Return to Cayman – Is it conservation?

With so many conservationists in our party, the inevitable debate surfaced about whether this place, nick named Sting Ray City, was for the benefit of sting rays or people.  There are several tour operators who head out daily to this sandbank  but the government regulates how many tours, how many people on each tour, how  much of the squid they can feed in one session, and how long you are allowed to stay with the rays.  Obviously the rays are thriving, we saw well over a hundred just from where we anchored.  And it helps educate and build awareness amongst people who otherwise could be fearful, or worse, take action against the ray in the same way sharks are demonized in many parts of the world.  The truth is that there is a relationship between humans and rays on Cayman Island, not quite symbiotic but certainly having some benefits both to conserve a good population of these animals and provide a key tourist product for the islands.


Whose benefiting from this tourist attraction?

And it was a privilege to be stroked by a sting ray.  How Steve Irwin ever got killed by one still confuses me.  So much has been written that it is not worth going over the details again; yes he was incredibly unlucky to have the rays sting pierce his heart, most get a nasty gash on the foot or leg.  But I’d always thought his sensational approach to educating people about animals was abusive to so many of the animals he encountered, that when the ray caught him, the rest of the animal kingdom went “YES!!!!”

Time to leave these beautiful animals, and time to leave Cayman.  The contrast with my previous time here was so great, and I pay tribute to the local conservationists who took us places that few tourists bother to explore, as well as one of those experiences that rank at the top of world must dos.  Cayman has a brash American, rich man’s paradise angle to it, but deep down it is a lovely old Caribbean island with a rich and unique biodiversity, and we should ensure it is nurtured for ever more.

Return to Cayman – Getting to know the sting rays

The guides took the lead and from a bucket they held above the water they took some small squid and first placed it gently on the surface.  A ray immediately approached , covered the squid and when it had moved on the sea was empty again.  Next the guide carefully held another morsel a few inches under the surface, and the ray came across.  We were invited by the guide to do the same.  Sometimes the ray would suck it up as it passed, other times you could hold it up and it would reach up to snatch it from your fingers.

The rays passed close by and with both the water’s clarity and shallowness you could see every detail.  There was the  gentle motion of the wings as they propelled the fish through the water, and the long tail with the nicely shaped hydrofoil at the tip to steady to do the steering.  And if you looked closely (but not too closely) you can see the groove in the tail where the ray stores the sting which gives it its name.  It did take a little convincing amongst some of the party to accept that sting rays are very passive creatures, and the safety briefing aboard the boat had set out how we should act in the water to prevent the sting ray from being disturbed and causing it to defend itself.  No sudden movements, let the creatures come to you not vice versa.

We were told we could stroke the sting rays, but not actively.  If we put our hands in the water you found the rays would come right up to and run their backs through your fingers.  They were keen to investigate these curious pink and black creatures that kept on turning up every day.  While I would be looking at another squadron of fish heading our way, I would feel the tender soft touch of a ray’s wing fondling my knee.  Softness is the sensation, it was almost affectionate the way they would be so tactile with you – not merely brushing against you as they passed but staying close to you for a while and rubbing the wing up and down your skin.

The guides encouraged you to hold the rays, put both hands in and they would steer themselves onto your forearms.  You could lift them gently up out of the water, maybe put your face close to their pointed fronts as if to kiss.  I could see that while they tolerated this it was not their favourite game, and one so manhandled in this way would usually decide he wanted some space and swim away from our group.

Return to Cayman – On the Mastic Trail (2)

We decided we did not need to wait around and continued along.  Fortunately the National Trust left their botanist with the Kew Gardens contingent and other keen plant taxonomists and they were able to revel in their natural habitat without recourse to the main group.  Indeed we decided that they should get a lift back some other way so they did not hold the minibus up later.

So we were able to enjoy the trail at a brisker pace.  This was still a leisurely stroll which in the close humid air in the scrub was necessary.  And we did not miss the key species.

