The Aquarium that is Little Cayman

August 1, 2006 by  
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Less than a three-hour direct non-stop flight from Houston, lies one of the most pristine coral reefs left in the world. There are three islands that make up the Caymans Islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, which is home to the oldest resort in all the Caymans, Southern Cross Club.

Above water, Little Cayman has not changed much since Christopher Columbus discovered it on his third trip to the new world. Indigenous species of ducks and birds are now protected in bird statuaries and the coral reefs by a marine park. Below water, or as Mike Emmanuel, one of the founders of Southern Cross likes to say, “in the thicker air,” drastic changes are afoot. According to Central Caribbean Marine Institute’s Dr. Carrie Manfrino, 40 percent of the architectural and reef-building coral has died in the past eight years. Diseases like White Plaque, Black Band and Coral Bleaching are taking their toll on the coral and the marine life that it supports. “This is despite the absence of common causes of coral degradation; commercial fishing, pollution, heavy coastal development, high tourism and diving traffic,” stated Peter Hillenbrand, Southern Cross Club owner and chairman of the executive board of CCMI. “It has to be global warming and the fact that man’s presence is as environmentally friendly as an oil slick.”

The saving grace for Little Cayman is its isolation. It did not have electricity or paved roads until ten years ago. With only a few homes on the island, a year-round population of 120, and 122 rooms between the five hotels, it is as close to being on a deserted island as one can get. Established almost fifty years ago as a bone fish club by Titians of American Industry, the XC-CEO’s of GE, Ball Industries and thirty-four of their colleagues, pitched tents in the coral sand under a grove of coconut palms. For more than forty years, the camp had generators for electricity and cisterns for water, and was a sharp contrast to the pastel luxurious bungalows, air conditioning and hot showers that Hillenbrand has shepherded the club into. With more than 50 percent of all guests returning time after time, they make Southern Cross the most coveted dive club in the Caribbean.

The resort compound is composed of thirteen widely spaced bungalows, a dining hall, and swimming pool with a cabana bar. With a staff of 20 to pamper a maximum of 26 guests, your days are filled with diving, fishing, swimming, snorkeling or laying in one of the 12 hammocks that dot the beach. As one of the guests who was celebrating her engagement said, “This place is the very definition of island paradise.”

One of the first things general manager Chris told us when we arrived by prop plane from Grand Cayman was that most activities at Southern Cross are on “island time,” which means give or take 15 or 20 minutes either way, except when it comes time for the dive boat to leave the dock. “The morning dive boat leaves, with or without you, promptly at 8 a.m.,” he said. So we awoke each morning at 6:30 a.m. for a buffet breakfast around 7. Most mornings, the buffet breakfasts included eggs, either scrambled or poached, tropical fruit, cereals, yogurt, breads and muffins. Breakfast is a hardy meal for the adventures ahead.

One morning dive, we had Henri and Lucy for dive masters and guides. Both are passionate about the coral and its aquatic inhabitants and regard them with great respect. Before we jumped into the “aquarium,” as Henri referred to the turquoise sea, he outlined the dive for us, including the coral valleys and alley configurations, and listed the “friends” we may see below and how long the dive would last. As we descended to the reef at 25 feet below, we ventured into what must be like the middle of Times Square during a ticket-tape parade of blue milar ribbon – for thousands of little blue fish swirled all around us. And in a flash, they were gone, courtesy of a five-foot reef shark. It was the first of three sharks we saw during our dives. One was “napping” on the sea bottom, and another, a small, three-foot shark that dive master Lucy had spotted, was curled inside a coral out-cropping. She motioned for us to reach inside the coral and pet its tail. Following her lead, and with great trepidation on my part, I petted its tail. Its skin felt like sand paper – thus its name, a sand shark. Lucy was also kind enough to point out shrimp smaller than your fingernail; spider-like crabs clinging to spider-like coral and a tortoise having its lunch. We were both given a fright when we had an aquatic close encounter of the fourth kind – the shared attention of a shark sucker fish who liked our hairy legs. Henri pointed out that he was perfectly harmless, yet it was a very weird sensation.

Each morning consisted of two dives, with a 45 minute-to-one hour break in between and a short boat ride to another dive site, equally as fantastic as the last. By the time we returned to the dock, we were famished, and after a quick change out of our wet swimsuits, we hit the hardy lunch buffet. One day it was turkey and dressing, another hot dogs and onion rings. There was always a soup, and the salad bar had the usual fixings and cookies or cake for dessert. If you weren’t going on the 2 p.m. dive, it was nap time all around, either in your wonderfully cool air-conditioned room or one of the many hammocks that dotted the beach.

Sometimes, weather permitting, there was a sunset or night dive. We were lucky to go on a sunset dive under a full moon. Dive master Henri was quite animated when he began his dive talk. He had a book that he opened to show the types of fish he expected us to encounter and described their moonlight activities in detail, before we all dove in. At about 30 feet, we did as Henri had instructed and set and watched the fish before us as if we were at a Broadway show. As Henri had predicated, we were privy to the mating dance of several species of fish – and they danced just as he had described. A brilliant blue male fish and his slightly darker girlfriend started “rounding up the wagons,” circling each other as they rose to the surface, their circle getting tighter and tighter as they went up ’til they were spiraling next to each other, and with two flicks of his tail, he broadcasted his sperm as she broadcasted her eggs, in what could only be described as underwater fireworks, before they bid adieu and darted out of sight. Other interesting mating dances we observed were two male fish, jaws wide open with snouts together, aggressively butting heads like we often see mountain rams in nature films. In another corner of the coral reef was a parrotfish herding his cows, while trying to keep the other males away from his harem. Unfortunately, while he was occupied with keeping one male away, a female would slip away from the group for a quickie on the side. TV Novellas have nothing on these fish!

During the ride back to the dock, Henri offered beers all around as we regaled each other in what we had witnessed. Henri let us in on a secret that tonight there would be a special celebration of owner Peter Hillenbrand’s birthday and a Mexican buffet dinner would be served on the beach. Dusk fell as the boat approached the dock, and on the pristine white sand beach were a series of long tables, decked in damask and decorated in multi-colored Christmas lights. Tiki torches burned along the pathway to the cabana, creating a festive scene. We rushed to change our clothes and join the party. New guests had arrived, including John Palmer, one of the original shareholders in the club, who had fought long and hard to keep the club just for fishing, along with many others who just wanted to wish Peter a happy birthday.

Chef Sheldon outdid himself with a lavish Mexican dinner buffet, including all of Peter’s favorites: chicken enchiladas, Mexican rice and beans, and creamy guacamole. As we all sat on the beach, guests and staff side-by-side, barefoot with our toes in the sand, we were startled by a loud noise. Pop! Pow! Bang! Fireworks were being sent into the night sky as the moon rose on the horizon. Pop! Pow! Bang! they went, splashing their colored embers above us, reflected in the surf. “Wow!” was the only word spoken during the entire 15 minute display. “Wow!”

When the fireworks died out, we all stood and toasted Peter. In less than 10 short years, Peter modernized the facilities, rebuilt the club after Hurricane Ivan’s wrath and turned a tented fish camp into a modern resort filled with friends that are family. What more could a man want for his birthday, and what a happy ending to an amazing underwater adventure!

Trip Resources: Southern Cross Club, Continental Airlines flies non-stop from Houston to Grand Cayman daily, with connections via Cayman Airlines between the islands.

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