Although the term "decompression" has a technical meaning with respect to diving, I use it here in the non-technical sense. I enjoy the relaxation of diving in ideal conditions which I could define as warm water, no current, high visibility, and abundant marine life. My threshold water temperature is about 82° F and I don't enjoy diving with an underwater visibility less than about 100 feet. Naturally, the best close-by places which meet these criteria are in the Caribbean. Add in the requirement for an abundance of interesting marine life, both from the plant and animal kingdoms, and you have described the Cayman Islands. Ironically, I had been vacationing on Grand Cayman for about five years before I even learned to dive. I finally "took the plunge", so to speak, and got my NAUI certification. I have since taken two additional courses to upgrade my certificate and, because of my interest in underwater photography, I have taken several U/W photography courses. Almost all of my diving experience is limited to the three Cayman Islands and my swimming pool, although I have spent a couple of weeks in Curacao, an experience which I would not repeat and will not relate.
On to the subjects at hand:
Location and Geography
The Cayman Islands are three islands, Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, located in the Caribbean Sea. With a latitude between 19 degrees 15 minutes and 19 degrees 45 minutes North, and a longitude between 79 degrees 44 minutes and 81 degrees 27 minutes West, they are well within the tropical zone. Grand Cayman is about 150 miles south of Cuba and 180 miles west of Jamaica. The three islands are outcrops of the Cayman Ridge, a range of submarine mountains extending west southwest from the Sierra Maestra range in the southeast portion of Cuba to the Misteriosa Bank in the direction of Belize. The Cayman Trough lies between the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. It is the deepest part of the Caribbean, being over four miles deep. South, towards the Gulf of Honduras, is the Barlett Deep. These deep areas of ocean are in close proximity to the three islands. This, combined with the fact that Grand Cayman and Little Cayman are almost surrounded by living coral reefs, provide the Cayman Islands with some of the most popular dive sites in the world. However, there is no possibility of a fishing industry because, apart from the Cayman Bank, a five-mile by half-a-mile area some ten miles west of Grand Cayman which lies at 15 to 20 fathoms, there is no continental shelf. The total area of the three islands is about 100 square miles. Grand Cayman is about 76 square miles, Cayman Brac, 14 square miles and Little Cayman, 10 square miles. Grand Cayman is approximately 22 miles long and 8 miles at the widest point wide. Its highest elevation is about 60 feet above sea level, and the most striking topographical feature is the North Sound, a shallow reef-protected lagoon with an area of about 35 square miles.
Cayman Brac lies about 90 miles east north-east of Grand Cayman. It is about 12 miles long and a little over a mile wide. The Bluff, its most outstanding feature, rising along the length of the island, reaching a height of 140 feet at the eastern end, falling in a sheer cliff to the sea.
Little Cayman is five miles west of Cayman Brac and is ten miles long and two miles at its widest point. It is the flattest of the three islands with its highest elevation being 40 feet. To the west, a seven mile channel separates Cayman Brac from Little Cayman.
A Little Geology for the Rock-Heads Among You!
The three islands are formed of two distinct formations of calcareous rock. The older limestone, called bluff limestone, was formed in the Oligocene-Miocene period, about 30 million years ago. This limestone forms the central core of each island. It is a dense Karst limestone. Surrounding this bluff limestone core is a coastal limestone terrace called "ironshore". Ironshore is a formation of consolidated coral, mollusk shells and marl with some limestone. It was formed about 120,000 years ago in the Pleistocene period. The Pleistocene period was marked by a series of ice ages. After the last ice age, the sea level began to rise slowly from a level about 400 feet below present sea level. All the islands lack rivers or streams because of the porous nature of the rock. It is this lack of runoff which gives the islands the clarity of water around them. In the rock are many cracks and fissures. Soil is found mainly in pockets, though there is arable land, noticeably on top of the Bluff on Cayman Brac.
A Brief History of the Cayman Islands
The Cayman Islands were discovered on May 10th, 1503 by Christopher Columbus on his forth and last voyage to the new world. He was actually on his way from Panama to Hispanola when his ships were steered off course by strong winds, and he sighted Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. The story says that he reported sighting two small islands, so full or tortoises (turtles) that they looked like rocks, and he gave the islands the name Las Tortugas (The Turtles).
Over the next 150 years, the islands went through several name changes, and played host to various visiting ships, as sailors would use the islands to replenish their supplies of fresh water, as well as stocking up on turtle meat and various wild fowls. One of the name changes, Caymanas, is believed to have reflected the presence of crocodiles, and was derived from the Carib word for the crocodile family, and indeed, several visiting buccaneers including Sir Francis Drake and William Dampier noted "large lizards" and crocodiles on these islands during the 1500's to 1700's.
In 1655, the islands came under British control when Jamaica was captured from the Spanish by Oliver Cromwell's army. They officially became a British territory when the Treaty of Madrid was signed in 1670, and Spain gave to Britain, "all those lands, islands, colonies and places whatsoever situated in the West Indies".