The trail is named after the mastic tree.  Mastics are a common name for families of trees across the tropical and Mediterranean type climates that produce various well known products – resins or putties that we commonly use around the house.  Cayman has two main species, the yellow mastic which can be found elsewhere and the black mastic, which is found only on Cayman itself.  Both are critically endangered – victims of their own usefulness.  Like many good trees in these dry climates, they grow very slowly, but produce thick hard wood perfect for serious furniture construction.  Unfortunately this meant that when spotted they were cut down.  Regeneration takes so long and other species can grow more vigorously and shade out the trees, hence they became scarce.  The mastic trail is one of the few places where they can be found.

The start of the trail is close to the highest point on Grand Cayman, a heady 20m above sea level.   Here the coral reef had been uplifted to form the pitted limestone geology.  We had to be careful putting our hands out to steady ourselves, the rocks that jut out here are as razor sharp as the original coral had once been.  It was incredible that any vegetation at all could get a foothold here but soil builds up in the pits, and rainfall can get trapped in the depressions and holes for long enough to be sucked up by the plants.

We descended as we walked southwards and the need for oxygen masks reduced.  We marvelled at the epiphytes dangling mid air on the branches of trees, or affixed to bare rock.  It was late morning and the wildlife was scarce, until someone observed a small snake in a rather curious curling position.  It appeared at first sight to be that it was eating itself, but then a couple of our crew got a closer look and realised this creature was consuming another even smaller snake head first, and it was coiled stiffly around the remaining body of its victim.


It took a while to untangle what was happening here

The walk finished at the edges of the central swamp which fills the middle of the island.  It passes through the upper reaches of the swamp and the mangroves are out of water more than in, with the specially adapted roots which point skywards out of the mud to excrete excess salt from the plant.

Return to Cayman – On the Mastic Trail (1)

Often neglected in the Caribbean is the land vegetation.  The coral and the deep seas get so much attention, as do the endemic birdlife, reptiles and amphibians.  But the curious mix of land habitats are worthy of mention.  Cayman is a fairly flat island, no volcanoes here, and the pitted limestone makes it a difficult environment for any vegetation to get a grip.  Most of the natural vegetation appears to be a tangle of spiny , half dead shrubs.  The glamorous stuff is to be found in gardens where the imported bougainvilleas and the crotons colour up any backyard.


Conservationists are horrified at the amount of invasive species which have colonised the OTs.  Some, like the Casuarina trees, could not be eradicated, and many have been adopted by the islanders as loved local favourites.  Given the remote location of many islands, the native vegetation is often not as large or showy as those brought in for gardens and erosion control but there are many species out there in the scrub.  If only the scrub were not treated as wasteland; most developers have it in mind to “beautify” the island with their hotels, estates and shopping malls where they plant up the same plants out of pots that might line a highway in Miami.   This tangle of scrub to them is at best an eyesore, at worst, in need of simplifying down to grass verges and manicured monocultures.


The dry scub of many Caribbean Islands  – this one in the British Virgin Islands

Cayman’s attempt to educate the island about the true value and the need to conserve its areas of natural vegetation is centred on the Mastic Reserve.  It is one of the only true wildernesses left on Grand Cayman, distant from the heat of development in Georgetown and away from the coast too.  Bordered by mangroves to the west and the coast road round the rest of the island, the poor terrain of old coral stone, plus the lack of access to the sea, meant it was relatively untouched by humans, and fortunate for itself, largely impenetrable.  We were driven in a minibus round to the north side of the island and down a little side track where we were dropped off and waited in the still sun drenched air for our guides.  Members of the National Trust came in another vehicle and were delayed en route, so we tried to find some shade.  It was difficult – the trees are not all that tall round here and they had an open structure which at best gave a dappled shade.


Ready to start the Mastic Trail

Eventually our hosts turned up – but then spent ten minutes talking about the trail.  It was a good job we did because as soon as we started out on the footpath, it was clear that the group was going to split.  Many of the animal conservationists, the managers, the media types and GISsy people like myself were keen to have a good walk, enjoy the countryside and the key sights.  The botanists though went into field study mode.  They wanted to absorb every plant species they could find.  That meant not just the trees, but the shrubs, the herbaceous layers, the grasses, the epiphytes and parasites.  And it was not just a case of plant spotting, they had to look at the leaf, the stem, the root, the flower and fruit, maybe dissect them, discuss amongst themselves and make copious notes in their little books.

