Cayman Aggressor Trip ReportNovember 12-21, 1999
In spite of living in the middle of the US (Boulder, Colorado) I was bitten pretty hard by the diving bug. Certified last December, I had accumulated a fair number of dives, but still couldn't get enough. I figured a week on a live-aboard might do the trick. So I signed up for a week aboard the Cayman Aggressor, mostly because it was one of the places that I could get to via frequent flyer miles.
I figured that by the middle of November I would be pretty safe from hurricane season. When I arrived it had been raining for the previous week and many roads were heavily flooded. It would rain the next two days, but that didn't stop me from diving. The storm system over the Caymans was upgraded to a tropical storm on Sunday, but at this point the storm was starting to move east. Later in the week the storm was upgraded again, this time to a hurricane, which didn't affect our diving, but did prevent us from making the passage from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman. But I'm getting ahead of myself here...
Even though I made my flight arrangements nearly six months in advance, I still couldn't fly on the days I wanted. So I had to arrive on Grand Cayman a day early and leave a day late. Bummer, eh? Flying from Denver involved a red-eye connection to Atlanta. I'm not proud and crashed out on the floor in the international terminal. Luckily I picked a quiet gate and managed to snatch a few hours of sleep. I figured that I had gotten this wonderful connection because of my stinginess and flying using frequent flier miles, but my Aggressor ship mates from California had similar tales. Arriving a day early I was on my own at the airport. At the taxi stand you are matched up with other travelers going to hotels near yours. After a 20 minute wait I was finally assigned to a taxi. My hotel was less than a ten minute drive from the airport but still the fare ran $12 US, even with other passengers in the taxi. Returning my taxi fare was $10 and I was the only passenger...
Traveling solo, I wasn't looking for fancy accommodations while on Grand Cayman. I stayed at the Seaview Hotel a 10 minute walk south of Georgetown. From some trip reports I had read, I wasn't expecting too much, but I was quite pleased. The Seaview offers basic accommodations for what on Grand Cayman passes for budget prices ($90 US/night). The food at the Seaview was very good and reasonably priced (lunch ~$10 US). The Seaview bar is the local's hangout, most of the time there were more locals than patrons. Friday night I tromped through the rain into town and had dinner at the Tree House. Pretty casual, but tasty food (dinner ~$20 US).
I had made arrangements to go diving w/ Seaview divers on Saturday, my first full day on the island. But conditions were pretty rough, so I hooked up with two other divers for two shore dives. I was blown away on the first dive, just a few hundred feet from the Seaview hotel was a beautiful wall. On my first dive we spotted four hawksbill turtles, setting a pattern for the rest of the week.
Saturday afternoon I boarded the Cayman Aggressor IV, met the crew and my fellow divers. My dive mates were a pretty diverse group. We had one woman, Vicky, get certified while on board (no pool training for her) and more remarkable, she had learned to swim just a year before. Another, Chuck, was an instructor and used to own a dive shop. Saturday evening we were a group of strangers, but by Monday morning we were carrying on like old friends. I meet some really cool people and hope to dive with many of them in the future.
I had expected to be the only sub-30 diver, but was surprised to find two others my age. My cabin mate, Nigel became my primary dive partner. Nigel was Irish, but living in Jamaica which offered an interesting set of stories. Nigel and I were well suited as dive partners since we had similar air consumption, interests (deep, critters) and physical fitness (we swam about twice as far as everyone else).
Diving aboard the Cayman Aggressor is about as easy as it gets. Breakfast is served from 7-8 with a different hot entree each day plus the basics of cereal, toast, bagels and fresh fruit. At 8 we would all gather on the dive deck for the dive briefing. The briefings were handy since we usually dove on our own, not following a divemaster. For each site a member of the crew would draw a map of the area annotated with depths and where interesting attractions were located. Then we would suit up at our station. Each station had a locker under the seat for small gear. At the beginning of the week we setup our BC, then left it setup the entire week. The crew would fill our tanks in place at our stations and we were responsible for putting on and taking off the first stage. The dive platform was down four stairs. Our fins and masks were kept on the dive platform which was convent. A dispenser of mask defog was right on the dive deck.
During all dives one crew member was designated the Divemaster on Duty. The DoD would help you in and out of the water, passing you a camera if you were using one. Plus the DoD would record when you entered the water and ask for your depth & time when you returned. The captain recommended a maximum depth of 110 feet, but no one mentioned anything if you came back having gone deeper. Returning from a dive was very easy. Two large ladders were mounted on the dive platform. A member of the crew would be on the dive platform to take your fins and help you if needed out of the water. Two hot showers were on the back deck for rinsing off or warming up. Up a four stairs to the dive deck where you would return your gear to your dive station. Towels were waiting as well as some sort of snack. Hot baked cookies were a big treat, as was the hot chocolate on the first day of diving when it was a bit chilly.
