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The Best Dive Sites in Grand Cayman

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

On my first visit to the Cayman Islands, I thought I’d died and gone to diving heaven. But in the 10 years since, a lot of water had flowed past my fins. Last summer, I got a chance to revisit one of my first loves, Grand Cayman, and see if the reefs held up to my enduring memories. Luckily, they did. After a glorious week there, here’s my short list of the best dive sites in Grand Cayman.

Most of Grand Cayman’s topside action takes place on the West End, a busy strip of hotels, restaurants, bars and cruise-ship passengers. But, so far, the development hasn’t seemed to affect most dive sites, although that may change with the construction of a new cruise-ship dock.  Here are three of the area’s best.

Dolphin Drop Off

This site features a series of finger reefs that lead out to a wall, which maxes out at about 90 feet (28 m). I never saw the wall — instead I spent almost the whole dive drifting among the very healthy coral fingers, getting to know a turtle, one that was so tame it allowed us to stay within a few feet as it went about its daily routine. And this wasn’t last time we were granted such up-close access, either — large animals seemed to be curiously tame at most sites. I took the chance to snap away with my camera, and when I finally I checked my pressure gauge, it was time to head back to the boat.

Eden Rock North

This shallow reef, about 45 feet (14 m) deep, is often visited by snorkelers from the cruise ships that sit like massive spaceships only about 1,000 feet away. Although it’s still a relatively healthy reef, the real attraction here is the abundance of swim-throughs and the resident population of massive tarpon, which were also indifferent to my approach. Coral canyons offer the perfect perch for divers who want to snap up-close pictures of these lovely fish.

The Kittiwake

Purpose sunk as an artificial reef in 2011, the Kittiwake is a 251-foot-long (76.5 m) former submarine support ship. Since then, Kittiwake has settled into the sand in about 70 feet (21 m) of water, and is starting to have a nice coral-encrusted look. Divers here should take a good flashlight to explore inside the ship, which has been set up for safe penetrations. There are plenty of opportunities to exit if you’re a bit nervous about overhead environments, and the ship offers deck after deck for exploration. Check around the stern for a number of resident groupers and angelfish. They can be a bit skittish, but if you’re patient, they should make an appearance. The Kittiwake truly takes several dives for thorough exploration.

For me, the jewel in the crown of Grand Cayman diving is the North Wall, which makes up the edge of the Cayman Trench (or Trough) that runs from Cuba across to Central America. The trench reaches depths of 25,000 feet, and of course that kind of deep water usually means one thing — big pelagics. The North Wall doesn’t disappoint.

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Black Forest

At about 100 feet (30 m), this deep wall dive is best for experienced divers. We dropped down and looked over the edge into a blue abyss as intense as outer space. The wall is covered in brightly colored, large fan corals and barrel sponges, and from the moment we arrived on the site, pairs of eagle rays seemed to glide by regularly as if on a scheduled transit line. So many appeared — I lost count at nine — that we finally started to look around to see what else the wall had to offer, which frankly made me a little nervous. I couldn’t help but think there’s a special place in diver hell for anyone taking this kind of wildlife encounter for granted.

Princess Penny’s Pinnacles

Once again we dropped down to the start of the wall at about 97 feet (29 meters). As we were swimming through a crevice to get out to the face of the wall, a large reef shark cruised by, checking us out. Delighted, we watched as it lazily circled us and then, with a show of complete indifference, made its way along the reef and slowly disappeared into the blue. Just below, we spotted another, smaller shark, and another turned up to check us out before we finally ran out of bottom time.

Although the northwest corner of Grand Cayman is less-visited, I’d been told the diving was great up there. When I went to have a look, I ended up liking it so much that I’ve added the area to my must-dives when in Cayman.

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Lighthouse Point

This was my only shore dive on Grand Cayman and it was magical. It’s a great site for a scooter — my first use — and in no time we were flying through a series of coral canyons. Another must-see at Lighthouse Point is the massive bronze statue, The Guardian of the Reef, created by artist Simon Morris. Placed in about 65 feet (20 m) of water in 2014, it makes for an inspiring stop.

