The caretakers of the reef

Mark Stratton visits the Cayman Islands and witnesses world-class diving, extraordinary biodiversity and reassuring preservation programmes.

Paid partnership with Visit Cayman Islands

The caretakers of the reef

Mark Stratton visits the Cayman Islands and witnesses world-class diving, extraordinary biodiversity and reassuring preservation programmes

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“Cayman is brilliant for birdwatching. I’ve counted 245,” enthuses ornithologist Stuart Mailer guiding me around the mangrove and buttonwood forest of the Mastic Trail, protected by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands.

Many visitors to this trio of Western Caribbean islands may be familiar with the exquisite beaches or world-class diving, but fewer are aware of the impressive diversity of species — often quoted as greater even than that of the Galapagos. 

“Many species are on migratory routes between North and South America and break their journeys here. We also have 13 native species,” Stuart continues.

During a week of wildlife-watching I begin on Grand Cayman, the largest of the three islands and the seat of the capital George Town, seeking out myriad rare species.

We see multiple examples of the exotic birdlife during a technicolour morning of dazzling plumage displayed by loggerhead kingbirds, banana-quits, Cuban bullfinches, and endemic Grand Cayman parrots.

“An impressive diversity of species often quoted as greater even than that of the Galapagos”

Amid these feathered encounters I also meet Grand Cayman’s internationally renowned giant blue iguanas. This is the only island in the world where they can be found. These powdery-blue reptiles are best viewed at the Blue Iguana Conservation facility near the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. Sporting powerful jowls, a row of needle-like spines run the length of scaly bodies that can stretch to 1.5metres.

A decade ago, they were functionally extinct and faced total extinction, partly due to competition from introduced non-native green iguana. But a cull of the latter combined with captive breeding has seen the re-establishment of a stable population. 

Genetically they’re very much like the rock iguanas on neighbouring Little Cayman, one of the two smaller ‘Sister Islands’.  This tiny paradise is fringed by coral reefs and broken-shell Ironshore beaches.

With just a few hundred residents, there’s little traffic or rush. Just as well, as the endemic rock iguanas enjoy basking on the roads’ warm tarmac, their faded bronze skin glistening in the sunlight.

“This tiny paradise is fringed by coral reefs and broken-shell Ironshore beaches”

A good place to find them is around the island’s engaging little museum. Similar in size to the blue iguanas, they pop out of their burrows as the sun rises to heat up their dinosaurian frames.

The story goes that they are distant relatives of the blue iguanas on Grand Cayman and moved here perhaps a million years ago — interestingly, nobody knows why they didn’t remain blue.

Perhaps they changed colour due to the stress of watching the aerial battles over the road. At the National Trust’s Booby Pond Nature Reserve, I’m enthralled by an avian Battle of Britain.

In one corner is a large colony of resplendent frigatebirds nesting in the mangroves – their throat crops inflated and tomato-red. In the other corner, is a 4000-strong colony of red-footed boobies, one of the largest in the western hemisphere, also nesting.

When the boobies return with their catch the frigatebirds swoop down and harass them to drop it, and then snatch it mid-air. The boobies however have learned to fly in at low altitude to avoid these avian bullies from plundering their catch.

Rock iguanas are also found on the third island of my stay, on Cayman Brac, as well as bats and cliffs of brown-footed boobies. I view them during an afternoon exploring Brac’s magnificent limestone escarpment, known as the Bluff, which runs like a petrified spine along this quiet and beautiful island. 

At my overnight hotel, the luxurious Le Soleil d’Or, I’m treated to even closer encounters of Cayman rarities in their garden of fruits and vegetables, freshly grown for guests.

Head gardener, Randal, shows me rock iguanas and parrots feasting on pumpkin and papaya, planted as ‘distraction trees’ so they won’t eat more precious herbs and vegetables.

“It’s only right we make concessions to them as they’ve been on these islands a lot longer than us,” says Randal.

Throughout, the sight of the Caribbean Sea rarely leaves my view. It possesses stellar biodiversity. There are world-renowned wreck and reef dives like the sunken USS Kittiwake off Grand Cayman, Eagle Ray Pass, and the Cayman Trough — the deepest in the Caribbean Sea.

And from Little Cayman I swim out to a nearshore steep drop-off at Bloody Bay Wall, which descends 2000 metres to the seafloor. The father of scuba-diving, Jacques Cousteau, described this as one of the world’s top dive-sites.

The drop-off lies within a protected marine zone and is important for breeding Nassau grouper. The water is bathtub warm, and I am soon engulfed by an undersea kaleidoscope of pufferfish, some bloated as if they’ve eaten a five-course meal, and shiny shoals of chromos pouring around me like blue rain.

The corals are vivid, the gorgonian sea-fans sway with the current as if waved coquettishly by Japanese geisha.

Groupers, parrotfish, reef sharks, and green turtles, are larger denizens of this undersea kingdom. On the note of longtime inhabitants, green turtles are also flourishing again.

These islands were originally named Las Tortugas by Christopher Columbus, who happened by here during his 15th-century explorations of the Americas and reported abundant turtles. Thereafter they became a popular food source for mariners.

By the 1960s the nesting beaches were sadly almost empty. But the successful breeding program of the Cayman Turtle Centre has helped to bring the population back.

Back on Grand Cayman, I watch a green turtle being released into the Caribbean Sea. On the shoreline, in a tide pinkened by the setting sun, the turtle takes one last look around at captivity and dips into the ocean to taste freedom.

Ninety-percent of all breeding turtles emanate from our breeding program, Geddes Hislop of the award-winning Cayman Turtle Centre tells me. “They’re part of our natural heritage and caretakers of our beautiful reefs,” he says.

Need to know

  • Getting there – British Airways offer direct* flights from London Heathrow to Grand Cayman five times per week. *The flight touches down in Nassau, Bahamas but passengers travelling on to Cayman do not disembark the plane.
  • Best time to go – the Cayman Islands experience an average temperature of 26°C all year round, making it a fantastic holiday destination at any time of year. However, the months from December-April tend to bring the most pleasant weather.
  • Where to stay – there is a range of accommodation on offer across all three islands from resorts and hotels to luxurious villas and condos, all within easy access of the beautiful beaches and Caribbean Sea. See the “Where to Stay” section of the Visit Cayman Islands website for more information.
  • Must-pack item – leave space in your suitcase to take home some of the fantastic local art and pottery, or a bottle of Seven Fathoms Rum – a rum unique to the Cayman Islands that is matured in oak barrels lowered seven fathoms under the sea, where the rolling waves and warm sea temperature create the perfect conditions to create this smooth, mellow spirit.
  • How to do it – hire a car and explore the islands yourself! Driving is on the left, just like the UK, and the islands are very easy to navigate.
  • Anything else? There are 365 different dive sites in the Cayman Islands, most of which are easily accessible and just a short boat ride from the shore. Refresher and PADI certified open water courses are available at most of the dive resorts and if you complete your theory work in the UK before you leave, you can spend more time diving when you’re in Cayman!

More information

This article was brought to you in partnership with Visit Cayman Islands. With 71,000 friendly locals to greet you, the Cayman Islands can be found in the most carefree corner of the Caribbean.

All three of the islands have their own personality, from the barefoot elegance of Grand Cayman, to the adventurous spirit of Cayman Brac to the tranquillity of Little Cayman.

For more information and suggested itineraries, go to visitcaymanislands.com.


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