During June, July and August millions of Atlantic Silversides swarm into Grand Cayman’s reefs bringing drama and excitement
During the Summer when the coastal waters warm up, swarms of Atlantic Silversides, small schooling fish, pack Grand Cayman’s meandering reef caves, caverns and swim-throughs lit up by beams of streaming sunlight. It’s a seasonal migration that creates a unique dive experience eagerly anticipated by local divers, photographers and dive companies. The arrival time of the silversides, length of stay and the multitude of fish vary from year to year, but typically the schools are enormous. At peak times silversides completely fill the caverns and gullies of specific dive sites like Grouper Grotto and Snapper Hole, delighting divers who swim through the silver masses.
“It is an amazing experience to dive in the silversides,” says prominent underwater photographer and marine biologist Dr. Alex Mustard. “I love it and when there are huge schools filling the caverns and canyons on the reefs I will spend my entire dive immersed in this silver water.”
“It’s very cool and to dive inside a school of spiraling silversides is truly magical,” says Nancy Easterbrook owner of Divetech. “It’s like a gentle tickle all over!”
The silversides are also a sumptuous summertime buffet for larger fish like tarpon. For protection, the fish use the “strength in numbers” strategy by swimming in a large group. As predators move in to take bite, the schooling fish move away in unison, creating a continuous and mesmerizing dance between predator and prey. A “silver rush” is what divers call the flurry of activity when a big fish dive-bombs the school of silversides to finally take its fill.
“When the Silversides are in full bloom there are so many that they spew over the top of the canyons, and the tarpon, jacks and groupers go nuts filling their bellies. It matches any once-in-a-lifetime dive experience I have encountered to date,” says Steve Broadbelt, General Manager and owner of Ocean Frontiers.
Schooling silversides in caverns dramatically lit by streaming sunlight are an irresistible draw, and challenge, for underwater photographers, local and visiting, amateur and professional, on the hunt for “the shot”. The silversides take center stage in numerous videos, photography articles and dive blogs during the summer months.
“As a photographer I try to get a diver to swim into or out of a school of silversides, but it does not always work because Tarpon, Jacks and other big fish dive into the school to feed, and they wreck the photo shoot,” says Divetech’s Jay Easterbrook. “I have taken hundreds of images in a 1-hour dive and probably get 2 or 3 images that I like.”
“We arranged the workshops in early August to specifically catch the silverside explosion, but you can never be sure,” says Alex Mustard of his Digital Madness photo workshops headquartered at the Compass Point Dive Resort and diving with Ocean Frontiers. “They are never 100% predicable because they disperse from the caverns each night to feed, the numbers are not always the same one day to the next.”
Grand Cayman resident and photographer Ellen Cuylaerts describes the experience in an article. “It’s a huge challenge for an underwater photographer to play with light in the grottoes and caves filled with reflecting fish,” she writes. “To merge the natural sunlight entering the swim-throughs with artificial strobe light AND to do that subtly, without overexposure, kept me busy for some dives.”
The never-ending synchronized motion of the little silver fish and their predators is what enthralls underwater cinematographer Frans de Backer, who has produced incredible videos of the dance of the silversides. A resident of Grand Cayman, de Backer spends as much time as possible videotaping this “feast for the eyes”.
“It’s so addictive and like a bonfire always different,” he says. “The key to filming this amazing event is to go back as many times as you can and spend as much time there as you can. Observe, look at the light, watch the behavior and then go with the flow. Relax and become part of it.”
The Silversides school all over the island and have been spotted in about 30 of Grand Cayman’s dive sites, including inside the Kittiwake Wreck. The biggest concentration of the little silver fish consistently shows up at Grouper Grotto in East End and Devil’s Grotto and Eden Rock on the West Side of the island. Dive operators like Ocean Frontiers and Divetech schedule dedicated “Silver Rush” dives. Others like Sunset House and Red Sail Sports visit silverside sites on the second dive of a 2 –tank boat trip on a regular basis because of their close proximity to the cavernous sites.
With 365 stunning dive sites and excellent conditions year round, Cayman diving is always spectacular, but the silversides add special dive magic during June, July and August. Cayman’s dive operators are always happy and excited to share this once-a-year experience with visiting divers.
“The schools can be so dense that you are completely enclosed in a bubble of clear water, with walls of thousands of moving fish,” says Alex Mustard. “I have seen a few people take a dive or two to get used to such a visceral experience. Of course, most people love it, completely blown away by it.”