Monday, April 20, 2009

Port Call - Cayman Islands, Day 4

GRAND CAYMAN, British West Indies - After an all night journey we arrive at our destination just offshore of George Town, Grand Cayman. Grand Cayman is the largest, and most populous, of the three island country that make up the Cayman Islands. The other two, smaller islands, are Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Surrounding all three islands are healthy coral reefs and underwater walls that drop off hundreds of feet deep. The clear water makes this one of the best diving and sport fishing locations in the Caribbean.

Along with hundreds of other passengers we were anticipating taking part in some of the many shore excursions offered. The previous evening at dinner many people were overheard discussing going golfing, scuba diving, swimming with stingrays, spending the day at 7 mile beach, or like us, planning on a submarine tour and snorkeling. These hopes were soon dashed for many.

As we were getting ready for our 7:30 am departure, for the Nautilus Undersea adventure, our cabin was invaded by the booming voice of Christian, our cruise director. He apologized for making an early, and intrusive announcement ,in the stateroom. Normally all announcements are in the hall and other public areas of the ship. He informed us that due to high Westerly winds we would be departing two hours earlier than planned and that all afternoon and late morning excursions were canceled. We needed to be back on board by 2 pm. Later one of the crew told our group that if we were late making it back to the ship by two it would be a good idea to have a camera with us. He paused and then said "the Disney ship looks great sailing into the sunset." We got the point to be back on time.

Even though it looked very calm outside the prediction was for rougher seas later in the day, not necessarily a storm. At Grand Cayman there are no docks and not a defined harbor for the visiting cruise ships. Here we needed to use a tender, a smaller boat, to offload from the ship to shore. Any increase in wind and waves would make the transfer of passengers to and from the 964-foot (294 meter) long cruise liner hazardous. In the past, when the waves became rough, hundreds of passengers were stranded on the island and had to wait hours for conditions to improve before making a safe return.

Fortunately we had an early excursion. We offloaded on one of the first tenders and headed to shore. Our tour guide met us at the dock and we followed him to the waiting bus where we did just that, wait. After about twenty minutes we left for the Nautilus, a semi-submersible boat that has a lower deck that is under the water about five feet, but because of the design has plenty of head room. The top side of the ship stays on the surface and is used for steering and as a platform for snorkeling or diving. The lower level of the Nautilus is air conditioned with slanted windows on all sides, giving passengers an unobstructed view of the sea bottom, with coral, colorful fish and even shipwrecks.

Once underway the captain on the Nautilus provided interesting footnotes on the two sunken ships we passed over, the Callie and the Balboa. Now not more than a debris field on the bottom of the harbor we could still see the engine and some of the key components, like the ships' mast.

The Balboa was a freighter carrying a large load of lumber and oil when she sailed into George Town harbor during a 1932 hurricane. After being beaten by high waves the ship sank. Reportedly the lumber floated all the way to the shore in such volume a person could walk to shore without getting their feet wet. The wood was eventually used to build a church on the island. Over the years more ships came to the island and the wreck was becoming a hazard to shipping. In 1957 the British Army Corps of Engineers blew up the ship which accounts for the debris field. The propeller and stern sections could be seen clearly despite the lack of visibility due to the high waves

Passing over the nearby wreck of the Callie, the captain told us about the four masted schooner that ran aground in 1944 with a cargo load of rice. Once grounded the rice became wet and expanded to the point that the seams burst and the ship went down. This ship was also blown up to keep the harbor clear.

We continued over several areas of coral and watched out the windows while a diver from the ship fed and attracted large numbers of fish to the windows. After seeing a number of stingray, barracudas and other tropical fish we went topside for some snorkeling. The water was perfect, around 82 degrees, and extremely clear with 60 to 70 feet visibility.

After the ride back over the shipwrecks we opted to walk back through town instead of waiting for the bus. The shops were typical of a tourist town and reminded me of Bermuda. Prices were a bit higher here than Key West. As we headed back to the tender boats we could see the water was more choppy than when we left a few hours before. When the smaller boat pulled alongside the Magic there was quite a lot of up and down motion of the gangplank.

Back on ship we enjoyed another theatrical performance in the Walt Disney theater. Twice Charmed is an original twist on the Cinderella story and was very well down, once again.
After dinner in Lumiere's dining room we tried another movie in the Buena Vista theater, Bedtime Stories. Then it was off to get a good night sleep before our next shore excursion in Cozumel, Mexico.

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