Explore the underwater world of Little Cayman Island

Leave the crowds behind on a sleepy Caribbean island where iguanas outnumber humans

I tug on fins, press a mask to my face and gaze out over the blanket of ocean rippling in front of me. Then, with a splash, I step into the blue.

When the bubbles from my scuba tank clear, a whole new world appears.

Giant, barrel-shaped corals come into focus as I slowly sink 50 feet to the reef. A 2-foot, bullet-shaped barracuda approaches, then retreats. Schools of Crayola-colored fish flit past.

I’m spending a week on Little Cayman Island, the tinier, much-less-developed sibling of Grand Cayman Island. It’s a 30-minute hop by prop plane from that buzzing hive of tourism to this sleepy, 10-mile-by-1-mile spit of land, where iguanas outnumber humans and the airport “terminal” is hardly bigger than my bedroom.

An iguana poses in front of Angela Pierce at a swimming pool at Little Cayman Beach Resort on Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

An iguana poses in front of Angela Pierce at a swimming pool at Little Cayman Beach Resort on Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

JANUS-1086 chromeless player template

A hawksbill turtle cruises along Bloody Bay Wall at Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

The main attraction? The scuba diving, especially at Bloody Bay Wall, a sheer underwater cliff that plunges hundreds of feet from the shallows to the eerie deep. We’ve hired Conch Club Divers, one of a handful of outfitters on the island, to show it to us.

A school of chubs swims in front of diver Angela Pierce during a scuba trip to Little Cayman Island. Photo by John S. Pierce/For the American-Statesman

A school of chubs swims in front of diver Angela Pierce during a scuba trip to Little Cayman Island. Photo by John S. Pierce/For the American-Statesman

On our first dive, a rare loggerhead turtle — not one of the more common Hawksbills we’re used to seeing — nuzzles my husband. Before the week ends, I’ll fly alongside a squadron of spotted eagle rays, scratch the chin of a friendly grouper and watch a lobster tap dance along the sea floor.

A grouper, with a research tag attached, swims along the Bloody Bay Wall off of Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

A grouper, with a research tag attached, swims along the Bloody Bay Wall off of Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

Columbus stumbled into the Cayman Islands in 1503, when winds pushed his ships off course. Turtle fishermen set up camps on Little Cayman in the 1600s, then abandoned the low-lying island 150 miles south of Cuba. A smattering of residents returned in the mid-1800s to export coconuts, rope and phosphate ore, but relatively few outsiders visited until recently. Today about 200 people call the island home, and the reef surrounding it remains remarkably lush and healthy.

A closeup of coral growing on Bloody Bay Wall off of Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

A closeup of coral growing on Bloody Bay Wall off of Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

A dive trip here means swimming through coral arches, sneaking into narrow-walled canyons and probing that famous underwater wall for life forms that seem borrowed from an old episode of “Star Trek.” The cast of characters boggles the mind: a peacock flounder that scoots across the ocean floor, changing color to match its surroundings; a nearly invisible squid that propels itself through the water like the Water Wiggle I played with as a kid; and a velvety looking green moray eel with teeth like tiny pocket knives.

A green moray peers out of a hole on Bloody Bay Wall off of Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

A green moray peers out of a hole on Bloody Bay Wall off of Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

When each dive ends, we clamber up a ladder at the back of our boat, let the Caribbean sun dry our skin and head back to shore, where we relive the experience over lunch at a beach bar. That leaves afternoons free, with time to explore island sights.

Pam LeBlanc snorkels at Little Cayman Island. Photo by Chris LeBlanc/For American-Statesman

Point of Sand, a park at the far end of the island that features a shaded picnic table and a whole lagoon to snorkel, tops the list of must-see destinations. We dodge a small nurse shark as we wade into the sea, then paddle around coral heads teeming with fish life. Beware of currents that sometimes kick up near the mouth of the reef.

Owen Island is worth a visit, too. Just stash your shorts and shoes on the beach on the southeast side of the island and jump in. It takes about 15 minutes to snorkel or kayak to the pocket-sized cay. The depth maxes out at about 10 feet,and along the way you might see a 5-foot nurse shark (we do), a carpet of lime-green anemones (saw that too) and conch shells (alive!) as big as toasters.

A brain coral along a reef at Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc 

A brain coral along a reef at Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc 

Little Cayman Island is known for its bird life, too. Drop by the 260-acre Booby Pond Nature Reserve, where a colony of 20,000 red-footed boobies flap, squawk and create an unimaginable stink. The birds spend their days fishing at sea. Flocks of freeloading frigate birds await their return each evening, pestering and chasing the poor boobies until they drop their catch, then taking advantage of the free meal.

An iguana basks in the road on Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

For some historical perspective, visit the white clapboard Little Cayman Museum, which tells the story of this sleepy island through antique maps, photographs and tales of sea captains and boat builders who lived here. The museum is open from 3-5 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

You’re bound to encounter one of the resident rock iguanas during your meanderings. (The Caymans are a British Crown colony, so cars stay to the left side of the road.) The leaf- and fruit-eating miniature dragons once thrived here, but dogs and feral cats prey on them, and cars kill more than 100 each year. They’re big, easily 2- or 3-feet long, and signs around the island remind drivers to slow down and call the Iguana Hotline if they find an injured or dead one.

Iguanas have the right of way on Little Cayman Island, as this sign at the airport notes. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

Iguanas have the right of way on Little Cayman Island, as this sign at the airport notes. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

Pam LeBlanc glides through the surf on a stand-up paddleboard at Little Cayman Island. Photo by Chris LeBlanc/For American-Statesman

Oh, and brace yourself when it comes to grocery shopping. Supplies are shipped by barge to Little Cayman, so food’s expensive, to the tune of $8 for a dozen eggs or $ a single apple at the grocery store.

Dining options are limited, but for casual lunch or dinner fare head to Beach Nuts at Little Cayman Beach Resort. Try Hungry Iguana Restaurant for excellent curry dishes, and Pirates Point for an all-inclusive multi-course meal. We stopped by for sushi night on Friday and sampled rolls made with fresh-caught lionfish, an invasive species that’s proliferating in unwanted numbers all over the Caribbean.

And finally, set aside some time to kick back and do nothing.

I find myself napping on a lounge chair at the beach behind our house, where a stroll in either direction turns up lots of sand and shells but not a single other person as far as I can see. And evenings? They’re for watching that Caribbean sunset.

Treasures found on the beach at Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

Treasures found on the beach at Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

And consider yourself warned. Like the “Porch of Lost Ambition” sign posted above a bench outside the grocery store suggests, something about this place grabs your soul and forces you to slow down.

And that’s a good thing.

Pam LeBlanc relaxes on the Porch of Lost Ambition at Little Cayman Island. Photo by Chris LeBlanc\/For American-Statesman

Pam LeBlanc relaxes on the Porch of Lost Ambition at Little Cayman Island. Photo by Chris LeBlanc/For American-Statesman

The sun sets at Little Cayman Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc