There comes a time in every intrepid diver's life that one has to take a family vacation.
I have a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. Gillian and Ethan. We're in our minivan on the way to the airport. The wife is along, too. This is Cindy. Then there's me, Ty: Dad and "Aww, Dad" all rolled into one. A big, happy family. The thing is: We're running about an hour late because we had to stop for two (unscheduled) potty breaks on the way to the airport. We were also late getting out of the house because we had to pack every single snuggle animal within sight. And we misplaced a special blankie and a special Hot Wheels, both of which had to
When we arrive at Tampa International to catch our flight to Grand Cayman I can hear the porters giving audibles. They'd seen the what felt like 32 bags we had stacked in the back of the van, including a Pack 'n Play crib, three camera cases (yes, I was on assignment), three large, two-man industrial-strength checked bags (I call them elephant trunks) for Cindy and the kids, miscellaneous backpacks, a diaper bag and a stroller. A wagon train of baggage carts was soon off with our luggage.
We chose Grand Cayman because it was mercifully close to our home in Orlando (1 hour 40 minutes by air), there's a long list of activities for kids and there's a diving hit list three lifetimes long for "Aww, Dad." But if your kids are anything like mine, a bucket, a shovel and a sandy beach fulfill all the daily requirements for fun quite nicely. It's just good to have options.
The plan is for mornings to be spent diving, while afternoons are reserved for family adventures.
Our first stop is family-friendly Cobalt Coast Resort in West Bay.
North Wall for Breakfast
I'm up early the next morning with the kids, leave them at the pool with Mom and am soon headed for North Wall with Divetech, a PADI shop on the resort property. On the boat with me is Jim, who is on his 20th trip to Grand Cayman. He comes to Cayman two or three times a year, has probably done a few hundred dives here and still can't wait to get in the water to see what will show up. He's my kind of diver. I figure he'll be able to find everything there is to find on the reef and all I'll have to do is follow him with my camera, so we buddy up.
Soon we're descending through a crevice at a site called Hammerhead Wall, one of the many top-notch North Wall sites. Jim, indeed, knows the reefs well, but subjects are hardly difficult to find. A coral pinnacle juts out from the wall here, and though we don't see any of the namesake hammerheads, we all get some interview time with a friendly hawksbill cruising the sponge- and coral-covered drop-off, and we are subject to a spotted eagle ray flyover. At one point I follow a cascade of yellow, green and red rope sponges as they weave among black coral trees and flow down a slope like a waterfall, at the base of which I surprise a good-sized tiger grouper being groomed at one of the many cleaning stations that have set up shop along this wall. At the end of the dive Jim and I settle in a sand flat to watch yellowhead jawfish rise and sink back into their holes like prairie dogs. In our stillness, we notice loads of other creatures - juvenile filefish, a passing hogfish, cleaner shrimp in a corkscrew anemone - I could go on, but what was amazing was seeing the reef come alive by just watching and waiting.
Back at Cobalt, I pick up the wife and kids and we head off for our afternoon adventure, the celebrated Turtle Farm, the mere thought of which has the kids in a tizzy.
"Daddy," Gillian says as soon as we pass through the turnstile, "I see Crush" - referring to the laid-back turtle from Disney's Finding Nemo.
"You do?" I say. "Which one is Crush?"
"That one," she says, pointing to a tank with about 350 breeding turtles.
"He's a long way from the Eastern Australian Current," I muse.
"Yeah," Gillian counters, with an emphasizing finger pointed into the air. "He's on family vacation in the Cayman Islands, Daddy."
You can't slip anything past Gillian.
"Dude! That's what Crush says in the movie, Dad," says Ethan. "Yeah, dude."
We walk down to the Turtle Farm touch tanks. If naptime hadn't been looming, my two kids would've been a permanent fixture at the touch tanks. Once Ethan figured out how to catch, pick up and return the turtles to the tank, he was determined to give each and every one a personal greeting. Gillian got into the act, too.
"Hello, Mr. Turtle," she lilts as Ethan lifts each turtle out of the tank.
On the way out you have to pass through the souvenir shop. As a result, turtle magnets now don our fridge, Gillian carries a turtle cuddle purse every time we leave the house, and we have two turtle figurines. Dad, you see, has serious trouble saying no.
Anyway, we head back for afternoon naptime, which I wholeheartedly recommend putting on the schedule even if you don't have kids, but especially if you do travel with kids.
For dinner, we slip out to the Lone Star Grill. There's not much kids can do to hurt or break anything at this well-known eatery. They have corn dogs and crayons, and no one seems to notice that Gillian spends most of the meal standing in the booth with her dress over her head.
Back at the hotel room that night, the kids, who were sleeping in the same room in our two-bedroom suite, are jumping on their beds at 10:30 p.m. despite our death threats. Cindy and I wonder where we went wrong in our parenting. But luckily, they're soon asleep.
Captain Marvin's Original
The next day we're up early to see Captain Marvin and spend the day with the stingrays on Sandbar. Captain Marvin Ebanks is a Caymanian native and one of the first people to start taking families to quite possibly the coolest marine animal interaction on the planet. Here, on a shallow sandbar in North Sound, in about three feet of crystal water, you get to touch, caress velvety undersides, feed or just marvel at dozens of southern stingrays that glide along the sandy bottom. We'd signed up for the all-day trip, which includes a Caymanian BBQ on the beach, reef snorkeling and Sandbar. My kids donned their "floaty suits" immediately upon awakening that morning in anticipation. Captain Marvin himself showed up to skipper the boat and cook up lunch. If kids can have a peak (and authentic Caymanian) experience, this is it.
