Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Day 5: Grand Cayman on the Carnival Breeze

DISCLAIMER: I probably should’ve added this to the first blog in the series about the cruise, but this is as good a place as any. I receive NO compensation from Carnival or any of the dive or tour operators mentioned in this blog in any way, including money, discounts, favors or anything else. This blog strictly represents my own opinion, and should be construed only as such.

On weekends, vacation, and other time off, I’m not a morning person. My coworkers are always amused when the inevitable “What are y’all gonna do over the long weekend?” question comes up. My stock answer is “Sleep in, and anything after that is just icing on the cake.” Of course Cindy and I will get up early when we need to catch a flight somewhere, or hit the road to get somewhere we want to go when necessary, but we’ll try to squeeze in as much sack time as possible.

So here we are, in the middle of what’s shaping up to be another fun cruise, sleeping peacefully in our cool, dark cabin. We got to bed a little late last night after watching the Love & Marriage Show. Our little travel alarm clock starts bleating its wakeup noise, at 6 a.m. 6! Gahhh! I’m hitting the snooze button one time. That’s another 10 minutes of that glorious sleep. Which felt like all of 10 seconds.

OK, OK, I know, we really need to get up and get going. We need to be at Guest Services (deck 3, forward) with our dive gear, ready to go, by 7. That means getting dressed, a quick breakfast and slathered with sunscreen. We have priority tendering and will be lead to the tenders (deck 0) as soon as the first one arrives. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we had everything ready to go last night (well except for the sunscreen slathering).

We made it! Guest Services just before 7 and not only were we escorted to Deck 0 shortly thereafter, but we actually got to take the elevator! Yay! Carrying all that dive gear, even in a backpack style bag, is a bit of a pain going down all those stairs. On to the first tender and soon we are chugging towards the pier. Unlike tendering in Belize, which can take 15 – 20 minutes, this trip is only 5 minutes from ship to shore.

I prefer using Cayman Turtle Divers (CTD) as our dive op in Cayman. We first used them in 2013 and while I’m sure the other dive operators on Cayman are just as good, my first choice will always be with CTD. They are very professional, very friendly, and just fun to hang out with. I think that with the exception of one person, the staff there are either Texans or Brits. See what I mean? With so many fellow Texans on staff, how could we not use CTD? They, like most of the dive operators in the Caribbean, offer a “valet” dive trip, in that they’ll handle your dive bag, assemble your gear, change tanks between dives and disassemble your gear at the end of the trip and repack your dive bag. For those used to handling your own gear, it takes a little getting used to. Tip: If any of my fellow Texans book with CTD, you will forever be their friend if you take them a few bottles of any of the Whataburger sauces available at HEB. Our meeting point, as usual, was the Dairy Queen just a short walk from the tender pier.

Wait, whaaat? Dairy Queen? Yes, seriously! There’s a Dairy Queen on Grand Cayman! I’ve always thought of them more as a regional operation, and not an international operation. Of course I’m not surprised there are the major fast food chains on Cayman like Popeye’s, Burger King, etc. I was just surprised that DQ found a home there.

We waited about half an hour for the CTD van to pick us up. Again, better to be safe than sorry, so we made sure to get to the DQ with plenty of time to spare. Bradley picked us up and helped us load our gear into the van. On the way to meet the dive boat, he asked us where we were from, and when I told him, he mentioned his mother and father lived in a nearby town. He was very familiar with where we live and the surrounding area. Small world!

We picked up one more diver, Taylor from NC, at one of the hotels and met the dive boat Wahoo and Ollie our divemaster nearby. Once everyone’s gear was loaded, Bradley jumped in and would be the boat captain for this trip, leaving Ollie to be our guide on both dives. Now I realize that compared to other divers, Cindy and I may not have the most experience in the Caribbean, but I think we have enough to have at least a little credibility. We’ve been diving from Cozumel to Grand Cayman to St. Thomas, with many places in between. CTD has always given one of the best pre-departure briefings of any dive operators in the Caribbean in my humble opinion. All dive ops give some form of pre-departure briefing, but CTD covers everything you would possibly need to know in a professional, yet efficient manner.

Wahoo dive boat
photo courtesy of Cayman Turtle Divers

Warning: I’m about to get into some heavy dive terminology for a bit while I’m describing the dives we made. I want to make this interesting for both my diving and non-diving readers, so if there’s something that didn’t quite make sense, please let me know in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to explain in more detail. I made most of the diving terms into hyperlinks for the nondivers who’d like more details on what I’m referring to.

Ever since the USS Kittiwake was purposely sunk to create an artificial reef, I knew I wanted to dive it. I love wreck diving, or at least the “casual” wreck diving that I do. I’m no John Chatterton, nor do I ever expect to reach his level of technical expertise in wreck dives. My wreck dives are limited to the purpose sunk ships like the Kittiwake or the C-53 in Cozumel, or even the USS Oriskany out of Pensacola. Mr. Chatterton, if you are reading this, the first round is on me if you ever make it to the Houston/Galveston area.

We were actually booked to dive the Kittiwake today, and when Ollie mentioned that Taylor also wanted to experience a wall dive this was just extra icing on an already heavily frosted, scrumptious dive cake! And this was just our first of two dives! Life is definitely good in Cayman today. It was a short boat ride from where we were picked up to the dive site. We tied up at one of the mooring buoys for the Kittiwake, which also happened to be close to the “Sand Chute” where we’d begin our dive. The plan was to dive the Sand Chute first, so Taylor could experience a wall dive and then swim over to the Kittiwake and explore it.

OK, divers, you know what comes next, right? That’s right, it’s the pre-dive briefing. The pre-dive brief is specific to each dive site, and this is another reason I like CTD. Their pre-dive briefs are very detailed and leave nothing to guesswork. Ollie, you could write a textbook on how to give a quality pre-dive brief. Good on you, mate!

For diving in Cayman, we chose to dive with air. Normally in the Caribbean (or, well, anywhere, actually) I prefer diving with nitrox instead of air. Besides the obvious benefits of extending my bottom time, I feel so much less fatigued after diving than I do with air. In Cayman, though, nitrox is a bit more expensive than other locations. We’ll be using nitrox in Cozumel the next day, so it won’t hurt to dive air today. Our dive computers can easily switch between air and nitrox, so that’s not an issue either.

Geared up and ready to go, we did a back roll entry and started our descent. Not only was this Barbara’s first back roll entry, it was also her very first time diving in salt water and in truly open water. She did great, by the way! Ollie led us over to the Sand Chute and guided us around the reef. This site is aptly named, as there is an actual sandy chute between two reefs that is quite steep. Grand Cayman is one of my favorite diving spots in the Caribbean due to the always good visibility (“viz”) and abundant marine life.

We explored Sand Chute for a bit then swam over to the Kittiwake. Ollie pointed out a medium sized sting ray resting right under the ship’s propeller. Back on the dive boat, he said it was “medium sized,” but it still looked pretty darned big to me. We explored almost every deck of the Kittiwake, including the recompression chamber and diving bell. There was a large (but relatively small) Goliath grouper hanging out in what used to be the ship’s shower facility. I’m guessing this grouper weighed in around 150 – 200 pounds. I say “relatively small” because we’ve seen Goliath groupers MUCH bigger than this.

As yet another bonus to diving this cool wreck, we found a geocache (GC4BAC0) and signed the log, so that makes the second scuba cache team Lefty Writer has found. My wife and I have a geocaching account under the name Lefty Writer (sound familiar?) and when not diving (and sometimes when diving) we’ll be geocaching in the ports. The C-53 has a geocache as well. Ollie even mentioned a geocache on the Kittiwake, something that pleasantly surprised me. I had already known about this prior to the cruise, but it was nice to hear this in a dive briefing.

I'm heading for the cache!

A glance at my dive computer showed that I was nearing my NDL, or “no decompression limit.” Recreational scuba diving teaches no decompression diving, which essentially means that one does not have to make a “decompression stop” while ascending to the surface. This is not to be confused with a “safety stop,” though. Now the argument over whether or not a safety stop is recommended versus mandatory is wayyyy beyond the scope of this blog. Suffice it to say that on pretty much any dive in the Caribbean, we do this safety stop. We’ll stop ascending 15 – 20 feet below the surface for 3 - 5 minutes to allow excess nitrogen that’s dissolved in our blood to safely and slowly come out of the blood and be exhaled.

Most new divers will be limited by their breathing gas supply (air or nitrox) more than their NDL. As a diver gains more experience, they become more efficient in their gas consumption and are able to make longer dives on that same tank. It was with mixed feelings that my dive buddy (Cindy) and I ended our dives, and did our safety stop with almost a third of our gas remaining in the tank. Had we been diving nitrox, we could’ve stayed down a little longer. It felt good, though, knowing that we’ve reached the point in our diving that our gas consumption is efficient enough that we are able to make nice, long dives. I climbed back on the dive boat with almost 1100 pounds (a full tank is usually around 3000 psi) in my tank. I’m just glad I didn’t run into Mike Scott on that dive. Mike sounds like a cool guy, but trouble tends to find him.

Now that was a fun dive! We were on our surface interval for the next 45 minutes or so, and we took the time to rehydrate with bottled water and eat a snack. Naturally the conversation centered on such things as “Hey, did you see that big grouper? It looked like it was admiring itself in the mirror.” We talked about what all we had seen on the dive, how warm (and clear) the water was, and so on. This, to me, is an often overlooked joy of diving. Spending your surface interval on a dive boat….in the Caribbean….with your friends…..talking about a shared passion. A cool breeze is drying your hair and as you look out over the sparkling water, sipping from a cold bottle of water, you wonder how life could be any better.

What was that? Who’s that Mike Scott guy I was writing about? Oh, him. He’s a character in a series of adventure books by author Eric Douglas. Two of his books featuring this character are set in Grand Cayman. I’m on book # 6 by Mr. Douglas and have enjoyed every one of them so far. (Go ahead and add him to the list on my disclaimer, unless Mr. Douglas would like to send me an advance copy of his latest Mike Scott novel when it’s done….just sayin’.) I happened to be reading book # 5 while on the cruise and honestly wanted to give his work a shout out.

