Northwest Point Diving
If you ask a seasoned veteran for their opinion of where is the best diving on Grand Cayman, you will often hear them say the North Wall. Of course the diving up north is very good but I feel that its reputation is regarded a little unfairly against the northwest corner of the island. Having dived extensively around Grand Cayman, my favourite little section of it is actually the top left hand corner and this blog covers my reasons why.
There is a stretch of dive sites that are the “go to” spots throughout the winter for most operators that cover the western half of the island. As the wind changes at the end of the year, the north wall typically becomes blown out so with the exception of the few operations on the east end, everybody else heads west. For many of these boats, once they have collected their divers each morning the race is on to get to the north west corner where dive sites like Trinity Caves, Round Rock, Big Tunnels, Orange Canyon and Sentinel Rock are always the first to be snapped up. It is clear to see which sites the divemasters consider to be the best by the frequency that boats are tied off on them so what makes them so appealing?
The northwest corner of the island is rich in topographical features that make the dive sites themselves very entertaining backdrops. There is a high concentration of swim thoughs on this section of the island and these range from large horseshoe shaped corridors cut through the top of the wall to weaving cave like passages.
The highest concentration of these swim throughs happens at Big Tunnels where divers can enjoy getting progressively deeper as they weave through the passages and corridors that abound
In amongst these fun features there are all kind of other types of structure to swim around and enjoy like pinnacles, fingers, archways and mountainous coral growths.
The wall itself is a fascinating site, though not quite as sheer as right up on the north it does still drop off fairly impressively into the abyss. What is also interesting about this section of wall is that the top of it is as shallow as 40 feet in places like Round Rock whereas it drops out to being as deep as 90 feet when you get a little farther north of the dive site Northwest Point Drop Off.
The main dive sites on the northwest point corner benefit from the protection of being in the marine park. The dive site mentioned above called Northwest Point is on the corner of the island. Although the site is a little deep to be on the menu for all dive trips it does roughly mark the start of the marine park that then runs all the way to Georgetown. The fishing restrictions that are enforced in this area prevent any line fishing shallower than 80 feet deep until you get to the shore itself.
The removal of the threat of being caught and killed allows fish stocks to grow at a noticeable rate. It is far more common to find an abundance of grouper policing the reefs in this area and up in the blue there are always far more schools of horseyed jacks, oceanic triggerfish and barracuda than anywhere else.
This may not be a great deal clincher for everybody, but if you are the kind of diver who can get a little nauseous from the motion on the boat then you’ll completely appreciate the fact that the best dive sites in the area are around about five minutes by boat from West Bay Dock.
Everything about the northwest is convenient. There are many dive operators that run there, plenty of premium sites for everyone to enjoy and as it is on the leeward side of the island, it’s rare that the weather prevents us from being able to dive it.
Aside the fact that less journey time means less chance of seasickness, cutting out 30 – 40 minutes of logistical time means that lunch is that little bit closer!
Throughout this section of the island, divers can enjoy seeing a greater concentration of sponge. Predominantly the amount of orange elephant ear sponge increases and the very epicentre of this influx of brightly coloured growth occurs at the dive site Orange Canyon. This corridor like swim though that cuts through the top of the wall allows divers to glide between two walls that are festooned with orange sponge.
My personal favourite part of the island for sponge growth is the section of mini wall that runs in between Bonnies Arch and Lighthouse Point. If it is possible to do a drift dive heading north from Bonnies then I love to take the opportunity to see more sponge in one area than I have witnessed anywhere else on Grand Cayman.
Although the sponge is a pretty picture in its own right, it also plays home to lots of tropical reef fish that are so fun to watch. Additionally, some sponge is the favourite food of hawksbill turtles, so expect to see even more of these guys while in the neighborhood.
The typical format on morning dive boats in Grand Cayman is to do a deep site then a shallow. On the northwest corner the deep sites are awesome but the shallow ones are some of the best on island too.
I have mentioned Bonnies Arch already which is a fantastic dive site named after a lady called Bonnie who was an avid underwater photographer on island. The site has an impressive archway that rises up to the top of the mini wall at around 40 feet and is so big that it can easily accommodate a few divers at a time.
The mini wall in the area starts at around 40 feet and drops to depths of around 70 feet and that whole step is thriving with healthy coral and reef inhabitants. As the reef progresses southerly the noticeable step starts to flatten out which creates the sprawling coral fields around Rainbow Reef. In amongst the mass of coral there is a pretty cool swim through and a little archway here that is home to a family of spotted lobsters.
Further south again brings us to Chain Reef which is an exceptionally pleasant dive site, most of which is in the 20-40 foot range. The reef here starts to dissipate and break up into pretty little bommies and heads that are surrounded by perfectly white sand.
Top three dive sites
From the reactions of divers on boats I have been running over the last six years, my top three dive sites in this area would be:
3) Bonnies Arch – A classic site on the Grand Cayman menu. The site thrives with fish life in and above the reef. The arch itself in fun to swim through and creates an awesome photo opportunity. Check out the fresh water outlets here that actually create haloclines after heavy rainfall.
2) Trinity Caves – Three epic channels that cut through the top of the reef create an awe inspiring experience for divers as they explore each of these cave-like structures. Once you break out of the cave and into the open water over the wall it is possible to swim a short distance to a colossal pinnacle that shoots straight up and is in such close proximity to the wall itself that swimming around it is like swimming inside a big open cavern. Check out the window at about 80 feet that bores through one side of the pinnacle.
1) Big Tunnels – This dive site never fails to deliver and always gets a winning reaction from a boat load of divers. Swim through the passages that feel as though they may be taking you into the depths of the island itself. Check out the tarpon who can often be found hanging out in the cover of the mouths to the passages, their miserable expressions bear a stark contrast to the divers around them.
I think the ideal Cayman dive vacation should include as many sides of the island as possible. Most trips however will focus on one specific area and if that is the case with your trip then I would recommend the northwest corner for diversity, interesting formations and abundant marine life. There is however one “but” to all of this, which is that even though the conditions here are usually some of the calmest on the island, my advice is to avoid going there when there is a nor’wester blowing through!