall. Divers often see them cruising along the face of the wall or up in the sand flats above the drop-off.
Grand Cayman is also known for its friendly tarpon. Schools of 10 to 20 of these silvery monarchs can be seen floating in the coral canyons and archways along the island's West Wall, North Wall and East End.
Measuring 3 to 6 feet in length, these great fish are accustomed to the presence of divers and they may allow you to swim quietly to within close-up range for photos and video.
Perhaps the most distinctive undersea phenomenon of Grand Cayman is the congregating stingrays found at several locations within the island's North Sound. At shallow sites such as Stingray City and Sandbar, Southern stingrays cluster in groups of 20 or more, encircling divers in hopes of being fed morsels of squid. The stingrays are extremely friendly and the dive is very safe.
Located 80 miles west of Grand Cayman is the smaller, more rural island of Cayman Brac. It has a resident population of fewer than 1,000 and the tempo is relaxed and tranquil.
Cayman Brac offers the same high-quality wall diving as Grand Cayman. The main difference is that there are fewer dive boats.
The island is shaped like a string bean and runs east to west. Diving is conducted on either the north or south side, depending on wind direction and wave conditions. As with Grand Cayman, the walls are loaded with sponges, corals, sea fans and a multitude of marine life. Narrow coral canyons are etched into the face of the wall, begging for exploration.
Cayman Brac's best-known dive site is the wreck of a Russian destroyer now called the Keith Tibbetts. Purchased from the Cuban navy and sunk as an underwater attraction, this 330-foot steel hull missile frigate has become a home for a variety of fish life and a resident dolphin inhabits the area. The shipwreck lies in 50 feet of clear water at the edge of the drop-off. It is popular among scuba enthusiasts, underwater photographers and snorkelers alike.
Some 10 miles west of Cayman Brac lies the wilderness isle of Little Cayman. It is the smallest of the three and has a sparse resident population and a limited number of hotels and dive lodges. This undisturbed paradise has avoided commercial expansion and remains a favorite hideaway for divers and vacationing Caymanians.
Much like her sister Cayman Brac, this island is a string bean running east to west. Most of the diving is done on the north side, but there are equally good drop-offs and a shipwreck, the Soto Trader, on the south side.
Little Cayman is legendary among divers for a remarkable stretch along its northern shore known as Bloody Bay Wall. With a vertical wall profile beginning at 20 feet, it constitutes the shallowest and most vertical wall in the Cayman Islands and possibly the entire Caribbean.
The wall is festooned with brilliant platinum yellow tube sponges, exquisite azure vase sponges and blood red vase and cup sponges. The color of the blood reds is stunning, with subtle shades ranging from strawberry to scarlet red to luscious orange.
Marine life encounters on Little Cayman's walls include schools of horse-eye jacks and rare manta rays.