Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Full Report from Grand Cayman

As I mentioned, I was just down in Grand Cayman for 5 days ... from June 21st to June 26th ... here's a more complete trip report.

This trip was a 10th anniversary present from my wife ... she wanted to send me somewhere I could take an underwater photography class, so I booked myself 5 nights at Sunset House in Grand Cayman and signed up for 3 half-day classes with the Cathy Church school. Cathy was actually away celebrating her birthday on a live-aboard somewhere, but I signed up to work with her staff.

The only other time I had ever been to Grand Cayman was in 1999 when I stayed for 5 days at the Cayman Diving Lodge on the East End on my very first "dive trip". For anyone that knows (or knew...) the CDL, they know how special a place it was. For those that don't, it was a really cool little dive hotel on the East End of Grand Cayman with 12 rooms, two boats and an amazing way of getting the job done. They were the best, and fortunately their traditions live on with the Ocean Frontiers operation. Ivan wiped out the original CDL, but a successor is planned for a 2009 opening. But I digress ...

I made a full plan for my five days and pretty much stuck to it ...
Saturday ... I left NYC on a 9:00AM Continental Non-Stop to Grand Cayman. By 1:45PM local time, I was checked in, unpacked and at the Cathy Church office ready to go. We spent about an hour looking at some older photographs together and talking technique topside. By about 3:00PM we were in the water ...

This was click number one of the trip:
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I was in business! My teacher - a nice South African chap named "T" - gave me a crash course in both Macro and Wide Angle "basics" over the course of a nice long 85 minute dive. I didn't bring my stacked INON macro lenses on the first dive, but that didn't stop us from trying a little macro on that first dive:

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We also got to see the mermaid and did a few different series of shots to show the working distance of the strobes and what kind of benefits the wide angle adapter allowed in terms of getting closer to bigger stuff. She only has two shiny bits ... as you can kinda see here:

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Unfortunately, in my haste to get to the water, I left my pelican (with my INON macro lenses and some other goodies) in an office that got locked up and wouldn't be accesible again until Monday ... so much for playing with the stacked INON UCL-165s on Sunday ... oh well.
Sunday ...

On Sunday, I got up nice and early and drove out to the East End to dive 4 tanks with Ocean Frontiers. What a pleasure ... well worth the 45 minute drive. I can't say enough good stuff about Ocean Frontiers. They set a standard that is rarely (if ever) met and certainly never exceded in my opinion.

In the morning, we dove a site called "Lighthouse Wall" first ... and just like my first dive ever on the east end in 1999, there was a decent sized reef shark making its way across the wall just as I descended. I snapped one quick pic as it moved away:

Shark, sorta

The second tank was at a site called "Little House (on the Prairie)" ... a colorful reef dive with beautiful elkhorns. I didn't get a single shot of the elkhorn that I liked. It was in 25 feet of water and bathed in natural light and all my shots stink. Sometimes the best shots are in your head ...
The afternoon started with a site called the Maze ... at a certain point, I just folded up my strobes and powered down the camera ... the swim throughs were tight and twisty and a lot of fun, but didn't accomodate my strobe arms ... it was a fun dive!

The swell that day was intense ... it was reaching down REALLY deep and actually made me seasick on my safety stop. I felt so pukey after the first dive of the afternoon that I considered bailing on the second ... but a few oranges and a quick swim and I was ready again.
The second was a site called Iron Shore Gardens that I remembered from my last visit ... lots of swim throughs and tons of tarpon. I wasn't thrilled with my tarpon shots (BOY are they shiny!), but I kind like this one:

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Monday ...

