Well, once again the Manta Team had phenomenal luck as far as our choice of week for our January trip. We got out of Chicago just as Mother Nature was starting to bless our town with another 12 in. of snow, and enjoyed the 86F island while our coworkers and neighbors were shivering in temperatures that barely reached positive numbers! While there are many places one can flee to during the winter that would be more hospitable than Wisconsin, few places offer the experience that we had on Little Cayman.
If you joined the Team Manta Dive Adventures group on Facebook, you already heard what a “delight” it was to travel through airports and security stops enforcing seemingly random and often nonsensical procedures and regulations. You may have even followed my packing struggles, wondering how I would get my dive gear, clothing and necessities into one bag weighing 50lbs. or less. (I did, BTW, manage it!) In fact, as we boarded our tiny twin otter bound for Little Cayman, I wondered to myself if it was worth the hassle. I am happy to report: Yes! Oh Yes!
When we landed at the tiny Edward Bodden Airport on Little Cayman, vans were waiting to take us down the road to the Little Cayman Beach Resort. At the desk we were given a run down of the resort’s amenities, which luckily included free wireless internet. The events for the week, included trivia night (Team Manta won) and Karaoke night. (Team Manta was proudly represented by Neal, Boomer, Laurie and Maggie). Some of our group’s bags didn’t arrive on the island the same day that we did, but the resort sent vans to meet each flight until everything was accounted for. The dive shop was very accommodating and had gear for Boomer to use until the afternoon, when the rest of the luggage came. Our rooms, recently refurbished out of necessity post hurricanes Gustov and Paloma, were spacious and well appointed. Our only complaint was a persistent sulfur smell from the water. The meals were served buffet style and offered a variety of dishes, such as crepes, roasted vegetables, barbequed ribs, delicious soups, stuffed tilapia, shrimp kabobs, pork loin and beef, to name a few. For those who had room after each delicious lunch and dinner, the chef offered a selection of fabulous desserts.
Like their sister dive operation on Cayman Brac, the dive shop personnel collected our gear from outside our rooms on Sunday morning and brought it to our assigned boat, Twin Sister. We set up our gear for the first dive, but it was set up for us on every dive after that.
Our crew was Laura, a relatively new divemaster and Ron, the crusty Scot. Both crew members turned out to be capable, helpful and fun to be around. I was disappointed to see the boat fill up with divers not from our group. It’s not that I don’t like to meet new people, but I expected that with a group of 12 divers, we would have the boat to ourselves. In all, there were 20 divers on the boat! At a different dive destination, or with a different dive operator, this would have likely made for a miserable week. However, since our gear was always set up for us by the crew and our BC’s were put on us at the back of the boat, entries and exits were always unrushed and orderly. In addition, we were always given the option of following the divemaster, or making our own way around the site. Navigating the sites on your own, with your dive buddy, of course, was easy given the thorough and illustrated dive briefings. There was plenty of ocean and reef for all of us. I never felt crowded or rushed.
Spending a week in the Jackson’s Bay and Bloody Bay areas of the island revealed wonders beyond even their reputations. I especially enjoyed taking the various cuts that started on top of the reefs at 50ft., snaking through the coral and dumping you out on the wall at 80 – 100ft. In one cut, I found a sizable lobster and an equally large crab sharing the same shelf, alas in too close quarters to get both in the picture. We had phenomenal luck finding sharks. In fact, one day, while gassing off near the boat, at about 45 ft., Mike spotted two nurse sharks, one big and one a bit smaller, about 4.5 ft. When the larger one spotted us, it high tailed over the wall, but the smaller one was clearly curious. It came quite close, circling us and posing for each of the photographers. It nearly swam between my legs, almost close enough to touch, as I snapped away. We spotted several reef sharks as well. One was exiting the shallows for the protection of the wall and deeper water and passed right in front of one of the less experienced in our group, Steve 2. This trip was the first ocean experience for him and his dad, Steve 1, so he was excited to capture the shark on film, and even more excited when we told him how truly special that encounter was!
On the second day of diving, Laura, our neophyte divemaster dropped a tank on her toe. Yes, she broke it. Thankfully, Dottie, Reef Diver’s underwater digital photography instructor, was available to act as our divemaster. Dottie had been diving with our group the day before, instructing Team Manta’s Mario, in underwater digital photography, so we already knew she’d be a great addition to our group. As a photographer, she was especially adept at finding usual and hard to spot creatures and fish. I liked hanging at the back of the pack with her and getting a look at all the goodies she spotted. The best thing she showed me was a tiny nudibranch. Given that it was only about ½ in long, I never would have spotted it on my own. Unfortunately, my picture is not the greatest because I just don’t have the resolution in my camera’s video screen and it was hard to see what I was shooting.
Our dive profiles generally were 100ft for 50 min., then 60ft for 60 min. and the afternoon dive 60ft. for 60 min. A couple of times, as we traveled from one dive site to the next, we were treated to the sight of dolphin pods swimming near the surface and occasionally jumping out of the water for us to get a better look at them! The legendary walls of Little Cayman offered many delights. Steve 2 spotted this cute burrfish just chilling on a sponge that jutted out of the wall at 70 ft. Shelves in swim-throughs were commonly occupied by large lobsters. The biggest had to be really old: One guy’s carapace was 5in.wide! (He wouldn’t hold still to allow me to measure his length, however.) We were able to spend extended safety stops exploring the coral heads in the shallows under the boat. This was the best location to spot turtles grazing on plant life. If you’ve ever been to Grand Cayman, you probably know they have a huge turtle farm. This accounts for the great number of turtles seen while diving the Caymans. Their abundance does not diminish, however the thrill of capturing them in frame after frame as they eat, swim and generally mind their own business on their reef.
Evenings were spent sharing diving stories and pictures from the day’s adventures. Neal, our Mac head, was diligent in posting to his trip webpage each day. I was a bit less so, although I do think I posted a fair number of shots on my Facebook, and blogged a bit on the Dive Manta’s Dive Adventures group page, just to keep friends informed (jealous)! On the last night, a contingent of divers went over to the Thirsty Iguana, the island’s other bar and partied until closing. I hear there was much merriment and I am looking forward to seeing the photos when our group reunites to share food and drink and reminisce.
After our last dive, there was a note from the resort instructing to leave at least one bag outside our door to get taken over to the airport that night. Since the puddle jumpers that bring commuters to the Brac and Little and back to Grand are limited in the weight they can carry, this should increase the chances that we will be traveling all the way back to Chicago with our luggage. Miraculously, this was the case! All of our luggage was waiting for us on Grand for the final legs home. As an added bonus, we were spared the train wreck that is the Miami airport and were routed through Charlotte instead. What a difference! The process of getting our bags and negotiating customs went as smoothly as it could.
When we finally arrived in Chicago, while we were shocked by the 20F temps, we knew that was actually a warm up compared to what it was while we were gone. Yet, it was quite a bitter transition. Good thing we have our memories and pictures to keep us warm. (Until Cozumel in April ;)