Although the East End of the island also holds many worthy sites, we unfortunately were not able to make it a part of the visit that resulted in this story — please feel free to add your favorites to our growing list of loves in Grand Cayman.

One final note, Grand Cayman is well equipped to serve the technical diving crowd. Dive shops in the northwest corner have all the needed gas mixes and extra equipment, as well as easy access to the North Wall. Regardless of your experience level, Grand Cayman offers endless variety.

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The Best Dive Sites in Canada

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

It’s not common knowledge, but Canada offers some of the best diving in the world, in some of the most untouched marine environments. Divers can encounter sea lions and sixgill sharks, and explore wrecks from the 18th century, often in pristine condition. To let the cold scare you off is to forgo fresh- and saltwater diving that will leave you gasping with wonder. Most, if not all, of these sites are best dived in a drysuit; consider adding that certification to your repertoire and a world of cold-water diving opens up to you.

So, what are the best dive sites in Canada? Here are our top five picks, as chosen by Canadian divers themselves.

Brockville, Ontario

Just across the St. Lawrence River from New York State, along a stretch of the river between Rockport and Brockville, there are more than a dozen wrecks to explore. You might start with the wreck of the Robert Gaskin. A two-masted wooden schooner that sank in 1889, it’s in relatively shallow water, between 55 and 70 feet (17 and 21 m). What’s more, the current in this part of the river is moderate, so the Gaskin makes a good place to start your Brockville diving experience. Look for the schools of bass and perch that hang around on the downriver side of the wreck. Once you’ve got a few dives under your belt, you can graduate to my personal favorite, the Henry C. Daryaw, a 220-foot steel freighter that sank in 1941 when it collided with another ship in the fog. The wreck sits upside down in about 90 feet (27 m) of water. There’s a bit of ripping current but once you’re on the Daryaw, you can tuck in underneath and rise up into the inside — spooky and thrilling at the same time. Watch your trim and buoyancy because you’ll stir up the fine silt if you’re not careful. As for that chill, the St. Lawrence River water warms up to the high 60s or low 70s F (20 to 23 C) in the summer, so you can get away with a 5 mm wetsuit.

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Kingston, Ontario

Kingston is on the north shore of Lake Ontario, just an hour’s drive from Brockville. Once again wrecks are the big attraction, but these are deeper and much better preserved than the Brockville wrecks. In fact, because of the cold water and the lack of any critters that eat wood, they’re astonishingly well preserved. The Katie Eccles (my favorite) sank in 1922, but is so remarkably well preserved that, as you’re descending down towards the wreck on a clear day, your imagination might see it rising from the bottom like some ghost ship from the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The Katie Eccles is an advanced dive in deep water, where divers will have to deal with thermoclines as well as water that often changes from a relatively balmy 50 degrees F (10 C) on the surface to a brisk 40 or even 30-some degrees (3.5 to 4.5 C) at depth.

There are also a number of great intermediate-level dives in the Kingston area. Another favorite is the Wolfe Islander II, an old car ferry that was sunk intentionally as an artificial reef in 1985.  It’s 164 feet long (50 m) and sits in 80 feet (24 m) of water. There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore; if you’re with someone who knows the wreck and you’re properly certified, have them take you inside to the passenger waiting area, where you can surface in an air pocket.

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Barkley Sound, British Columbia

Jacques Cousteau called it the second best place in the world to dive. Why? This area is the aquatic world on steroids — everything is big here, from giant Pacific octopus to massive sixgill sharks, starfish the size of garbage-can lids and plumose anemones as thick as a person’s leg.  The nutrient-rich water of what’s called “The Emerald Sea” is a bubbling cauldron of life. For divers, this means an unparalleled opportunity to interact with species like wolf eels, harbor Seals or Steller’s sea lions. Photographers will enjoy an impressive concentration of macro life;  the variety, color and abundance of nudibranchs is truly astonishing. Divers should also take their time looking for kelp crabs and shrimp lurking around on the bottom and a selection of rockfish that rivals the tropics for color. My favorite dive here is Renate’s Reef, the first place a large wolf Eel came out to play with me. Almost every dive in this part of the country is remarkable; drop into the water anywhere and you’ll see an abundance of remarkable sea life.

