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Little Cayman

My first visit to Little Cayman was in the 90’s. I took a day trip where we snorkeled over Bloody Bay wall and had a short tour of the island. The quiet and lack of human presence lets one imagine what island life was like long before tourism driven development changed many of the islands in the Caribbean. As great as the diving is on Grand Cayman, thoughts of diving on Little Cayman never quite went away.

The Cayman Islands regularly appear on lists of leading destinations for diving. Recognizing the importance of the marine environment, the Cayman government initiated a marine parks system on all three islands in the mid 1980’s resulting in the protection of 14 % of the surrounding waters. In April of 2019, the government announced changes to increase those protected areas to 48 %. These “no take” zones are a combination of marine parks/reserves, environmental zones and wildlife interaction zones. For Little Cayman, the changes include an increase in no-dive zones in addition to the existing designated grouper spawning zones and other protected areas.

At ten miles (16 km) long and an average of 1 mile (1.6 km) wide, Little Cayman is the smallest of the three Cayman Islands. It also has the least amount of human development and although sources vary the full-time population is less than 300. Preserved by limited human impact, Little Cayman has not only a diverse marine ecosystem it is also home to a large population of Red Footed Boobies and frigate birds. It is also home to the endangered West Indian Whistling duck, endemic rock iguanas, anole lizards as well as land and sea crabs.

Little Cayman is blessed with clear water, diverse coral and fish species. This allows divers to easily find a wide range of marine life including: southern stingrays and spotted eagle rays; Nassau groupers; green, hawksbill and in mating season loggerhead turtles; as well as sharks with the most common being reef and nurse sharks.

Bloody Bay wall starts at 25 – 50 feet (7 – 9 meters) and drops straight down to over 1,000 feet. This provides great wall diving and an easy way to stay within safe diving profiles. On most dives we were able to spend time on the wall and then cruise along the top in the shallows and still find lots to see. Can’t think of a better way to get rid of nitrogen.

Descriptions of Bloody Bay wall claim it is sheer and straight. Still, I wasn’t prepared for how truly straight it was. You are able to look straight down for a long way and it almost is begging you to go down and explore. With recreational diving limits topping out at 120 feet, it did make me think for a moment that perhaps I need to consider taking technical training that would allow me to explore further down on another trip.

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Humpback Whales on the Silver Bank

There are many ways to experience marine life.  As scuba divers we have the unique opportunity to get as close as safely possible to creatures that inhabit a world completely different to what we experience on land. When I was thinking about where to head next, I wanted to find an opportunity to get in the water with whales.  The experience had to be ethical, safe for humans and whales and provide the chance for topside and underwater photography. 

After having travelled with the Aggressor Fleet in Galapagos, I was confident that the trip they offered to the Silver Bank would check all the necessary boxes on my list.  The Turks and Caicos Aggressor is one of three ships permitted access to the Silver Bank during humpback mating and breeding season.

The added bonus for me was the opportunity to travel with the two “Mikes” from Jim Church Underwater Photography. Mike Haber and Mike Mesgleski offer digital photography courses through the Aggressor Fleet. They run classes during the trip to help everyone have the best chance of getting those hard-earned shots. They will also work with you individually to troubleshoot the inevitable surprises that come along with shooting in challenging conditions.  

What’s the Silver Bank?

Created by the Dominican Government in 1986, the Silver and Navidad Bank Sanctuary for Marine Mammals is in the Atlantic Ocean south east of the Territory of Turks and Caicos and north of the Dominican Republic.  The submerged bank covers an area of 1,680 square kilometres (649 square miles) and comes up to a depth of 18 meters (60 feet) in some sections.  Considered part of the Dominican Republic, it was created as a safe area for sea mammals and has long been a breeding and calving area for Humpback whales. 

The north-eastern corner is dotted with coral heads which make it a challenge for marine traffic but provide excellent protection for whales and their calves.  The deeper areas of the sanctuary provide passage for whales migrating to other parts of the Antilles. 