While Taylor, Barbara, Keith, Cindy and I were telling our war stories, Ollie and Bradley were changing our tanks and moving the Wahoo to our next dive location. They were discussing the next place to dive, looking for optimal conditions, viz and sea life. Meghan Trainor says it’s All About The Bass, but here in Grand Cayman, it’s all about the viz, ‘bout the viz (no better). Ollie wanted to take us to his favorite spot, I think he said it was “Bear Paw,” but in his estimation, the viz was a paltry 60 feet, and he wasn’t going to let us dive in such “poor viz.” They have standards, you know. When I tried to explain to him that we were used to diving in SIX foot viz, he just shrugged and said diving with Cayman Turtle Divers meant great viz. We settled on Tarpon Alley and got ready for our second dive.

Ollie briefed us that we might see a couple of different reef sharks. He had tagged two of them, and described them to us. We did see one of them, “Spot.” Spot swam near us, and circled from a distance. Rather than being frightened by the proximity of a shark, as I would’ve been in my pre-diving days, it was a joy to see. I managed to “suffer” through the “adequate” 75’ viz throughout the dive. The more I dive in Grand Cayman, the more it’s becoming my favorite dive area. I still want to dive in Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac in the future.

All too soon, it was time to finish up our second dive, do our safety stop and get on the boat for the ride back to the marina. While Ollie piloted the boat, Bradley was busy disassembling our gear and storing it in our dive bags. We were letting the breeze (the wind, not the ship) dry us off while I peeled off my dive skin and put on dry clothes. Heather was waiting at the marina to take us back to the dive shop to settle our bills. JT was on the pier as well, so it was nice to visit with him briefly. JT is the manager of CTD, and was our DM the first time Cindy and I ever dove with them.

photo courtesy of Cayman Turtle Divers

I wasn’t done spending money yet, as I found this really sharp CTD cap and Cindy found a pretty CTD shirt in pink. Heather, by the way, happened to be our divemaster another time we dove with them. It really was like diving with friends from our dive club instead of being just customers with a dive operator. Dives completed and money paid, Heather drove us back to DQ so we could catch a tender back to the Breeze (the ship, not the wind). We had a fantastic day, and as much as I wanted to dive some more, we had to get back. That’s OK, though; we have more diving in Cozumel tomorrow.

Taken from the tender pier

We dropped our dive gear off in the cabin and went up to Lido for another late lunch. I think a Blue Iguana beef burrito would do nicely as a post-dive refuel. There was no line at all, so each of us built our own burrito and talked about how much fun we had, and how much fun we were going to have tomorrow. Barbara was thrilled at this new world of diving, and already wanted to book another cruise. Welcome to the addiction, Barbara!

While Barbara, Keith and Cindy went back to the cabin to rest a little and get cleaned up for our second formal night, I stayed on deck long enough to watch sailaway. Even though this is a tender port, I still enjoy watching the ship set sail from a port and head off to the next one. I added our next waypoint, Cozumel, into the GPS and headed downstairs for a nice, cool shower. Barbara and Keith celebrated their wedding anniversary the prior week, so Cindy and I ordered a cake from the ship to be delivered at the table in the MDR. We figured they’d appreciate a nice little surprise like that.

What’s for dinner? My burrito made a good snack, but it was most definitely time for a regular meal.

Appetizer: Caesar salad

Main: Duo of Filet Mignon and Short Rib in a red wine sauce

Dessert: Chocolate “Happy Anniversary Cake”

Yeah, now I’m pleasantly full, Keith and Barbara are happily surprised with the cake and we are ready to change into our comfy clothes for the evening. The night is still young, and we don’t get into Cozumel until 10 the next morning. We can sleep in! Yay!

Our comedy club performer tonight is Manny Oliveira. He takes audience interaction to a whole new level. Manny picked on several members of the audience, and even brought up these four teen boys….three brothers and their cousin. It was very funny the way he played one against the other.

We finished his show and walked forward to the Breeze Atrium on Deck 3. This country duo called 2Country4Nashville (2C4N) was in their second of a two week trial with Carnival. They asked that if we liked what they did to please let Carnival know so they could have a more permanent gig. I will most definitely let Carnival know just how good they are! They play lots of the older style country music, most of it by request. Not only are they really talented, but gracious with their time. They let us pose for a photo with them, and took an interest in their fans on the ship. I really hope Carnival picks them up for a regular gig. They deserve it.

Hangin' with 2C4N!

We hung out in the Atrium listening to the music until it was time for the “88 Keys – The Rock N’ Roll Piano Show” in the main theatre. It was entertaining, but in hindsight would probably just hang out with 2C4N next time. It’s been a fun filled day, and I think a little downtime is in order. I want to find out what Mike Scott is up to now.

Coming up in my next blog is our time in Cozumel.

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