Most of us had gone a half kilometre before we realised we had left them behind.  One of the Cayman guides went back – reporting later that they had hardly passed the board which marked the start of the trail.

Return to Cayman – Encounters with the blue iguana

One of the elements of the conference were that the local Cayman Island guys wanted to show off their conservation successes, of which Cayman had many.  Although many of the Caribbean Islands had iguanas, Cayman had an endemic one that was so beautiful called the Blue Iguana.  Fred Burton and his team had worked hard to bring this animal back from near extinction.  At the back of the botanic gardens, which itself was a beautiful place, was a set of compounds from which a breeding programme had been established.  It is always difficult establishing how many animals there are.  Many are shy creatures and hide away in the dense bush, and you may not see individuals that you can recognise clearly unless you have some way of tagging them.  You might see other evidence though; burrows, footprints, the most obvious might be the scat, or the faeces of the animals.  Problem then comes is how you work out how many animals are represented by this kind of evidence.


Despite these challenges, the current population of iguanas is estimated around 750, including both the captive population and that in the wild.  Now this does not seem like a huge number, but considering there were only a dozen at the turn of the century, and Cayman’s habitat is constantly under threat from development for its 60,000 human inhabitants, it is not a bad track record.

When you see a blue iguana, you can appreciate how wonderful it is to have saved it.  I like iguanas anyway   – they have the most striking skin, armoury and colour patternation.  I remember when I lived in the Virgin Islands, I used to grab brunch in a bar in Red Hook Bay, St Thomas – usually as I was waiting for a ferry back to Tortola.  It was called Molly Malones and the deck out the back was shaded by a grove of mangrove trees .  You could look up in any of these and find an iguana lolling around on the branches.  They were on the roads everywhere in the USVI – some got mashed up but others would aggressively lurch their heads as you as they went by – you had to fear for your tyres.

In Cayman, add that stubborn attitude and  the curious exterior with a sheen of blueness across it, and you have the most beautiful creature to watch.  As well as the ones in the pen, there were many roaming free in the Botanic Gardens. We had arrived to attend the conference’s opening ceremony and as it was still before noon, several were out on the grass warming themselves up for the day.  One came wandering in to the marquee that was laid out for the meeting – possibly to decide what the smell of buffet he had detected had to offer.

The presence of nearly a hundred people in the tent did nothing to discourage him.  He stomped determinedly across the grass, paused to re-orientate himself as to the source of the smells, and moved steadfastly forward.  It gave us all a chance to see the remarkable pattern of scales, over his wattles, down his forelegs, and the deeply veined cloak with the small comb like ridge of spikes down his spine that he wore.

Blown Away – Acting Suspiciously At Atlanta

And then it was more than a bit bumpy as the plane shuddered into the cross winds but as soon as we were aloft the pilot almost immediately turned the aircraft into the wind, we bounced against the clouds for a couple of minutes but then … it was an ordinary flight.  About to and a half hours flying over Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico before coming down to land at the hubbub of Atlanta’s enormous airport.  I always like coming into the big American airports where you can glance around and see another plane landing and maybe a couple taking off all at different angles.  But Atlanta is a nightmare to get around ; it does not matter which terminal block you come into you are all funnelled down to one huge immigration centre.  I had a couple of hours before the overnight to London, but still wanted to get through all the airport hassle, and wanted to ensure when I got to the BA check in desk that I was actually booked on this flight back home that night.  That was OK but this strange trip (four days in Cayman islands in total) had one final fling at me.  Because I was a late booking  I was seen as a problem for the Department of Homeland Security.  Apparently I was profiled along with terrorists who make late arrangements to try and hide their paper (or these days e-paper) trail.  A sticker was put on my boarding pass which in theory meant I was to be taken aside at the airport security gates for a fuller search.  But the queues of travellers at the security check were long and the officials wanted to process us quickly, so despite me flashing the boarding pass with the special sticker at them they waived me through.  I went and sat down at the gate way down the end of the terminal; already a crowd had formed and boarding was due to start in a few moments.  But I was then called to the desk; apparently Homeland Security had picked up that I had not been properly checked.  I asked if I needed to go all the way back to the gate (a long way in Atlanta), but they said no; a couple of staff were coming down and I would be taken to a “quiet area” to be discreetly searched.

