As soon as the wind died from hurricane Ivan last September, the resilient Cayman Islanders shook off the sand and started putting things right. But what about the reefs? Money and determination can quickly rebuild roofs and refloat boats, but coral reefs can take generations to come back. In March I had the chance to find out firsthand how the reefs were affected and how the topside rehabilitation is coming along. Here and there, mounds of sand remain where they were scraped off the road by bulldozers; but gentle blue waves continue to lap the broad white crescent of Seven Mile Beach, the Tortuga bakery still cranks out succulent rum cakes, new roofs sparkle in the same sun that continues to turn cruise-shippers into lobsters, and Cayman's famed financial machinery quietly massages its fortunes. To my delight Sir Turtle, the resilient Cayman mascot, had risen from the ashes like the legendary phoenix.
In fact, divers discovered that the biggest underwater impact of the storm was not damage but debris debris that will soon be embraced and changed by the creative whimsy of the sea. A massive reef clean-up campaign conducted by Cayman dive operators and local divers took care of most of the problem, and their continued efforts will soon have everything back in top shape.
In most areas, live hard and soft corals escaped relatively untouched. In the shallows I saw pristine heads of brain and star coral and found the vast beds of sea grass on the flats in Gun Bay largely unharmed. In a week of diving I saw only two coral formations I could definitely say had suffered hurricane damage. Otherwise, the coral appeared exactly the same as my last trip to Grand Cayman (in July 2004); I was especially pleased that the large brain corals near Eagle Ray Pass were as unblemished as ever.
Tarpon, turtles, stingrays and spotted eagle rays are the Caymans' signature marine life, and all of these populations survived unscathed, along with a myriad of butterflyfish, grouper, creole wrasse, parrotfish, horse-eye jacks, moray eels, surgeonfish, yellowtail snapper, bluestriped grunts and the rest of the tropical fish spectrum. You have to wonder, though: Where did all those critters go during the blow?
I spent a few days in each part of the island to determine how the topside recovery was progressing, and I discovered that the good life has largely returned to Grand Cayman. On the East End, Ocean Frontiers was fully up and running. The twin miracles of hard work and insurance had even produced some unexpected benefits, such as the improved dock and expanded pool deck. The Compass Point condos, which had opened only shortly before the hurricane, were being refurbished on the ground level the rest of the units sparkled as before. Mother Nature even deposited a much larger beach to lounge on between dives.
On the opposite end of the island, Cobalt Coast was one of the first dive resorts back on its feet. Lounging on my oceanfront balcony as the setting sun turned the water to gold, I'd never have guessed there had been even a hiccup in the tranquility that reigns there now. Divetech was also quick to return to operation, still offering their exciting blend of sport diving, tec diving and free diving. Any damage to their boats has been repaired, and they are in top shape.
Sunset House was the final stop on my post-hurricane tour; let me assure any Cayman regulars who might be fretting: My Bar is fine. It's still the insider's gathering place when the sun heads for the horizon. The house reef is intact mermaid and all and the rooms have all been wonderfully refurbished and upgraded. Sunset Divers' boats are also back in action.
The resident stingray population at the Sandbar was reportedly down, but I found myself knee-deep in the winged critters when Chopper and Scotty of Don Foster's Dive Cayman took me there. Swimming with those creatures is a Grand Cayman staple. There's something intriguing about a fish that has been around for a hundred million years.
Is Grand Cayman ready for prime time again? I certainly think so, and so did all the other divers I met who were already out there having fun but the photos speak for themselves. If you've been thinking about a trip to the Cayman Islands, now's the time to go. Their hospitality is even better than you remember. The reefs made it, the boats are refurbished, the new rooms shine, and the glow of recovery has put everyone in the mood to celebrate.
Special thanks to Sunset House and Sunset Divers (www.sunsethouse.com), Cobalt Coast Resort (www.cobaltcoast.com). Divetech (www.divetech.com), Compass Point and Ocean Frontiers (www.oceanfrontiers.com) and Don Foster's Dive Cayman (www.donfosters.com).