Who loves the warm heat and sandy beaches of island life?! Well our oceans are speckled with thousands of islands varying in degrees of size, temperature and elevation. Each of these are coated with a plethora of flora and fauna unknown to most of the mainland. This foreign collection of vegetation and animal life is what makes each island different from the next but equally intriguing. Island ecosystems are fragile and oh so beautiful, so whether you’re hopping to the Galapagos from Ecuador or to the Seychelles off the coast of East Africa , there is much to see and learn from these rocks that more than 600 million people call home (just ask Darwin).
Slowly, as my bank account tends to control my life more than I would like (can I get an amen!), but surely, I am making my way around the world’s islands! My count so far is an astonishingly disappointing five – Oahu, Crete, Manhattan, Aruba, and Grand Cayman. Whilst my count is definitely not a jaw dropper, my experiences at each island were unforgettable. Quality over quantity, am I right? My most recent adventurous shenanigans took place in the latter of my island visits, Grand Cayman, the largest of the three Cayman islands (Cayman Brac and Little Cayman being the remaining).
Flying down to meet my family who had already been relaxing for a few days, I was welcomed to the island by warm sun hugs and the sound of bongos – the music immediately put me into island mode and craving a piña colada with sand in between my toes.
Generally before venturing to a new destination, I do research about the area, laws, currency, etc; however, I am embarrassed to admit this did not happen for Cayman due to various excuses. The immigration lady chastised me in a mommy-like manner when I asked her what currency was used (the answer being CI – the Cayman Dollar)… “You should have looked into that BEFORE coming to the island, dear.” Dropping my head I concurred. My first mission presented itself – learn more about the islands ASAP! Without any internet… Then get a piña colada.
Ask and ye shall receive! In comes Robert, my taxi driver from Scottish descent, who drove me the 45 minutes to my resort – Morritt’s Tortuga Club. Little did I know I was getting myself a free history lesson for the next hour! Robert knows so much about his country and anyone can see how much he loves Cayman. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire cab ride as my brain sponged up facts about the islands such as how it was discovered, popular sports (like Rugby), details of the economy and the national flower, the Wild Banana Orchid.
In addition to the kind Robert, my second Caymanian teacher was Jacob, the owner of Cayman Offshore Adventures and boat captain of our day that consisted of snorkeling, Stingray City and deep-sea fishing (when we caught 2 Mahi Mahi, 1 Tuna and a Barracuda – which we didn’t eat because they can be poisonous, but not always). We spent 9 hours out on the water with him and his first mate, Sean. If you ever go to Grand Cayman, I highly recommend renting his services. His knowledge and love of the sea and the Islands themselves are inspiring. For 200 years his family has lived on the island, so if you want a true Caymanian to show you around, he’s right here.
Learning new facts of the world is one of my favorite parts of traveling. With each new tidbit or unheard of fact that makes its way into my collection of knowledge, I feel a bit closer to other cultures as our world tends to shrink in my mind’s eye. Here are some aspects I learned about the Caymans that I find the most memorable…
- As a born and bred Texan, this first piece is the most unforgettable, as well as, one of the first things I learned: No guns! To some of you this may be “understandable”, but not only are they not allowed guns (which they honestly don’t need on these islands anyway), but they, also, can’t have any kind of spears, BB guns, sling shots (specifically Hawaiian slings), pepper spray etc. If you break these rules, you’re looking at a prison sentence of up to 10 years or, if you’re lucky, a hefty fine of thousands of dollars. However, this does not seem an unorthodox law of British Territories, as I found the same exists in Bermuda. I feel that these rules keep the peace and relaxation of the area, and I hope it stays that way.
- The most ubiquitous animals that you can find on the Caymans are wild cats, iguanas (becoming less so because of the population of dogs), turtles and even chickens. Yes. Lots of chickens! I learned the history of why there is such an obscene population of poultry on Grand Cayman from Captain Jake, and apparently it was his grandfather’s fault (maybe great-grandfather?). Years ago, this man imported chickens to begin a farm to raise and sell them and their eggs. Eventually, something happened for which many Caribbean islands must prepare. There was a hurricane, and it didn’t kill all of the chickens but freed them, to roam and procreate all over the island for decades to come. I sure hope Jake told the truth cause that’s a great story!
