Where rays are more than just sunshine

Sarah Lee travels to the Caribbean destination, traditionally seen as a luxury hangout, and discovers there is plenty for the adventurous traveller, too.

Paid partnership with Visit Cayman Islands

Where rays are more than just sunshine: Diving in the Cayman Islands

Sarah Lee travels to the Caribbean destination, traditionally seen as a luxury hangout, and discovers there is plenty for the adventurous traveller, too.

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“Watch your step. Don’t step on a sleeping stingray,” our guide warned. Given their sometimes deadly reputation, I felt a quake of trepidation as I considered my next move on the shifting sand. 

However, the crystal clarity of the Caribbean Sea and the soft sand beneath my feet made the task of spotting a ray as easy as it was comforting. There were a couple of lightly dappled brown diamonds gently burrowed into the soft white of the sandbar but by now most of the southern stingrays were already gently swirling around us.

The Cayman Islands are synonymous with luxury, since numerous billionaires have spent their cash there over the years, but a place for natural adventures? It’s not something you often hear of. 

However, with the five-star hotel hangouts of Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach, and glittering Camana Bay Harbour (where we’d boarded luxury yacht charter La Vida) now a glimmer on the horizon, I was about to embrace the island’s active side.

Out at Stingray City, as this sealife stomping ground has become known, hoards of rays were gathering. The stingrays had the wide open sea at their disposal and could come and convene with us as and when they wished. There was a whoosh and a small wave as each ray would swim up close. 

Perhaps you’ve seen the almost cartoonish smile on the underside of a ray, but did you know they feed by vacuuming their prey up through their mouths? This was to be the second thing we learned about stingrays that day. The first, and perhaps most important, had come on the comfy leather seats of La Vida’s top deck where our captain had given a pre-tour briefing. 

Describing a stingray’s biology, aided by a rubber model, he explained proper tourist-to-stingray etiquette, and the location and function of the venomous spine we all knew we needed to avoid.

Despite their fearsome reputation, especially since conservationist Steve Irwin died after a freak encounter with one, stingrays are not usually a threat to humans. Their spines are non-toxic to us and are only used by the creatures when they feel threatened. But it was a vital safety briefing, and helped put our minds at rest. 

Out in the ocean, it soon became easy to forget about this reputation, as the stingrays swam by close enough to rub their wing-like fins against my legs, just as a cat might in greeting.  I was surprised how soft they were, their white undersides not far off the smooth skin of a baby, while their fins fluttered through the water.  

As one neared me and the top of her head bobbed towards the surface, I looked down and realised we were eye to eye. This unfairly maligned ‘monster of the deep’ was here in the shallows, staring back at me, and maybe, just maybe, was as captivated by me as I was by her. After a moment, I let her drift off again, her wings rippling through the sea with heavenly grace.

Diving in the Cayman Islands - coral

Back aboard La Vida, we paused for refreshments of fresh tropical fruit, local snacks and Cayman Island beers Ironshore Bock and Mango Tango, an unusual but tasty brew. Then it was off across the waves to the reefs around North Sound where we took to the water again to snorkel. 

Fins and masks on, we dove into the sea to view coral and tropical sea dwellers including iridescent parrot and banded butterfly fish. 

The Cayman Islands is one of the world’s renowned dive spots, but even close to the surface, I found there was plenty of vibrant life. There’s an innate joy to seeing animals in their own environment, especially in the warm blue of the Caribbean Sea. It was a slice of Cayman heaven. 

But everything has a flip side, a ying to its yang. And back on land, I felt I had to journey to Grand Cayman’s perhaps least desirable neighbourhood. You see, when you hear a place is called Hell, you need to see just how bad it could be. So I drove out to Hell Road, in West Bay. 

A sign hailed: “Welcome to Hell,” an unusual greeting, but it got worse. Written below it was “The Devil’s Hangout”. 

Diving in the Cayman Islands - hell

The area gets its name from its natural ‘hellscape’ of scorched black limestone rocks carved out over 24 million years. The dark, desolate rocks are a stark contrast to the lush green vegetation nearby, and to the variegated blues of the Caribbean Sea that had dazzled earlier that day.

Lucifer isn’t sitting around drinking rum punch, but there is a gift shop and post office where you can send a postcard home from Hell, which is perhaps its greatest draw.

Heading back to my hotel, I figured that, between the heavenly natural encounters and a pit stop in Hell, I’d had a day of polar opposites. I’d literally been to Hell and back, which was surprisingly enjoyable, and I’d challenged my notions of supposedly scary stingrays, which were soft, calm and even playful.

Challenging preconceptions is one of travel’s greatest gifts, and The Cayman Islands certainly delivered on this premise. Even the islands themselves, long seen as the playground of the rich and famous, has something for the adventurous traveller too.

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 on Diving in the Cayman Islands

This article on Cayman Islands diving 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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