March 02, 2008

CAYMAN DIVE STUFF: Various readers have emailed asking for scuba video and reports, so here's a bit. I did a test of the Spare Air emergency ascent system for Popular Mechanics, and that video (with considerably higher production values than the one below) will be up on the PM website later. But here's some video shot in a tarpon cave on Cheeseburger Reef (formerly known as Soto's Reef) in Grand Cayman. Because this is one of the first reefs to be regularly dived in Grand Cayman, and because it's right next -- and I mean right next -- to the main harbor where all the cruise ships and freighters dock, I thought it was in surprisingly good shape. There's some evidence of overdiving, but the reef was really pretty good and there were lots of fish, including the tarpon you see swimming here.

This trip we did a lot of diving on the West side -- the most heavily trafficked -- instead of the usual North and East, and we all agreed that the reef looked better than it has in several years. There's more new growth, more soft coral, and things just generally look quite healthy. I've written before about Cayman's overdevelopment, and there's no question in my mind that they're overbuilding on land. Thanks to the rush of post-Hurricane Ivan insurance money, and the destruction of a lot of old businesses whose owners chose to sell out rather than rebuild, there's massive new construction everywhere. A lot of the locals (at least, those not personally profiting) seem unhappy about it. Doug Weinstein and I wound up accidentally crashing a private party for a bunch of Caymanian police at My Bar and a number of them complained about the change in atmosphere that all the development is bringing. I think they're probably right. I'm not one to demand that places stay quaintly poor for the delectation of tourists, but that's not the question here. Cayman is already rich, but this is a case of too much, too fast. There's also considerable worry among the locals that Cayman is pricing itself out of the tourist market, and it has become considerably more expensive than many other Caribbean destinations. Cozumel, for example, seems to cost about 2/3 as much as Cayman for comparable diving trips.

On the other hand, the number of cruise ships -- which I've noted before as skyrocketing -- was way down this time. I don't know if it's a seasonal thing, a recession indicator, the result of government policy or what, but there were far fewer ships in port, and none at all on several days. The schedule for March looks slower than last year, and much slower than the year before.

The big news story while I was there involved investigators from the Government Accounting Office coming to look into tax evasion by Americans using Cayman financial institutions and corporations. This is a recurring theme -- on my very first trip there in 1986 they were debating an agreement with the United States to limit this sort of thing, and the U.S. periodically asks them for more, causing them to grumble and, usually, to give in. I'm actually surprised that there's so little Cayman coverage in U.S. media, as there's a lot of important stuff going on there despite its small size. With little press coverage and misleading movie portrayals like the Orlando Bloom vehicle Haven, which rather drastically overstates the amount of gangsterish crime (to the disgust of many Caymanians, who have told me that they were very unhappy with the portrayal), very few people get a realistic idea of what the place is like.

But the diving remains great; this brief video clip below gives you just the barest hint. Here's an older video with more.

UPDATE: Oh, and here's another video from a while back.