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Byline: Bill Becher Correspondent

LITTLE CAYMAN ISLAND, British West Indies - The dive master draws a line and writes 6,000 on the dive plan board. That's the depth of the ocean at the Bloody Bay Wall at Little Cayman Island. On the other side of the line he writes 25 - the depth of the coral reef that surrounds this tiny Caribbean island - one of the prime dive destinations in the world.

Bloody Bay got its name from a pirate battle that left the water running red. But now the water is gin-clear, and modern dive boats ply the northwest shore of Little Cayman, anchoring at one of the dive sites marked by buoys.

The divers hold their masks and make a giant step off the boat, splashing down in the 80-degree water. Streaming plumes of silvery bubbles, they descend toward the reef. Overhead the surface looks like a flexible mirror that bends and rolls with the waves, marking the barrier between the air-breathing world and the sea. Below, the reef is covered with yellow and red sponges. Delicate purple sea fans wave in the current.

The dive is like a swim in an aquarium - the colors and variety of reef life are stunning, even if you've seen them many times before. In a week of diving at Little Cayman, we saw sea turtles, a green moray eel swimming free along the bottom (an unusual sight, as they normally hide in holes in the reef with only their head poking out).

Brilliant red brittle stars decorated the reef, as did Christmas tree worms, sea cucumbers and lobsters. Toothy barracudas swam nearby, while stingrays flapped and swam through the water like huge, undulating bats. Stoplight parrotfish hung motionless, as did Nassau groupers, some tame enough to pet. Huge barrel sponges are big enough to hide in.

Near Bloody Bay Wall is Jackson's Bay, famous for swim-throughs. Divers pass through natural tunnels in the coral that lead to an inner sand belt and then through crevices in the outer reef. Here, the bottom drops away more than a mile and divers peer into the blue abyss, looking for a patrolling gray shark.

The wall diving is the biggest draw at Little Cayman. It's like swimming by a big movie screen, except you're in the show.

Nondivers can also enjoy underwater sights - my wife and I snorkeled out to a reef and watched a sea turtle gnawing on a bit of sponge while a queen angelfish hovered nearby and snatched at scraps dropped by the turtle.

Little Cayman Beach Resort has established a program with local scientists for guests to help survey the endangered green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles by recording sightings on dive slates.

You can always get a taste of diving with a short ``resort course'' that allows you to make dives with an instructor after a few hours of instruction and pool practice.

Another popular way to get into scuba diving is to do a referral course. At a dive shop near home, you get the classroom work and practice dives done before your vacation and then earn your scuba certification by completing your open-water dives at the resort in warm water.

How warm? In California, divers don heavy wet suits before entering water that is in the 60s, with 30 feet considered good visibility. In the Caymans, the water is the temperature of a bathtub, and you can see more than 100 feet.

And you spend your nondiving hours lounging on the white-powder beach or sipping a Jamaican Red Stripe beer at the thatched bar by the pools instead of studying dive tables in a classroom.

Little Cayman is the smallest of the three islands in the group - Grand, Little and Cayman Brac. Little Cayman is only 10 miles long and a mile wide, and its highest point of elevation is 40 feet.

The islands are an outcropping of the Cayman Ridge, a submarine mountain range that extends west from the Sierra Maestra mountain range in Cuba. The coastline here is full of lagoons, mangrove forests, secluded beaches and salt ponds.

Little Cayman saw few visitors until recent times, and this lack of human impact allowed the wildlife, reefs and marine life to flourish. Readers of one dive magazine rated Little Cayman's wall diving and marine environment the best in the Caribbean.

Columbus is said to have sighted the islands in 1503 when severe winds pushed his ships off course during his last voyage to the New World. The sea was full of turtles, so the islands were originally named Las Tortugas. Later they were named after caymanas - Carib slang for marine crocodiles.

The islands remained a British Crown Colony when Jamaica voted for independence in 1962.

Today, visitors fly to Grand Cayman from the U.S. and then take a short plane ride to Little Cayman.

Set on the sandy beach on the south side of the island, and less than a dozen years old, Little Cayman Beach Resort prides itself on diving and great food in a rustic setting. When you arrive, you leave your dive gear outside your room, and it's taken to your dive boat. The crew takes care of changing tanks - all you have to do is jump off the boat and swim.

With only 40 air-conditioned rooms facing the ocean and swimming pools, the resort seems more like a small, friendly beach club than a hotel. Small, curly-tailed lizards sun themselves on the carefully tended walkways, which are surrounded by flowers and palm trees. The pristine, white-sand beach has shaded hammocks for snoozing. There's even a tennis court and small gym for those who don't get enough exercise diving.

On a typical night, the eclectic dinner choices could include roast pork loin, sweet-and-sour fish, spring rolls, chicken enchiladas. Desserts feature cannoli, rum cake, chocolate cookies and carrot cake.

Then it's time for a trivia contest at the Beach Nuts Bar, decorated with driftwood painted by visiting dive clubs.

While diving is the main activity here, you can borrow a kayak and paddle to tiny Owen Island for a picnic, or take a bike and tour the island in a few hours.

Just remember - iguanas have the right of way. Signs painted by local artists warn the few motorists to watch for iguanas. They are the reason for Little Cayman's 25 mile-per-hour speed limits.

With a resident population of fewer than 170 people, most of Little Cayman remains uninhabited - except for the 2,000 or so rock iguanas and many frigate birds and red-footed booby birds. But it's the diving that has made the island famous.

Little Cayman has 57 dive sites marked and protected by mooring buoys, including Bloody Bay Wall. Turtles, nurse sharks, eagle rays, lobsters, moray eels, groupers and spotted drum provide endless photography opportunities, and 200-foot visibility is not unusual. The islands' government has protected much of the water by creating marine parks and conservation zones.

All you have to do is take the plunge.


GETTING THERE: The Cayman Islands lie 480 miles south of Miami in the Caribbean Sea. Direct flights from the U.S. to Grand Cayman leave from Atlanta, Miami, Boston, Houston and other cities. A short flight on Cayman Airways takes you to Little Cayman. Beginning in 2006, a passport will be required to travel to the Cayman Islands.

LODGING/DIVING: Little Cayman Beach Resort has 40 rooms and books guests on the basis of a seven-day stay, with rates charged per person, double occupancy. Stay includes three daily dives and all meals. Rates from $1,672 (pool view) to $1,983 (ocean view) in low season. Rates for high season (Dec. 16 to April 14) range from $1,827 to $2,140. Three-day, nondiver and modified American plan (no lunch) rates are also available.

INFORMATION:; (800) 327-3835.


4 photos, box


(1 -- 2 -- color) Divers explore the sea fans along Bloody Bay Wall at Little Cayman Island, above. Reef life is colorful and varied, including queen angelfish, inset, as well as sea turtles, moray eels, barracudas, parrotfish, groupers and more.

(3 -- 4 -- color) Above, a sea turtle puts on a show for divers off the uncrowded Little Cayman Island in the British West Indies. A diver, right, pets a Nassau grouper. Visitors can do their scuba training on the island, or begin at home before their trip.

Bill Becher/Great Escapes


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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 18, 2005
Previous Article:BRIEFLY.

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