Already a go-to destination for stingray spotting and dramatic drop-offs, this British Overseas Territory also offers some superb wreck dives within a pirate’s ahoy from the shore. The Cayman Islands' vibrant reefs are also something of a success story. With the Caribbean thought to have lost a staggering 80 percent of its coral in recent years, largely due to the effects of global warming, a 2013 study found Cayman coral health had bounced back to levels not seen since 1999.
While every diver has their favorites, we’ve scoped out seven of our own top spots to strap on a tank and dive in.
Bloody Bay Wall, Little Cayman
Hands down the best diving area in the Caymans – and according to the late Jacques Cousteau, the world – Little Cayman’s protected Bloody Bay Marine Park (named for a naval battle) boasts a spectacular combination of bountiful marine life and unparalleled visibility. Clinging to its sheer wall – which drops off almost 2000m into the abyss – is an otherworldly vertical forest of neon-yellow tube sponges, giant waving fans and bioluminescent corals. You’re also likely to spot eagle rays, turtles, lobsters, Nassau groupers and cheeky triggerfish at any of the dozen-odd sites along the wall, but some of the most interesting moorings include Eagle Ray Roundup, Mixing Bowl and Randy’s Gazebo.
USS Kittiwake, Grand Cayman
Following an illustrious half-century in service, this former navy ship was stripped of hazardous materials and sunk off the northern end of Seven Mile Beach in 2011. With marine growth on the Kittiwake still minimal, the fun is in exploring the 76.5m vessel – all five levels of her. After navigating through the mess hall, hospital station, propulsion rooms and ammunition lockers, you can even have your own Titanic moment at the bridge. With a max depth of 20m this is a dive for all levels, while even snorkellers can get a great view overhead.
Babylon, Grand Cayman
The famous Grand Cayman wall runs around the entire island, with dive sites on all four sides. But the most sensational are found along the North Wall. Perhaps the most famous is Babylon. While there is plenty for novice divers to see on the sandy flats on top of the wall, those who descend deeper will be privy to some truly breathtaking scenery. Among the melange of black coral, giant purple sea fans and barrel sponges, you’re bound to spot parrot fish, barracuda, eagle rays, green and hawksbill turtles and even the odd hammerhead. One of the most remote sites on the North Wall, Babylon is usually visited as part of a liveaboard (diveworldwide.com/liveaboards/cayman-aggressor-iv) or full-day diving safari.
MV Captain Keith Tibbetts, Cayman Brac
Brought over from Cuba and sunk off the north shore of little-visited Cayman Brac in 1996, the Captain Keith is the only Soviet-built warship accessible to divers in the Western Hemisphere. In 2004 Hurricane Ivan broke the 100m wreck in two but both parts are still accessible, with the turret guns making great photo opps. The wreck is now home to barracudas, big groupers, moray eels and colourful tube sponges. Portions of the vessel are also still penetrable.
Stingray City, Grand Cayman
Originally attracted to the sand bars off Grand Cayman’s North Sound by fisherman who used to clean their catch here, the local southern stingrays are now so tame it’s possible to feed them by hand. While most visitors opt for a tour of Stingray City that allows them to walk around in the shallows and ‘hug’ the rays, divers have the opportunity to enjoy more of a 3D experience at a depth of around 4m as the truly enormous rays approach looking for snacks (instructors provide squid to feed them). One of the world’s best shallow dives, it’s also perfect for novices.
Jackson’s Bight, Little Cayman
Most divers come to Little Cayman for Bloody Bay Wall, but the chutes, tunnels, crevices and reefs that comprise Jackson’s, also located in the Bloody Bay Marine Park, are arguably just as spectacular. From tiny sailfin blennies to graceful eagle rays and sleek Caribbean reef sharks, there is plenty to see here. Even the seemingly deserted sand patches teem with tilefish, yellow-headed jawfish, peacock flounders and garden eels.
Ghost Mountain, Grand Cayman
Just off Grand Cayman’s north point, a giant, mushroom-shaped pinnacle seems to ‘appear’ through the cobalt blue water as you approach underwater. Encircled by schooling fish, this looming feature is covered in a carpet of creatures from blood red finger sponges to spires of starlet corals and banded coral shrimp. Advanced divers will be rewarded with great views of the spectacular gorgonian-crowded cavern at their maximum depth of 30m.
For a full list of certified dive operators across the islands, visit the Cayman Islands Tourism website (www.caymanislands.ky)
Sarah Reid traveled to the Cayman Islands with support from the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism (www.caymanislands.ky). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in return for positive coverage.
This article was originally published in March 2014 and was refreshed in June 2017.