One bonus for diving in this part of Canada — on the trip out to the reef, divers commonly see humpbacks and orcas.

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Tobermory, Ontario

Billed as the diving capital of Canada, Tobermory is situated on Georgian Bay about four hours north of Toronto. The marine park here protects a series of wrecks, and the biggest draw is water that rivals the Caribbean for clarity — 80-foot (24 m) visibility is not uncommon. Many of the wrecks also sit in 30 or 40 feet (9 to 12 m) of water, making them safe for novice divers. Two must-sees for more advanced divers are the Arabia and the Niagara II. The Arabia, a wooden sailing ship that sank in 1884, sits in 100 feet (30 m) of water and is in remarkable shape. A warning on this dive — it’s deep, it’s cold, and there are currents. If you’re not an advanced diver with cold-water experience, find another wreck in the park. The Niagara II is an artificial reef that was sunk in 1999. It sits between 60 and 90 feet (18 and 27 m) and offers the opportunity for lots of exploration, including the engine room and a swim through the cargo hold; divers can even try the toilet in the crew quarters. The wreck was prepared for divers, so there are lots of escape holes if you need to surface quickly, but please do not attempt penetration without proper certification.

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Bell Island, Newfoundland

Last, but certainly not least, is Bell Island, Newfoundland, the jewel in the Canadian diving crown. The main attractions here are four World War II cargo ships, which were sunk by German U-boats in 1942. The SS Rose Castle, SS Saganaga, PLM-27 and SS Lord Strathcona were all loading iron ore from the local mine when U-boats snuck into the anchorage and torpedoed them, resulting in the deaths of more than 40 men. The results of those battles now sit on the bottom of Conception Bay. The wrecks vary in depth from the Saganaga at 60 feet (18 m) to the more-challenging Rose Castle at 110-plus feet (33.5 m). They’re adorned with a healthy growth of sea life and, when the light is right, it often looks as if you’re descending onto a coral reef. The ships’ deck guns are still intact, and it’s still possible to find boxes of bullets scattered around. Look for some of the oddest sea creatures you’ll ever encounter — the ocean pout, an eel-like ray-finned fish, and the lumpfish. Also be on the lookout for lion’s mane jellyfish, large and beautiful, but they pack a powerful sting.

While here, don’t miss a chance to dive the whale graveyard at South Dildo (yes, I’ve heard all the jokes.) This old whaling station was shut down many years ago, but the bottom is still littered with a kind of “Jurassic Park”-like selection of skeletons.

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When to Go

Contrary to assumption, the best time to dive in Canada isn’t always in the summer. Some of the best dive sites in Canada are better when it’s cold. Brockville, Kingston and Tobermory are all best during the summer, yes, but Barkley Sound makes for much better winter diving — the water isn’t much colder but the visibility is often better because there’s less organic material in the water. Although the water is considerably colder, Bell Island is best during the spring and fall when the visibility is better. Yes, the water is cold, but with the proper exposure protection you’ll see everything from prehistoric sharks to wrecks that are hundreds of years old — and you’ll stay warm while doing it.

 

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Bell Island Mine Quest: Part III            

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

 

It’s been a complicated mission to begin an archeological survey of the hundreds of miles of abandoned tunnels at Bell Island mine. This mine is so special because when the miners walked out in the mid 1960s, they thought they were going on a Christmas break. They left behind everything — lunch buckets, pipes, equipment, shoes — that they used in the mine. But the mine’s owners had other plans. They permanently closed the mine and turned off the pumps, so the freezing water rose, effectively preserving a snapshot of history. That’s what the divers are here to explore.

