We were floating weightlessly in the shadow of a towering wall. Moments later, the first rays of sunlight transform what had been a study in grays and blues into a shimmering rainbow of corals and tropical fish. The aquatic daybreak signals the start to another diving adventure near the ''sister islands'' of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. On the next dive, two hawksbill turtles lead their eager guests on a leisurely tour of another sun-drenched reef. Consistently superb conditions, breathtaking underwater sights and top-notch dive operations are taken for granted on the Cayman sister islands, which are situated 89 miles northeast and a world away from Grand Cayman. But the real charm of these lightly populated Caribbean outposts is their colorful characters - both in and out of the water. This is a place where a precocious wild dolphin and a pair of groupers named Ben and Jerry wait patiently for divers to arrive as eagle rays glide across sandy bottoms. It is also a place where you can catch a glimpse of Norman, a camera-shy moray living on the only sunken Soviet warship in the Western Hemisphere that divers can explore. And Little Cayman and Cayman Brac are places where happy hour is truly an event. You'll probably meet the unassuming resort manager best known for his Elvis impersonation, the retired New York City cop who outran the Cuban Navy in his dive boat and the affable bartender who is an expert on the Grateful Dead. There hasn't exactly been a population boom since a wayward Christopher Columbus discovered the uninhabited Cayman sister islands in 1503. Columbus, who was far off course on his final voyage to the New World, named the islands Las Tortugas because of their abundance of sea turtles. The three Cayman islands had already been renamed after the Carib word for crocodiles when the notorious Blackbeard and other pirates began using Cayman Brac and Little Cayman as hideouts in the late 1600s. The British rid the islands of the pirates after a fierce battle in 1687, for which Little Cayman's famed Bloody Bay Wall is named. The crocodiles were wiped out by the end of the 19th century because they posed a threat to settlers and their livestock. Today iguanas, red-footed boobies and Caribbean whistling ducks still outnumber the residents. About 2,000 people live on Cayman Brac, compared to only 100 or so who call Little Cayman home. Like Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac are essentially peaks of ancient underwater mountains that rise thousands of feet above a sea ridge that stretches from Cuba to Honduras. The Cayman Trench plunges to a depth of 24,000 feet near Cayman Brac, so don't even think about retrieving any lost weight belts. Offshore, you'll find shallow reefs with healthy stony corals that gradually give way to some of the Caribbean's most impressive walls. Bright sponges and soft corals flourish on these walls, which also feature numerous tunnels and archways. Eels, groupers, lobsters, rays, turtles and schools of tropical fish vie for attention on almost every dive.Thanks to a lack of rivers and manmade runoff, divers enjoy visibility that often exceeds 100 feet. Water temperatures fluctuate from 78 degrees in the winter to 85 degrees during the summer. The landscape on both Cayman Brac, which is 12 miles long and a little more than a mile wide, and the slightly smaller Little Cayman is dominated by silver thatch palms, mangroves, gumbo limbo trees, wild orchids and other flowering plants. Beaches and lagoons play host to the iguanas and a wide variety of birds, including herons, frigates and rare species of boobies, ducks and parrots. Despite obvious similarities between two small islands separated only by a choppy seven-mile expanse of azure water, notable differences can be found in the diving and land experiences on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.OFF THE BEATEN PATHLooking down from a descending Island Air prop plane to see an unpaved runway with grassy shoulders is a pretty good clue that you're not in Kansas anymore. Try a remote and relaxing Caribbean paradise called Little Cayman. ''This is an island for people who want to get away,'' explains Tom Gotterup as he drives down a dusty gravel road. The retired police officer and former Marine had to get away from a Cuban patrol vessel when he and his wife brought their dive boat to Little Cayman. He is currently the manager of Reef Divers at the Little Cayman Beach Resort. Gotterup's truck passes a crew of workers who are installing power lines on the last remote section of the island without electricity. We stop at a small pond that was stocked with tarpon by the storm surge from a 1932 hurricane. The tarpon have evolved and now thrive in the brackish water. Back in the truck, Gotterup points out the dock where a barge delivers supplies to the island every week - weather permitting. Living here is not cheap; a loaf of bread can cost $4.50. He also takes me into the island's only place of worship, a tiny wooden Baptist church with five rows of pews. After driving by the oceanfront cemetery and island museum, we spend a few minutes hiking on the nature trail that cuts across the island. That's about all there is to do on Little Cayman except for diving. For many visitors, the lack of must-see topside attractions is itself an attraction. And who can complain about nonexistent stop lights and traffic jams? Plus, the noticeable absence of noise is soothing. Standing on an observation deck overlooking a lagoon, the only sounds that can be heard are the afternoon breeze rustling through trees, the relentless pounding of the surf and the occasional shrill cry of a whistling duck. We stayed at the Little Cayman Beach Resort, where the sense of peace and quiet is further reinforced by the conspicuously missing telephones in nicely appointed rooms. The resort also features a spa, which is run by Gotterup's wife, Laurie. As the sun sets, the resort's guests dine on a tasteful spread of salads, chicken, steak, fish, pasta and deserts at the nightly buffet. When the mood strikes, Tom Gotterup entertains the weary-looking divers with jokes and tall tales until the last dishes are cleared away. And on Friday nights, the hot tub is no match for resort manager Neal Parsons' renditions of The King's favorite hits. While an inviting hammock is never far away, relaxation is not the main reason that most people travel to Little Cayman. They come to experience the island's unforgettable underwater panoramas. Most of the 41 named dive sites with moorings are scattered along Bloody Bay Wall, a precipice that drops 6,000 feet off Little Cayman's north shore. The majority of diving takes places in depths ranging from 50 to 110 feet. A word of caution for first-time visitors: remember to keep an eye on the air and depth gauges during your initial dive on Bloody Bay Wall because it is easy to become utterly captivated in the crystal-clear water.A SOVIET WRECK AND A WILD DOLPHINCompared to its laid-back little sister, Cayman Brac is just a tad wilder and woolier in terms of its geology, attitudes and diving. The Brac got its Gaelic name for the 140-foot bluff that rises straight out of the sea at the island's eastern tip. Visitors can watch frigates soar in the wind as they gaze out at whitecaps marching across the seemingly endless Caribbean Sea. The island is also riddled with limestone caves, several of which serve as bat condominiums. According to local legend, some of these caves still contain lost pirate booty. Another worthwhile attraction is the Cayman Brac Parrot Reserve. An estimated 400 rare emerald green parrots live here amid 38 different species of trees on 180 acres of unspoiled tropical woodlands. Besides having a larger population than Little Cayman, the Brac tends to attract a more unconventional crowd. Happy hour at the Brac Reef Beach Resort (the sister of the Little Cayman Beach Resort) is a raucous affair reminiscent of long-ago days in Key West. Aaron the bartender keeps drinks flowing while offering opinions on topics ranging from Cuban cigars to popular culture. Resort manager Gary Villiers also makes the rounds, introducing guests to Emily, his adorable infant daughter. While the Brac boasts plenty of interesting wall dives and lush shallow reefs, the Captain Keith Tibbetts has been its top attraction for divers ever since the 330-foot-long former Russian frigate was towed from Cuba and scuttled in September 1996. The ship's bow has broken away and sits tilted in the sand. As a result, be prepared for a slight sense of vertigo when swimming through its bridge. One afternoon last July, divers exploring the wreck discovered a new star: a young bottlenose dolphin that the locals call Spot. The flirtatious male has spent most of the past year dividing his time between Little Cayman and the Brac. Spot makes daily appearances, usually showing up at dive-site mooring balls precisely as a boat arrives. Soon divers are giggling with unbridled glee at the fawning dolphin's antics. Spot and I frolicked for a few minutes in the water. At one point he disappeared from my field of vision. Seconds later, the dolphin brushed playfully against my fins and passed within inches of my face as he soared to the surface. GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALLSome dive destinations are tourism Meccas that offer visitors everything they could possibly want. You won't find many fast-food restaurants, movie theaters or shopping malls on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. But I found the islands' great diving and friendly inhabitants to be a welcome escape from the real world's crowds and hassles. For those divers looking to get away from it all, the tranquility of the Cayman sister islands may be exactly what you need. LITTLE CAYMAN CAYMAN BRAC
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