The area is monitored by the Dominican Republic’s Department of Protected Areas and Biodiversity.  Access for whale watching is restricted to those with a permit and only three permits are issued each year.  With a maximum number of visitors per operator and strict controls on the length of each day’s operation, whales are not over exposed to humans and visitors are able to experience the whales without overcrowding. 

The Whales

Humpback whales are part of the family of baleen whales. Baleen refers to the filter feeding system located inside their mouths.  Baleen whales feed by taking in large volumes of water which when forced out, leaves small animals like krill trapped in the baleen.  Baleen is a skin derivative made of keratin similar to human hair and fingernails. 

Humpback whales migrate annually up to 25,000 kilometres (16,000 miles) per year moving from where they feed in polar waters to warmer waters closer to the equator to breed and give birth.  Humpback whales will rely on their fat stores for months once they leave their feeding grounds.  Females will nurse their calves for almost a year. Humpback whales continue to grow until they are 10 years old.  

Prior to the ban on whaling in 1985, Humpback whales were close to extinction. Their numbers have rebounded and are estimated at around 80,000 worldwide. They still remain endangered by human activity primarily through entanglement with fishing gear, collision with ships and noise pollution. 

On the Water

I feel like I have to almost put in a disclaimer here. According to Captain Amanda and the team, we had an exceptional week of encounters. As any photographer will tell you, wild life is exactly that. You never know what you will or won’t find on a given day. We found lots.

The Process: With two inflatable dinghies, our group would head out starting around 8:30 am to start looking for whales. Within an area of roughly 20 square miles finding whales is not a given. When we would find either a mother and calf or resting adults and were given the OK to get in the water you needed to have your underwater camera set up and ready to go.   

If you want to maximize your opportunities for photos, you need to have two cameras with you – one for topside and one for underwater.  The tip sheets that Mike and Mike sent out before the trip really made the difference for me in figuring out how to manage my gear. 

My topside camera (Canon 5D MKIV with 70-200 F/2.8 Zoom) stayed tucked inside a small Pelican case which kept it protected from water and errant feet unless I was shooting.  I used a rain cover which was duct taped to the end of the lens.  We also used towels to lay over the rain covers and lens hoods in between shots.  

When I was setting all this up, it seemed like overkill. I mean how wet was my topside camera going to get? Ha! Never tempt the water and wind gods. I can’t count how many times the lens hood and cover were fully soaked by a wave while trying to catch topside action. It was a great test of the weather sealing of Canon’s red line lenses and am happy to report everything is still working perfectly!

My underwater set up for this trip was my Canon 7D MKII in an Aquatica Digital Housing. I had purchased a 10-22 ultra-wide angle zoom to help capture full body shots. After some disappointing results on day 1, I switched back to my favourite, reliable 17-40 F/4 and things started to look up… Strobes are not permitted in the Silver Bank which a) simplifies setup b) allows for a bit more space in the dinghy when you have 4 or 5 photographers! 

In Water Encounters: Our most frequent encounters were with mothers and calves. Adult humpbacks will surface every 7 – 15 minutes to breathe. Depending on their age, babies need to surface at 3 to 5-minute intervals. A mother will rest below the surface with their baby tucked under their body behind their pectoral fins. If the mother feels the environment is safe, she will stay in position while her baby surfaces to take a breath or two before heading back down to mom.

This breathing cycle provided the majority of our in-water encounters. If we found a mother that was resting and comfortable with our presence, we would slip quietly into the water. Always careful to never hover directly over their backs, we would line up off to the side, in front of the mother’s pectoral fins and wait for the baby to make its way up to the surface.

Most encounters lasted for a few breath cycles before the mother quietly surfaced and either moved on or headed back down after a short swim.

Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of a mother whale raising her little one. Baby humpbacks communicate with their mothers through soft squeaks and grunts. This communication is much quieter than the singing of adults and allows mothers to keep track of their babies.   

A baby humpback may be 3 – 5 meters in length (10 – 16 feet) but it is still a baby. They are curious, playful and do not appear to be afraid of snorkelers. Some would zoom in to see how close they could get and then jump up and show off with a baby breech or pec flap. Like children, they imitate their elders. Their muscles aren’t fully developed and early attempts at breaching or flapping their pecs or tails don’t always work out as planned.