It’s hoped that the Bell Island mine can join well-known, similar destinations like Bonne Terre in Missouri, as a dive destination. Consequently, the divers are laying out mainlines to create a couple of permanent circuits for certified cave divers to explore the mine. Mine Quest is also conducting scientific experiments on decompression stress in conjunction with DAN — work that NASA is watching closely.

The Mine Quest divers began making forays into the abandoned tunnels at the beginning of last week, identifying and recording artifacts. They also laid more than 1,300 feet (400 m) of main line and conducted daily tests on the divers. All solid progress, but things haven’t been going so well on the surface. The expedition hit some rough waters outside the mine. As expedition co-leader Jill Heinerth observed, not unexpected, “I learned that you can do a lot of research and planning before an expedition,” she says. “Try and anticipate everything and the one thing that’s guaranteed is change…a lot of unexpected things are going to happen.”

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One storm after another has blown through the area. First, half the team was trapped on the island when the ferry shut down. The next day the whole team moved over to the island to avoid such delays, but before the move could be completed, the winds kicked up once again. The ferry shut down and half the expedition’s supplies were stuck on the mainland, including bottles of oxygen vital for the re-breathers. In an act of near desperation, Rick Stanley loaded the gear in his 24-foot RIB, put on a drysuit and headed across the bay with the supplies. “We’re adventurers, this is what feeds us,” he says. “We weren’t going to put our lives in jeopardy.” But his easy dismissal of his actions defies belief —remember, a 170-foot steel ferry had stopped running because of the high waves and winds.

As if that weren’t enough, the mine flooded the same day. The huge storms had dumped massive amounts of snow on the ground, and the next storm brought rain and warm temperatures. All the snow melted and started flowing downhill, into the mine. The water rose, effectively shutting down the staging area where the divers had worked all week, and volunteers came in to move thousands of pounds of equipment to a new area. The dive team had to rework all their plans and adjust their safety lines.

And as if to prove the old saying that bad things happen in threes, a third problem arose — this one more about comfort. There were no open hotels on Bell Island, so Stanley tracked down the owner of a bed & breakfast that operates in the summer and convinced them to open for the expedition. One minor problem — there are 11 beds and 20 people. Stanley took it all in his stride, saying “I love a challenge. I love to fix things. We’re on an island, so you know what, all these challenges are fantastic.”

What’s Next at Bell Island Mine?

Despite the hiccups, the expedition’s work hasn’t slowed down for a moment. Divers are making discoveries on a daily basis, including massive carpets of bacterial colonies that live in absolute darkness, personal possessions left behind by the miners, huge pieces of mining equipment virtually intact and graffiti on the walls — personal messages left behind by miners who’ve long since passed away. Exploring the Bell Island Mine has been a sobering experience according to diver Jill Heinerth, “The mine feels a bit like a church,” she says. “I would want to whisper. I feel the presence of those souls who spent their lives and worked for their families there.”

As for the scientific angle, Dr. Neal Pollock’s decompression experiments have led to new information about the effects of extreme diving in cold water on decompression stress. He’s been looking for a sure indicator of the onset of decompression sickness — that goal may be elusive, but he has made a new discovery about divers using electronic vests to stay warm on long, cold dives. Vests not only keep a diver warm, but also cause “better circulation, delivering inert gas into tissues,” he says. “If the garment fails and the diver gets cold as they surface, they can’t eliminate inert gas. That will increase decompression stress.”

By the end of the week, everyone feels the expedition has been a resounding success. The divers think they’ve wedged open the door of a whole new world. “We have just scratched the surface,” says Heinerth. “We’ve explored a small piece of the mine. We have to come back and do some deeper and longer penetrations into some of the portions of the mine that were worked last.”

And Rick Stanley thinks he’s started to build something very important for the province of Newfoundland. He hopes to have the mine open for certified divers in the summer of 2016.

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