Records show Cayman Brac and Little Cayman being settled before Grand Cayman, but these settlements did not last long as the settlers often fell prey to Spanish pirates and they were finally recalled. This was all between 1655 and 1671, during which time it is reported that Sir Henry Morgan also paid visits to these islands. Pirates continued to sail the Caribbean, under permission from their countries, and were known as privateers. Their mission was to plunder enemy ships and return seized wealth to their country.
Privateering officially came to an end with the Treaty of Utrecht (1713-1714). As a result of this treaty, France and Spain ceased hostilities towards other European countries, including Britain, and the islands are then reported to have become hideouts for those out-of-work pirates. With the islands now safe from attack, settlers returned, and records show permanent settlers in 1734 when land was granted to several families. The descendants of some of those settlers reside here still.
One of the most told stories in the islands history is the story of "The Wreck of the Ten Sails". Legend says that one night in November, 1788, the "Cordelia", the lead ship of a convoy of merchant ships bound from Jamaica to Britain ran aground on the reef at East End. A signal was given off to warn off the other ships, but was misunderstood as a call to follow closer and nine more ships sailed onto the reef. The people of East End are reported to have shown great heroism in ensuring that no lives were lost, and legend further states that one of the lives saved was one of royalty. For this, King George III is said to have granted the islands freedom from conscription, while another report claims that freedom from taxation was bestowed on the people of the islands as a reward. Actual records do not support this story entirely.
There are records of a census taken in the islands in 1802 showing 933 persons of which 545 were slaves, and slavery was a part of life until 1833 when the British parliament passed a law freeing slaves in British colonies after a five to seven year apprenticeship. In 1835, the emancipation of slavery meant an outright end of slavery except for registered slaves under the apprenticeship scheme. No Cayman slaves were actually registered because the nearest registration office was in Jamaica, and this caused slave owners to petition the British government for compensation.
In 1832, the islands' first representative government system was formed with the introduction of the Legislative Assembly. It consisted of eight Justices of the Peace, appointed by the Governor of Jamaica. The islands were formally annexed to Jamaica in 1863, and this later led to improved mail service to the islands via Jamaica, as many schooners now traveled between the two islands. Jamaica finally appointed a Commissioner in the Cayman Islands to oversee the affairs of the country as it was becoming difficult to do from Jamaica. Under these first Commissioners, the islands began to develop, with schools, a bank, a small hospital, and a public works program which began construction of roads and an office for the Commissioner.
Long known for their mastering of the seas as fishermen and turtlers, in the early 1900's many Caymanian men took to the seas as sailors aboard merchant ships which sailed the Caribbean, to North America and Central America. The tradition continued until well into the century, and Cayman sailors sailed to many countries including Japan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Many of these seamen became captains and chief engineers on ships, but the tradition has dwindled, and today's generation stays closer to home.
Probably the most memorable event in the history of the Cayman Islands was the devastating hurricane of 1932. It hit Grand Cayman on 7th November with winds estimated at 150 mph, and a storm surge of about 30 feet, and then passed over Cayman Brac a day later with winds of 200 mph and a storm surge of 32 feet. The islands were completely devastated, but Cayman Brac was hit the hardest with 69 lives lost compared to only 1 lost on Grand Cayman. Many homes were washed out to sea and most lives were lost to drowning. Some people escaped death by climbing trees to escape the water, and stories abound of heroic rescues. It took many years for the islands to recover, and many of the older residents can still remember vividly the events of the storm.
In 1959, the Cayman Islands got their first constitution, and it provided for 12 elected members, along with two or three nominated members and two or three official members. There was also an Executive Council comprised of two elected members, one nominated member, and two official members. The Commissioner was replaced by an Administrator, who presided over the Legislature and Executive Council, and he would consult with the Executive Council when exercising his powers. He was not bound to take advise from them, and could act on his own in the best interest of the country.
In 1962, Jamaica became independent and the Cayman Islands opted to remain under British rule. This meant separating from Jamaica, and the power of the Governor of Jamaica over these islands was transferred to the local Administrator. This title was changed to Governor in 1971, and in 1972 a new constitution was adopted. It provided for a legislature of 12 elected members with no nominated members, and three official members appointed by the Governor. They would be the Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary, and the Attorney General. The Executive Council would consist of four elected members and three official members, and each member of the Executive Council would have a portfolio of responsibilities.
In 1991, there were calls to revise the present constitution. Increased population and development meant that more elected representatives were needed and responsibilities needed to be re-shuffled. The main changes were the provisions for 15 elected members to the Legislature, and the addition of one member to Executive Council. Members who were elected to Executive Council would now be known as Ministers, and their immediate assistants would now be known as Permanent Secretaries, replacing the name Principal Secretaries. The changes were officially adopted in 1993.
OK, I've completed my lesson, take me back to the top of this page so I can go look at the diving stuff.