After a two hour surface interval, we would usually dive the morning's site a second time. After the second morning dive, the crew would move the boat to a new dive site where we would spend the afternoon and evening. Typically the afternoon dive site was shallower. The only dive which felt crowded was the dive before dinner, since no one wanted to miss dinner. Food on board was uniformly very good. For most meals the crew served drinks and food. Seconds were never a problem for a hungry guy like myself.
For the first three days I was content to simply dive my ass off. Most days I fit in five dives a day. While onboard I took the Nitrox course, which definitely helped my bottom times. The nice part about taking courses onboard is they didn't cause you to miss any dives. The courses were slotted nicely into the surface intervals.
One interesting note about the night dives. I'm used to carrying a marker light on night dives, but because of concerns about attracting sea wasps (a type of jelly fish) it was recommended not to use a marker light. Floodlights over the dive platform made it very easy to enter and exit the water at night. The floodlights had the added bonus of making it easy to find the ship when returning, just look for the glow.
For the last two full days I rented a Nikonos underwater camera outfit. I'm a pretty competent land photographer, but photography with the Nikonos was a humbling experience! My first roll was totally dark, without a single view able picture. I'm a little suspect of the ASA setting, but took it in stride. My subsequent rolls showed steady improvement, but it was still quite challenging. Of the five rolls I took underwater and had developed on board there's one shot worthy of enlargement, something I'm pretty happy with.
I won't bore people with full details of the dives I did, I will mention a few of my favorites of the 24 dives I did aboard the Aggressor. Because of the weather, the captain choose dive sites that wouldn't be too rough. As it turned out we got a full tour of Grand Cayman and were able to sample dives from all parts of the island. Visibility was good, usually was in the 60-90' range. Water temperatures were 78-81. I tend to get cold easily and wore a full 3 mm wetsuit plus a 2 mm neoprene skull cap on most dives. Towards the end of the last dive of the day sometimes I would get a little chilled. The first few days were quite windy and a few minutes after I came out of the water my lips would be turning blue. I made good use of the fleece jacket I brought with me, in addition to the hot showers on board.
The reefs we dove were all in excellent condition with large schools of fish. What was more impressive was how approachable the fish were, something that was very enjoyable. Gray and French angelfish almost would come up and kiss your mask. Pelagic encounters were rare. I spotted a nurse shark, but never saw any eagle rays, which was a disappointment. Turtles did make up for the lack of other big creatures. We spotted turtles on nearly every dive and I learned that if you swim slowly and approach from the side, the turtles will allow you to get pretty close and swim alongside. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me (even though none of my turtle pictures are presentable).
My dive partner, Nigel was a fish id fanatic, he even corrected the captain on a few ids during the evening slide show. As a result I learned to id quite a few fishes where I previously only could identify the type of fish. Of course I'm likely to forget a lot of it by my next dive trip.
Babylon on the northeast end of the island was an incredible site. Babylon had beautiful black coral formations and huge tube sponges. Another favorite site was Big Tunnels off 7 mile beach on the west side of Grand Cayman. This site had some incredible swim throughs. On Friday only a half day of diving is available. At this point I had contracted a head cold and aborted the first dive since I couldn't equalize my ears. A dose of sudafed allowed me to get in the final dive.
Our crew was friendly and went out of their way to help when ever needed. It was almost mind boggling to see the captain go from helping us out on the dive deck to serving us dinner. All members of the crew (captain, two dive instructors, cook and a trial crew member) worked incredibly hard the entire week.
The Aggressor price list only a single price, implying the staterooms are all the same but they are not equal. My stateroom was one of two staterooms with two twin bunks that shares a single bathroom. This worked fine, except when the guests in the adjacent stateroom locked our bathroom door. I discovered this twice in the middle of the night and had to walk up main deck to use the head there. My stateroom was near the stern and received more generator noise than I would have liked. Seems like a little bit of sound insulation could go a long way here. The staterooms are small, but functional. Storage was reasonable with a shared closet and large drawer, plus space under the bottom bunk for bags. Each room had a small TV w/ VCR, but I never used it.
The top deck offered a sunning area with lounge chairs as well as a covered area if you wanted to avoid the sun. On nice days lunch and sometimes dinner would be served up here. This deck also housed the bar, with beer and soda on tap, plus wine and assorted liquor. The ground rule set by the captain was no drinking and diving which was respected by everyone. Unfortunately the hot tub was broken, which would have been nice during the cooler first few days.
The aft portion of the main deck was the well equipped diving area. Inside was the main salon where we usually had dinner and breakfast. The salon was equipped with a screen for slide shows and a large screen TV and VCR. Plus the computer workstation with slide scanner was located here. I considered sending email, but didn't have any interesting pictures until the last two days of the trip.
Back in Georgetown on Friday we had a final cocktail party, then went into town for dinner. On Saturday I had hoped to dive, but my head would be too congested for diving. So instead I relaxed and in the afternoon went for a nice long snorkel with Nigel and Jim, another Aggressor diver. I should have explored town on Saturday, because on Sunday everything was closed.
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