On Monday, I went out on the Sunset House boat in the morning. Everyone else on the boat was connected to a Scuba Network trip except for me. Quite the crew ... If Sunday was heaven ... Monday was, while not hell, certainly ... not heaven. I got buddied up with a older gentleman and super nice guy ... a physician that has been diving for 30 years and taking pictures underwater for years as well. He also had a G9 in an Ikelite ... we met at the bar on Saturday when I came up from the dive. He had lots of questions ... (probably because he doesn't have all you to help!!). That was fine ... I love to help and teach ... what wasn't fine was his diving. He was the underwater equivalent of a bull in a china shop. I spent much of my time following him around keeping him off stuff. The Sunset House boat was also not quite the same as Ocean Frontiers ... nice folks, but they had some "rules" I ddn't quite understand. My principal complaint was that while they offered Nitrox fills, they stated at the briefing that everyone was to dive the "air tables" and advised those of us that had enriched air "not to extend your bottom time". Huh? Oh well ... like I said, REALLY nice people but I doubt I'll dive the Sunset House boats again. The sites were "ok" ... but not quite as nice as the East End.

Monday afternoon, I finally busted out the INON UCL-165s for another 85 minute shore dive with "T" ... having a nice long dive dedicated to learning one thing with a teacher/buddy/assistant is really the way to go. I spent the whole dive learning the minimum and maximum focus points with various combinations of zooming, one and two macro adapters.
There were a few really good shots from this dive, but these are some of my favorites:

Christmas Trees on Sunset Reef

Anemone and Diamond Headed Blenny

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Tuesday ...

Morning with Sunset House boat ... shot video with a Magic Filter ... still haven't even really reviewed the footage. Similar to Monday ...

Tuesday afternoon was supposed to be another dive with "T" ... but alas, I failed to charge my canera battery and so ... I did a nice long shore dive where I practiced bouyancy skills and sneaking up on tiny critters ... fun, but I'm still kicking myself for not charging the battery.
Tuesday night I did a night dive with Ocean Frontiers. On my previous Cayman trip, I had done the same dive as my first night dive. I've done a bunch over the years, and the first was always my favorite ... I was really loking forward to doing it there again. The first time, I basically sat on the sand next to the same coral head the whole time and played with an octopus. This time I cruised around with my camera and had fun. I only caught fleeting glimpses of a few different octopi and no good pics ... Oh well. Overall, the dive was a blast and there were a couple decent shots, but nothing great.

Wednesday .... last day ...

On wednesday, I drove back out to dive with Ocena Frontiers again ... this time on a three-tank safari with lunch at a marina and a swing through Stingray City for tank #2.

The first dive was Babylon. Sooooo nice. There is a pinnacle mount next to the wall covered with soft coral and black coral and fans and sponges ... it is a spectacular dive. I was having a weird problem with one of my strobes, but I got some really good shots here:

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Babylon is about as nice as it gets in my opinion ... just so beautiful ...

Dive two was Stingray City. New regulations make it less fun than it used to be ... you now sit in a circle, the guides do all the feeding and they bring the rays to you ... 10 years ago, I swam with them, fed them ... a wholly different experience.

Here's a couple:
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After Stingray City, we ate lunch at Kaibo Yacht Club ... nice fries!

After lunch, and as we motored to our third (and my last) dive, the engine of the boat died ... The captain worked his ASS off for 2.5 hours and finally got us underway again. The last site was worth the wait. It was called Omega Reef and it was like Babylon without the pinnacle. BEAUTIFUL color and pristine reefs ... such a nice way to end a great week.

This was the last click of a great week:
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Overall impressions:
*** Grand Cayman ... still amazing, particularly the East End
*** Cathy Church School ... terrific!! "T" helped me tremendously.
*** Sunset House ... fun little shore dive, great bar, terrific people
*** Ocean Frontiers ... The Best. Dive with them if you can.
*** G9 with Ikelite ... impressive. Handles well, functions easy to access. Love it.
*** INON UWL-100 ... great addition ... corners very soft ... thinking about the Dome Port ...
*** INON UCL-165s x 2 ... useful, but add chromatic abberation and limit working distances. With two, you need to be REAL close to get a focus lock.

Next? Who knows ...

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