Cayman offers an impressive marine environment that should be explored by everyone. For those that want to learn more about marine life and experience nature at the same time, Ambassadors of the Environment at the Ritz-Carlton offers a wide range of eco-adventures.
Ambassadors of the Environment is the educational arm of the Ocean Futures Society and conceived by film-maker and environmentalist Jean Michel Cousteau, the oldest son of legendary explorer Jaques-Yves Cousteau.
The Ritz-Carlton partnered with the Ocean Futures Society to devise a programme that educates children and adults in the exploration of the Islands’ marine environment as well as conservation practices and concepts.
The programme is not only for guests of the Ritz-Carlton. In fact residents and in particular school classes are welcome to inquire about and take part in the different activities on offer.
In addition to educational interactive programmes for children of all ages the programme also features excursions, which include guided day and night snorkelling, mangrove kayak tours, underwater photography and many more.
Each of the Ambassadors of the Environment adventures begins on the premises of the Ritz-Carlton at Heritage House, a traditional Cayman Islands cottage, that is not only a great place to play and learn but also showcases eco-friendly construction, energy efficiency and sustainable practices.
As I mentioned night snorkelling is one of many eco adventures offered by the Ambassadors of the Environment at the Ritz-Carlton.
I have done a lot of snorkelling and diving in Cayman but night dives and night snorkels are always special because of the different marine life that can be seen at night.
Even the creatures that can be seen during the day, display different behaviours at night such as the nurse shark or the octopus that are no longer hiding idly in a cave or under a rock. Their prey meanwhile scurries to find shelter, change their colour to be less visible or like the parrot fish produce a mucus that covers their body and ensures predators cannot detect them by their smell.
All these interesting facts are presented before the snorkel by Justin Porter, one of the naturalists of the Ambassadors programme. All naturalists are more than just guides, they have college degrees in science and the knowledge and experience to share and explore the marine world with the participants.
Needless to say, they are also all passionate about the environment.
After a brief registration, Justin hands out swimsuits, because even in Cayman it can get chilly in the water, fins, masks, snorkels and most importantly water-resistant torches.
We are told where on the beach we are going to snorkel. Justin explains that it is a reef that during the day is inaccessible because of the boat traffic. Before we can go, though, we learn all about what we are going to see on one of the wide screen TV sets in the library and activity room at Heritage House.
The photos of all the underwater creatures from coral to fish and turtles are accompanied by little nuggets of knowledge. How to recognise the gender of a sea turtle by its tail or the type of turtle by its shell. How eels avoid the light at night and the fact that eels are not green at all, but that it is only their mucus that gives them this colour.
Mucus again. This leads to new and interesting questions. Do parrot fish eat their mucus in the morning, someone asks?
Justin answers something like “not on a regular basis”.
Equipped with this knowledge we head for the beach. On the way out our group of five tries not shine the torches into our eyes, as it takes quite a long time for the eyes to recover their vision.
As we bob on the water, paddling out to sea for about 100 yards, an eerily grey sand area is passing by beneath me. The odd fish appears in the light of my torch only to disappear again. Over the coral, however, the underwater world is teaming with activity. Doctorfish looking for a place to sleep, parrot fish gnawing on coral for supper and squirrel fish showing their spines as they feel threatened by the light.
Justin freedives down to look in the nooks and crannies of the reef for interesting critters to show us. Every so often he finds something like a crab and explains what it is and where to see it.
It does not take long for us to spot one of the amazing creatures that makes Cayman special. A young Hawksbill turtle has decided it is not time to sleep yet. Justin mentioned earlier that they can hold their breath for several hours and typically wedge themselves under a rock to prevent them from floating to the surface when they are sleeping.
But this turtle hovers in the light, its flippers only moving occasionally, before gently rising up for a gulp of air.
A few minutes later I spot a spotted moray eel that, contrary to Justin’s earlier warning, does not try to escape the light of the underwater torch.
With a wide gaping mouth the thumb-thick eel opens its jaws, showing its needle-like teeth, which we learned is not an aggressive gesture but simply its way of breathing.
After 45 minutes of snorkelling we return to the beach, colder but also a little giddy with excitement. “That was great,” says Mary clearly elated. She is a guest at the Ritz-Carlton who until today had only snorkelled during the day.
ter a short warm-up in the hot tub we return to Heritage House and Justin asks us what the favourite thing was that we had seen. The two turtles come out on top.
The only thing we did not see was the ever-elusive octopus.
As Justin tells us over an amazing video of an octopus camouflaged as coral, we probably did see one, we just did not realise it.