- When Christopher Columbus discovered Cayman Brac and Little Cayman in 1503, he named them Las Tortugas for the vast amount of sea turtles on the beaches. For the next couple of centuries, sailors would venture out to the two smaller Cayman islands to hunt these turtles for food. Although, to this day, turtle poaching is an incredibly illicit act as the sea turtles population on the Caymans is approaching extinction. The local turtle farm does breed the turtles for food and, also, to put back into the wild and track their migrations, but they are still allotted too large of an amount to take from the wild each year, so is it really helping? On restaurant menus you can order turtle, iguana and even kangaroo…. interesting since the first two have dwindling populations on the islands.
- On the flip side, there is one creature of which the government promotes the catching, killing and eating. The venomous Lionfish is quite stunning and actually tastes rather delicious but is considered the national pest of these islands as it can consume 30 times the volume of its stomach. Being at the mercy of this fish, the Ecosystem suffers, so if you want to catch a lionfish, you can take a class to learn – this is when a spear is actually allowed. Other fish that are generally caught right off the islands for consumption are Mahi Mahi, Wahoo and Yellowfin Tuna.
- Even after Columbus fell upon the islands, it wasn’t until about 150 years later that they began to be inhabited. Bodden Town is named after the first family to live on Grand Cayman (our first mate, Sean, is a Bodden. Pretty cool!).
- One of the most fascinating tourist sites of Grand Cayman is Stingray City, located on a sandbar in the middle of the sea. About 50 stingrays swim in this 3 feet deep water waiting for feeding time as they associate the sound of the boat engines with food. This was probably my favorite part about this trip! At first, I was acting like I was being attacked as I stood in the water, exclaiming in bursts of laughter and shrieks. I just kept thinking of the beloved Steve Irwin and thinking “I don’t want to die!” Hahaha. Now I think of how irrational I was because of my lack of knowledge of stingrays. How lucky we were to have Jake as our tour guide; he put me at such ease as he explained to me that stingrays only “sting” when they feel threatened, and that they only have the ONE barb meaning they only get to use it once, then it’s gone, which I never knew. As we stood on the sandbar, they circled around our legs, brushing against us like slippery kittens while Jake held the stingrays with such ease telling us the larger ones are the females and showing us which ones were pregnant. He gave us fresh fish he’d cut into chunks to feed them (which he said they prefer since all the other boats feed them squid all day, and he was so right as after just a moment I think we had all of the stingrays surrounding us). I loved feeding them! They would get so frisky when your hand went underwater full of fish! You hold the fish in a fist with your thumb hidden, and they float over it and suck it up like a vacuum. SO much fun!
- One thing I was unable to do that I’d love to when I go back is the bioluminescent kayak tour. There are limited places around the world where you can see this amazing spectacle and Grand Cayman is one of them.
- Right off the coast of these islands, the floor of the sea drops down 25,216 feet (7,686 meters) which is about 4.7 miles. This is called the Cayman Trench, also known as the Bartlett Trough. It reaches from Guatemala to the southeastern tip of Cuba and is the deepest part of the Caribbean Sea.
- Just like in Bermuda, the primary language here is English, but as you hear a Jamaican/British accent in Bermuda here you hear a bit of a Scottish or Scottish/Jamaican accent, at least in my humble opinion. Additionally similar to England, they drive on the left side of the road.
- Because of the high level of tourism and their financial industry, the government is able to use these funds to pay for their infrastructure and other necessities as taxes do not exist here. Crazy right??? As history will have it, in the 1700s, a royal family traveled down from England, and their ship wrecked right off the shore in the coral reefs. Locals ran out to save them and were successful. In turn, King George granted them the freedom of no taxes, a prize they are able to keep to this day. If you venture out towards East End from the west of the island, you can still see an anchor from that ship on the sand, slightly peeking out of the water like a turtle in a pond.
- Everyone’s seen Footloose, right? Well here’s a flashback as dancing isn’t allowed on Sundays, Good Friday or Christmas Day. I was, also, told that bars close earlier on weekends than on weeknights to go along with this same premise.
- One of the reasons why items such as groceries are so expensive is because the vast majority of agricultural products are imported to George Town. This is due to the fact that these islands are mostly limestone rock with very limited fertile soil. Because of the lack of soil, you will see many cemeteries located between the road and the sea as the sand can’t be used for plants but is soft and deep enough to dig. I wondered if this is why many graves are above ground, as well, but I haven’t found anything to validate this.
- The national bird is the Cayman Parrot. I thought they’d be so pretty to view, but I didn’t see even one – Inconceivable!
These unique qualities of the Cayman Islands make me love them all the more! Remember to learn about where you travel. If you love to explore new places like myself, then I’m sure you can appreciate accumulating knowledge about them, because isn’t that why we do it? With each trip you take, comes a new lesson, so pay attention and enjoy the world in which we live!