"Dad, I touched one," Ethan informs me about 100 times. Gillian is a little more timid around them, but leans over the side of the boat and points out every single stingray for us as they approach. "Mommy, here comes a big one," she'd say. Personally, I could come to Sandbar every day. With so many stingrays around it's like experiencing a secret underwater UFO landing zone. Peering below the surface and seeing the stingrays make their way through a forest of pink legs makes the experience almost comically surreal. One hint: Go on Saturday when there are no cruise ships. Otherwise it can get a bit crowded.
Excitement and Indolence
The next day Nancy Easterbrook, owner of Divetech, had arranged for a thrill (for Dad) and chill (for family) day. The thrills come along Turtle Wall on a scooter dive. It seems all the cool underwater heroes use scooters - James Bond especially. And after you've zipped along 1.2 miles of a little-dived section of Cayman reef you know why - it's a blast, and there's no reason for heroes to save the planet unless they're having fun. You get to see nearly everything a Cayman wall has to offer: barracudas, huge sponges, French angelfish, loads of tropicals, turtles and more, all from the perspective of a barrel roll.
To balance the adrenaline rush of the scooter dive, Divetech delivers us to a private beach picnic at a secluded spot north of West Bay for the afternoon. Here the beach crescents and stretches to the horizon and there's not another person in sight. There's a table, loungers and a hammock in the shade. It's like being dropped off on a deserted island with supplies and cool drinks. So while the kids play along the shore, Cindy and I indulge in the indolence of doing absolutely nothing.
Cayman's Other Half
Halfway through the trip, we head to Cayman's East End to stay at the intimate Cayman Diving Lodge and experience some of Cayman's less frequented areas and some untrammeled diving. Away from the hustle and bustle of Seven Mile Beach, East End is a genuine, tourist-free (mostly) Cayman experience. There's even a local playground for the neighborhood kids, and the Lodge has a few stray dogs that hang out for that homey feel. But I was anxious to get a few more dives in, so while Cindy and the kids hit the beach with shovels and buckets I headed to the dive boat.
If the diving on this side of Cayman could be encapsulated in one word, it would be dramatic. The walls are dramatic, the midreefs are dramatic, even the marine life encounters are dramatic. Our first dive on Jack McKenney's Canyon took this phrase to the extreme. The viz was easily 150 feet and the walls and pinnacles looked enormous. At about 120 feet, the crevices, drop-offs and every inch of space are a marine life war zone, with intense competition for a foothold. Huge cliffside-dwelling forests of large black coral trees, sponges and gorgonians crowd together in a mad profusion of life. The word pristine is bandied far too frequently in dive magazines, but the East End dive sites, due to little dive traffic, have remained as pristine and healthy as diving can get.
Later, a shallow dive takes us through swim-thoughs and caverns filled with the continual pulse of thousands of silversides and the occasional jolt of a tarpon as it rushes in, a sleek flash of silver energy, to pick off one or two stragglers.
Rooster's Guide to Pirate Treasure
When I get back to the Cayman Diving Lodge, we pile into the rental van to head off to Rum Point for the afternoon. On the way to Rum Point we pull over to a roadside attraction I'd long wanted to see: the Pirates Cave in Bodden Town. But, as happens with kids, Gillian is asleep when we arrive. So, this "authentic" attraction is left to the boys.
Indeed, Pirate's Cave can hold its head high among "unique" roadside attractions. Its cousins are snake farms on Route 66, the Cadillac Farm and the world's largest ball of string. But to my 5-year-old, it is the ultimate attraction. We pay out $6, buy a Jolly Roger flag and enter into this man-made homage to Cayman's pirate legacy ... among other things. Besides pirate stuff, there's a treehouse, a petting farm, a tank with freshwater stingrays and displays of "rare" island birds. As soon as we step into the main area of the attraction, we hear a rooster crow. It stood on the path, then be-bopped about 20 feet down the path, stopped and looked back at us.
"That must be our guide," I say. The rooster crowed again in confirmation. So we follow it past the freshwater stingrays to the petting zoo. But we don't pet any of the animals because of a sign that says "DONKEY BITES" in 12-inch high letters. The rooster crowed and dashed another 10 feet along the path, leading us to a bird cage with pigeons.
"Wow, Dad," says Ethan, "pigeon birds. You don't see these a lot."
The rooster crowed and dashed along. We are clearly loitering and not getting to the main attraction fast enough. Soon we're descending steps that lead under the roots of a flame tree to a cave. We walk past signs that warn "Enter at your own risk" and "Danger." Once we are inside the cave it quickly becomes clear that if pirates ever had domestic intentions on this place, they couldn't have been successful, because all the money, treasure and gold are plastic.
Rum Point: Ethan Learns to Swim
Cindy and I don't know how it happened. But as soon as we arrived at Rum Point and Ethan took a look at the calm, shallow waters, he grabbed his mask and sprinted to the water, stepping on his floaty suit along the way, and literally crash-landed into the water. Before we could react he'd donned his mask, dived in and started swimming around looking at a school of baitfish. When he finally realized he was swimming without the aid of a floaty suit, he stood up in the water, pumped his hands in the air and shouted, "I'm swimming! Watch this." And he did it again. Just like that, our wee lad was swimming. No Mom. No Dad. Just the inspiration of a perfect patch of white sand and tranquil water. And off he went, growing up right there in front of our eyes.
Gillian, luckily, still needed us. For now.
Special thanks to Divetech (886-622-9626), Captain Marvin's Watersports (www.captainmarvins.com), and Cayman Diving Lodge (800-TLC-DIVE)