Imagine the reaction of the other passengers when they saw me being escorted to one side of the gate by two enormous guys in full dark blue body armour; their guns slung round their waists.  The quiet area turned out to be at the top of the ramp to the plane.  Yes it was quiet when we arrived but as they brusquely (but not unkindly) dealt with me, boarding started and a steady trail of passengers filed by me and saw my hands against the wall being frisked, my shoes off, then hands on head, pockets emptied, one leg up, then the other.


Out of danger?  We land at Atlanta

Of course nothing was found and after all the curt statements by the staff while they frisked one of the guys said “Have a nice flight, sir” and I was allowed to join the queue and board.  I did get a few nervous looks from the people seated around me that night as we headed north over the eastern seaboard and back over the Atlantic to London.

Blown Away – The last one to leave

The traffic was less than usual for Cayman’s capital, Georgetown, which was a relief.  Our route was only a few kilometres as the airport was just behind the main urban area.  I paid the taxi driver, hauled my case out of the trunk, and headed to the check in desks.  As I almost ran inside I noticed that a couple of workmen were boarding up the large panes of glass next to me.  There was no queue at check in, so I placed the suitcase on the scales and was checked in easily – no seat preference available; I was to have the last empty seat on the plane.  As I stuffed my passport and boarding pass into my shirt pocket, I noticed the check in staff close the check in, shut down the computers, turn off the lights and make their way ready to go home.

Passport Control and Security at Cayman was equally as quick and once through I noted again that the machines were being shut down behind me and the staff packing up.  The airport behind me was as quiet as anything, the small departure lounge in front of me jam packed with people.  I found a couple of conference delegates; all from the Deep South of USA which is why they were happy to head to Atlanta.  We chatted; I bought some rum, and we boarded the plane.  I was right at the back so not only was I the last person to check in at the airport, and the last through security, but almost the last to go up the steps and get into the plane.  Every other plane had been cleared from the apron, the small ones may have been stashed away in some hangar, but even Cayman Airways had parked their planes in Miami, not at home.  This was literally the last plane out before the hurricane struck.

I could just see out of my window across my fellow traveller, and saw more boards being put up on the glass of the departure lounge.  I saw some palm trees next to me bending about 45 degrees in the wind, the clouds above were a lot thicker than they had been.

As the stewards prepared the cabin, the captain chatted to us in his southern drawl and easy going language, warning us that the initial ascent might be “just a little bit bumpy”.  We taxied to the end of the runway and I caught a last glimpse of the wind flapping at the trees.

Blown Away – A novel garage

One car was too valuable to be left to chance.  I never found out who the owner one and why it was connected to the hotel, but it was a huge Rolls Royce in pristine condition, every piece of paintwork and chrome gleaming in the sunlight.  At present it was parked under the coconut trees outside in the car park.  A team of twenty people were standing in the lobby and were working out two things.  First how to prepare the lobby to have the Rolls Royce inside, second how to negotiate this huge car through the double doors to take up its exclusive garage location.

The lobby was certainly a big enough space, but in the centre was a large round table.  It happened to be made of solid marble, but fortunately could be split into the base and the top.  It took seven men to lift the base and turn it onto its side and roll it gently till it rested against a wall.  They were so ginger with it; I think both the table and the wall paint were seen as very valuable too.  Then the base which was even more problematic ; being smaller but just as heavy, it took a lot of shuffling for these guys to get it across the floor – and now the duty manager was worried about what damage could be done to the floor.  Once in the corner, they had to gently lever the table top back into the horizontal position and place (not slide) it back onto the base.  There was a lot of relief when stage one of the operation was complete.


