Take The Plunge Caymans-style

Summer's here and it's time to get active. For Nick Hanna, that means the wonder and excitement of diving in the Cayman Islands

The sun sparkles on the ocean surface as my buddy and I get ready to jump from the boat. I love this moment. All the hassles of travelling are behind you. Ahead lies the deep blue water. There's a delicious sense of anticipation. What curious fish and colourful creatures will be waiting beneath the surface?

The sun sparkles on the ocean surface as my buddy and I get ready to jump from the boat. I love this moment. All the hassles of travelling are behind you. Ahead lies the deep blue water. There's a delicious sense of anticipation. What curious fish and colourful creatures will be waiting beneath the surface?

We jump in and start our descent. As the warm tropical water seeps in under the edges of my wetsuit, the chatter on the boat is replaced by the soothing sound of exhaled bubbles. Floating weightlessly in a blue, blue world, I signal "OK" to Kim and we sink deeper. We pass by a score of needlefish. A school of French grunts bustles through, their yellow and blue-striped shapes shifting subtly to and fro in collective harmony. Then we come to the drop-off - the lip of the reef crest where it folds over into the unknown depths below.

This is where the fun really begins. The whole reef crest is a riot of colourful sponges, gorgonians, purple sea fans spreading their branches into the current, and resplendent hard corals. Within this three-dimensional maze of plants and animals, fish of every description dart in the never-ending game of prey and predator, of finding something to eat or being eaten themselves.

We are off Grand Cayman's north coast - one of the best diving areas in the Caribbean. It's the diversity of diving and snorkelling that makes the Caymans such a great underwater destination. As well as the dramatic wall dives on the north shore there are easy, shallow reefs off the west coast; accessible wrecks; cool caverns inhabited by shoals of silvery fish.

With around 40 well-equipped dive centres offering everything from beginners' courses to instructor qualifications, the Caymans have one of the most sophisticated diving scenes in the Caribbean. We were booked in with Divetech, based at the Cobalt Coast Resort on the north coast. Its dive centre has a 40m jetty - perfect for shore diving - with boat trips elsewhere. Divetech also specialises in technical stuff from learning how to use a rebreather to advanced training which will take you below 100 metres.

I opted for a scooter "wall flying" dive. This was just so much fun, being propelled along by an underwater scooter like some villainous extra in a James Bond movie. We also spent some time diving off the island's East End, with its spectacular reef formations and fish life.

At dive sites such as Grouper Grotto, Snapper Hole and Maggie's Maze there are extensive networks of underwater canyons and caverns and an abundance of marine life, from turtles to tarpon. The diving here is handled by Ocean Frontiers, a full-service dive centre with dozens of pristine local sites to choose from. There is also some excellent snorkelling which can be easily reached by boat.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the legendary Jacques Cousteau and formerly a "conservation ambassador" for the islands, says that the Caymans offer some of the best diving in the region. "These three islands have done a pretty good job of conserving their reefs," he told me. "I wish the rest of the Caribbean had the same consciousness of marine environment as the Caymans."

But will it stay that way? While Grand Cayman was one of the first countries in the region to introduce marine park policies and install mooring buoys on its dive sites to prevent anchor damage, plans to build a dolphinarium could damage a hard-won reputation.

The dolphinarium is aimed largely at cruise-ship passengers, of whom around 1.5 million visit the island every year. But the world champion free-diver Tanya Streeter, who was brought up in the Caymans, condemns it as totally unacceptable. "Islands in the Caribbean have always looked to the Caymans as setting the standard for marine conservation," she says. "The reason we have great reefs is because we've understood the need to protect them. Establishing something that is as environmentally unsound as a captive dolphin programme will wipe out 30 years of hard work on the conservation front. Not a single dive centre wants this facility."

Cousteau is also vehemently opposed to the plan. "A captive dolphin facility would destroy the Cayman Islands' outstanding eco-tourism credentials," he says. "The average lifespan of a dolphin in the wild is 45 years, yet half of all captured dolphins die within their first two years in captivity.

"For a dolphin accustomed to roaming free up to 40 miles per day, any enclosure is unnatural, and this facility would be little more than a jail. Swim-with-dolphin programmes are an insult to those of us who view humanity as stewards of nature. The programmes are bad for dolphins, bad for tourists, and in the end, bad for business."

At present, Grand Cayman lacks any large-scale tourist attractions. It has a Turtle Farm, which is undergoing a major redevelopment following hurricane damage; the ambitious plans will create a marine theme park which will include a snorkelling pool where visitors will be able to swim with turtles, a predator tank with sharks and barracuda, an aviary, and a Cayman "heritage street". This is also one of the possible sites for the dolphinarium.

The Caymans' current attractions are more low-key: it has an excellent new Maritime Heritage Trail, and Pedro St James (a historic building dating back to 1780) is worth a visit. The most under-rated attraction is the wonderful Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, which protects some 60 acres of native flora and fauna in the centre of the island. It has some gorgeous gardens, native woodlands, a lake, and a typical Caribbean "sand garden".

The park has also been running a successful programme to breed the endangered Cayman Blue Iguana, of which there were once only 60 remaining. Now there are around 120 of these fabulous beasts, which can be seen basking in the sun around the park.

The beach and the sea remain the main draw for many visitors. Seven Mile Beach (in fact, just over five miles long) is a glorious sweep of powder-fine sand sloping down into warm, aquamarine waters. Unquestionably Grand Cayman's best beach, for many years it has been spared the ravages of rampant development by building regulations that prevented hotels rising any higher than the island's trademark casuarina trees.

Now, all that has changed as condos and hotels start to breach the seven-storey mark and alter the skyline irrevocably. A massive new Ritz-Carlton, straddling the width of the island and rising well above the tree line, is set to open later this year. The 366-room hotel will potentially supply an extra 700 or so sunbathers on to the sand.

At present, the Cayman Islands are a diver's paradise, and the balance remains firmly in favour of the environment. Whether that might soon change - and whether the dolphinarium is given the go ahead - remains to be seen.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com) flies to Grand Cayman via Nassau from £610 return.

Barefoot Traveller (020-8741 4319; www.barefoot-traveller.com) offers seven nights' b&b at Sunshine Suites, next to Seven Mile Beach, from £1,030 or at the Reef Resort from £1,160. Both prices include 10 dives.

Further information

Cayman Islands Department of Tourism (020-7491 7771; www.caymanislands.co.uk). For dive information visit www.divecayman.ky.

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