Cayman Islands

Giving Back to the Sea

Ever since machines of the Industrial Revolution created what we call “leisure time”, dreams of tropical island vacations have filled the minds of working folk. For over two hundred years, it has become the veritable pot at the end of the rainbow; a week or two on an exotic island with cherished friends, loved ones, or alone to recharge, exhale, and dream.

One of these idyllic destinations for Canadians has long been the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. In the 1955 book Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindberg sang the praises of removing oneself to the luxury of such places. She said, “ How wonderful are islands! Islands in space…ringed about by miles of water, linked by no bridges, no cables…An island from the world and the world’s life…Islands in time, like this short vacation of mine…The past and the future are cut off; only the present remains.”

As the Cayman Islands achieved independence from Mother England, they evolved as one of the world’s most popular tax havens. Hundreds of banks established offices in the capital city of Georgetown, and even more private businesses seeking to take full advantage of the tax-free laws. With the legacy of financial goings-on here, it is easy to forget why the Cayman Islands became so popular in the first place. The raison d'être has only partly to do with the financial setup, the other major draw being the turquoise sea and vivacious coral life secreted below the surface.

Grand Cayman Island is the principle isle of three collectively known as the nation of the Cayman Islands, an independent British overseas “territory”. The other land masses include Little Cayman and Cayman Brac; both considerably smaller than Grand Cayman’s 186 square kilometers of high-lying reef called ironshore, a substance made of limestone fringes and marine fossils. Located in the western Caribbean, South of Cuba and West of Jamaica, the Cayman Islands are peaks of an underwater Caribbean ridge called the Cayman Trench.

This fascinating underwater kingdom began attracting the world’s best diving aficionados to local treasures like the West Wall and Stingray City. Some visitors were so enthralled with the diversity surrounding the coral they set up businesses to serve the year-round influx of marine enthusiasts. When Hurricane Gilbert hit the Cayman Islands in 1988, the delicate coral reefs were ravaged.

By 1993, SCUBA diver Todd Barber organized the Reef Ball Foundation, dedicated to rebuilding the Cayman Islands reefs. His non-profit foundation uses Reef Ball artificial reef technology, combined with coral propagation, transplant technology, public education and community mentorship to construct, rejuvenate and nurture coral reefs.

Following the inspired lead of Barber, the Cayman Islands Ministry of Tourism founded the International SCUBA Diving Hall of Fame on Grand Cayman in 2000. Set up to promote continued interest and activities surrounding what is unanimously considered one of the world’s greatest underwater communities of sea life, the SCUBA Hall of Fame meets yearly to cultivate interest in the underwater domain.

After refining the process and exporting Reef Balls™ to a multitude of distant clients, Todd Barber finally hit local Cayman Island pay dirt in 2002. He formally collaborated with the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort, Grand Cayman Departments of Environment and Tourism, and the Florida Institute of Technology, to install Reef Balls at the Marriott’s famous Seven Mile Beach resort, giving the process a much-needed local profile.

At this time, the Marriott had lost most of their beach frontage to hurricane damage and erosion. The re-construction effort began with installation of 200 Reef Balls to create a five-row submerged breakwater. The impact was dramatic over just a few years - the beach has been restored to its previous depth - and the breakwater has remained stable during waves from major hurricanes, including the direct hit by Category 5 Hurricane Ivan in 2005.

That same year, the Marriott commissioned the Reef Ball Foundation to create and place another 69 Reef Balls offshore. A study released by March 2007, courtesy of the Florida Institute of Technology, found that new coral was spawning on the reef at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort, and that many species of fish had returned. Guests of the hotel are now encouraged to participate in ongoing efforts to service the Reef Balls, an offering both timely and fashionable.

Another environmental victory is taking place along this same Seven Mile Beach at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, where the giving-back-to-the-sea process is thriving. Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment (AOTE) program for children was imported from Catalina Island two years ago on a trial basis, and has succeeded beyond everyone’s hopes. AOTE helps children to focus on four areas; 1) Appreciation of Nature, 2) Inter-Connectivity, 3) Principles of Sustainability, 4) Solutions. Through exploration and active study, Ambassadors have meaningful experiences and learn how to live more environmentally responsible.

Part of a 30-year educational mandate spanning seven countries, Cousteau’s non-profit Ocean Futures Society was approached by the builder of the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, Canadian Mike Ryan, to import this children’s environmental agenda to his luxurious residential community. After two years of operation, not only is the AOTE program a huge success with visiting children and parents; the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has signed a ten-year development deal with Cousteau to expand and develop AOTE activities in other properties worldwide. They will begin with Ritz-Carlton properties in Sanya, China, and Kapalua, Maui.

While much of the world media continues to focus upon the darker elements of environmental issues, we must not forget to celebrate the enormous victories achieved by communities like the Cayman Islands. Hats off to the staff and management of the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort, and the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, for stimulating their traveling guests to participate in and support programs which give back to our beloved marine environments, our precious islands.

When dreaming of an island vacation to recharge your body, mind and spirit, consider the quaint and friendly Cayman Islands. In doing so, you will enjoy a cultural embrace a memorable seaside land, while contributing to one of the leading efforts in the world to preserve our marine patrimony for future generations to savor. You will be giving back to the sea.