Now for the even more tricky part – the room could take the vehicle, but could they get it through the doors.  I do not remember seeing anyone measuring the vehicle or the doors; but I had arrived some way into the whole process.

I know this it is not a regular operation to drive a Rolls Royce into a hotel lobby, but I think the driver chosen was either not very skilled, or the sheer responsibility of not putting a mark on the car made her a nervous driver.  I think part of the problem was that she had obviously been given this responsibility to get the car under cover, and no way would she contemplate passing it on to other people around given the chance that it could seriously screw up.


As ever in such a situation there were about 20 backseat drivers who caused her even more angst.  She wound down the windows and could hear about ten people shouting advice about how to line up.  She took about three attempts in the open air to get the car aligned perpendicular with the door and could stand a decent chance of getting through the gap without either jamming or scraping a panel.  Even now she was tempted to turn the steering wheel which took her off line again , and she had to reverse and start again.  At one point someone pointed out to her that it would be a good idea if she brought the wing mirrors in to give herself a few more centimetres’ grace.

Eventually it took a central guide standing like ground staff at an airport, and two other guys either side monitoring the potential conflict of Rolls and hotel.  Inch by inch this vast beautiful beast, headlights full on; eased into the lobby.  Even with the wing mirrors in there was barely light between car and door.

There was a lot of congratulations, and the paparazzi, including myself, got their shots of this one off occasion.

I often wonder how easy the reverse operation was after the storm.

Blown Away – Preparing for the storm

I wandered around the hotel doing some work,  chatting to people, and wandering the grounds seeing the preparations for the storm.  Orange sandbags were appearing at many entrances.  On the smaller doors they were piled either side about five high.  For the large doors they were stacked high on palettes.  Next to the main lobby a couple of containers had appeared, and several large generators had been placed around the compound.  Staff were removing the awnings round the pool, stacking away chairs and umbrellas, boarding up the kiosks for towels and putting huge plywood boards across the pool bar; the contents already having been removed.  A guy with a long pole was going round harvesting the coconuts from the palm trees.  I’d never thought of that as a hurricane hazard but better to do it before the storm than to have these huge bombs let loose during the wind.  The sun loungers were being stacked on to a trailer and tractored off.  The beach was almost deserted of people.  I walked along the sand then back along the main road and saw similar activities going on not only at the other resorts, but also at all the strip malls and business and the few condominiums in the area.

When I returned to the hotel lobby a most curious operation was going on.  The hotel had a huge car park underground, and many of the vehicles were being taken out of here and left in a car lot.  This might have seemed counterintuitive but I think they were more concerned for the flooding than the damage by wind and projectiles.

Blown Away – Curtailed Proceedings

The hotel had a different view and were not keen on having onlookers.  They wanted as much as possible to close the hotel down.  They set up a desk near reception to help people rebook their flights, they slipped messages under your door a few times every day giving you advice on what to do and saying they had no obligation for your safety if you chose to stay at the hotel.  I tried to ignore these as the best option to me seemed to sit tight, and if I was stranded in Cayman after the hurricane, maybe I could help out with any relief effort.


The Conference gets under way

It was a shame the conference had to be curtailed.  The local organising committee had put a huge amount of effort to showcase Cayman and provide a long list of social events, including a trip on a boat and dinner in a historic location on the island.  A massive fireworks display had to be cancelled – we did manage to have one social event which was moved into the hotel grounds.  Even this was a bit of a chance taken – the wind was already a bit fresh.

I was due to moderate one of the conference sessions.  More or less the only people there in this large room were the ones delivering talks; including myself who was subbing for my friend Vijay who had decided not to travel from Guyana in case he got stranded in Miami for days on end.

The conference was emptying, as were all the hotels, and looking out over the beach you could watch the Cayman Airways planes working overtime shuttling back and forth between Grand Cayman and Miami.  Every time I met a reception staff I was gently asked whether I had arranged my own evacuation.