The Valentine

In the northern hemisphere, humpbacks migrate to the warmer waters in Hawaii or the Silver Bank to nurse their babies and to mate. Whether they are breaching, slapping their pectoral or tail fins, or even their heads; males in search of a mate provide lots of action above the water. While there is little scientific research to understand the specific purpose of these behaviours, they are observed during mating season.  

One of the best encounters we experienced was a male and female in a mating ritual known as dancing or a valentine. When they are in this state, they are very tactile and very focused on things close to them. Whales have been known to rub up against boats and can get very close to snorkelers. We were alerted by another boat who had been with this pair of whales for a few hours. With half of their group heading back to the main boat, we were able to join without creating a crowd for the whales. For the next couple of hours, we alternated in and out of the water experiencing something truly incredible.

This pair of whales would dance in between us in the water for 30 – 40 minutes at a time before swimming down for a short break. Then they’d come right back up and start to dance all over again. About half way through I was up to 1,000 pictures. The whales stayed close and just kept moving as a pair and I couldn’t take my eyes (lens!) off them. 

I had no idea how much time I would end up spending in the water with whales on this trip. There is no guarantee what you will see on a given day when you are in the ocean. Although I’ve been a certified diver for some time, I had never had the chance to see whales while diving.

Being able to observe them interact with each other and us was an incredible privilege that I will never forget. To be in the water with something the size of a school bus and watch how much control they had over their body was humbling. While we were careful not to position ourselves intentionally in their way, there were times they came close. While marine life hasn’t evolved by crashing into objects in the ocean, I am still amazed that they absolutely knew exactly how far they were from us.  

An important part of training as a scuba diver is absolute respect for marine life. We go into that environment to observe, enjoy and maybe capture some pictures. What I really appreciated about this experience was the opportunity to see the whales in their environment with the knowledge that protections are in place to prevent human activity from interfering with the whale’s migration cycle. I hope my pictures and story help spread awareness of these amazing creatures. 

Carol Strachan Photography
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Diving with Photographers

Underwater photographers are a special breed of divers. Like their land-based counterparts, it is easy to fall into the trap of “anything to get the shot”. As divers we are taught to respect all marine life. We are only visitors and observers. But we can get a little focused – pun intended.

On one of our dives, there was a lovely little bit of open sand at the bottom of the mooring. As we were waiting for all the divers to drop down, one of our group had found a tiny slug and 4 or 5 of us were tucked into the sand waiting our turn to get a picture. Macro photography takes a ton of patience and really good eyesight. Teamwork also helps. Guess we lost track of time. Our very patient dive master had given up on the traditional methods of gathering his flock and opted for old fashioned semaphore using his scuba fins. I have to admit, the sight of a group of divers, arms full of camera gear with their heads down in the sand with miles of reef and fish life all around likely is an odd sight.

On a shore dive at Maccabucca in Grand Cayman, my dive buddy was another photographer. We moved along at pretty much the same pace and were each getting tons of good opportunities for shots. I found a small group of tarpon and was determined to get a good shot. Tarpon are silver and shiny. In good visibility and with sunlight reaching where you are shooting, its a bit like trying to photograph rolls of aluminium foil in the daylight. It’s difficult to get a good shot with some contrast that shows the cool detail of their scales and size.

After a few tries, I turned around to see my buddy pointing under a ledge. I couldn’t see what he was pointing at and gave him the universal shoulder shrug. Which earned me a look of exasperation and some more pointing. I finally noticed what he was trying to point out. Under the ledge was a Goliath Grouper just hanging out waiting for his picture. The tarpon shots are in my computer’s recycle bin and the grouper is a great memory of the day.

Main Image: Pictured here with Dusty Norman, owner of DNS Diving in Grand Cayman and Chris Nuttall, Instructor with DNS Diving. Taken on the DNS Trip of a Lifetime to Little Cayman in May 2019.